GDC 11 showed Nintendo lacking with the impending 3DS as Apple dropped any pretence about its intentions on the gaming space.
GDC is the best barometer we have of the future of videogames. The San Franciscan event is the first of its type in the games trade’s annual roadshow, setting the mood for the year and, through its arena of developer pontification, giving a clear indication of emerging trends in the creation space.
Last year, the headline was Move, prepping an end-year motion run-off between Microsoft and Sony which was to dominate the console market in 2010. In 2009, the darkhorse story was the announcement of cloud service OnLive, and in 2008 we saw Gears of War 2 announced with a Lancer in Microsoft’s keynote.
This year was different, and nothing encapsulated GDC 11’s message better than an eyebrow-raising quote from Satoru Iwata in his front-show address.
“The value of videogame software does not matter to them,” he said, speaking in badly-veiled terms about Apple. His speech was immediately followed by this year’s major headline, and a clear indication that the “videogames trade” you think you know is now morphing at lightspeed: the announcement of iPad 2.
Bitter, needy, outdated
The tone of Iwata’s keynote was in stark contrast to that of his 2009 delivery, which brimmed with optimism. The president rounded out his talk two years ago - which was full of Miyamoto’s genius, Wii updates and a first showing of Zelda: Spirit Tracks for DS - with the following: "The future of videogames is in your hands, and I cannot wait for you to show us your surprises."
In 2011, though, Iwata’s message had changed drastically. He started by quoting developers as saying they were worried about the future, and rounded out with an unprecedented attack on app store culture and the stunning rise of the smartphone and "social networks" as gaming platforms. Iwata said that mobile development could threaten game developers’ ability to earn a living, and that software craftsmanship was vanishing thanks to phone manufacturers offering a route to market for small, cheap games.
"Games development is drowning," he said, noting that "tens of thousands" of game are now available through the "big app stores".
In retrospect, the Nintendo president looked bitter, needy and outdated. By his own admission, he was speaking to a crowd of which the “majority” were mobile developers of some sort. He offered no solution to his problem. And let’s be clear: Apple really is his problem.
Let’s do some napkin maths. DS has sold in excess of 150 million units since its launch in 2004. Apple, speaking immediately after Iwata’s GDC speech, said that it’s shipped over 100 million iPhones since 2007, and 15 million iPads since early 2010. Apple has the most popular online content delivery system in existence in the App Store: Nintendo is essentially nowhere in terms of digital distribution, although it will begin to offer eShop services to 3DS in May, as confirmed in Iwata’s keynote.
Apple is able to iterate hardware and software quickly and significantly: Nintendo is not. Apple has a window through top tier market positions into mobile, tablet and desktop spaces: Nintendo does not.
A survey just before GDC showed that over a third of all UK and US adults have played a mobile game in the past month, and that 83 percent of mobile phone gamers who own a smartphone said they'd played in the past week.
Underlying Iwata’s GDC address this year was the reality that Nintendo’s dream of owning the mobile gaming space has been destroyed by Apple and Google, and it’s a situation 3DS is highly unlikely to reverse, what with its £40 games and lack of anywhere connectivity.
This elephant in the room set the tone for the entire show. Videogames are not changing. They’ve changed. And Nintendo is suddenly looking as though it simply hasn’t changed with them.
”Nobody knows what’s going on”
If you’re in any doubt as to the importance of Apple’s iPad 2 announcement, ask Mark Rein. Rein heads up business development for Epic’s Unreal Engine, irrefutably the most successful catch-all middleware solution in the games industry as a whole. Unreal Engine forms the basis of a huge amount of major 3D games, and it would be difficult to name another platform as influential to games development period. Rein made sure his face was seen at the Nintendo keynote, right? Of course not: he was at the iPad 2 conference.
“It’s fantastic for gaming,” Rein said of the announcement, noting the fact the machine’s graphics capabilities are nine times faster than the original iPad. Rein said later in the week that 3DS couldn’t “deliver” tech specs to run UE3, and that Chair’s Infinity Blade, an iOS-only release, has outsold XBLA arcade favourite Shadow Complex, developed by the same studio.
iPad 2 is not just the release of a new Apple “thing”: it is the solidification of a mainstream gaming platform emerging at a pace that companies like Nintendo are essentially helpless to check, as Messieurs Iwata and Rein are very well aware.
If GDC said one thing this year, it’s that power is rapidly shifting in videogames development, and the days of Nintendo being able to stand up in front of the creative community and seriously claim to be in control appear to be over.
Epic motormouth Cliff Bleszinski, speaking to Eurogamer at the show, summed it up well: “It’s like the fucking wild, wild west again right now. Nobody knows what’s going on. There’s so many platforms, between mobile, between social, between motion controls, hardcore, PC; I mean, online, MMOs; it’s just everywhere. I don’t have the answer for it, but the person that figures out how to tie most of it together is going to be the one that wins.”
See if you can work out that puzzle for yourself.