OPINION: Why Iwata wasn't wrong

OPINION: Why Iwata wasn't wrong

By Andrew Smith

March 28th 2011 at 8:00AM

Nintendo isnâ??t snubbing 'garage devs', it just canâ??t work with them, says Andrew Smith

Satoru Iwata said at GDC2011 that Nintendo fears the erosion of the value of software by the rise of the thousands of games, both social and mobile, that have appeared over the last few years.

Regardless of the fact that Iwata-san was actually trying to make a positive point to a crowd of games developers who would (should!) likely be similarly worried, and ignoring for a moment that this view is a touch conservative, he is right to say what he did.

Nobody else has stood up to say what a lot of traditional games developers and publishers are thinking - “The fact is, what we produce has value, and we should protect that value.”

Perhaps it takes someone running a company that has so consistently judged the markets right, and has remained one of the most profitable and innovative companies out there all the while, to say with confidence that the games we make deserve to be valued.

True, these are the words of a company whose very lifeblood is ‘traditional’ living-room gaming. They want to make sure their expertise is never outdated or driven to a niche (and frankly it never will – a good game is a good game, and they make some of the best) but the sentiment is true whichever market you’re aiming at.

Nobody truly wants to give away all their content for free (or even next to nothing). I’m not talking about games that let you buy more levels, hats for your characters or a level-skip button with feathers and a face (I’m looking at you, Rovio) because these are all wonderful, exciting and challenging ways to make a valid living off of some really cool new games. What I plan to do, in fact.

Rather, I’m talking about the multitude – no, the flood of shovel-ware, unsupported one-off games and just plain rubbish entertainment that is unleashed every week onto the App Store, Flash portals and the Android marketplace (amongst others).

In fact, it’s the games made by people who’d only ever go to GDC to meet their heroes. People who don’t understand that marketing is a key part of making a successful game, or those who simply view it as a hobby (all of which is perfectly acceptable behaviour!). It is the games released by these kinds of developers, onto the same un-moderated ‘marketplaces’ (App Store, browser, whatever – the lines are blurring all the time) that put the pressure on more ‘professional’ and perhaps established developers to come up with something competitive.

But how do you compete with a similar game which is released for less, or simply cloned ten times within a month? It’s tough, and one answer is licenses. Well done to EA for leveraging their brands, and Pop Cap too, and anyone else lucky enough to build one in the current climate. It’s not impossible, but I’d love to see stats on the spread of revenue based on original IP versus brands on, say, the iPhone – as well as the spread of revenue around the chart positions.

But that doesn’t solve the problem. The rush to make games cheaper and more available has created a weird eco-system whereby success is often as much about timing and luck as it is quality of game. The positive side is that so many talented people can show the world what they have to offer for very little expense, and this is a great thing – except that the challenge of actually being able to show the world is so much tougher.

All that’s happened is that instead of having to impress a conservative publisher or platform holder with your ideas and ability, it’s the general public you have to win over. You know, the people who have so much other stuff vying for their spare time that their attention is harder to grab than a greased pig. The move one step closer to the consumer is a great thing in one sense, but it hasn’t killed off the gatekeeper.

So moving on a touch, a few days later Reggie Fils-Aime piped up supporting Satoru Iwata’s views, adding: “We are not looking to do business today with the garage developer.” To me this clarifies things perfectly, but to some it seemed to underline how ignorant, backwards and old-fashioned Nintendo is. There was a righteous spewing of ire from some corners of the independent community, and sometimes from sources who frankly should know better.

The chances are Nintendo aren’t talking about you if you read Develop regularly, or if you have an industry-level registration on GI.biz. And contrary to some commentator’s beliefs, this position does not rule out doing business with the Rovios and Mojangs of the world.

In fact, let’s put a few things straight here – Rovio had made many mobile games previous to their success with Angry Birds. Mojang are (now) a fully-fledged company run by a guy who’d paid his dues working for all kinds of developers of browser-based games. Neither of these companies are ‘garage developers’, but more importantly I don’t think they would want to do business with Nintendo.

Leaving aside fairly subjective topics like what constitutes a garage developer, the fact that the Big N do not want to do business with ‘garage indies’ does not mean they do not value their contribution. It is not the same as saying that they don’t respect the games that these developers make, nor is it belittling the contribution they make to the industry as a whole, let alone the commercial market.

All it is saying is that it would be a waste of everyone’s time for them to strike up any kind of business dialogue because their views, techniques, business model and attitudes are so different that nothing worthwhile would ever come of it. This is just business sense coming to the fore, and I for one welcome what is a refreshingly frank and open commentary on the way they like to do business. In fact it has nothing to do with indies at all.

This is Nintendo saying they’re not interested, not that indies aren’t interesting.

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Andrew Smith is a BAFTA-winning game designer for Spilt Milk Studios. He has featured in Develop’s 30 Under 30, profiling the best young talent in the industry today. His Twitter account is here.