Waiting in the San Jose Civic Auditorium for Nintendo's Satoru Iwata to begin his keynote presentation titled "Disrupting Development." The music is a trendy mix of The White Stripes, Gorillaz, Beck, and some others I'm not cool enough to recognize. Reggie is standing in the front deflecting fans. He deflects my request for a picture: "I don't want to take the spotlight away from Mr. Iwata's keynote."
Fair enough, Reggie. Fair enough. But we'll still get a picture of your presence, to document it, for posterity.
The video display keeps teasing us with shots of Iwata's slides, flashing up and disappearing before my eyes can deliver the pertinent information to my brain to process. Something about Ninte... gone.
There are a series of rectangular, metal blue devices on stage labeled "IS Nitro Capture." Nitro was the DS code name if I'm not mistaken; are these DS capture units, to display games on the screens? We'll find out. Another song that I don't recognize.
They ask us to turn off all cell phones and pagers (who still uses those?) but they don't mention cameras. I've filed a mental note.
(Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime, being very humble. His suit, by the way, is very sharp!)
[10:45] GDC Director Jamil Moledina takes the stage and introduces Sotoru Iwata who begins: once upon the time in the 1980s a company becomes number one because it's products meant "fun" to "yankees?". In the '90s another company came along and displaced them; fortunately, the number one company had another line of products that let it continue, and it used that to reevaluate how it would compete. Reconsider strategy, redefine business, expand market.
Company one : Pepsi. [Applause]. Pepsi has displaced Coke. As any game developer knows, the three basic food groups are Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos. [much applause].
Pepsi illustrates how thinking differently can disrupt an entire industry in a good way. The game industry needs disruption. Here we are: Nintendo DS. The DS has succeeded in disrupting the handheld market. People are listening to them now, and their call for appealing to casual gamers. Nintendogs has sold 6mil units.
[10:51] He shares some information about Japan. GBA growth greater than the PS2, DS is greater than both and would be even higher if production could keep up with demand. One DS has created more discussion and more surprise than any other: Brain Training with sales of 1.7 million units.
The idea started where all great ideas start: a board of directors [applause]. They assembled a task force to invent a game that would appeal to everyone: youngsters, baby boomers, and seniors. Train Your Brain was a popular book, Nintendo's own CFO was doing the exercises. People would be eager to compare their "brain age" scores. Iwata decided to meet with Dr. Kawashima, but both were very busy so they finally decided on a day: DS launch day [laughs all around].
They showed Dr. Kawashima a DS prototype and asked to borrow a team member from Nintendo. Using a strange sci-fi helmet, they determined that the software exercised the brain.
The target, since it wasn't a complicated game, would be 90 days. They weren't happy but, since it was such a short schedule, they couldn't spend much time complaining [laughs]. When salesmen showed the software to retailers, they spent the first 15 minutes letting them play it; retailers were "disgusted" but they had "no choice" [laughs].
[11:02] Introduces a member of the localization team to show us a demo. Those were definitely DS playback units. That projector projects what a video of his hands, while the capture units playback the screen contents. Tkae note they're using a DS Lite. Shows of his 744t Brain Training skillZ. His brain age dropped when he got to GDC: the session are very informative, but the extracurricular activities don't help.
He's going to invite some people on stage. Jamil Moledina, director of GDC; Geoff Keighley, from G4TV; and the inimitable Will Wright.
Nintendo guy HOUSED everyone; Jamil came in second, Will Wright in third, Geoff Keighley's still going.
Will Wright: 41
Nintendo guy: 20
Geoff Keighley: 66
Jamil Moledina: 37
Will finishes first, but doesn't win!
[11:12] Mr. Iwata is back on. After the retailers played the game, they ordered 70K units, more than expected. The second version was preordered to the tune of 850K! The biggest first week sales of any DS game ever. More than 5mil copies in Japan. The moral is: If you want to succeed in game development you need to follow two simple rules:
1. Listen to your board of directors
2. Listen to your Chief Financial Officer. [laughs].
They are giving out free copies of Brain Age se we can test ourselves! HUGE APPLAUSE! They're whistling. "Please, one per person."
[11:16] They knew Animal Crossing and Mario Kart would be on the DS and they wanted them to feature WiFi play. Iwata insisted the WiFi interface to be seamless: connecting to someone around the world should be as simple as connecting to someone in the next room; however, making things easier for gamers makes things harder for developers.
This kind of interaction could be very intimidating for casual gamers though. A gameplay version of "MySpace." It's simple to connect a DS locally in a room with your friends. It should be just as easy to connect with friends 500 miles away. No one who plays Animal Crossing wants someone to come into their town and chop down all their trees, so they left the choice up to the gamers.
It is the freedom of choice that has made the NiWiFi service so popular. They reached their numbers five times faster than Xbox Live. The WiFi team wanted to come but Iwata said no, but he would take their picture:
[11:22] Nintendo localization guy back on stage to demo Metroid Prime: Hunters. This is the first time a console has had control as close to the keyboard/mouse paradigm. Invites some members of the MP:H development team members on stage. Designer/art guy/programmer and, of course, translator. Who will get pwned?!
The programmer wins!
[11:28] Iwata says he's much better at watching MP: H than playing it. They are focused on appealing to all tastes, including gamers that would enjoy head to head Metroid, but also Tetris DS, New Super Mario Bros. [people clap, they love Mario. He's so cute!]. They're revealing a new adventure for us...
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass video! It's Celda! He's back baby!
[11:31] People are afraid to touch video game controllers. We're talking Revolution! The controller must be wireless and the look had to be simple and non threatening while still being sophisticated and "revolutionary." They created dozens of prototype designs; fifteen people were involved in trying to come up with an answer.
Young member of the controller group came up with a revolutionary idea. What if you could play with a small controller held in one hand? What about backwards compatibility. Miyamoto to the rescue: use a detachable controller system. The Metroid Prime team said it wouldn't work, so why not use the controller as is and add... let's say, uh, a nunchuck device! That oughta do it! "Sometimes ideas are like good wine... they just need time."
Nintendo decided to spent their money on the game experience and not on what's on the screen; not to improve the market, but to disrupt it! New is good but there is also an appetite for old. Classic games are a way to feel young again.
[11:38] Announcing games for the Sega Genesis and Hudson Games (note: this apparently includes Turbo Grafx 16 titles) will also be available for purchase on the Revolution's Virtual Console. Not all will be available but the best will.
The most important story of all is still to be told. To compete at the $50-$60 level, we'll need larger games, larger teams, license cost, and marketing cost. Our business is beginning to look like a bookstore where you can only buy expensive encyclopedias. People with good ideas often don't have a chance.
If Tetris was proposed today it would have been sent back: more graphics, and a movie license would help! [laughs]. The Virtual Console concept is the video game version of Apple's iTunes Music Store. Others have subsequently become interested in the downloadable games idea (Sony?). This is true disruption.
Disruption is not just a strategy for Nintendo. In a few weeks we'll better understand how to disrupt games when we can play and see how (playable @ E3?). Video games are meant to be just one thing: fun, fun for everyone.
We all clap enthusiastically while Mr. Iwata walks off the stage.