Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2011 Keynote: 25 Years Of Gaming


Posted March 2, 2011 - By Stephen Johnson

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GDC 2011 Nintendo Keynote Intro: 25 Years Of Gaming »

GDC 2011 began in a huge way. Thousands of members of the game industry packed into a hall at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention center to sit at the feet of the master: Nintendo president and gaming god Saturo Iwata. Iwata delivered the convention’s keynote, and opened the show by asking us to consider the past. His speech celebrated the 25th GDC by looking back over the last quarter century in view of using  what we’ve learned to handle the unique challenges of the current game industry. But far from a nostalgic reverie, Iwata’s speech highlighted threats to quality gaming embodied by the explosion of mobile games on cell phones… Apple, are you listening?

“I feel like our industry is dividing in a way that threatens many people’s employment,” Iwata said. “Until now, there has always been the ability to make a living. Will that still be the case moving forward?”

In spite of changes in the industry, Iwata made it clear that there are three words game devs need to remember: Content is King.

“The primary need is still content,” Iwata said. “You [Game Developers] are the center of the video game universe.”

According to Iwata, in the early days of the industry, he thought that his programming skills would make him the best game maker, but he learned a lesson from another Nintendo legend. “Mr. Miyamoto taught me a painful lesson: Content really is king. Engineering isn’t quite as important as imagination,” Iwata said.

Everyone who follows games knows that “social gaming” is the buzzword du jour, but Iwata points out that social gaming goes back longer than 25 years. It actually goes back 50 years, to one of the first games ever made – Space War, a head-to-head game that required another player to use.  The early days of gaming also featured MUDs played over phone systems, multi-users dungeons that can be described as World of Warcraft without graphics.

Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2011 Keynote: 25 Years Of Gaming

Iwata then traced the history of “must haves,” gaming experiences so compelling, that every gamer must have one.  According to Iwata, there are three sources for the elusive “must-have:”

  1. Hardware Itself – Gameboy, for example. This was the first time a player could carry his gaming everywhere. 
  2. The Game Itself – Examples: Grand Theft Auto, Tetris, Angry Birds, Guitar Hero, Sonic, and Just Dance 2.
  3. The “Must Have” Comes from players themselves – example: World of Warcraft.

Iwata then told the story of Mario’s evolution, as an example of how even the most popular franchises must change with the times in order to survive. Later during the keynote, the newest iteration of Mario, a 3DS version of the little plumber, was mentioned (details to come at E3.)

Non-Nintendo properties like Tetris and The Sims are cited by Iwata as important games. Tetris because it was the first game ever to draw a largely female fanbase to gaming, and The Sims because it was so innovative when it was released that people wondered whether it was even a game at all, only to be silenced when the franchise passed over 150 million sales.

Iwata also talked universal appeal, giving a personal example. When he originally wrote Kirby, the game only sold 75,000 copies, but the influence of Mr. Miyamoto changed all that. Miyamoto softened the difficulty, bucking the trend at the time, as well as changing the name. Fun Fact: The English translation of Kirby was originally “Tinkle Popo.”

Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2011 Keynote: 25 Years Of Gaming

Using all these lessons, Iwata hopes the next “must-have” in gaming will be the 3DS. The system is aimed to appeal to everyone by coming with easy to use and explain games like Face Raiders, as well as increased connectivity through the use of AT&T hotspots and more.

For the more sales-y portion of the keynote, Iwata turned the stage over to Nintendo America president Reggie Fils-Aime, who explained the 3DS’ new Netflix connectivity as well as detailing the improved game store, 3D photo and video sharing, 3D movie trailers and a lot more.

Iwata then retook the stage to shift focus from the lessons of the past to the challenges he sees in the current gaming space as well as the future.  Iwata’s first concern: “Craftmanship.” “Over 25 years, we game developers have gained a lot but lost something: Craftmanship.”

Iwata explained that he is not disrespecting the people making games, but rather, the circumstances of their work. “No matter how much time or money is available, small details can get lost,” Iwata says.

The next area of Iwata’s concern is Specialization. “If people can’t tell what other team members are doing, it makes me wonder where the next master game creators will come from,” Iwata said.

Iwata’s third concern seemed to be, by far, the most important and huge hurdle for the current industry: Mobile games. Iwata views the industry as at a crossroads, with console game makers on one side and mobile game makers on the other.

To illustrate the point, Iwata points out that there around 1,500 DS games, 1,000 Wii games, over 700 Xbox games and over 500 PS3 games. On the other hand, there are tens of thousands of mobile games, with hundreds being added each week.

According to Iwata, “traditional” models of game development and mobile games have opposite ends. Nintendo, he said, has always viewed hardware as a means to an end, as a something “people purchase reluctantly as a way to enjoy games.”Mobile handset makers, on the other hand, have no motivation to release high quality software.

“Their goal is to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is how they profit.  So we are looking at two different sides of industry,” Iwata says. “What we produce is value, and we should protect that value.”

Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2011 Keynote: 25 Years Of Gaming

Iwata ends his keynote with simple but inspirational advice: Game makers should start with an idea that excites them, then find a market for that idea, as opposed to trying to have an idea that fits into an existing market or trend. He left us with these words: “Trust your passion. Believe your dream… For 25 years, game makers have made the impossible possible, so I ask, why would we stop now?”

Saturo Iwata’s GDC 2011 Keynote: 25 Years Of Gaming


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