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Joystiq @ TGS: Bach and Iwata keynotes

Vladimir Cole

We just got out of the Keynote addresses by Robbie Bach (Microsoft) and Satoru Iwata (Nintendo). These are impressions from the keynote.

The Xbox 360 keynote address was largely on-topic and on-message. Robbie Bach just tied it all together, summarized the major marketing points that Microsoft wants to make. He didn't make any ripples.

Iwata's keynote, however, involved the unveiling of the Nintendo Revolution controller. Iwata's keynote can be summarized like so. Iwata has felt a growing sense of crisis in the games industry. Controllers and games have become more and more complex over time and as such have probably been a turn-off for gamers. Some gamers have grown bored with what appears to be the same content (only with more levels and more enemies and more more more). Some gamers have been turned off by the daunting task of dealing with modern controllers. Nintendo decided it had to create something that could making gaming fresh for the hard-core gamer but also give the novice a chance to play and have fun almost immediately.

Result? A new controller.

Iwata spent a good portion of his presentation time simply laying the groundwork and building his case that there's a crisis in the games industry. The industry, he argued, cannot continue to simply build bigger and more complex games because all these games do is appeal to the hardcore enthusiast gamer. Where is the growth going to come from? It's got to come from new gamers.

Nintendo Revolution Controller - FishingHere are some direct Iwata quotes:

"Many in the industry think as long as we keep on doing the same things ... the industry will continue to grow. I'm afraid this idea is deeply ingrained in many minds. Will video game players become bored and cause the industry to shrink? We have to expand the market. To do so, we have to abandon the memories of the past and get back to the basics. The whole industry must make an effort. First, unless we can increase the number of people who are willing to play, we can never expand the market. If we cannot expand the market, all we can do is just wait for the industry to slowly die."

(Pictured directly above: a grandfather and his grandson use the Nintendo Revolution controller to play a fishing game. They cast the controllers with a motion that mimics fishing. The video that this photo comes from is very slick, with high production values and great sound. You can hear the fishing lures hit the water, though no gameplay is actually shown. The focus is on the gamers and their motions with the controller.)

Iwata then noted that because Nintendo "were the first and only ones to identify this issue we were the first to come up with a strategy to expand the gaming industry." The plan? "introduce new products that appeal to both veteran gamers and novice gamers alike."

He then spent a good amount of time explaining sales performance of Nintendo DS software titles such as Nintendogs and Flexible Brain Making Software and Brain Training. Pictured directly below is a slide showing the male-female gamer ratio for players of these games. The blue bars represent male gamers and the pink bars represent female gamers. The bars represented here are translated courtesy of Joystiq reader Matt:

  • All DS software
  • Nintendogs
  • DS training for adults: Work Your Brain
  • Gentle Brain Exercises

Nintendo Touch - Male-Female Game Ratios

Iwata elaborated on what it means that DS titles are attracting greater numbers of women than other products. It's Nintendo's opinion that this can only mean one thing: the Nintendo DS is expanding the gaming market and is drawing people into gaming that had either given up on it or had never tried it.

He followed with a slide on gamer age demographics, also taken from product registrations on Club Nintendo showing that several Nintendo DS titles are attracting old folks. In the slide that follows below, note the size of the teal, powder blue and dark blue bars. Those represent gamers aged 24-34, 35-44 and 45+. Senior citizens have really taken a shine to the brain games in particular because they offer gamers catchy self-assessment tests that purport to measure (and improve) your "brain age." The appeal of these titles is the promise that they'll help the gamer recover lost mental abilities. We'll believe it when there's some real data to show it, but it's a brilliant marketing strategy regardless of whether it actually works or not.

Nintendo DS age demographics

At this point, many in the crowd were really nodding along. The cameras were out, the flashes were going off, and people were scribbling (or typing) like mad. The man had this audience's rapt attention and a note of real enthusiasm and excitement even entered the translator's voice. This was a very convincing presentation backed by data that appeared to show that Nintendo really does understand how to appeal to the non-core gamer demographic. Will the hard-core be left in the dark? More on that in a moment.

Here's a shot of a couple of cooks sitting at a table. The one on the right is making a chopping motion with the Revolution controller and appears to be actually hitting the tabletop with the thing, emphasizing both its durability and its response to fast movements. Apparently, the two are playing a cooking game and the man is chopping vegetables.

Iwata noted that the controller senses both distance from the screen and angle to the screen. However, it's important to have a bit of healthy skepticism on this point. There's a reason that competitive FPS gamers insist on wired mice. The response time for wireless devices doesn't match the response time for wired devices. Of course software can get around this limitation somewhat by cleverly faking fast response times, but we have to wonder whether games played with this controller will have the sort of responsiveness that fast-twitch games require.

Nintendo Revolution controller -- cooking game

Other applications of the controller that were shown via the video:

  • baseball: a player stands ready with arms pulled back as if holding a bat. The pitch is made and he swings, connecting with a ball with a satisfying crack.
  • dentistry: a dentist in a doctor's uniform holds the controller and performs some sort of very painful surgery, complete with screams from the virtual patient.
  • Mario / platforming: a woman plays Super Mario Brothers (you can only tell from the music, as no games were shown). When she flips the controller up, Mario jumps.
  • haunted house: a young Japanese couple explores a spooky setting, using the expansion controller to move a flashlight to reveal areas that they want to see.
  • Nintendo Controller TGSfly swatter: a woman swats at a fly that is buzzing around in a game.
  • sword: A young male gamer brandishes the controller as if there's a long blade attached to the end of it. He slashes his arms violently as if he's cleaving monsters in two.
  • conductor: an elderly couple are each holding a controller in one hand. Classical music is playing and they appear to be conducting the orchestra. The game being evoked appears to be a form of DDR for old people.
  • Ping-pong/Tennis: The controller is used as a paddle to return serves and lobs.

Interestingly, I don't recall seeing a driving game evoked using this controller. That appears to be a genre of game less suited to this sort of control.

So, that's the controller. Practically speaking, will anybody make games for it? Will the hard-core gamer that is the core of today's games market even buy those games? Is there a greater opportunity in the casual market?

Iwata tried to answer these questions by implying that developers might hit it big with this sort of controller. He argued that Brain Training Software for DS took just about four months to develop (including year-end holidays!) and that the maximum team size at peak was just 10 people. These are the sorts of numbers that developers understand, as many developers today long for the days when creativity played more of a role in getting titles to market. If the Revolution is really able to create a market where there was none, then gaming as a whole will benefit from this. We may even see more Old Grandma hardcores as older gamers make the transition from (say) conducting an orchestra to fragging newbs.

Controller feature summary (from the keynote and other sources):

  • omni-directional pointing: Point up, down, left, right. The device can also sense its distance from the screen, making forward and backwards sensing possible.
  • tilt sensors: Roll the controller to the left or right, forward or backwards.
  • lots of buttons: The device looks simple, but there are actually quite a few buttons on it. Power, D-pad, main action button, a, b, underside trigger, and three other buttons on the face of it.
  • expansion port on the bottom: allows plug in of "nunchaku-style" joystick and other coffee-powered postsmore conventional controllers
  • nanchaku-style controller with base package: the nunchaku style controller will feature just three controls: an analog thumb joystick and two triggers on the bottom side
  • wireless by default: the base Revolution package will include the wireless version of the controller. Iwata noted that the controller should be attractive when sitting on a coffee table and that any member of the family should feel that he or she can pick it up and start using it.
  • built in rumble feedback: the device will have rumble technology built in. Can it crack, shake, and give gyroscopic force feedback? Unknown.

The bottom line: this is certainly a new direction for console gaming, though not an inimitable one. Microsoft and Sony can easily add a device like this if Nintendo succeeds in creating a market for softcore and novice gamers. What this might mean is that Nintendo will pursue aggressive contracts with software developers who really utilize the new controller so that the titles that are developed for the Revolution aren't simply ported over to rival Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles immediately. Nintendo can certainly play that game.

That's it for the Iwata keynote. We're going to spend some time on the showfloor now. This post brought to you by incredibly powerful coffee in a tiny black can.

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