A real highlight for me at the Game Developer Conference was getting to hear Satoru Iwata deliver the keynote. Aside from being CEO of Nintendo as they have launched their most successful console ever, Iwata-san has left a sizable development legacy as a veteran of HAL Laboratory (Balloon Fight, Kirby). In the game community, I think the reception to his keynote was mixed – mostly, it introduced long-overdue storage solutions for Wiiware titles, along with some relatively minor game titles. But as a person interested in design and development – and what innovative interfaces could do for music and not just games – I found the rare insight into Nintendo’s development process inspiring.

The surprise: despite their enormous resources, Nintendo is moving to ever-smaller development teams. And they’re taking dance classes to work on their musical rhythm.

Any developer with limited resources is familiar with what Iwata described as the “development death spiral”: financial pressure means rushed titles with poorer quality, resulting in fewer sales, resulting in greater financial pressure. Oddly, Iwata didn’t quite explain how do navigate out of the death spiral, explicitly. “Once you enter the death spiral, it is difficult to escape,” Iwata acknowledged. But the implication of his presentation was that you could do more with less, by focusing on process – not necessarily adding resources, but focusing on humans and fun. (The analog for music, perhaps, would be as much “expressivity” as fun.)

To illustrate, Iwata spoke mainly of Nintendo’s chief designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of … um, nearly everything, in fact. Now, some of Miyamoto’s habits have been widely published, like his tendency to turn hobbies (gardening and puppies) into games. But to hear a normally-secretive Japanese company talking frankly about its process is something special.

Miyamoto’s Way is what Iwata called an “Upward Spiral.”

He observes people everywhere having fun. He thinks about how the core of that fun might come into games. But even as one project starts, he is still observing other people having fun – more ideas are born. Most developers prepare a thick design document to explain their intension to their teams. Mr. Miyamoto almost never writes one.

His first goal is always the same – a [prototype,] very limited and very clear. The amount of time being spent on the game’s appearance is zero.

Mr Miyamoto always has multiple projects in this stage at the same time.

What I find most important is how in each phase of overall development, he can clearly distinguish which details must be perfectly finished in that phase, and separate them from the parts that can be tentatively prepared.

You can see just how primitive some of these prototypes are in the example below from Punch Out. I think this is actually an important issue, as many beginning developers of games and audiovisual works don’t get primitive when doing early drafts, thus making it harder to make changes later.

Miyamoto is also notorious for randomly kidnapping employees for playtesting – playtesting without focus groups or statistics collection, but more qualitative evaluations of how people like a creation. Again, this isn’t unheard of in the industry, but it seems not to happen enough. And Miyamoto looks very fetching in his Cowboy / Outlaw getup.

Now, prototyping is nothing unique to Nintendo. But remarkably, Miyamoto’s prototype phase can last “more than two years.” And while no other developer has Miyamoto working for them, I expect that this is unusual:

I make it a point not to ask how [the project]’s doing. I believe this could make the team cut corners, or settle for less than their desired outcome.

This is not very good for my mental health. This is because of Mr. Miyamoto’s tendency to … upend the tea table.

“Upending the tea table” – also known as the “Miyamoto Test” – is a signature Miyamoto move by which the designer scraps a development process in mid-stream in order to make corrections. Again, this happens in the game industry, though perhaps not as often as it should – and certainly, no one has the leeway Miyamoto does.

Mr. Miyamoto is never an … angry man. He resets the dishes he had scattered, explaining just how they should be arranged on the tray.

I know many developers and critics are increasingly becoming frustrated with the dogma of fun, believing it forces the industry into a narrow range of expression. But, then, I enjoy depressing movies. Defined as enjoyment, Nintendo’s philosophy of fun is more a kind of commitment to its users. As Iwata puts it:

We create entertainment, and entertainment is meant to be enjoyed. If it can’t be enjoyed, it’s not the consumer’s fault – the fault belongs to us.

(At this moment in the presentation, in fact, Iwata bent forward slightly and halted, as if to consider the shame of such a potential situation.)

Alternative ideas about rhythm from Nintendo’s latest for DS.

The musical connection to all of this is the rhythm game, “Rhythm Heaven.” We were lucky enough to get a copy for DS as we left the presentation; more on how it works soon. The game has already had a life as a Japanese-only Game Boy Advance title, but is now a worldwide release on DS. Several revelations were interesting to me in this presentation:

  • Nintendo is turning to increasingly-smaller teams – as few as five on the GBA game and three on the DS. That says a lot about the way the videogame titan views effective development, and should give hope to penny-pinching indie developers and publishers, as well as us musical / visual experimenters toying with developing new interfaces.
  • Rhythmic theory: The impetus for the game was designer/developer Tsunku’s new “rhythmic theories,” and ideas about how to teach and play with rhythm.
  • Dance instruction: To help developers learn better rhythm themselves, Nintendo turned not to music lessons but dance movements – Tsunku bet that movement would help hone the programmers’ rhythmic skills. 

As Iwata explained:

How can a good rhythm game be created if the developers’ themselves don’t have much rhythm?

The quickest way to learn rhythm, [Tsunku] believes, is to dance. So the developers danced. Maybe they’re like winners of the Japanese ‘Dancing with the Stars.’

This was the first time as a game producer that I had to approve a budget for dance lessons.

Dancing developers.

Rhythm Heaven creator Tunsku.

For those of you wondering what the future of platforms for gaming or music are, Iwata had other juicy stats, as well. In 2008, female
usage of the DS was up sharply to 47%. That brings hope for less male dominance of music technology. And anyone betting the iPhone would obliterate the DS as a gaming platform ought to think again. The DSi – the latest DS model with downloadable titles and a built-in camera – set a new advance-order record on Amazon for game systems. Some 90% of WiiWare titles are independent, so that makes me imagine that we could see creative new music and visual creations on both WiiWare and the DSi download service soon – a nice change from the current situation, which requires you to hack your system just to get real music apps. It’s nowhere near as open as the iPhone, though, so installed base aside, I think the iPhone / iPod touch remains a friendlier development platform.

Iwata closed with a nice sentiment for all of us:

Remember, in the Great Depression American inventors invented the jet engine, television, and even the chocolate chip cookie. As a developer, I believe anything is possible. The future of video games is in your hands.

I’m always a fan of “off-the-fovea” thinking, which was part of why I went to GDC. Hearing game developers tackle these problems I think has a lot of lessons for development of other creative projects – and I certainly believe a lot of these lessons are applicable to audiovisual makers, even if you don’t intend to release an iPhone – erm, DS — music game. Prototyping, testing and observation, small teams, using movement to make music and rhythm more powerful – all of these have great lessons not only relative to the game industry’s norms but for everyone else, too. I’m curious to hear what you think. But, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a DS break.