SAN FRANCISCO--Three years ago at the 2006 Game Developers Conference, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata urged developers to "think differently" and disrupt the status quo. In November of that year, his firm did just that with the launch of the Wii. Insanely popular from the get-go, the console was nearly impossible to find at retailers during its first year on the market.
Now that it's in ample supply, the Wii routinely trounces its competitors, having sold more than 750,000 units in the US in February alone, according to the NPD Group. The DS also continues to shatter records, topping worldwide shipments of 100 million units earlier this month. Once mocked, the dual-screen handheld now has seven software titles that have sold at least 10 million units.
However, the Wii's success has come at a price. Hardcore audiences have charged that the console panders to nongamers with lowest-common-denominator minigame collections and quasi-games, such as Wii Fit. More important to the audience at the 2009 Game Developers Conference is the fact that the company developing the most popular Wii and DS games is…Nintendo. The prevalence of first-party hits for both platforms has meant tough times for Western third-party publishers already battered by the worldwide economic downturn.
It is against this checkered backdrop that Iwata took the stage this morning to deliver his GDC 2009 keynote address. Titled "Discovering New Development Opportunities," the speech was billed by the event's organizers as outlining "Nintendo's role in creating better tools and bringing opportunities for developers to introduce their innovative ideas to a marketplace that is increasingly willing and eager to embrace new game-design possibilities."
What exactly might these opportunities be? Most rumors preceding the event pegged the emphasis as being on DSi Ware, a toolset that will let developers create iPhone-like applications for the new camera-equipped DS model. Indeed, the DSi appears to be Nintendo's main thrust at GDC, intended to stoke interest leading up to the handheld's April 5 launch in North America.
With the stage set, thousands of GDC attendees, press, and yellow-shirt-clad volunteers gathered in the Esplanade Room in the South Hall of the Moscone Center to hear Iwata speak.
[8:49] "Ladies and Gentlemen, please take your seats," says the booming PA system to a several-thousand-strong crowd.
[8:49] Unlike most events, the music pumping from the loudspeakers is not deafening. There are, however, the usual gaggle of several dozen reporters and VIPs packing to the front row of the reserved section.
[8:55] "Does this guy speak English?" asks one reporter to another. Yes, Iwata does--enough to give a presentation at least.
[8:57] Still the nerds come! The place is filling up fast.
[8:59] The onstage smoke grows thicker--half-expecting Siegfried to emerge with a couple of white tigers.
[9:00] Now that's a Vegas ticket--the Siegfried and Satoru Show!
[9:01] We have a Reggie sighting. Repeat--Mr. Fils-Aime is in the building.
[9:03] The music is picking up a bit now--pretty sure there are more than a few Kraftwerk fans in the house.
[9:08] OK, here we go. GDC executive director Megan Scavio takes the stage to warm up the crowd.
[9:09] Unlike CES, she is keeping her remarks brief, talking about Iwata's past appearances at the event.
[9:11] The man himself takes the stage and gets right to it. And by "it" I mean self-congratulation on the Wii's and DS's success.
[9:11] Iwata announces the Wii has now shipped more than 50 million units worldwide, making it the fastest-selling game console in history.
[9:12] Slides now on display, showing Nintendo sales hockey-sticking while other consoles' market shares stay flat.
[9:13] "Software sells hardware," says Iwata, thanking the developers in the crowd. He bows graciously for several seconds.
[9:14] Now he addresses developers' concerns that third-party games won't sell on the Wii and DS.
[9:15] "Many of you are concerned that you cannot compete with Nintendo, but later I will explain to you why this is not the case," he says.
[9:16] Now Iwata is reminiscing about when he and Miyamoto spoke before the launch of the SNES.
[9:16] They met just as Nintendo was in dire financial straights.
[9:17] Miyamoto looked at the console and said, "This might be OK after a few more months of work."
[9:17] Iwata said, "We have two days." Nintendo had entered the "Death Spiral," where financial pressure was rushing development of the SNES and software.
[9:18] "I thought then that our competitors were beating us because they had more money--and more money bought more time. Now I know that is not the case."
[9:19] Miyamoto changed his mind. "He sees opportunities, where others do not… I don't think I have to talk about his track record. He is leveraging opportunities better than anyone else in development today."
[9:19] Iwata is now going though Miyamoto's development process--where is El Shigeroa himself?
[9:20] Miyamoto begins with a concept when he sees something people are enjoying, and will go over and over exactly what action makes that fun. Oh yeah? Explain Wii Music, then.
[9:20] Here's the explanation--Miyamoto uses his own hobbies and interests for game ideas.
[9:21] Miyamoto's new puppy led to Nintendogs, and his concerns with weight led to Wii Fit.
[9:22] In the interest of intellectual-property concerns, Miyamoto is now forbidden from speaking about his hobbies outside of Nintendo HQ. Chuckles all around.
[9:22] Up comes a slide for "Miyamoto's Way."
[9:22] Point 1: Ideas are everywhere.
[9:23] Point 2: Personal communication is key--apparently Shiggy hates design docs, preferring to brainstorm with a small team.
[9:24] Shows a slide of a very crude version of Wii Sports' boxing game. Miyamoto wanted to get the mechanics down first, figuring they could be polished later.
[9:24] Points 3 + 4: Prototype Stage and Small Teams.
[9:24] The essential element in all Miyamoto's games? A core principle of fun.
[9:25] Miyamoto is also a big fan of developing multiple projects at the same time, which is point 5. Point 6? Trial and error. He encourages experimentation to discover what exactly is fun.
[9:25] Iwata's mic is noticeably crackling--some A/V guy is sweating big-time right now.
[9:27] Indeed, Miyamoto actually encourages lots of error, just in case a mistake yields a fun idea.
[9:27] Of all these projects, only a select few reach the mass-production stage.
[9:28] After praising Miyamoto, Iwata notes that it is ironic that his former boss now reports to him.
[9:28] He says that's actually a good thing, because Miyamoto will push back when Iwata asks him to cut corners that he shouldn't.
[9:30] "Mr. Miyamoto has a tendency to 'upend the table,'" says Iwata about the designer's tendency to shake up projects in mid-development.
[9:30] Cue a long metaphor about Miyamoto stacking dishes back on the figurative table. "Nothing is ever broken, though, so we never have to start from scratch."
[9:32] "Naturally, though, upending the table takes more time." Apparently Miyamoto's perfectionism and experimentation held back Nintendogs from the original DS launch and pushed back Super Mario Galaxy past the Wii launch.
[9:33] One last Miyamoto technique--"Random Employee Kidnapping." Massive laughter when a slide of the designer with a bandanna is put on the screen.
[9:34] Apparently during late stages of a game's development, Miyamoto will grab a random Nintendo employee with no gaming experience and hand them an unreleased game.
[9:35] He will offer no help to the kidnapped, but will merely observe them try to play the game, noting their reactions. Elements that frustrate the person will be tweaked; elements that please them amplified.
[9:38] Apparently J-pop master Tsunuku was employed to advise on a rhythm game from the creators of WarioWare Touched and WarioWare twisted. He encouraged developers to dance around.
[9:38] This became Rizumu Tengoku, released in Japan in 2006.
[9:39] This was later adapted into…wait for it…DSi launch game Rhythm Heaven.
[9:41] Cue clip of Rhythm Heaven. Apparently the game's core team was just three people, who spent more than a year turning the GBA game Rizumu Tengoku into Rhythm Heaven for the DS. The DS version has sold 1.7 million units in Japan.
[9:42] Iwata reminds people that the game will be available in 11 days…and everyone in the audience gets a free copy! Massive applause from Nintendans and prospective eBayers alike.
[9:42] He uses this Oprah-esque surprise to talk about surprise in game design. He holds up Spore and Guitar Hero as examples of games that surprised people.
[9:43] The subject wheels back to the Wii--some 20 percent of US Wii owners had never owned a console before, according to NPD.
[9:44] As for the DS, last year 47 percent of US buyers of the handheld were female.
[9:44] Iwata now gives the core gamers props. "Many of these people would have never bought a Nintendo product had a veteran not brought one into their home."
[9:46] He says that Nintendo is taking core gamers "very seriously," and points to the Zelda, Mario Kart, and Super Mario Bros. games released in the first 18 months as proof. He also says the Virtual Console is targeted at longtime players.
[9:47] He says that the top two platforms for third parties are Wii and DS, with 7 million-unit sellers.
[9:47] He then shows a bar that touts the Wii Balance board as the fourth console on the market. The peripheral has now sold nearly as many units as the PS3 in the US.
[9:49] Cue a demonstration of the WiiWare game Rock and Roll Climber, which uses the Balance Board and Nunchuk to simulate rock climbing.
[9:50] Iwata's back. He says that by creating such a massive installed base, introducing new peripherals such as the Balance Board, and by "not releasing too many games ourselves."
[9:51] He points out that 90% of WiiWare games are third-party…and teases the introduction of a new "memory solution" for the console.
[9:51] NOA guy gets on stage to show the new "complete storage solution for the Wii."
[9:52] It's Wii Menu 4.0, which features an SD-card icon.
[9:53] Each SD card will have its own menu now with up to 20 screens.
[9:54] The Wii Menu 4.0 update will also lift the 2GB card memory cap, allowing for "high-capacity SD Cards." Games can now be downloaded to and launched from an SD card directly without going through the Wii System Memory.
[9:55] Wii Menu 4.0 is available for download today--now, actually. Big applause.
[9:56] My Life as a Darklord and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years both coming to WiiWare later this year.
[9:57] Final Fantasy I and IV also coming to US Wiis in 2009--the first five games in the series will hit Japan as well.
[10:00] Reenter the NOA rep to demonstrate some DSi tools. The first lets players draw images, turn them into animations, and share them with friends.
[10:00] You can speed up and slow down animations, and even add sounds with the DS's built-in microphone.
[10:02] They can be uploaded to a central server, where people can also download other animations. A clip reel of animations is shown, with some very detailed animations.
[10:05] Next up, a demo of a hilarious DSi WarioWare game that has players shake their faces and heads, WarioWare-style.
[10:05] Two million DSis sold in Japan so far. Amazon says that DSi preorders are the most of any game product in its history. GameStop preorders are twice those of the DS Lite.
[10:09] Virtual Console arcade will bring classic arcade games. Six games will be available today, including Space Invaders and Mappy.
[10:09] New Zelda DS game out of nowhere--The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.
[10:10] Clip shows Link running a locomotive with some kind of steam cannon on the front. It will be available later this year. Massive applause.
[10:10] Iwata wrapping up now.
[10:11] "I can't wait for you to show us your surprise." Lights come up. Crowd sprints to get their free rhythm games.