GDC 06: Nintendo rallies the faithful

President Satoru Iwata lays out strategy for developers going forward; next-gen console talked about but not shown. Full presentation coverage inside.

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SAN JOSE, Calif.--With Sony having just revealed a slew of PlayStation 3 details and Microsoft not slated for a keynote address at the 2006 Game Developers Conference, much of the focus leading into the three-day convention in San Jose was on Nintendo.

Though most hoped for some solid Revolution news to come from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata's keynote address, the publisher's head honcho seemed more interested in discussing Nintendo's approach to the development process. This was GDC after all, a convention targeted at game designers.

Product announcements were minimal, with the DS debut of the Legend of Zelda series being the keynote's biggest surprise. The main news about the company's next-generation console was of the partnership with Sega and HudsonSoft to include portions of their Genesis and TurboGrafx-16 back catalogs as downloadable offerings for the system's virtual-console feature. A price, release date, and rumored name change of the console were noticeably absent from the keynote, as was the system itself.

The theme of Iwata's keynote was "Disrupting Development," an apt topic for the innovative company and one-time leader in the gaming market. As the attendees filed in to the San Jose Convention Center Civic Auditorium, indie rock blared through the PA system, and PR reps scrambled to make sure everything was orderly. The informality of the session was clear as Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo's vice president of marketing, mingled with the crowd, even spending time to chat up an adoring teenage fan.

The scheduled 10:30 a.m. keynote got off to a slow start, with the most exciting part of the wait being an accidental preview of what one would assume was the impending PowerPoint presentation. Among the slides were pictures of the Brain Age game's logo, and surprisingly, some American snack food, including bags of Cheetos and Fritos.

While some joked that Nintendo's big announcement would be the company's decision to leave the gaming business and join the ranks of junk-food providers, the real answer came shortly after the keynote's 10:47 a.m. start.

After a brief introduction by GDC director Jamil Moledina, Iwata took the stage to thunderous applause. After poking fun of the good old days known as the 1980s, Iwata reiterated Nintendo's idea to "reconsider strategy," "redefine business," and "expand the market"--three topics that would repeatedly be drilled into the heads of the attendees.

Iwata used the example of PepsiCo, which had the gargantuan task of competing against market heavyweight The Coca-Cola Company. Rather than ask, "How can we (Pepsi) sell more cola?" Iwata stated, the people at Pepsi asked, "What else do people want to drink?" A slide on the center screen then showed Gatorade and Aquafina, as well as the aforementioned bags of Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos, which the affable Iwata jokingly called "the three basic food groups."

It was PepsiCo's disruptive thinking that Iwata chose as a model for Nintendo's current path in the gaming industry.

"Pepsi demonstrates how thinking differently and holding to a strategy can disrupt the market in a good way," he said, and then declared that the gaming industry was ready for that same disruptive thinking.

Nintendo's bread and butter is the handheld industry, which it has dominated since the release of the Game Boy in 1989. Iwata was happy to tell the attendees that the trend is continuing, pointing out that the Game Boy Advance sold 6 million units in its first 21 months on the market.

However, Nintendo's latest offering into the handheld market has surpassed even its GBA. The Nintendo DS, first released in late 2004 in Japan, sold 6 million units in two-thirds the time as its elder sibling, reaching the milestone in just 14 months. The reason for the DS's success wasn't just that games looked better on the machine, Iwata said, it was how the software took advantage of the innovative hardware to attract new customers.

The best example of Nintendo's ability to reach nongamers and casual gamers is the Brain Training series, which has been a top-seller in Japan. Iwata outlined Nintendo's out of the box thinking by telling the story of how the Brain Training games came about, much to the delight of the audience.

"Where did this idea [for the Brain Training games] come from? I'm sure you could guess. It came from where all great ideas come from: our board of directors," Iwata half-joked.

The elder statesmen of the board sought a game that they could play, something that Japan's rapidly growing senior population could latch onto and be entertained by. Nintendo then turned toward one of the more popular books in Japan at the time, Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain by Dr. Ryu Kawashima. Iwata thought that if Nintendo could somehow build a game around the book, players would be eager to compete against each other and compare scores, and so he became determined to meet Dr. Kawashima.

However, the doctor wasn't as easy to get a hold of as Iwata had hoped. Kawashima agreed to meet with Iwata for one hour--on the same day as the DS's launch in Japan. Iwata had no choice and made the journey to see Kawashima. The two exchanged ideas, the one-hour meeting turned into a three-hour brainstorming session, and when Kawashima brought out a device that "looked like it was from a sci-fi movie," Iwata knew he was on to something.

While the two were excited about the idea, Nintendo realized that the public and retailers wouldn't readily take to it so quickly.

"The idea came from the belief that people wanted something new, and it took the form of a treadmill for the mind. The only way to get people to like [the games] was for the people to play them." Thus began Nintendo's grassroots campaign. Employees of the company were told to bring the game home, and show it off to friends and family.

Iwata then invited Bill Trinen, the head of Nintendo America's localization team, onto the stage to show a demo of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day. Trinen ran through the game's features, which include more than 100 Sudoku puzzles. Though he dazzled the audience with his quick thinking in a demonstration of a memory exercise, he used the available star power in the audience to show how rookies fare with the game.

Trinen asked Moledina, Maxis' Will Wright, and G4 TV's Geoff Keighly to join him onstage, where four stations with DSes were. The four played through a few mathematical Brain Age minigames, and each player's screen was shown on large projections for the audience to see. Trinen smoked his competitors in the first round with a Brain Age score of 20 years old (Moledina scored 37, Wright 41, and Keighly 66). A second round of demos proved that experience helped the rookies, as each of their scores improved dramatically.

Iwata returned to the stage, and after piquing the interest of the crowd with the entertaining demo, began to talk about Japan's reaction to the problem-solving title. Though the game got off to a slow start in the country, Iwata's idea clearly worked. The initial retail order for the first game in the series was only 70,000 copies in Japan. When the second edition came out, it was greeted with an initial retail order that ballooned to about 850,000 copies.

"The same thing might work here in America," Iwata said, looking toward the game's US launch next month. "As you leave, please take a copy of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day and show it to your friends." A stunned audience sat still for a moment, before registering that Nintendo was giving every attendee a copy of the game and applauding enthusiastically.

Iwata then went on to hype the success of the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, claiming that the service has netted 1 million users and 29 million sessions. His attitude toward developing the online service was simple--"The experience must be easy and fun," he said.

After a brief demo of the multiplayer mode in Metroid Prime: Hunters, Iwata moved on to the day's biggest announcement for Nintendo fans--The Legend of Zelda is coming to the Nintendo DS. Subtitled "Phantom Hourglass," the game will (naturally) use both screens and the stylus. The game is scheduled for release "later this year," but Iwata did not reveal what region the release date was for. Regardless, it will be playable at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in May.

Next, Iwata turned the discussion toward the Revolution. Clearly speaking to the developers in the audience, Iwata talked about the origins of the system's much ballyhooed controller. He reiterated what he had previously said about the controller: that it should be wireless, approachable, sophisticated enough for complex games, and "revolutionary."

The rocky road to the controller's development (two employees did nothing but sketch ideas for its design for months) was a lesson from Iwata to developers: take your idea and stick with it.

The keynotes second biggest news came next, when Iwata revealed that games featured on the Sega Genesis and HudsonSoft's TurboGrafx-16 console would be available for download on the Revolution. "New is good, but there is also an appetite for old," he said. There will be more than 1,000 games from the Sega partnership alone, but he noted that "not all of the games will be available, but the best will."

Iwata, who by this time had won the crowd's affection, wrapped up with a serious request for the industry.

"The most important story of all is still to be told. I hope you all, the creative force, will help us write it...It should be our goal, each of us, to reach new players. It should be our goal to convince people of one thing...video games are meant to be just one thing--fun."

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