GDC 09: Nintendo Press Conference

The unparalleled success of the Wii pulled droves of eager developers into the Esplanade Room of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. Gamers and developers alike were all eager to hear the words of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, whose stewardship has taken Nintendo from a distant third in the console market to far and away the top dog on the scene.

“It’s even beyond what we could’ve hoped for,” Iwata opened. “Global shipments of Wii are now more than 50 million. That makes Wii the fastest selling video game hardware in history”

Iwata continued to show the success of Nintendo, first showing graphs representing the total market expansion, then dividing those shares into Nintendo’s and other company’s. Nintendo’s portion grew, while the other shares remained mostly flat.

“Of course, Nintendo alone could never have created such market expansion,” Iwata admitted, thanking all of Nintendo’s business partners.

And just in case the audience felt neglected in the love-in, Iwata shared his feelings with them as well.

“The first think I want to do today is say ‘thank you’ from the bottom of my heart,” Iwata said. “We appreciate all you have done. Thank you.”

After sentiments were spread, Iwata wasted no time addressing the primary worry of third party developers.

“Can my game really sell on this system?” Iwata rhetorically asked. “I do understand the concern.”

Iwata reinforced this empathy by explaining that “some developers believe they can’t compete with Nintendo software because of the amount of money Nintendo invests in development and market.” Iwata understands this mindset very well, because “there was a time I felt exactly the same way”

He then went into a bit of history, describing his experiences at HAL Laboratory. They were showing a project in work at the time to Nintendo luminaries Shigeru Miyamoto. After surveying the project, Miyamoto said the game had promise, and that with another two months, the game could turn out quite good.

“We did not have two more months,” Iwata said. “In fact, we had two more days. We had entered the death spiral”

The death spiral, as Iwata describes, is the cycle by which a developer succumbs to financial pressure and releases an inferior product before it is ready. This results in poorer sales, and less money to invest in the next title.

“HAL was in serious financial trouble,” Iwata said. “My first task was to restructure the company to avoid bankruptcy. Let me be candid about what I felt back then”

He felt that the only reason Nintendo could consistently make better products was ”because they had more money.”

That wasn’t really the case, though. One of the biggest secrets to Nintendo’s success is the development ideology of Sigeru Miyamoto.

“More than anyone I’ve known, he sees game development opportunity where other people don’t,” Iwata said, “and he leverages those opportunities for Nintendo and for game players.”

Naturally, given how successful his methods have been for Nintendo, Iwata advises that these techniques could also be useful for any developer looking to make their way in the current game development landscape.

“I’m not saying this is the best way for you, individually, but maybe it can offer a few hints or some ideas,” Iwata said.

Iwata recanted that Miyamoto will observe popular activities, and then try to identify exactly what makes that activity so enjoyable. Additionally, his personal hobbies often turn into games with Pikmin following gardening, Nintendogs after getting a family puppy, and Wii Fit after weighing daily. Because of this, Iwata had to ask Miyamoto to stop talking about his hobbies in public.

“His nondisclosure is 24-7,” Iwata joked.

Relating back to his example at HAL, Iwata explained that Miyamoto “works in what you could call an upward spiral.”

Once Miyamoto finds an idea, he will build a very simple prototype around that idea without extensive planning or a thick design document.

“The amont of time being spent on the game’s appearance was zero – maybe you can tell that,” Iwata joked, referring to a rudimentary prototype for the boxing game in Wii Sports.

 

Once the initial prototype is complete, a small team will iterate on it under the supervision of Miyamoto. Several different projects are run concurrently in this way, which each potentially becoming a full game. Mr. Miyamoto has the unique talent of always being able to tell which elements of a game need to be worked on and which can be ignored at which stages of development.

“Sometimes the prototype phase lasts more than two years,” Iwata said. “Sometimes we have to stop work and set the project aside – this is the nature of trail and error.” Once a project becomes viable, it will grow in development team size and move towards a full retail release.

Iwata then reflected on the bizarre and unpredictable nature of the current situation. “It is a strange twist of fate that Mr, Miyamoto – who was my mentor in game design – now reports to me,” he said, adding that this was a “pleasant situation” most of the time.

Iwata generally leaves Miyamoto to his devices, intentionally not pressuring him about current projects. “However, not knowing how things are progressing makes it very difficult for me to predict when a project may begin to generate revenue,” Iwata said. “This is not good for my mental health.”

Another thing that can detrimentally effect Iwata’s mental health is Miyamoto’s tendency to “upend the teatable,” though he makes sure to note that Miyamoto “helps resetting the dishes he has scattered.” However, things don’t always end perfectly.

“In some rare cases, even Miyamoto-san can’t perfectly reset the table,” Iwata said. Even if things don’t quite click, they never completely abandon an idea.

“He never says good-bye to that work, it is not wasted” Iwata said. “I have seen some of these elements appear, years later.”

Miyamoto’s teatable-upending has led to some very real delays, however. Nintendogs was originally slated for the DS launch, while Super Mario Galaxy was intended for the Wii’s launch. Neither made their window, of course, but Wii Sports did make the Wii Launch. Iwata noted that they were “very thankful for that.”

 
Iwata then discussed Miyamoto’s game testing techniques, describing his tendency to abduct unsuspecting Nintendo employees that aren’t involved with game development.

“Mr. Miyamoto has never been arrested, so far,” Iwata said. “You may have been involved in focus groups but this is different.”

Miyamoto will force the employee to play a game, hovering over his or her shoulder and watching the reactions. No help is given to the player in an attempt to discover if the game is enjoyable and playable without any external advice.

“We create entertainment. Entertainment is supposed to be enjoyable,” Iwata said. “If it cannot be enjoyed, it is not the consumer’s fault.”

Iwata then described how game ideas can come from unlikely places. The original idea for Rhythm Heaven came from Japanese pop star Tsunku. Since the game was to be rhythm based, all the developers would need a great handle on rhythm.

“How can a good rhythm game be produced if the developers themselves don’t have much rhythm?” Iwata asked. Tsunku suggested that “the quickest way to learn rhythm is to dance.”

And dance they did. ‘This was the first time in my career as a game producer that I had to approve a budget for dance lessons,” Iwata said.

This development worked backwards – eventually just five members needed to make Rhythm Tengoku.

In the end, a development team of only five members made the original Rhythm Tengoku, which was for the Game Boy Advance and never released in America. The DS sequel, Rhythm Heaven, will come out in America on April 5, 2009.

Iwata then pulled an Oprah, after stating that he hopes Rhythm Heaven is accepted well in America: “I want you to judge for yourselves, so please accept our gift of Rhythm Heaven.” Suddenly, I kicked myself for leaving my DS at home.

The rest of the conference is covered here. Overall it was quite interesting learning how things work at Nintendo, and hopefully this advice will lead to some more studios of their caliber.

 

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