16 March 2011

The Iwata Defence - by Dustin Clingman

      Posted 03/15/11 10:55:00 pm  

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata provided a candid, thought provoking keynote at GDC 25. At the same time Iwata-san was presenting, Steve Jobs was right across the street announcing the iPad 2. Setting the stage for a major dustup, various sides have been taken on Iwata’s presentation. A healthy number of pundits have declared the demise of not just console gaming, but also it’s legendary innovative powerhouse, Nintendo.

This blog post about why Iwata was right.

Let’s review Iwata’s key concerns:

“...Developers have gained alot, but lost something. One major loss is craftsmanship...This is not a criticism of people, but rather the situations in which they operate. No matter how much talent a team has, the needed flexibility may not be available.”

Iwata called our collective attention to the fact that our profit centered focus has cost us in the area most developers would consider most critical - Our Craftsmanship. Initially, I felt this was a scathing criticism coming from Nintendo. They are known for hellish schedules, but also a firm commitment to ship only when ready. Ironically, other First party publishers only reserve this luxury for their super high end AAA titles. I have long thought that they let things go because they fear to stand up to their AAA developers. I wish that attitude trickled down further down the food chain.

Talent Development - “...This era of specialization makes it much more difficult for a single individual to sense the personality of a game.” ... If people cannot tell what other team members are doing, where will the next master game designer come from?”

Like a dagger flung from the dark night, this one point tells us how we’ve set ourselves up for long term failure as an Industry by refusing to develop our talent beyond their core skillsets. This is partially set up by the circumstances that triggered his earlier comments on Craftsmanship. Regardless of what our job opportunities are, we need to make sure that we refresh and extend our professional skills beyond the core job we’re doing on the line. The best companies are the ones who will encourage this and not just drive you to death with an intent of laying you off after the game ships.
I’m eyeing you Rockstar.

Is maintaining high value games a high priority or not?
“The business is dividing in a way that threatens continued employment. Developers hours will be too long and stress too high, but always a way to make a living. Will that be the case going forward? Game Development is drowning...”

This last point caught the most attention by folks from outside of the console industry. Iwata is concerned about the way in which Social Networks and Mobile platforms view games and the impact that this perception is having on the business opportunity of game development.

Iwata pointed out that Social Networks and Mobile platforms only view games as content to plug into their  to an end. They want a massive amount of quantity and have no cares for the Craftsmanship nor the prospective benefits to the game developers who produce the content for them.

The argument that console manufacturers have created and benefited from a walled garden for years is a fair one...but be realistic. iPhone and Facebook are not open platforms. The reason Iwata said that “...quantity makes the money flow...” is because these platforms gain momentum based on the adoption and userbase that they generate from it. The quantity of games has nothing to do with the quality or craftsmanship of what’s been created.

“...What we produce is value - we should protect that value. All is not lost...”

I think Iwata is asking us to show some self respect here and to resist whoring ourselves for the chance at a quick buck. The race to the bottom does this on so many levels.

This quantity over quality focus is also having a huge impact on the long term viability of the game business as a whole. To demonstrate this, I’ll use a great example from the iPhone as referenced by one of its most successful developers.

Neil Young from ngmoco presented at the Interactive Age Summit early in the week of GDC 25. One of the most important thoughts he presented was the first failure of ngmoco, how critical it was and why they ended up selling for $400

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