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Opinion: Why Trip Hawkins Is Wrong About Nintendo
Opinion: Why Trip Hawkins Is Wrong About Nintendo
July 13, 2011 | By Colin Campbell

[Did Nintendo and its software licensing plan usher in a dark age for the games industry? Has the console era stifled creativity? Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell offers an opinion.]

Yesterday at GamesBeat 2011, Trip Hawkins was asked if he agreed with his old pal Bing Gordon, that we are entering a golden age in gaming.

Hawkins made a joke that he agreed with the notion that we are entering "a golden age for Bing," who is a major mover and shaker in the Zynga IPO. But Hawkins disagreed with Gordon. He suggested that the golden age was long gone, back in the sun-dappled morn of floppy disks and mullets and PCs that went "beep."

Although Hawkins was founder of EA back in the day, he should not be written off as a grizzled old warrior recounting halcyon days of yore. His company, Digital Chocolate, is a player in mobile and social, and has raised over $50 million to date. He has a lot of smart things to say about this sector.

But it was one argument in particular that caught the interest of journalists attending his 'fireside chat' in San Francisco yesterday. He said that the golden age of open games platforms (the early 1980s PC) in which developers could create what they wanted and profit directly from their art, had been broken by Nintendo, which had ushered in a "feudal dark age".

His point being that all the power had shifted from the artists to the platform holders. He added that these platform holders had no real interest in creative freedom and had a history of "luring" developers in with false promises.

There's a lot to like about this argument, his conclusion that developers should "focus on the browser" and retain their independence is a good one. But the idea that the console era has merely been one of creative exploitation by the likes of Nintendo is fanciful.

First, there has been an open games platform in place during the entirety of the console era. The PC has spawned an incredible creative flowering, unarguably greater than the console sector. But with high hardware prices and ever-changing tech specs, it has not been especially consumer-friendly.

Until the coming of decent browser games and the social gaming revolution, PC gaming was facing a moribund future. People turned to consoles because they were cheaper, because they were marketed effectively, because the console manufacturers maintained a relatively strong hand over the kind of drivel-ware that necessarily infects open systems.

There was no social contract between games creators and Nintendo, in which one would create a safe, burgeoning market for games, and then they would make games. But that's how it worked out. Why? Because Nintendo has never conceived of the games market as a software platform, only as an especially lucrative, albeit complex sector of the toy market.

The licensing model was Nintendo graciously allowing other people to enhance its own brand, according to a strict set of rules and payments. Nintendo's boss during the 1980s and 1990s, Hiroshi Yamauchi would likely have found Hawkins' utopian talk of "freedom" incomprehensible, naive or laughably self-serving. It carries a hint of Californian, boomer hubris.

At significant risk, using enormous creative and monetary resources, Nintendo created a market where one did not previously exist. It did not do so in order to liberate creativity in Silicon Valley. It did so in order to profit from and control the fastest growing, most profitable sector the toy industry has ever seen.

Hawkins compares Nintendo's ecosystem with the internet. One, he points out, that has created an untold number of great companies, like Amazon, Google and Facebook. The other has created no great companies. (This is factually dubious, plenty of publishers and developers have come to life through Nintendo.)

But comparing the world wide web with Nintendo's successive hardware platforms is weak. The internet was not launched by any company, it is not a single-use device with a price-point and physical distribution network -- no-one owns it (yet!). To describe it as an ecosystem at all is to grace it with boundaries that don't exist. It's open, because it's open.

Nintendo and Sony and Microsoft and Sega and Atari have all, in their turn, behaved badly, exploitatively, controlling and bullying. They have not always acted in the interests of publishers, developers, consumers or even, on occasion, themselves. But they should not be criticized for failing to create a harmonious garden in which Trip and his pals can paint the colors of the rainbow. That's never been the point of the console market.

It may be that, during the unruly childhood of the games industry, we actually needed a Hiroshi Yamauchi to set down tough rules and collect high taxes. If the games industry had not been colonized by these overlords in the past 20 years, would it be a better place now?

But Trip may be right about the future role of such companies. It may be that the days of the feudal overlord are coming to a close, that the market no longer requires attractive plastic boxes with fixed specs, no longer needs brand-fascists watching over every color-scheme. Maybe we needed them in the past. The future is going to be very different.

[So, after a brief and thoroughly enjoyable stint writing for Gamasutra, this is my last piece. I'm off to do something else. I want to say a big thanks to Simon Carless, Kris Graft and the brilliant team that puts Gama together. It's a game industry institution and a bloody good read. You can follow me on Twitter @colincampbellx]

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Kevin Patterson
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I remember Trip's opinions on Microsoft and the xbox, and he was wrong on that, and I feel he is wrong on this as well.

august clark
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He was one of the cornerstones of the industry, but the man hasn't been right about much of anything since leaving EA over 15 years ago.

Lennard Feddersen
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"Nintendo created a market where one did not previously exist" - revived but not created. 2600 had crashed and burned a couple of years before the $99 NES bundled with Super Mario became a killer app..

Why does an ecosystem need boundaries - English isn't my strong suit but I can't see the problem with describing the browser game market as an ecosystem.

I'm not sure about the false promises part but all of the cartridge and later CD devices did change the landscape dramatically. There was a brief period (which has largely returned due to the web, can I get a Hallelujah?) where a dev. could bundle a floppy in a baggy and go direct to the consumer. That changed with the 2600, the NES and was just going to happen with the game market maturing. As a free lance dev. the advent of the WWW and our newly reacquired ability to get cultural shelf space, mind share if you will, based upon the fact that the web is a meritocracy of sorts (do something interesting and they will come to blog about it) - well sir, that gets me out of bed with a smile on my face every morning. Not sure Nintendo was evil (I crunched plenty of times to get my NES/SNES games done for late Summer submission so they could be manufactured for Christmas) but that was a period where you were hard pressed as a small dev. to reach any audience unless you had really deep pockets.

As an indie. I have to agree with Trip that our bread is buttered by the open browser market.

Glenn Sturgeon
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"revived but not created"

I fully agree.

I knew at the time of the crash it was "inevitable" someone would come up with another console and make a big differance in reviving the market.

Russell Carroll
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This made me think of 2 talks from the GDC this year.

One from Chris Crawford talked about the creation of the games industry up through the early NES days. He mentioned that the open system of the 2600 lead to the great crash of 1984, and that Nintendo's controlled system helped the industry become profit generating by limiting the content.

The other talk was Will Wright's talk where he mentioned that despite similar install bases (at the time) Raid on Bungling Bay sold 800K units on the NES compared to 20K on the Commodore. He attributed the difference to piracy (which I think hits on the same point as above in a slightly different way).

I'm not sure what I think about it all, but one thing for sure that I believe is that Nintendo's "control" did far more good than evil to the game market back in the day.