Nintendo Courts Developers

You’ll have to forgive game developers if they feel a little bittersweet about Nintendo’s runaway success with its Wii game console and DS heldheld.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s message at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco? Don’t give up on us.

Nintendo unveiled a new user menu for the Wii that will let people store content on SD cards with up to 32GB capacity. Old arcade games for the first time also will be available for download through a feature called Virtual Console Arcade. Both would be available immediately.

But much of Iwata’s keynote was devoted to courting software developers in a bid to keep Nintendo’s sales humming. Iwata announced today that the Wii has shipped more than 50 million units so far, confirming analyst predictions that it is on pace to surpass Sony’s Playstation 2 as the most popular game console in history. The DS, meanwhile, has shipped more than 100 million units.

Such success is hard to ignore, but game developers have struggled with the fact that most of the top-selling games for Nintendo’s platform have been Nintendo’s own. Iwata pointed out that seven third-party publishers, including Electronic Arts, Sega and Ubisoft, have sold more than 1 million copies each of particular titles.

Even so, Microsoft and others have stoked perceptions that Nintendo is the only one raking in the dough from its platforms.

“I do understand this concern,” Iwata said in his first keynote appearance in three years. But he noted that any developer who comes up with a good idea to advantage of the unique features of the Wii and recent Wii Fit Balance Board can succeed. (With perhaps a trace of pride, he also noted the balance board has sold nearly 15 million units—on par with overall sales of the standalone PlayStation 3 console).

There is some credence to the argument that unique games for the Wii is the way to go. Many developers have been taking a one size fits all approach to the different platforms, offering the same titles on each with only minor tweaks to take advantage of things like Wii’s motion recognition and control technology.

EA recently acknowledged this mistake and has been pouring millions into developing new Wii-centric games. One promising new title I saw recently was EA’s Wii Sports Active, an exercise program that uses the balance board for cardio-centric health and wellness care.

To perhaps lighten the mood, Iwata spent the first half hour walking through Nintendo’s secret sauce for making successful games for the Wii and DS. Lead game producer Shigeru Miyamoto, Iwata says, often gets his inspiration from scenes of everyday life. He noted Miyamoto thought of the game Nintendogs after getting a puppy, and came up with Wii Fit after he started a new exercise routine.

That some small consolation for developers who don’t have a Miyamoto on staff. Yet, if developers focus on honing a core concept before trying to make a game look good they will succeed, Iwata predicted.

And since developers are the best ambassadors for Nintendo’s platform, the company ended the keynote by giving out free copies of an upcoming DS handheld game called Rhythm Heaven, which features simple music-based rhythm games.

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