Crispy Gamer

The Nintendo Difference: Time and Money



Well Nintendo certainly learned from their E3 press conference debacle. Unlike that much-maligned presentation, this morning's GDC keynote was full of red meat for Nintendo fans and "veteran gamers," as Iwata called them. A new DS Zelda! A camera-based WarioWare for the DSi. A new ability to play Virtual Console and WiiWare games direct from high-capacity SD cards! Downloadable classic arcade games... available today (Nintendo pulled an "Apple" there)! Everyone in the audience gets a copy of Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo pulled an "Oprah" there)!

I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Instead I want to address a statement Iwata made near the beginning of his talk: <!--
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-->“Some people think they can not compete with Nintendo software
because of all the money Nintendo puts into R&D," he said.
"Before, I believed [that] was the reason Nintendo was able to
make better games than HAL, and that more money created more time.
Today I understand better."
<!--@page { margin: 0.79in }P { margin-bottom: 0.08in }-“Some people think they can notcompete with Nintendo software because of all the money Nintendo putsinto R&D," he said. "Before, I believed [that] was the reason Nintendo wasable to make better games than HAL, and that more money created moretime. Today I understand better."

Iwata went on to talk about the "death spiral" that almost occured when he worked at HAL Laboratories. There, financial pressure from investors demanding repayment of loans led to less development time, which led to a rushed product, which ended up being a poorer product, which led to poorer sales. Those poorer sales put the company in an even worse financial situation, and the cycle continued in a downward spiral.

Then Iwata talked about Nintendo's better "upward spiral" of game development. It starts with a core idea, usually provided by genius designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his obsessive observation of what people consider "fun" outside of video games. The process eventually ends with a "random kidnapping" of some non-developer employee at Nintendo, to see if a random person can have fun with the game without the developer leading them along on a leash.

These are both great points, and ideas other developers should definitely emulate. But it was the middle part of the development cycle that really argued against Iwata's initial point: the "trial and error" prototyping that goes in to figuring out exactly where the "fun" in a Nintendo game comes from. Iwata said this prototype phase can often last up to twoyears at Nintendo, and even after that many ideas don't actually turn up in actual games until years after that. 

Obviously this way of doing things has worked to Nintendo's benefit in recent years. But as advice to other, smaller developers, it's probably not that useful. Despite mentioning it 10 minutes earlier in the talk, Iwata seemed to have totally forgotten what it was like at HAL, when financial pressures prevented his company from having two years to prototype an interesting but rough idea. For most developers and publishers, the game has to be released on schedule, whether it's been sufficiently prototyped or not, just so they can get the money to survive until the next game.

Despite all the lofty talk about how everyone can learn from the Nintendo development model, the much-ballyhooed "Nintendo Difference" seems to be the financial stability to secure enough time and money to get their games right. It's nice for them, for sure, but not very helpful, I feel, as advice to struggling smaller developers, especially in this economy.