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?"