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GDC 2011: THE KEYNOTE

03 Mar 2011

Today marked the opening of GDC in the main, and it kicked off bright and early with a keynote from Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata. He began humbly: "All game developers can learn from each other. Nintendo is no exception."

The initial focus of his keynote was on delivering great games. He noted the familiar refrain: content is king. Engineering isn't quite as important, he said, as imagination.

Ultimately it's about creating must-have entertainment. Part of what defines must-have entertainment involves social appeal: the ability for players to talk to each other about their experiences with the game as well as to play the game together. Iwata drew a distinction between "social games" and "social network games". The latter builds off social graphs and is the sort of thing commonly associated with Facebook, Zynga, and so on. The former, however, has been around for decades: SpaceWar dates back to 1962, text-based MUDs were played socially in the 70s, and in 1977 the Atari 2600 shipped with not one, but two controllers. Iwata seemed to take a much more favorable view of these kinds of games, as compared to social network games, even going so far as to praise his company's competitor, saying that "Microsoft should be recognized for its considerable investment to build and maintain Xbox LIVE."

He outlined four keys to success:

  • Constant improvement
  • Social connections
  • Expanded audience
  • Challenge existing notions

"In all the important ways," he said, "game development is the same for everyone... At Nintendo it's just as stressful, just as frustrating, and there never seems to be enough time, manpower, or solutions. If there's a way to make it easy, we haven't discovered it yet."

He then turned the stage over to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime, and the keynote rapidly transformed into a Nintendo press conference. Reggie gave us the hard sell on the 3DS and all of its new features. Ironically, despite starting with saying that the 3DS is all about games, none of these features were actually game-related. I mean, let's be honest: in what way does watching a 3D movie trailer for The Green Lantern improve my gaming experience? (Yes, this was actually his example.)

The tech behind the 3DS is great, but frankly, we all came to hear Satoru Iwata talk about 25 years of experience in the games industry, not to hear Reggie pitch us a bunch of non-game-related hardware porn. Turning the keynote into a press conference left a really sour taste in my mouth.

Iwata returned to the stage for the last 10-15 minutes of the session to discuss some of his concerns about the future of the industry. He's worried that the changing circumstances of AAA game development are pushing craftsmanship aside, that in our focus on deadlines and budgets we're neglecting thoughtful polish. He worries about future talent development, noting that increased specialization reduces opportunities for cultivating multiple-disciplinary masters of game development like those which ushered the medium through its earlier decades. And he's concerned about developers simply making a living in an industry which has become increasingly hit-driven, where the stakes are such that you either succeed big, or flame out and die.

He also took a pretty direct shot at our current social network games ecosystem, saying that these developers are concerned more with quantity of product than with real value. "Is maintaining high-value games a priority?" he asked. "The fact is, what we create has value, and we should protect that value."

He closed on a happier note, which seems to reflect Nintendo's most core philosophy: "For 25 years game developers have made the impossible, possible. Why would we stop now?"

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gdc video-games