Nintendo: Small games are going big

D.I.C.E. 2009: WiiWare and DSiWare overseer Tom Prata demos Mario creator's latest non-game, acknowledges challenges facing the company's digital platforms.

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The economy has been a recurring theme at this year's D.I.C.E. Summit. Presentations from EA CEO John Riccitiello and NPD Group analyst Anita Frazier have both suggested that a spate of recent publisher layoffs are less bad omens than appropriate readjustments, but that optimistic point of view is by no means universal.

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Ironically enough, one of the presenters putting a dire spin on the state of the industry was Tom Prata, senior director of project development for the high-riding Nintendo of America. The honcho in charge of Nintendo's WiiWare and the upcoming DSiWare digital distribution services opened his Friday afternoon presentation with a simple observation.

According to Prata, the first question in conversations at D.I.C.E. used to be "What game are you working on?" This year, he thinks the question has become "Are you going to make it?"

To help answer that question in the affirmative, Prata pointed to digital distribution--WiiWare and DSiWare specifically--as a golden opportunity for small-scale games. However, he cautioned that it isn't a magic panacea, and he noted four significant hurdles digital distribution has yet to overcome: quality, reach, storage, and promotion.

Digital distribution cannot make mediocre into great, Prata said. Nor can it reach those who don't have their systems connected to the Internet or who simply won't download games. Then there's the issue of systems with limited storage, which prompted Prata to stress that "we have not been deaf to the complaints." While the Wii lacks a hard drive, the company is working on a solution involving the system's SD card slot.

Finally, there's the problem of promotion. It's not enough to make a great game if nobody notices it. Prata specifically said Nintendo will be devoting more resources to support the promotion and development of WiiWare games in the future.

Moving Memo.
Moving Memo.

Prata wrapped up his presentation with a quick video demo of an upcoming DSiWare product developed under the supervision of Donkey Kong and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto. Previously announced as Moving Notepad, the game has apparently had its North American name retitled Moving Memo.

A translated and extended version of a Japanese promo clip shown in Japan last month, the video offered a look at a number of Moving Memo's utilities. Players can use the DSi touch screen to write messages, draw pictures, and attach memos to a calendar for personal reminders. The game will also allow users to make flip-book animations and spruce them up with audio recorded through the system's microphone or pictures captured with one of the system's cameras.

Once completed, flip-book animations can be shared with friends or posted on a Web site for download by other Moving Memo users. Those users can then edit and tweak the original animation and re-upload it for others.

The economic climate is presenting game makers with a dilemma, Prata said. If publishers want to survive, then playing it safe with games seems like the best bet. On the other hand, without the innovation of developers, the industry has no future. Thankfully, Prata said, even in this economy, there's room for little developers with big ideas.

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