Breaking: GDC - Detailed Nintendo Keynote Coverage
The mood before Satoru Iwata's keynote at Game Developers Conference could best be described as ebullient, with the Kaiser Chiefs' 'I Predict A Riot' blasting over the sound system, and a sign-wielding activist outside the San Jose Civic Auditorium exhorting Iwata and Nintendo to 'Drop The Bomb'.
In the event, an extremely entertaining speech yielded two minor depth charges (the new Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for Nintendo DS, and confirmation of support from Sega and Hudson for Genesis and Turbografx/PC Engine titles for the Revolution's Virtual Console service.)
When Iwata took the stage, as introduced by GDC Director Jamil Moledina, he seemed very contented, commenting: "Since I still have the heart of a gamer, I have the most fun talking to you." His central point was that thinking different is vital, discussing a certain company which had ideas to redefine the business and to expand the market - but revealing that this company is not Nintendo, but Pepsi, who, according to Iwata: "...stopped asking how it could sell more cola. Instead it started asking what other things were profitable", in its battle with Coke.
This was the point Nintendo is trying to make, as Iwata phrased it: "For some time, we have believed that the game industry is ready for disruption." Iwata particularly referenced Nintendogs, selling 6 million copies around the world, and the success of DS, he suggested, is based around "brand new software" and hardware that is disruptive and different in various ways.
Iwata referenced that the DS has reached 6 million Japanese sales in 14 months, as opposed to the GBA in 20 months and the PlayStation 2 in 21 months - showing that the company is dominating the market, through what Iwata notes as disruptive software, such as the Brain Training line of games, which have collectively sold well over 5 million copies in Japan.
The Nintendo executive discussed, in detail, the Brain Training concept, quipping: "It started where all great ideas begin - from a board of directors." He referenced an older Nintendo director who complained that his peers did not play games, and the adapted idea of an all-ages title. There was a book named 'Train Your Brain' which was particularly successful in Japan, and was used by the CFO, so Nintendo put together a task force, and Iwata himself met with the brain training author Professor Kawashima, on the day of the DS launch, and managed to agree a deal with him.
Iwata then assembled 9 developers, and told them that they could finish the first Brain Training game in 90 days - though he noted: "At least they couldn't waste much time complaining!" He then helped his sales people try a hands-on approach to selling through to retail, making the customer play the game before gauging orders.
Bill Trinen of Nintendo was then introduced, and he ran through the basic arithmetic, numeric, and even Sudoku-related features of the English language version of Brain Age, before introducing Jamil Moledina, Spike TV's Geoff Keighley, and Maxis' Will Wright on stage, who ran through a competitive game of the title against all four of each other, projected onto the big screen - Trinen was victorious both times!
Re-introducing Iwata, the Nintendo exec explained the initial Japanese ordering for the first Brain Age game was 70,000 units, but by the time the second Brain Age game was previewed, the Japanese retailers wanted to order in 850,000. Explaining this success, Iwata explained happily, if cheekily: "If you want to succeed in game development, you need to follow two simple rules. First, listen to your board of directors. And second, listen to your Chief Financial Officer."
He then announced that all keynote attendees would get a copy of Brain Age to show their friends, which naturally went down rather well as part of his presentation.
Iwata then went on to discuss the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection, explaining: "Normally, making things easy for players make it harder for developers", but that Nintendo had put a great deal of thought into how the connection is used. He countered suggestions that the relatively closed (friend-oriented) nature of some of existing Wi-Fi titles, such as Animal Crossing, explaining that players "have the choice and freedom" to decide how to play. He mentioned that more than 1 million unique users have played more than 29 million sessions. They reached 1 million players in 4 months, whereas Xbox Live took 20 months to do so.
Bill Trinen then re-appeared, and played Metroid Prime Hunters with three of the NCL development team, showing off the Wi-Fi action over the local network, and getting his ass kicked in the impressive-looking FPS game in the meantime. Turning back to Iwata, the Nintendo boss indicated that Metroid Prime Hunters is a prime example of Nintendo "not turning our backs on the kind of games that hardcore players already love."
He then went on to introduce Tetris DS - "something that even your grandmother will enjoy", and the previously announced New Super Mario Bros, before revealing video footage of a brand new title, Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which will launch "later this year", and sported Wind Waker-style art with a partially topdown view, and even lots of touchscreen-related puzzles and ship navigation effects. Iwata also confirmed that Zelda titles will be shown both on DS and GameCube at E3.
Iwata's final section simply commented: "How did we get the idea for the Revolution controller?", and the Nintendo exec started with the question: "Why is it that everyone feels comfortable with a TV controller, but feel nervous picking up a game controller?" He revealed that the first meetings on the Revolution controller were in early 2004, and major points were that the controller had to be wireless, the look needed to be simple and nonthreatening, but sophisticated enough to handle complex games. Around 15 people were involved trying to figure out the answer.
Interestingly, Iwata revealed that the Metroid Prime producers said that they didn't like the initial idea, that a full normal controller be added to the existing 'TV remote style', suggesting that Nintendo add a small second controller, and so: "The experience truly feels more intuitive." Iwata suggested that this was a very expensive process - in terms of the R&D costs and the manufacturing costs, and notably said: "While some people put their money on the screen, we decided to put ours into the game experience", in an attempt to "not just improve the market, but disrupt it."
Another example of this was Iwata's second major announcement - of support from Sega and Hudson for Genesis and Turbografx/PC Engine titles for the Revolution's Virtual Console service, a revelation that drew such cheers from the audience that the second half of his statement could barely be discerned.
Iwata's final statements were intended to both differentiate Nintendo and inspire developers, with the Nintendo exec starting by noting: "We know what the main barrier is: cost", continuing of the current cost structure: "Publishers work backwards from a console game that works at $50 or $60." He suggested: "To compete at that level, games must be longer, larger, and more complex... that requires larger development teams... success is more likely if a strong license is acquired, and huge amounts of money are required to market the game to a mass audience."
Thus, he agreed: "It's understandable why publishers rely on sequels, but as a result, we have a bookstore when you can only buy expensive encyclopedias... too often, people with fresh ideas don't have a chance." He then presented the comical idea: "I believe if Tetris was presented today to a publisher, they would say: go back, give me more levels, better graphics, and you will probably need a movie license to sell it."
Nintendo, Iwata suggested: "wants to help you create a new business model", and Nintendo Revolution should be "game creation not dependent just on the size of a development budget". Again, he highlighted the Virtual Console, comparing it to a "video game version of iTunes Music Store", and making pointed comments about rival services, presumably including Xbox Live Arcade and Sony's online efforts, noting: "Others may offer such a service, but it will not be the same... for us it is a true innovation, true disruption."
Iwata's closing statement? "At Nintendo, we do not run from risk, we run to it", and: "Video games are meant to be just one thing - fun." And with that, he exited, and although some may have been disappointed at the lack of Revolution details, again, Iwata's keynote was ebullient, entertaining, and inspiring to many of those present.
[UPDATE: 03/23/06, 12.31pm - added further detail.]