SpeSkullations #12 – Dan Adelman racconta Nintendo, Indie, futuro e retroscena

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Many times we have talked about Dan Adelman, but rare are the occasions when he was so open about the past, present and future of his career. For who may not know him, Dan Adelman is one of the major experts and pioneers of the digital distribution. He started in Microsoft with the Xbox Live Arcade project, moving to Nintendo by following from the beginning DSiWare, WiiWare and ultimately Nintendo eShop.

Responsible for bringing most of the best indies onto Nintendo’s platform like World of Goo, Shovel Knight and many more, nowdays he follows the development of high-quality indie projects thanks to his experience in the industry, helping those project to be successful.

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1) After having worked with two of the best videogame hardware manufacturer, Nintendo and Microsoft, can you tell us what’s the difference in the indie game approach for the two?

It’s important to remember that when I left Microsoft in 2005, digital distribution was not as well-developed as it is today. The first version of XBLA, the one I worked on, wasn’t even built into the console. You had to put an XBLA Launcher disc in the Xbox and then run XBLA from there. So we couldn’t even digitally distribute the digital distribution platform! Around that time, the only people doing any kind of digital distribution were the casual games portals. Places like Yahoo Games, Big Fish Games, and a bunch of others. The problem was that a lot of those guys thought they had the business figured out just as it was getting started. I remember being in conversations where the portal owners would say that they’ve experimented with different price points, but $20 is the right one. Period. Doesn’t matter which game. Which was fine, since all of the games were more or less the same on those portals anyway. Just match 3, hidden objects, and card games. Back when I was working on XBLA, it was originally envisioned to be a casual games portal on a console.

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The landscape is now very different, and I think both Nintendo and Microsoft have evolved in different ways. When I started WiiWare, I wanted it to be a showcase for experimentation and innovation in games since that was sorely lacking around that time. Nowadays, there are just so many new types of gameplay being developed that all of the platforms all seem to want to attract the best of those games. To get back to your original question, I think the difference in approach is a lot about how to attract those games. Nintendo’s approach is to lower barriers to make sure as much content comes in as possible to maximize the chance that the next big sleeper hit is on Nintendo platforms. So it’s not so much about curation as it is casting a wide net. There are processing costs to worry about, though, so there are some limitations in terms of how many games they can put out and by how many developers.

I get the impression that Microsoft’s strategy is more about having only the best games on Xbox One. I get the sense that they’re trying to be more selective about who gets let into ID@Xbox, and then who within that group actually gets dev kits. Not to put any words into their mouth, but it seems as if their approach is to say that they can tell with pretty high certainty which games are the ones that matter – so just focus on those. So maybe some of the games they choose won’t sell very well, but that’s better than having hundreds of shovelware games. And they may also miss out on a few of the biggest hits of the year, but they can always go back and get them later if it’s important enough – like they did with Minecraft. Again, this is pure speculation on my part, but I can totally imagine the conversation going on along those lines.

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2) What was it like working in a company that had some conceptual limits on important subjects like the region lock?

A lot of people see me as something of a crusader against region locking, but all of that is based on one offhand comment I made on Twitter. I used to live in Japan, so having both a US and Japanese machine was a hassle when I wanted to play games from each region. So I totally sympathize with people going through that now. But that said, I live in the US now, and most of the games I want come out here first, so it doesn’t impact me as directly anymore!

So region locks were one conceptual limit that I found to be out-of-date. There were others, just like anyone at any company will identify areas they’d like to improve. I’ve talked in the past about how I think there are some modern best practices in terms of online gaming that I’d love to see Nintendo adopt. All of that said, Nintendo has been way ahead of the curve in a bunch of other areas, so it’d be unfair just to focus on the areas where they may not compare as favorably. For example, Nintendo was the first console platform to let indies self-publish without the need to go through a concept approval process. Nintendo gave indie developers more or less complete freedom to set their prices. And Nintendo was the first platform to do a deal with Unity to cover all of the license fees for the platform. Now both Sony and Microsoft have adopted this.

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3) Have you ever had the occasion to speak to Reginald Fils-Aime about this?

I’ve had many meetings with Reggie about topics like this. Unfortunately, there are limits around what Nintendo of America, as a subsidiary, can impact. Reggie and others at Nintendo of America may provide a list of changes they’d like to make, but all of the actual changes would need to be made in Japan. Nintendo Japan is very open to feedback, but ultimately that’s where the final decisions get made.

4) What do you think about him as a President and his approach with third party developers and indie?

It’s no secret that the Wii U install base isn’t doing as well as everyone would like. I don’t think it’d be fair to lay that all at Reggie’s feet. It’d be one thing if the console was doing well in Japan and Europe but not the Americas, but that’s not what’s happening. As President of NOA, Reggie ultimately oversees American third party developers, publishers, and indies, but there are groups under him that work much more directly with them. Reggie relies a lot on the people who focus on that on a daily basis.

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5) When working in Nintendo did you have the opportunity to work however you want, despite some conceptual boundaries, or you had to stick to some protocol?

There were some limitations, of course. I didn’t have a big budget that I could use to guarantee sales for developers who bring their games to Nintendo platforms for example. There were also worldwide policy decisions that were handed down by Japan that I couldn’t really change. As an example, in the WiiWare days, we had a policy that said that games needed to reach a minimum sales number in order to qualify for rev share. It became very apparent very early on that that was a bad idea, but ultimately it stayed. Another example is how DSiWare games had to be one of 3 prices: $2, $5, or $8+. It was built into the UI of the DSi, so there was no changing that. There are lots of other examples, but I think you get the idea.

 But in terms of which developers I wanted to talk to, how I wanted to talk to them, what I wanted to achieve with the digital distribution business, I had very little oversight. I basically did what I wanted, which was really great. I think a lot of people thought of digital distribution as an experiment for the future, so not many people actually paid attention to it during the WiiWare and DSiWare years. Once the 3DS and Wii U launched, it was much more apparent that this was going to be a bigger part of the overall business, so a lot more people suddenly got involved.

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6) I have always liked your indie friendly approach and your motivation regarding the eShop and its being a service for the developers, what was the plan for the future improvement of the platform?

Thank you! As I mentioned, Nintendo now fully recognizes that digital distribution and indie games are going to be a big part of the future of the business. They formed some new groups to facilitate that, manage the merchandising of the eShop, and integrate it into other established processes. I think a lot of people are recognizing that from a third party perspective, most of the best games are coming more from indies than traditional publishers. So during the WiiWare and DSiWare years, it could be a bit of an uphill battle to get people to make their parts of the business indie friendly, but nowadays I think pretty much the whole company knows how important indies are. They’ve already made some big changes like getting rid of that minimum sales threshold from WiiWare and the idea of only 3 possible price points from DSiWare. The requirement that developers had to work out of an office that’s separate from their home is gone too, so overall the company is a lot more indie friendly.

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7) I, as you may understood, am a big fan of what you did at Nintendo, and several times I wrote that I’d see you in a couple of years at the head of Nintendo of America. Have you ever thought about this position or future for your carreer?

Ha, that would be crazy, wouldn’t it? If they ever offered it to me, I’d definitely consider it – not that I ever expect that to happen! At a fundamental level, I have a few things that I want to do with my career. The biggest is to have as large and as positive an impact as possible on the games industry. I’ve loved games my whole life, and I still feel like I’m living a dream being able to work with all of these people I look up to. At first just being in the games industry was enough for me, but a couple years after I got my first job in games at Xbox, I realized that I was just another role player in a large organization, working on projects that were assigned to me. If I weren’t doing that role, someone else would. I was very fungible. So it was around that time that I started thinking about how I wanted the games industry to be better for my having been in it – which led me to support the indie movement in such a big way. Whoever is head of Nintendo of America has an enormous opportunity and responsibility to drive that positive impact on the industry.

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8) What are your future plans?

Right now I’m really happy being independent. I’m still a bit in the honeymoon phase of being able to set my own schedule, be around my family so much more, and work on projects that I’m personally really excited about. There are definitely some downsides that are just becoming apparent – like how everything stops if I’m traveling, or how I have to handle a bunch of the boring stuff like taxes myself – but overall I really enjoy what I’m doing. As of right now, my total income since leaving Nintendo is all of $200 – an honorarium for speaking at a conference – but I’m hoping that the projects I’m working on will be successful enough that I can keep doing what I’m doing. Aside from having a positive impact on the industry, my other big goal of myself is to keep learning, so as long as I feel like I’m learning new things and growing – and can pay the bills, I’ll want to keep on working with indie developers to help them be successful.

9) The decision of leaving Nintendo was all yours?

Yes, all mine! I think in interviews it’s all too easy to focus on all of the negatives of a place – because those are the areas in most need of improvement – but overall Nintendo is a great place. They have been very supportive of me and what I’ve wanted to do. I remember when I told my boss, he told me he was in shock for a couple days. But once the shock died down, he completely understood why I made that decision. Just last week he gave me a call to check in on me and make sure I was doing okay, which I really appreciated. I’m really looking forward to bringing a game to Nintendo platforms so I can work with all of my old co-workers, albeit from the other side of the table.

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10) Is there an indie developer that you feel you left behind due to Nintendo’s pressure on your behaviour?

Well, it kind of depends on what you mean. There were definitely some developers I wanted to do more for but couldn’t because I didn’t have full control of the budget and all of the policy decisions. Like I mentioned, if it were up to me, I would have gotten rid of the minimum sales requirement on WiiWare retroactively and made sure that developers who didn’t reach that threshold still got revenue from their games. Ultimately the organization decided not to do that, though there were passionate arguments from multiple people on both sides of the issue.

 But that was years ago. If you’re asking whether there are any developers currently working on eShop games who won’t get the support they need because I’m no longer there, I think the answer to that is no. There’s a large team of people now working on the eShop. There was definitely a cultural shift in helping people who were primarily used to working with large publishers understand how indies are different and how best to work with them, but I think that change has more or less occurred. For many years, there were just 2-3 of us who really dealt with indies on a daily basis. Now there are far more – and they get indies in a way that the organization didn’t just a few years ago.

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11) What’s your best memory in Nintendo? And the indie game which you are most proud of bringing to Wii U or 3DS?

There were so many great memories at Nintendo! It’s hard to pick just one. One that definitely stands out was the first E3 when we showed the Wii. I had just recently left Xbox and still had a lot of friends over there. Many of them questioned my decision, especially in light of how the GameCube had sold. Having all of my old friends ask me to sneak them up to the front of the line was fantastic and very reassuring that I had made a good move.

 Another great one was having drinks with Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel the night before World of Goo launched. I felt quite emotionally vested in the game – even though I had nothing to do with actually creating it – and none of us knew if it would take off. We all shared the same mix of emotions of excitement and fear. Now that it’s a huge success and is often credited as being one of the core set of games that brought indies to a larger audience, it’s nice to look back on those days when the future was entirely uncertain.

12) How do you think your resignement will impact Nintendo’s indie support and viceversa?

The short answer is that I don’t think it will change much at all. Back before the Wii launched, indies were not a major part of the industry and weren’t on anyone’s radar. I take a lot of pride in my role in getting Nintendo to be part of that movement. It probably would have happened eventually, but if it’s not too immodest to say, I don’t think it would have happened as early had I not pushed so hard in that direction. But the market has changed so much since then. Nowadays there isn’t as much of a need for someone to impress upon the organization that indies are important. Everyone already realizes this. So toward the end, I felt like I was preaching to the choir. It was very gratifying to see that evolution take place, but by the end I didn’t feel there was much of a contribution that I was uniquely able to make. I felt my time was much better used to help indies figure out how they can be successful in such a competitive marketplace, since I want to make sure that talented developers can continue producing great games.

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13) What would you suggest Nintendo to improve their indie strategy?

There are a few things that I think all of the platforms can do better. As more and more of the business goes digital, transparency about sales potential is absolutely key. I urge all 4 major platforms – Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, and Valve – to share aggregated sales information so that developers can make informed decisions about how to allocate their resources. They obviously can’t share specifics about any individual titles, but it would be great to know what the unit sales and revenues are at the different percentile levels. What would it mean if my game were in the top 85% of revenue generators? How much money is that? It would be even better if they could break it down by genre, but even just lumping all indie titles together would be super helpful. Indie game sales tend to follow a hockey stick shape: the top 5-10% sell super well, but sales drop off very quickly for everyone else. I’m not sure how many developers realize this.

It would also be great to share demographic information about traffic on the digital storefronts. How many people buy games? How many people visit the shop? How old are they? Is it a few people buying all the games, or a lot of people each only buying 1-2 games? The more information that developers have, the better chance they have at making a decent enough living that they can make a career out of independent game development.

 So that’s for all platforms. For Nintendo in particular, I think one of the things that always sets the company apart is the unique attributes of the hardware. Back in the Wii days it was motion controllers. With Wii U, it’s the GamePad. I’d love to see Nintendo take a more active role in helping developers make games that fulfill the potential of the GamePad. Maybe by providing incentives for games that truly focus on new game mechanics using a 2nd screen. Maybe by hosting game jams to get developers playing around with new ideas. I think two years in people are still trying to understand the value of the GamePad. Nintendo 1st party games have done a reasonable job in showcasing it, but if you really want to see some great experimentation with new ideas, I think it’s important that Nintendo absorb some of the financial risk associated with supporting just one platform.

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