GDC 2007: Nintendo Keynote


“Kick his ass and take his name!” A shout from the crowd, directed at Reggie Fils Amie, moments before the start of Nintendo’s keynote.

“Which one?” Asked Reggie, good naturedly. He’d been signing Wiimotes and DS handhelds for a half hour, posing for photographs, sharing smiles with fans, press and … everyone.

He has a lot to smile about these days. The most recent NPD numbers showed Nintendo in the lead in January, over Microsoft, over Sony. Nintendo, the surprise come from behind kid with the magic box called Wii.

“Which one?” he asked.

“Phil Harrison,” shouted the voice, referring to the bald-headed President of Sony Computer Entertainment. “Over there, front row.”

Reggie smiled. “Somebody said we already did that,” he replied.

Point, winner.

The standing room only keynote was the event of the day, but it wasn’t immediately clear why. We at The Escapist had been trying to get interview time with Nintendo for weeks, but with no luck. Not because they didn’t want to talk to us, but because of what they didn’t want to talk about.

The company announced last week that they’d be initiating a secondary stock offering, precluding any discussion about future plans. Which, considering what conferences – and keynotes – are often about, makes one wonder they’re doing here in the first place. If they can’t talk about the future, what can they talk about? We were soon to find out.

But not soon enough. Half an hour into the scheduled time, and still – no Miyamoto. Thankfully the assembled crowd hadn’t taken up the chant “Nintendo, Nintendo, Nintendo,” but many – this writer included – had started to doze, dreaming of the extra time we could have spent over breakfast, and dreading the pinched schedules ahead of us. A half hour may not seem like much, but at a busy show like GDC, it makes a hell of a difference.

And yet, all thoughts of holding that against the company fled as soon as Miyamoto took the stage. He’s just too cute to stay mad at long. The giant screen at center stage illuminated, revealing a Wii Menu, and someone holding a Wiimote built a Mii to resemble Miytamoto. The lights came up on the smiling, impish man, and the crowd, literally, went wild.

And stayed wild. The rest of the keynote was punctuated by frequent, raucous whoops and illuminated by incessant flashbulbs. As if every word out of Miyamoto’s mouth, every image shown on the screen, was gold. And really, that’s the key of this company’s success. Nintendo, like Apple, has established a brand identity not unlike that of a cult, and its consumers are more than fans, they’re believers.

Miyamoto began his speech with a tour down memory lane. Legally, he can’t talk about the future, so he talked about the past; his past, Nintendo’s past and ours, as gamers.

Using the giant screen and a Wiimote, Miyamoto showed us pictures of games from our past, pictures of his garden, and pictures of us, as young gamers. Picking up the theme established well before GDC, in numerous keynotes at numerous industry events across the country, and echoed by Sony’s Phil Harrison on Tuesday, Miyamoto stressed the importance of expanding the audience, breaking into that realm where people who don’t play games live, and getting them to play games.

He introduced what he called an important concept, the “Wife-o-meter.” Which, according to Miytamo, expresses one variable: the interest of his wife. He then dissected historic milestones from gaming’s past, contrasting our (and his) excitement with a complete lack of interest from his wife. He described how, with games like Ocarina of Time and Animal Crossing, he managed to capture the interest of his wife, and the wife-o-meter began to rise.

Next step: Nintendogs. And as Miyamoto showed off pictures of his own dog, and made jokes about how the dog sleeps on a better mattress than he does, I found myself slipping into the cult. Because, even from the outside, one has to admire the affability of this generous Japanese man. This man who’s brought us so much joy through creations like Zelda and Mario, and who, it would appear, is not trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but instead merely sharing the joy in his heart with the entire world, through games.

The dog’s face, he says, showing a close-up of the collie, looks like a guitar pick. So they named him Pick. And having played the man’s games, experienced the wonders hidden in every nook and cranny and lost countless hours and days to living in his game worlds, I feel like I somehow already knew that. Of course the dog is named Pick. Of course.

Brain Age moved the wifeometer near the top. And now she brags to him about how she can beat him at his own game. “And she’s right,” he says, laughing. “She is better than me.”

The rest of the keynote played out like an after-action report on Nintendo’s development of the Wii. Miyamoto described the stress within the organization as various R&D groups fought over how to move the company’s console hardware forward.

“No one person at Nintendo is responsible for developing any controller,” he said, center stage, with the Nintendo logo over his shoulder. “That’s not how it works at Nintendo. It’s a group effort.”

“As a controller,” he continued, “the Wiimote does a lot of what I have dreamed of for many years.”

He then went on to describe innovative technologies developed by Nintendo for a Kyoto museum. On the whole, the keynote read more like an investor presentation than a game conference keynote, and again, since they can’t talk about their future, it only makes sense. Nintendo is riding high right now, and on the eve of their stock offering, they have a lot to brag about.

And maybe it’s right that they appear to not really know where they’re going in the future. Having turned such a sharp corner – from being number three to number one – so rapidly, maybe it’s right that they take a moment to stop and smell the mushrooms.

“I believe my image of a happy player’s face is a good match for Nintendo.” And there were a lot of happy faces looking up at him this morning. In spite of the fact he was late. And really, that’s the story of Nintendo in this generation, isn’t it? They may have been late to the party, but they’re here now. And this round, as Reggie suggested, appears to belong to them.

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