Sunday, January 26, 2014


Where We're Going

If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?

I don't talk about the X-Box much on this blog because I don't much give a fuck about it.  That may sound like just an off-handed spitball from a Nintendo fanboy, but it's also Microsoft's problem.

The narrative so far is that Sony released the Playstation 2 in a bid for total entertainment supremacy -- it was a stealth package designed to get DVD players into the homes of the masses.  Since Microsoft had their sights set on the same goal, they decided to head Sony off by releasing their own game box.  The plan was, they would lay down inroads and build up a market identity and customer loyalty that would pay off when they were ready to transition to the living room everything-box.

And they went all-in with the idea.  Microsoft had a negative reputation with quite a lot of people for various reasons when the first X-Box debuted in the 00s.  Console gamers didn't want to see Bill Gates squeasle his way into their domain.  But Microsoft was willing to buy their way in.  Not satisfied to wait for Sony to do something stupid and pass them the baton, they convinced third party developers to get on board with lots and lots of money.  They sold at a loss.  They took the hit because they could afford to and because they figured it would pay off down the road.

And it did!  As the Playstation 3 struggled against Sony's hubris and Nintendo tried to find a new audience, the X-Box 360 just sort of quietly took over as the system of choice for people who just wanted to play a video game.  When it looked like Nintendo was going to throw a wrench in everything, they adapted with finesse.  Anything they can do, we can do better.  They went from being the barbarians at the gate to being the industry standard in just two console cycles.  Happily ever after, right?

The problem is, Microsoft didn't want the games industry; they wanted every industry.  And in hindsight, maybe trying to get there through video games wasn't the most efficient way to do it.

Yes, the X-Box has brand recognition, but it's brand recognition as a video game machine.  It's sold in toy stores.  It's in the same aisle as other video game machines.  The ads are all about the video games that you can play with it.  It's as if Xerox, known the world over for their photocopiers, decided to manufacture a photocopier with wheels and self-propulsion which could carry four passengers and all of their belongings -- in other words an automobile -- and sold it at office supply stores and all of the advertising was about how awesome it was at photocopying.

The problem is that people don't care about video games.  Sure, they'll play your Angry Birds, but they're not going to go out and buy a device built specifically for that reason.  They'll buy a handheld device that lets them take pictures and listen to music and check in on Facebook, and then if you also have Angry Birds, then sure, why not.  Gotta do something while you're waiting for your friends to reply to the video you just uploaded.

So people don't care.  People hear "X-Box" and they think "Halo", and then if they don't care about Halo they switch their minds off.  Even the name "X-Box" is kind of daunting to the average person.  It's the sort of word executives would invent to appeal to children back in the 90s, trying to associate themselves with X-treme cool rockin' gnarly shredders poppin' fresh grinds off the wiggidy wack I don't know whatever.  My point is it's a hard sell.  So we get hilarious moments like Microsoft trying to help men convince their wives to buy a perpetual adolescence machine.

But at least they've got the gamer segment of the market, right?  Well... yes and no?  Sure, you get the gamers who have the money and open-mindedness to just buy every damned thing that plugs into a TV, but then you get the people like me.  The brand loyalists.  Yes, Microsoft has a reputation in the industry now, but as long as gamers are still bickering playground-style about whose box is best, we're still talking about owning one segment of a small fraction of a much larger entertainment industry.

So I ask again.  If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?  If they weren't even going to carry over backward compatibility with old software, then why try to maintain continuity with something that has such limited appeal?

The market for set-top boxes is wide open right now, and ripe for the picking.  With streaming services like Hulu and Netflix becoming the new normal, people are ready to buy something to marry their TV to the Internet.  If Microsoft had seen this and decided to call their new console something with less baggage -- just call it the Kinect!  That's a great name!  It communicates something people want and in a friendly, almost silly kind of way! -- they could have had a huge head start over Sony and Nintendo, still fiddling around with machines that sound like toys.

There is a device in my home -- in fact there are two, for two different TVs -- which can stream Netflix, Facebook, Pandora, and YouTube straight to an HD television.  It can play Angry Birds Space, You Don't Know Jack, and Pac-Man.  It requires no discs.  It's small enough to fit in your hand.  You can buy it on Amazon for under a hundred dollars.  It's the Roku 3, and it is where we are going.

Gamers will laugh.  How is something that cheap and weak going to compete with our hobby?  We'll always want discs and huge $60 games and online first-person shooters.  We don't want the Ouya -- we want the X-Box One.

Sure.  We do.  But does everyone else?

Does Microsoft?

There were smartphones before the iPhone.  All Apple did was market theirs in a way that made them seem like a necessity.  There are microconsoles now.  What if someone with some clout -- Apple or Google -- realizes that the mass market is ripe for capture and produces something smaller, cheaper, and easier to use than an X-Box and markets it in such a way as to make it seem like a necessity?  What if it lets them stream video, check in on Facebook, listen to music, and sure, it'll play Angry Birds too, why not?

If Microsoft wanted to develop a set-top entertainment hub, then why did they name it after a video game console?


Friday, January 24, 2014



I just pointed out how awesome Nintendo did last year, so it should be no surprise that everything's gone to shit and Nintendo is over forever.

Let's talk about that.

People have argued for years about whether Nintendo was wise in attempting to court the casual market.  Gamers in particular have hurled their bile around, and aren't they puffing out their chests now that their predictions have come true.  That'll teach Nintendo to let soccer moms play video games!

But that's kind of a short-sighted analysis.  I think people forget that Nintendo hasn't been anyone's darling since the Super NES days.

The Story So Far

The NES arrived at a time when people had written off home video games as a brief and curious fad.  Its success was due to a lot of factors.  It was a capable machine.  Nintendo set a new bar for video game quality.  It had a very successful marketing campaign.  But it also enjoyed a market with barely any competition.  After the market crash, companies weren't sure if a new game console could succeed, and nobody wanted to be the first to stick its neck out.  So Nintendo had the risk of entering what was seen as a hostile environment, but they had the advantage of being the only game in town.  So when they succeeded, they succeeded hard.

The Nintendo Seal of Quality set the tone for the industry for the next decade or so.  It was a smart move -- the market crash had come about, in large part, because a lack of quality control and a flood of half-assed product had lowered consumer confidence.  But it also put third-party developers in a bind.  Nintendo dictated who would develop, how many games they could release, how many cartridges they could produce, what content was allowed in their games -- Nintendo could even prevent third parties from making games for their competitors.  You could argue that this contributed to a healthier environment compared to, say, the Atari 2600, but it also limited the options that developers had.  Not that they could do anything about it; Nintendo was the only game in town.

Sega and NEC tried to chip away at Nintendo's dominance, but it wasn't until the mid-90s that a true seismic shift began in the industry.  Nintendo was getting ready to unveil Project Reality -- the Nintendo 64 -- and long-time developer Square decided to bail.  They didn't want to eat the development costs associated with cartridges and took their business to the CD-based Playstation.  And Final Fantasy VII became a phenomenon in the industry.  It set the bar with full-motion video and orchestrated music, not to mention an involved and mature storyline.  Even if the Nintendo 64 had better hardware and could kick the Playstation's ass in the real-time graphics department, the enormous amount of pre-rendered content that could stream from CDs gave the Playstation the perception of superiority.

Suddenly there was another major player in the industry, offering cheaper development costs and fewer restrictions.  It was like third-party developers finally had enough of their abusive relationship with Nintendo and found someone else who could support them.  There was a snowball effect.  Developers moved to follow the Playstation's audience, which attracted a larger audience, which attracted more developers.  And Nintendo found themselves holding a console that nobody wanted to develop for and, consequently, nobody wanted to buy.

And boy, did they ever fight to get that gaming audience back.  They got down on their knees, hat in hand, to make deals to get third parties to come back to the Gamecube.  The problem was that the Playstation had won the brand recognition trophy in the last console generation, and their audience migrated over to the Playstation 2.  So it didn't matter if Nintendo got Capcom, Konami, or even Square to bring their games to the Gamecube anymore.  Playstation owners knew that their console was the industry standard, the first place that anyone was likely to release a new game.  Even if Nintendo got an exclusive deal here and there, Playstation owners were not starving for games.  They could wait for exclusivity to end or just enjoy a different game in the same genre.  Add to Nintendo's woes the fact that the industry had labelled them the "kiddy" console in an environment that was increasingly favoring the "mature".

This was Nintendo's position at the end of the Gamecube's run.  They were looking at a game audience that had a small but faithful slice of demographic that would always buy their new console, a depressingly large slice of demographic that would never buy their new console no matter what, and basically nobody undecided.

Really, looking for a new audience was the only move that made sense.

Who Bought the Wii?

People like to say that the Wii's success came down to the "casual audience".  And maybe Nintendo themselves even believed that.  I think that was a misunderstanding.

The Wii went gangbusters because of Wii Sports.  Follow that up the next year with Wii Fit, and it was a one-two punch.  Then Wii Music bombed, and everyone gasped in amazement.  What happened?!

Well duh.  Exercise.

You show people playing Wii Sports, and they're standing up, swinging around, moving their bodies.  People go, yeah!  Exercise!  You show people doing yoga on a Balance Board.  People go yeah!  That looks easy!  I'm gonna get fit!

You know it's true.  You know that there were well-meaning parents who saw these ads and thought, "Well, if little Billy has to play these video games, then at least they should be games where he's standing up and moving around."  Parents find it easier to buy a toy if they think it's going to be good for their kids in some way -- if it's going to teach them or get them active or something.  And people buy all sorts of exercise junk for themselves with the best intentions of self-improvement.  This was the real Wii audience.  People who thought, with or without evidence, that they were buying an exercise system.

The problem with Wii Music isn't that it appealed to a casual audience -- it's that it didn't appeal to a casual audience.  People don't want to be musicians.  I mean, granted, Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but those are more like a karaoke experience -- you get your favorite songs, and you play along with them. People don't want to be musicians.  They don't want to sit down and jam.  They don't see the point of basic musical expression unless they're aping someone they heard on the radio.

Nintendo's biggest problem is that they got everybody's attention, but then they ran out of tricks.  I think they were really counting on Wii Music to be a hit, something that would prove the Wii was more than just Wii Sports.  Instead, they fell back on what had already worked -- a new Wii Sports, a new Wii Fit.  But by that point, the shelves were glutted with sports and fitness games for the Wii.  Diminishing returns sets in.  There's only so many times you can find satisfaction in buying the same experience.

I really think the Wii Vitality Meter could have been big, but it missed its window of opportunity.  If there's one thing everybody agrees on, it's that our lives are way too stressful.  If Nintendo could have found a way to capitalize on that -- if they could have released that meter and packed in some software that could claim to be specifically designed to help you revitalize and relax -- I think people would have bit.  But it needed to come out while people were still excited and thinking about the Wii.  It could have been a sustaining factor.

I think they also underestimated the importance of Wii Ware.  When Apple released the iPhone, they got people to visit their online store with a major advertising push.  "There's an app for that!"  Nintendo... sort of counted on people to just click around the screen at random and happen on the store icon?  Couple that with a tiny ration of system storage, and you've got a feature that's doomed to be forgotten.

This could have been huge for a casual audience.  Put out ads, tell them that they can download new games for a couple of bucks.  Fill your store with quick arcadey stuff.  Support the concept yourself.  I remember seeing some of Nintendo's ideas like Flingsmash and thinking, "That'd be a great Wii Ware download, but I'd never pay full price to see it on a disc."

Is the casual audience fickle?  Maybe.  They're not going to buy what they perceive to be the same product over and over again.  Certain ideas speak to them more than others.  They're a market, not an alien blob.  It's possible to figure out what they'll buy and then make those things.  You might even want to do this if you're a company that produces things in order to sell them.

How Do You Sell the Wii U?

Look, I understand that it's easy to be a Monday morning armchair quarterback about these things.  I'm not blaming Nintendo or saying I would have done anything differently or better.  But if your only takeaway from the Nintendo story so far is "Nintendo's failing because they tried to get the casual audience", then you're limiting yourself.  It's a long, sad story of hubris, comeuppance, and missed opportunity.

I hate to say it, but I feel like the Wii U is a misguided product.  Nintendo figured that they surprised us last time with exercise games, so this time they're going to surprise us with a tablet controller.  The problem is, a tablet is the opposite of a surprise right now.  Yes, it's more sophisticated than just "playing Mario with an iPad", but Nintendo has failed to communicate that to us.  It looks like playing Mario with an iPad, so that's our takeaway.  They made the tablet their focus, and that is a dumb thing to focus on right now.

So... good software?  Make some awesome games, and people will buy it?  The fact is that Nintendo fired all of their biggest guns this year -- Pikmin, Zelda, Mario, Wii Sports, Wii Fit -- and the net result was Wii U projections down over 66%.

I don't know if the Wii U is worth saving, but I don't think Nintendo has any choice.  I think they're going to have to ride out the next four years or so and just come to the party with something better next time.

So they're going to have to advertise.

The Wii succeeded because they found one thing with mass-market appeal and built their identity around it: active games.  Now they need to figure out what the Wii U's identity is going to be.

Here's a thought.  It's cozy.

They called it the Wii U.  Tell people that.  It's for you.

Show someone snuggled up on a comfy armchair under a reading light with a cup of coffee, playing Dr. Luigi Virus Buster on the tablet.  Or surfing the web, or watching Netflix.  Remember what I said about our lives being stressful and everyone wanting to relax?  Turn the gamepad into this little thing that's just for you, your reprieve from the outside world.  I know Nintendo is big on turning gaming into this social event in the living room, but people want to hear that it's okay just to do something for themselves once in a while.

"Make Some U Time."  There's a tagline for you.

To hear Satoru Iwata acknowledge that Nintendo needs a new direction is not necessarily bad news.  I just hope they pick the right one.


Tuesday, January 07, 2014


Super Mario 3D World

I just got done lauding Super Mario 3D World as one of the reasons 2013 was a good year for Nintendo fans.

Let's talk about what's wrong with it.

The great thing about New Super Mario Brothers on the Wii and the Wii U is how accessible it is.  The basic multiplayer mechanics are kind of a stroke of genius.  They seem so obvious that you wonder why nobody made a simultaneous multiplayer platformer that worked like this before.  Less experienced players can come along for the ride, do the parts they're capable of, then pop into a bubble when the heat is on.  More experienced players can clear the way for them.  And if, along the way, you get in each other's way, unintentionally hit each other with turtle shells, hey, that's all part of the fun.

Ever since Nintendo made headlines for getting ordinary people to try video games again, they've been talking about making "bridge" games.  Games that are satisfying to the hardcore gamers with thirty years experience in staring at television screens while barely moving their thumbs, but still accessible to people with jobs and social lives and stuff.  New Super Mario Brothers is a perfect example of how to do this, and it's done so well that it looks effortless.  It doesn't feel like something that was argued out in a boardroom; it feels like it just happened all on its own.

And, at first, Super Mario 3D World looks like an improvement on these ideas.  All players share a common pool of lives, so there's no more situations where a player has to sit out until a level finishes.  Extra items are kept in a collective stock that's accessible at any time, so no more having one player scoop up all of the items -- intentionally or accidentally -- and leaving the rest to starve.  And the bubble mechanics have changed -- the last player out can't bubble, players can't bubble in midair, and a player can pop his own bubble at any time.

Then you get to the first Bowser castle and find out you haven't collected enough green stars.

No.  Just... no.

Although 3D World is a game with three-dimensional level design, it's not laid out like the free-roaming, exploration-heavy worlds of, say, Super Mario 64.  It's more like a regular Super Mario Brothers -- the levels are largely linear obstacle courses, and your challenge is simply to get to the end.  As in the New Super Mario Brothers games, there are three macguffins -- here, green stars -- sprinkled through the levels in hidden or difficult-to-reach spots.  But unlike in New Super Mario Brothers, the game will stop you from time to time if you haven't collected enough of them.

This was annoying enough in the single-player Super Mario 3D Land -- and in fact, at one point I got sick of it and put the game away for a few months -- but to be playing through this game with my family, clearing one level after the next, laughing and having a good time, only to be stopped and told, "No.  You've been doing it wrong.  Go back to the start and do it again, and this time do it right."... It's a total buzz-kill.  We don't get to see what's next -- we have to go back and retry the levels we've already done.  And the levels are laid out to invite you to run to the end, so I have to stop us from time to time and remind us that we're not in this level to have fun, we have to stop and scour this area for green stars.  Suddenly our game night party game is a dull chore.

Three-dimensional platformers are already unfriendly to casual players.  Add that extra axis of movement, and suddenly it's that much harder to judge your position, your momentum, where you're trying to go, all of that.  I hear anecdotes about people who were big Mario fans until Super Mario 64 came out, and then they just sort of cooled on it all at once.  And I'm certainly seeing that in my family -- someone misjudges a jump and falls into a pit and blames "the fucking 3D".

Why would you add to that frustration?  When a player finally gets his head around a level and gets to the end, why do you make them turn around and make them do it again, and this time make sure that you visit all of the hard parts that just looked like bonus challenges at the time?  It's not like these tollgates require an insignificant number of stars to pass.  I haven't done the counting, but in our efforts to progress in the game, there have been very few stars that we've been allowed to skip.  What's worse is how many of these necessary stars are stuck in single-player "bonus levels" where no one else is allowed to participate -- all they can do is watch on, passively, as I maneuver around these tiny puzzle boxes.

This isn't how you make a "bridge game".  I'm sure it appeals to the hardcore gamers to be challenged to repeat levels they've already conquered with extra objectives to complete, but when I'm playing with my casual family, I just want everyone to have a good time, cross the obstacles, and get to the end.  I want them to be able to interact with the levels in their own way and at their own pace.  If you want to have the green star challenge, make it optional.  If you want to reward the players who complete it, do what they did in New Super Mario Brothers -- make a World 9 that takes place after the main game is complete and let them open up even harder levels with the stars they've found.

Everything else about Super Mario 3D World is pretty great.  And now that we have enough green stars to access all of the levels, maybe we'll go back sometime and give it another shot without that pressure on us.  But right now, I'm feeling a little burned out on it.  We've gone back to New Super Mario Brothers U.


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