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July 21, 2009 at 3:15 PM

Casual Connect: How Nintendo makes great games, and money

Speaking at this morning’s opening session of Casual Connect, Nintendo’s Tom Prata shared a few tips on how game developers can overcome falling game prices, intense competition and other potentially overwhelming challenges.

Timely stuff for the 2,000 attendees from all corners of the casual game industry.

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Prata, senior director of project development, works with development teams in Japan and in the U.S., helping them create and distribute games sold at retail and through digital delivery systems like Nintendo’s DSiWare and WiiWare channels.

A formative moment in his career was a cross-country road trip he took in 2000 with Satoru Iwata — now Nintendo’s president — meeting with game developers and updating them on the progress of the GameCube.

“This was the most important trip of my life and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the things we talked about then turned out to be the crystal ball on the future of where Nintendo was headed,” Prata said.

They discussed the direction the game industry was headed and its obsession with constantly improving graphics and system performance. Development costs were soaring and the market was getting saturated.

That led Nintendo to a new approach, focused on making games for everyone, not just “gamers.”

That meant creating games and systems that were more accessible, yet still fun, and expanding the market to new customers.

Apparently it’s working, based on stats Prata shared. The number of active gamers in the U.S. reached 143.7 million as of March, up 30 percent from November 2007.

Yet there’s still the potential to grow the market another 50 percent, he said, reiterating Iwata’s message delivered last month at the E3 conference in Los Angeles. Globally there are 295 million players actively playing consoles and gaming devices, and another 150 million people who want to start playing.

Prata’s tips for success include:

— Focus on quality. He noted the longevity of quality franchises such as “Donkey Kong,” “Pac Man” and “Galaga,” which are still selling, 30 years after they appeared in arcades.

— Create different, unique experiences. Prata cited the “Miyamoto method,” referring to Nintendo’s legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto, whose imagination and observation of what people are interested in spawned hit games such as “Nintendogs” and “Wii Fit.”

“Our game designers do not use market research or data to tell them what is popular or not popular,” he said, explaining that inspiration comes from observation that “has to be more first-hand, a little bit more subjective.”

Nintendo also seeks universal themes, as opposed to games creators build for themselves. The company also does extensive analysis of “the central compelling element that’s going to attract so many different people.”

Once the core element is found, the company assigns small teams — perhaps just one or two people — to build a proof of concept. The company rarely creates detailed design documents, opting instead to flesh out the concepts on its game hardware.

Small teams also must focus on the essential elements of game without worrying about story and graphics early in the process. It’s also cost effective and lower risk, because the company won’t lose too much on concepts that don’t pan out.

Nintendo also learns from its failures. Prata told of an experimental GameCube project called “Stage Debut” that would let players take their picture and put their faces onto game characters. It didn’t quite work out, but the idea stuck around. Later inspiration came from Japanese “kokeshi” wooden dolls, and the result was the customizable “Mii” avatars that appeared in the Wii.

Prata boiled this down to three game design pillars to keep in mind:

1. Accessibility, making games that are fun from the get-go and have broad appeal.

2. A sense of newness, making games that delight and surprise people. This is the “secret to adding longevity to even the most proven franchises,” he said.

3. Consumer reaction. To satisfy players, “we must see products through the eyes of consumers.”

“Creating something with massive appeal doesn’t require a franchise and it doesn’t require a large development team,” he said. “The only thing that really matters is the ability of the game developer.”

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