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Iwata outlines concerns over "high value" game future

Nintendo president fears industry is "drowning" as mobile and social network titles rise

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has used his keynote presentation at this year's GDC event in San Francisco as a platform to outline three of his concerns over the future of game development, saving a special mention for his fears over the future of "high value" games as the numbers of social network and mobile games rises.

The first of his concerns focused on whether or not games were as polished as they should be at launch, and mourned the loss of craftsmanship in the industry.

"As projects become bigger and more complicated, often the option of working over and over again to polish a game, to make it the highest quality it can be, is disappearing," he said. "This isn't a criticism of the people developing games, but rather the circumstances in which they operate.

"No matter how much money or manpower is available, no matter how much talent is involved, the needed flexibility may not be available when unexpected developments arise. Small details can get lost, even in huge projects."

"Game development is drowning. Yes, nearly every one of these downloadable games is far less expensive to create than most retail titles, but what revenues do they generate?"

Satoru Iwata, Nintendo president

He outlined his second concern as a worry about where the next "master game creator" would come from, as those working in development specialised more, and few were able to understand the bigger picture of the game's creation.

But his biggest fear was for the future of high value products, which he seemed to equate with retail titles - questioning whether or not the majority of developers would be able to "make a living" in the future.

"I fear our business is dividing in a way that threatens our continued employment, for many of us who create games for a living," he said. "Yes - developers' hours are always too long, and the stress too high - but until now, there has always been the ability to make a living. Will that still be the case moving forwards?

"Let me share a few numbers. Today in America there are more than 500 retail games available for PS3, more than 700 for the Xbox 360, and more than 1000 each for both Wii and Nintendo DS. With so many choices it is already very challenging to gain enough visibility with the public.

"A few games do become mega-hits, but it's not easy. With such competition, even being noticed is extremely difficult - huge investments promise nothing. Now, consider this. The corresponding number of games available to download from app sites is in the tens of thousands. Game development is drowning.

"Yes, nearly every one of these downloadable games is far less expensive to create than most retail titles, but what revenues do they generate? Screen Digest reports that among all types of application downloads among the leading mobile services last year, 92 per cent were free - and most of those which weren't free are still being sold at extremely low prices.

"Why is this happening? To answer, it's necessary to understand two very different ways of looking at our business, and these approaches focus on a single question. Is maintaining high value games a top priority, or not?"

Iwata went on to explain that while Nintendo is a hardware manufacturer, it is first and foremost a games creation company - and that its platforms exist only to play those games. He then contrasted that with mobile or social network devices, whose purpose were not to play games.

"We make platforms designed to demonstrate the high value of high quality videogame software. But, there is a second, entirely different way to consider the value of software. The objective of smartphones and social networks, and the reason they were created, are not at all like ours.

"These platforms have no motivation to maintain the high value of videogame software - for them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow - the value of videogame software does not matter to them."

Iwata's words will be seen as a shot across the bows to Apple in particular, with the success of the iPhone and iPad seen by many as a strong competitor for the Nintendo 3DS.

The Nintendo president ended by noting two important ideas for the continued success of the games business - firstly, that the first few seconds of a game are crucial, and that gamers may no longer be prepared to wait up to ten minutes to understand what a title is about.

And secondly, he added that a game must be "quick and easy" for people to describe the "unique nature of the game" to others, positing that "social recommendations are far more persuasive than advertising".

Ultimately, though, Iwata described what, in his mind, was an effective solution to the challenge in a single word: "Innovation," which he went on to define as the notion that if there is something considered impossible, then it should be made possible - an idea which he ended his keynote on, imploring the developers gathered in the audience to go and do.

The 3DS launched in Japan last weekend, and is released in Europe and North America later this month.

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