The internet was rocked. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario and Zelda, reportedly said he was stepping down. Nobody seemed prepared for this. It was so sudden. So surprising. The end of an era.
After the original report hit, Nintendo repeatedly denied that Miyamoto is "retiring" and stepping down from his current position. The official denial does little to refute the gist of Wired.com's report, and the ensuing fallout proved to be a reminder of one thing: This was a dry run.
However, on websites and bulletin boards, Japanese gamers wondered if the news wasn't the result of a bungled 3DS roll-out and a lack of Wii U buzz, especially considering Miyamoto's involvement in them. Some were worried about what this meant for Nintendo games. If you think the news made gamers panicky, it was nothing to what happend to nervous Nintendo stock holders.
Today in Japan, Nintendo's stock dropped two percent, bringing back memories of a false iPhone delay story that caused Apple stock to tumble three percent. Compare that to the rumor that Last Guardian creator Fumito Ueda, one of Japan's brightest young developers, was leaving Sony, and Miyamoto's influence comes into sharp focus.
Miyamoto is often called Japan's Walt Disney—a fair comparison. But he's also gaming's Steve Jobs. The game developer is not only a corporate face, appearing on stage and giving press conferences, he's also involved creatively. While he didn't found Nintendo like Jobs founded Apple, Miyamoto's games have made Nintendo. A Nintendo without Mario games is like an Apple without iPhones and iPods. But what if Miyamoto actually did leave?
"The question is," Mark MacDonald of Tokyo-based game localizer 8-4 said soon after the initial report broke, "what's going to happen to those games? Who is going to oversee them?" As MacDonald pointed out, Miyamoto will eventually retire and leave Nintendo, and the company needs to be ready for that day. The company does, he continued, have a "whole host of badasses" with impressive track records and titles, but badasses that never have really been in the limelight.
"What will happen to those games? Who will oversee them?"
One developer who hadn't heard about the original Wired.com report seemed taken aback when I told him earlier today that Miyamoto was leaving. This was before Nintendo denied the original report, but the developer, who asked not to be named, recalled seeing Miyamoto right after the 3DS price-cut, noting that gaming legend was "in high spirits."
While this developer agreed that Miyamoto was "getting up there" in age, he didn't agree with some of the speculation floating around soon after the original report surfaced—namely, that Nintendo had actually demoted Miyamoto. The developer added, "I couldn't imagine Nintendo demoting Miyamoto, Kutaragi-style."
"Kutaragi-style" is an reference to what some speculate happened to former Sony Computer Entertainment boss Ken Kutaragi, the Father of the PlayStation. Now, the PS3 is a tremendous success, but when it launched it was an utter disaster. Kutaragi, who had made Sony billions with the PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, didn't seem like he delivered with a bigger success in the PS3. Instead, he served up what looked to be a costly failure. In the PS3's wake, Kutaragi was replaced by Kaz Hirai in 2006, his PS3 tweaked and slimmed down, and by the following year, the Father of the PlayStation retired.
"Japanese companies, with their lifetime employment, seem great," said former Capcom Japan producer and current Digital Development Management agent Ben Judd. "Even with success after success, when there's a failure, somebody's head has to roll."
Nintendo's no stranger to this, Judd pointed out. After 31 years at Nintendo, Gunpei Yokoi left during the failure of his Virtual Boy—even though, there are reports that he was planning to leave well before this. (Never mind that it's odd Yokoi stopped making handheld game devices at Nintendo, only to make them for Bandai.)
After a slow start, the 3DS is finally going gangbusters, but companies are judged on a quarterly basis. There are games on horizon, good games, but a couple of bad quarters, and suddenly you have a boardroom full of people who get cold feet and want change.
"Even with success after success, when there's a failure, somebody's head has to roll."
Compound that with rumors of the Wii U having difficulty getting support from game developers outside Nintendo, and you could have a situation that makes powerful people do rash things.
"I doubt it has much to do with the 3DS—which seems to be rather successful in Japan at the moment," another game developer, who asked not to be named, told Kotaku today, after the initial report hit. "I'm not sure what Nintendo would do if Miyamoto-san wasn't looking after things there to be honest."
More important than any 3DS sales number, there does seem to be genuine concern about Nintendo in an inevitable post-Miyamoto era. This could be why Nintendo told Bloomberg in its retirement denial that Miyamoto will be working on development less and spend more time training. That admission, that Miyamoto will be spending less time on development, should give pause. Doesn't that mean he's taking a reduce role?
Even if Miyamoto didn't say he was "retiring" and "stepping down", Nintendo's admission to Bloomberg that he will spend less time in development and more time training does sound that he is taking on a new role, if not stepping down from his current position as the General Manager of Nintendo Entertainment Analysis and Development—note the "development". And Miyamoto, infamous for saying things he shouldn't, does have a bad habit of saying quiet things loud.
Somewhere between the words leaving Miyamoto's mouth, them being translated to English, and them being transcribed by Wired.com, something apparently went south. Or maybe this is an accurate report of what Miyamoto said, something that should become more evident when Wired.com publishes the interview transcript next week. Until then, this dry run asks more questions than it answers.
One day, Nintendo, like Ford and Ferrari, will have to push forward without its in-house creative genesis, whether that be a year from now or twenty years from now. It will happen, but when it does, will Nintendo be ready?