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GDC 2011: Nintendo's Iwata On Design Lessons, Social, Mobile Risks
GDC 2011: Nintendo's Iwata On Design Lessons, Social, Mobile Risks
March 2, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

March 2, 2011 | By Kyle Orland
More: Console/PC, GDC

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata used his GDC keynote presentation today to talk about lessons learned from over 25 years of game development, and warn about dangerous changes being brought to the industry by the rise of social and mobile games.

One of the most important lessons of Iwata's career came early on, he said, when he expected his technically superior games to sell better than those of Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto.

“Mr. Miyamoto taught me a painful lesson: Content really is king,” Iwata said. “His games outsold mine by a huge margin. I found out then that engineering is not quite as important as imagination. To be honest, I was ashamed.”

Over the years, Iwata says he's learned “must have” universally appealing games tend to be the ones that challenge existing notions of what a game is and how it should play. The most successful games exploit the power of social connections and target audiences that don't traditionally play games, as well, he said.

Iwata also suggesed that, to get noticed, games must be immediately appealing from the very first sequence, and easy for players to quickly describe to their friends. “If both of these conditions are met, you can reach the tipping point, where your game begins to sell itself. This is the ultimate solution we all seek,” he said.

When he was getting his start over 25 years ago, Iwata said game developers had to be generalists that could handle programming, art, and sound design equally well, as these skills were needed. Today's strict stratification of work roles has led to better results in some ways, Iwata said, but it also has its cost.

“This era of specialization makes it that much harder for a single individual to sense the entire personality of a game,” he said. “People know their specific roles much better but are unable to understand everyone else's. If people can not tell exactly what other team members are doing, it makes me wonder – where will the next master game creators come from?”

Iwata also worried that the idea of craftsmanship in game design has begun to falter as game projects have become more expensive and complicated productions. He worried that the ability to fully polish a game before release is increasingly falling by the wayside.

“This is not a criticism of the people developing games, but of the way they are forced to operate,” Iwata clarified. “Small details can get lost even in huge projects.”

But Iwata's biggest worry about the current state of the industry was reserved for the increasing prevalence of social and mobile games, which he says are eroding the idea of games as something of value.

“I feel our business is dividing in a way that will endanger employment for many of us working,” he said. “Yes, developer's hours are too long and the stress too high, but until now there's always been the ability to make a living. Will that still be the case moving forward?”

Iwata pointed out that even with only a few hundred titles each on the major dedicated game consoles, it's very hard to get noticed enough to have a mega-hit. With tens of thousands of titles available on major mobile app stores, he feels “game development is drowning.”

He pointed to a Screen Digest study showing 92 percent of the most popular content on mobile devices was free. “Yes, pretty much every game is cheaper to develop, but what revenue will they engender?”

Furthermore, Iwata argued makers of mobile and social platforms have no motivation to encourage high-value software, unlike companies that make systems dedicated to games.

“For them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is to just gather as much software as possible, because … that is how they profit. The value of video game software does not matter to them. … The fact is, what we produce has value, and we should protect that value.”

Despite these strongly worded worries about a growing market segment, Iwata ended with some inspiring words, stressing that innovation can help save the industry.

“Trust your passion, believe in your dream. For 25 years, game developers have made the impossible possible. So I ask you, why would we stop now?”

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Chris Moeller
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Interesting to see that even he is worried!

I'm curious how the chips will land too - will the competition lead to better games, or will it come down to quick, cheap thrills, like reality TV taking over the airwaves? Or consoles getting better games then PC's?

Judging from the reality TV example, a majority of game content will be the lowest quality to make money, but there will a few specialized companies that can still make a living providing quality content, to devoted fans.

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I have to agree about the mobile thing, I think he is dead on about that. It may be great for companies like Apple who want to sell expensive pieces of hardware to consumers who will buy them because they know they can get a good gaming experience on the device for cheap to free. However this leave the developer in the corner and undervalued. Even if a developer offers advertisement within game at the experience of a free DL. that may be 0.001 cent on the number of times its produce or the number of clicks it receives or the number of sales it generates. This much I know form just running my own personal website.

Money up front is always the most comfortable solution for profiting.

Shay Pierce
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Inspiring words. I'm glad to see someone expressing a very valid concern: everyone's excited about "Freemium" games and hit $.99 iOS games, but through all of this, we are devaluing the worth of our games in peoples' minds.

Two years ago I bought Flight Control on my iPhone - and quickly became disturbed. I was disturbed because it was probably the best game I played that year: yes it was extremely simple, but it was also extremely perfect. It reminded me of Tetris in its elegance, its ease to learn, the impossibility of mastering it, and its highly addictive nature.

And the reason all this was disturbing? The game only cost me $.99. I'm sure that the developer, Firemint, made a tidy profit - but this, and hundreds of other high-quality games like it, are worth far far more than $.99 to most consumers.

Or at least, they WERE. Expectations have now been shifted, and it's now impossible to succeed on the app store while asking for even $1.99 for your small addictive game, unless you have a license or some other incredible source of marketing and public awareness.

The fact is that when your distribution is entirely digital, the question of what your game/app/content is "really worth" is entirely arbitrary and based on perception. But once that perception has been lowered, it's impossible to raise again.

Megan Fox
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I'm not sure if there's risk of true devaluation of couch/home gaming in the same way there is mobile gaming - the real risk there is a destruction of the visibility of products, leading to consumers that want high-value games being unable to find them, and producers of high-value games being unable to get exposure to their customers. Which is unlikely, given that if they did that to Steam, PSN and XBLA, the destruction would only last as long as it took for a competitor to rise to prominence that served the now abandoned market.

In a sense, devaluation already happened in downloadables. Games like 'Splosion Man and Shadow Complex are titles you would have been expected to pay $50 for in the PS2 era (look at games like Kim Possible), and now here they are at $15. Torchlight? A $20 competitor to Diablo.

That mobile games have devalued to 99c is more severe, and likely a result of the way in which they were played, and the already compressed prices of mobiles. I'm not sure the same can really happen to the couch/home gaming market more than it already has.

(Forgive all the edits, this thread and reply have made me re-evaluate my position on this entire debate)

If you look at the games in the mobile space right now that you can count on being profitable over time, they are in a very real sense the games you used to push into mobile. They are similarly limited, small scope, etc. So theoretically (as they keep being made), all that has happened is an adjustment to the actual cost of production given modern development practices and a lack of platform overhead.

If we accept that as given, then seemingly, we've already seen the race to the bottom in downloadables. It stopped at $15-20 for high-quality small studio stuff, and $5-$10ish for focused high quality indie micro-team stuff. Arguably, there's a $30-40-ish tier there as well for niche work - Jeff Vogel made a great post on the sustainability he's observed in using higher price points.

Joe McGinn
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>> I'm not sure if there's risk of true devaluation of couch/home gaming in the same way there is mobile gaming. <<

I disagree, and "open market" app-store is coming to the living room much sooner than people expect. Like possibly next month or later this year, probably from Apple. iPad 2 has HDTV out, all it needs is a wireless controller spec (which they can do as iOS software update) and the app game store is on your TV.

There's just too much money to be made for an open market not to come to the home (I do agree with the concerns it may become much harder for most of us to earn a living - the real winner is the platform holder with their 30% cut of every transaction).

Megan Fox
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Eeeh... yes and no. Yes, an open market AppStore will effectively come to the living room, but no, I don't think we need fear it in the fashion that's presently popular. The reply became hugely long though, so it turned into a separate blog entry:

Jeffrey Crenshaw
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Very inspiring and insightful words from someone at his level. "Content really is king". "appealing games tend to be the ones that challenge existing notions of what a game is and how it should play". "This era of specialization makes it that much harder for a single individual to sense the entire personality of a game". " the ability to fully polish a game before release is increasingly falling by the wayside". It is no mystery that Nintendo's games are generally of such high quality and so well received. I wish more Presidents and CEOs of western developers made quotes like this instead of, I don't know, talking about "the potential [of games] to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential"

Kamruz Moslemi
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Addressing concerns regarding the social and mobile gaming movement took up the bulk of his GDC speech. Personally I think too much focus is put on the threat of these growing movements on the traditional premium content business as it has been practiced on home consoles over the last 25 years. The only real danger I see threatening the premium console business is spiralling development costs with a lack of growth necessary to support it leading to narrow minded profit focused developer conservatism.

Just because people are paying for playing games on their mobile phones or on facebook does not equal that those types of game content will ever supersede a good old fashioned console effort for you average console gamer. All I know is that as a gamer I have no interest in playing those type of games and as a result as a developer I would never want to make such titles either. Just like for me there are millions of gamers world wide for which such content will forever be regarded as idle dilly dally and never serve to take the place of premium home console content. If developers and hardware makers keep their ambitions in check and make the sort of content that this type of gamers crave and have always craved then their business is never going to go away.

Of course on the flip side with the 3DS Nintendo just raised the bar of entry for developers even on portable consoles, so things might be headed towards a bad end after all.

Justin LeGrande
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Honestly, it was an inspiring speech to listen to, yes... but how much of it was just rehearsed, and how much of it was truly heartfelt?

I might be more inclined to believe it was heartfelt, if he bans full-price retail shovelware from reaching Nintendo systems from now on... yeah, right! /rolleyes

kP09 HI19
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Once upon a time Nintendo was a hanafuda cards producer, then a video game producer, now it's time to try another thing...