Interview: Nintendo of America's Dan Adelman
Posted by Darren Calvert
Meet the man who has shaped the face of Nintendo download gaming
Although he may not be a household name like Reggie Fils-Aime or Bill Trinen, Dan Adelman nevertheless plays a major role within Nintendo of America. He's responsible for shaping the company's download services and bringing the aforementioned classics to us. As manager of business development at Nintendo of America, his work is integral to the process of helping small developers release their games on Nintendo platforms, moving from an initial conversation to final completion and release.
As the only site to have reviewed every single downloadable title for Nintendo formats, we're naturally close to the development community, and over the years we've heard Adelman referred to in glowing terms. For example Alex Neuse from Gaijin Games told us: "his love of unique and new ideas seems right in line with what Nintendo values internally”.
With this in mind, Dan kindly agreed to discuss his role in overseeing Nintendo’s download services, the first generation of download games on DSi and Wii, and the move to 3DS and Wii U.
Part One - Wii and DSi Digital Stores
How happy are you with the Wii and DSi download services as Nintendo's first attempts at digital storefronts? How well do you feel they accomplished their goals?
I think we learned a lot as an organization about what it takes to compete in a digital distribution world. I think one of the biggest manifestations of this learning is in the improvements to the user interface in the 3DS and Wii U eShops as well as our efforts to make it super easy for consumers to find the games they’re looking for, complete the purchase, and start playing.
From a content perspective, I think the best games on WiiWare and DSiWare were among the best across all platforms of the last 4-5 years. World of Goo, Cave Story, the BIT.TRIP series, And Yet It Moves, MotoHeroz, Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. I could go on and on.
Have there been any times that you’d note as particularly challenging or rewarding during the WiiWare / DSiWare era?
Probably the biggest challenge was that it really wasn’t easy for people to tell which games were the right ones for them. There were so many games in there, but it was difficult for players to narrow down all the choices. By the way, before I forget, I should mention it was absolutely fantastic that you guys took the time to write up a review of every single game. It was a great resource for people who wanted to take the time to do their homework, but of course we can’t count on everyone to do that.
Another somewhat related challenge was that not every game was right for every player. We really wanted to create an environment where developers were free to make the kinds of games they wanted to make, but that kind of approach really needs a user interface that can support that. I think we’ve made huge strides on that front for the 3DS and Wii U eShops, and they’re getting better all the time.
As I mentioned before, though, that developer freedom had its upside too. There were some great moments in the WiiWare/DSiWare era where great developers were able to show what they could do. When I first met Ron and Kyle from 2D BOY, they were just scraping by financially. When those first reviews of World of Goo came in, I knew their lives were changed forever. And I take great personal satisfaction for having played a small role in that.
Something that plagued WiiWare was the 40MB file size limit (likewise with 16MB on DSiWare), locking out software like Super Meat Boy from the platform and raising ire among other developers, but the ceiling on the 3DS eShop seems to be considerably higher. Are you confident that similar complaints won't arise on the current systems?
The 3DS and Wii U definitely give developers a lot of headroom and flexibility in how they approach work on a project. As with every system, I’m sure we’ll eventually see people pushing our hardware to its limits, but they seem pretty comfortable working within the parameters.
And just a side note on Super Meat Boy. Regardless of platform, it’s still an awesome game.
Users have noted difficulty in navigating the layout and structure of the Wii and DSi storefronts, especially for browsing catalogue content. What are your thoughts on the accessibility and user experience of these services? What areas have you identified to improve on, and how do you plan on doing so?
In my personal opinion, the Wii U and 3DS eShops have some feature enhancements that make them a night and day better experience for consumers than either the Wii Shop or DSi Shop. Some of the key improvements are the ability to store your credit card information for easier purchasing, user ratings so you can see what other people thought of different games, and merchandising flexibility, so that we have the ability to show to consumers a variety of games they might like.
Part Two: Progress, 3DS and Wii U eShop platforms
Expectations for digital downloads now are entirely different from when WiiWare launched. What's the advantage for developers to come to Nintendo download platforms today, versus competing consoles or mobile devices?
One way we’re different is that I think we give developers a lot of flexibility and freedom. We don’t make developers pitch us their game concept in advance, and we don’t tie them down with exclusivity requirements. We really try to make the process as smooth and easy as possible.
In addition to that, for developers who choose to take advantage of it, our platforms offer a lot of functionality in a package that can’t be found anywhere else. For Nintendo 3DS that’s things like StreetPass, glasses-free 3D, and augmented reality capabilities. For Wii U, it’s things like asymmetric gameplay, Miiverse, off-screen gameplay, and the dual screen experience. Developers can take advantage of these features if it makes sense for their game, but don’t have to if they don’t think it makes sense. It’s great when people are inspired by the potential that some of our hardware features enable and design their game around that.
According to August sales figures, New Super Mario Bros. 2 sold more than 240,000 physical copies in North America. How has the digital version performed, as the first retail download title, both in comparison to the physical sales and to Nintendo's expectations?
We’re really happy with how the downloadable version is doing and are committed to releasing more 3DS and Wii U games both digitally and at retail day and date.
What’s your approach when it comes to getting independent developers on the eShop? Do you search out and actively court developers, or is it up to them to come to Nintendo?
It really goes both ways. We reach out to developers all the time. Over the years we’ve gotten to know a lot of indie developers so a lot of my communication is just checking in with them to see what they’re working on. They may be working on something that would be a good fit for 3DS or Wii U, or they may know someone else who is. It winds up being pretty organic. I think it’s much more important to establish a good relationship with a talented developer than pursue a specific game. If for some reason they feel the eShop isn’t a good fit for the game they’re working on, there’s always a chance it will be for their next one.
That said, there are so many developers out there that it’s impossible to know everyone or every game in development. Sometimes I’ll get contacted via social networks from someone I’d never heard of or a developer I know will introduce one of their friends. Some developers just send an e-mail to our general alias - eShop (at) noa.nintendo.com. As I mentioned, we try to make the process really straightforward, so some developers just read up on how to release games on our system and start the process on their own. In those cases, we follow up with them to make sure they have everything they need.
There’s also a ton of indie game fans at Nintendo, so a few people swing by my office from time to time to let me know about a game that they’re really excited about. A lot of times it’s something that I’m already in touch with the developer about, but other times it’s something I’ve never heard of, so I just reach out.
Along those same lines, if your readers are excited about a game and want to see it on a Nintendo platform, they should let the developer know that! Developers can be so focused on making their game that it may not have occurred to them or they may not have realized that there’s a market for their game there.
How receptive have developers been to 3DS eShop, and how important has their feedback and engagement been to developing the store since it launched?
Developers for the most part seem to be really happy with how their games are doing, and with the response they have seen from players. Some have even gone as far as to say that it’s one of the best kept secrets in gaming. Everyone seems to feel that the improvements over the Wii Shop and DSi Shop are huge steps in the right direction.
In broader terms, how did developer input and feedback inform changes to both the 3DS and Wii U shops? Were there any particular lightning rods from the first digital storefronts?
I think the lightning rods from the Wii/DSi generation were the same for developers as they were for us. We now make it a lot easier for people to find great games, complete the transaction, and get playing. We’re also trying to build a lot more flexibility into the systems so that we can keep adding functionality over time. The 3DS eShop has already seen a major update in how games are presented, and we’ll keep seeing more improvements over time.
Of the current generation of consoles, WiiWare is often seen as the lesser of the three digital storefronts. Have you noticed any hesitancy from third parties in starting up development of Wii U download software?
I can’t say I’m comfortable calling WiiWare the lesser of the three! WiiWare’s best games can go head-to-head with the best games on any other platform. I do think that it had a very different approach, focusing a bit more on smaller games and having a much more open process.
That said, developers really wanted to see what the UI would be like and whether it would be easier for people to find their games. It’s exciting to see that interest in developing for 3DS eShop has been increasing at a steady rate, and Wii U eShop already seems to be off to a great start.
Will Wii U be able to accommodate software sizes now common on competing console platforms?
Size shouldn’t be considered a gating factor for games on our platform.
How big an influence has the 3DS eShop been on the development of Wii U’s digital platform?
As you can see, they’re definitely closely related cousins. The 3DS eShop served as a starting point for the Wii U eShop, but there are some obvious differences in the platform that have to be taken into account. Pretty much all of the functionality of the 3DS eShop is in the Wii U eShop, and then some.
Are there plans for the Wii U and 3DS stores to integrate, share themes, or become one eShop brand?
Well we’re calling them both eShop. It’s just that one is the 3DS eShop, and the other is the Wii U eShop. Wii U users can see info in the Wii U eShop about 3DS games, but right now we don’t have any immediate plans to sell 3DS games via the Wii U eShop – or vice versa.
Can we expect to see downloadable demos becoming more widespread on the 3DS and Wii U eShops?
That’s really up to the developer. We don’t require developers to include a demo if they don’t want to. Making a demo is additional work, and not every game lends itself to a demo experience, so we feel that’s a question the developer is in the best position to answer.
We noticed that a lot of indie developers have a very high opinion of you personally, and many have stated that your enthusiasm for their games has been the driving force behind getting some key titles onto Nintendo formats. Do you consider yourself a gamer first and foremost?
That’s so awesome to hear! The indie community is really tight knit, and I’ve heard that my name comes up from time to time. It seems like so far it’s been primarily positive, which I take a lot of pride in. Deep down, I’m kind of a fanboy, so getting to hang out with my favorite developers, hear what they’re working on, and help them be successful is thrilling.
I remember last year right around the time VVVVVV came out on 3DS eShop, Tyrone Rodriguez from Nicalis, Terry Cavanagh and I went out to dinner. I got to pick their brain about Terry’s thoughts on the indie scene in London, whether innovation in and of itself should be a goal, and other game ideas they were working on. While we were waiting for dinner, all 3 of us had a competition to see who could beat the Veni Vidi Vici challenge on our 3DS. How awesome is that?
Where do you hope to see Nintendo’s digital stores in the future, and how crucial are they to Nintendo’s overall strategy? Do you have any personal goals to help push these services forward?
I want to be careful to emphasize that I’m speaking about my personal goals and experiences and not necessarily for Nintendo as a whole. About 8 or 9 years ago – well before I came to Nintendo – I started to become a little concerned with where the games industry was headed. It seemed that every game was carefully staying within the confines of its genre category, and after looking at a game for about 2 minutes, I felt I could pretty much tell what the game was all about and it started to bore me. And that concerned me on two levels. First, as a games industry professional, I was worried that if I was getting bored, people who had been playing games only a few years less than me would start getting bored as well. I was worried that the industry might be heading down a similar path as in the mid-eighties when the arcades died and the industry nearly collapsed. Second, on a more personal level, it concerned me that I just wasn’t enjoying my hobby as much anymore. Playing games started to feel like work and I rarely played games all the way to the end. So it was around that time that I started to feel like what I really wanted my own personal contribution to the games industry to be was to help foster innovation and shake things up. And that’s actually the reason I came to Nintendo about 6 years ago – this was about a year before the Wii launched, and I think the DS had just launched. I remember thinking at the time that I wasn’t sure if the Wii and DS were going to be successful, but I really appreciated the fact that Nintendo was trying to do something new, and I admired that approach.
That feeling still motivates me today. Now with digital distribution, the landscape has changed completely, and it’s possible for smaller teams to make really groundbreaking stuff. And now that even big budget AAA retail games are starting to go the digital distribution route, there’s less cost and therefore less risk built into the process. I’m hoping to see a bigger willingness on the part of game creators to test out new design ideas and continue pushing the industry forward. Of course, for that to happen, we need consumers to show that there’s a market for that.
We'd like to thank Dan Adelman for his time. We'd love to read your thoughts on what Nintendo's man said below, and you can read the opinions of the Wii U eShop launch developers in our series of Developer Interviews.