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.


Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?