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What Nintendon’t: Nintendo’s Major Problems

Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata recently announced in an investor relations Financial Results Briefing (FRB aka a boring corporate meeting) that they won’t be doing a big keynote speech at E3 this year in June. Here’s what Iwata said about this year’s E3:

[box style=”quote”]There will be one closed event for American distributors, and we will hold another closed hands-on experience event, for mainly the Western gaming media… During the E3 period, we will utilize our direct communication tools, such as Nintendo Direct, to deliver information to our Japanese audience… mainly focusing on the software that we are going to launch in Japan, and we will take the same approach outside Japan for the overseas fans as well.[/box]

Despite how insufferably dull and management-speak the document is, it’s also fascinating to see how the top echelon of one of the world’s largest game and hardware publishers thinks it’s doing. Hint: good globally but biting ass in the non-handheld market in the States. The fact that Nintendo is not doing an E3 presentation means the following:

  • They literally don’t have enough to talk about.
  • There are no major announcements worth a national stage.
  • They’ve realize the US audience doesn’t care enough about them right now.

That last point is most evident in their Japan strategy. Nintendo isn’t a US-specific developer and has a global strategy, and by their own sales figures, are far more popular in their home country than overseas. The Xbox 360 has almost zero penetration in Japan over the last year, with the system pushing 1-2% of their hardware sales, with the Xbox versus 3Ds in the US at an almost 2-1 ratio in favor of Microsoft. Either this is a failure of Microsoft to get the Japanese market, or Nintendo has homefield advantage, with a staggering 53% of the total Japanese hardware market with just the 3DS. It shows they care way more about their handheld than their new console. They’re snowballing something that’s clicked with audiences.

link to the past 2

The 3DS is doing exceptionally well this year, with Nintendo pushing 30 million sales worldwide. The Wii U is not doing so hot, being outmatched by both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 during its holiday launch. Let’s put this in perspective: a brand new Nintendo console, their flagship product, was outmatched by 7 year old hardware and  their own handheld that does gimmicky 3D. This actually says less about the Xbox/PS3 and more about Nintendo’s struggling grasp on the US console market. You’d think the console after the Wii’s colossal success would be a fucking slam dunk.

Why can’t Nintendo get their act together? What’s their problem?

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The Wii U is boring.

“Hey, I have offscreen play and- where are you going?”

Post Super Mario 64 and Wii Sports, they’re short on innovation when it comes to games. Their hardware, however, tends to be risky and inventive. The 3DS is a good example of this. There’s no way to properly advertise its 3D functionality and yet the system still sold like mothertruckin’ hotcakes. The Wii U is new and untested, so it’s too soon to start talking doom on a system less than a year old. That doesn’t stop me from not even being remotely excited about it. The Wii U has GameCube Syndrome: a dull platform with few launch games that starts slow, never catches on, and will probably fizzle with mediocre sales unless they change a few things: the slow OS, lack of interesting apps, and lackluster social media integration.

The clunky gimmick of slapping an iPad between a Wiimote and a nunchuck doesn’t set me on fire. It’s uncomfortable to hold, and the idea of holding a pad up to the screen to do some ridiculous minigame also doesn’t sell me. It’s also a $300 system that’s released almost nothing but remakes from other systems with few exclusives.

Notice I keep using the word “gimmick.” It’s Nintendo’s bag. The Wii’s motion controller is a cheap marketing ploy, but it worked extremely well for certain audience. Nana and Pep-pep started playing them vidya gaems for the first time in their octogenarian lives. The Wii U doesn’t capture that casual audience at all. So they’re left with us regular gamers who look at the Wii U and collectively shrug.

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Nintendo is not serious about online play or digital sales on consoles (yet).

More like NintendoBLAND! BOOM! COMEDY!

That or they don’t know what they’re doing. This annoys the living shit out of me. With all the mobile game development and multiplayer goodness happening, it’s mystifying that Nintendo never figured out how to make their games truly online friendly. Mario Kart Wii and Super Smash Bros Brawl had robust online play, which really worked for them, but their shooters and sports games are, frankly, anemic. Nintendo has almost no online presence. Your Mii does not represent an online avatar the same way your Gamertag does.

Digital sales are another area where they shamble along, confused in lost in a Steam and XLBA centered world. They need to learn, quickly and painfully, that retail discs are slowly going bye-bye. The Nintendo eShop only has a handful of Virtual Console titles and still requires funny money (Wii Points) to buy stuff. There’s nothing on the Virtual Console or Nintendo eShop that screams for me to buy it. There’s more fun, free games available for my smartphone right now. It’s a dead zone of innovation and clunky, unintuitive purchase processes. Nintendo seriously thinks that 3DS’s and the fact the Wii U has the capacity to connect to the Internet means they’re in the 21st century when it comes to online play. They’re not. The PS4 is going to have the ability to stream your gameplay video to a friend live. I don’t think the ability to share drawings of penises you made on your Wii U pad is doing to knock that out. Wii U doesn’t even have a universal voice chat API and their current voice setup is just fucking weird.

Like this, only more complicated.

Miiverse is a step in the right direction, but it might be too little, too late. You can’t link in your social media accounts, and Nintendo is dead-set on online anonymity. There’s not even a choice. Also, there’s no killer app for online play in regards to Nintendo. No Mario Kart or Wario Ware. If you Google “Nintendo online play”, do you know what you get? Browser emulators for their classic games. They’ve made a paltry $182 million out of a global $10 billion digital market, but that’s still over 100% from last year. It’s shitty, but better smelling shit, I guess? They actually went out of their way in the FRB to point out you can buy Animal Cross: New Leaf in retail card form, effectively defeating the purpose of the digital download (not having to go to a store). They sold 3/4 copies of Animal Crossing: New Leaf this way, but they’re missing the point, obvious by this quote:

[box style=”quote”]We intentionally adopted different methods because… we thought that one of the biggest hurdles is the limited exposure of the digital download products. If only the consumers who proactively visited the Nintendo eShop were aware of the digital download software that we deployed, there would be no chance that our digital business would dramatically expand.[/box]

You want to know why that is? Because Nintendo don’t even really advertise that that stuff is actually for sale there. It’s tough to find things, hard to purchase, few releases and has lackluster products when you figure it all out. They haven’t built any sort of smart business model around online, such as them not supporting Call of Duty‘s Elite service or DLC packs for Black Ops 2. Bitches, CoD thrives on its expansions and online community. There must not be a critical mass of douchebags wanting to call each other fags hankering for a new Nintendo console. I can’t even visit the Nintendo eShop from my browser. At both XLBA and PSN, I can sign in, shop, and then my content is available on my system for download. Sigh.

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Their IP’s are getting stale. They need new blood from the indie scene.

Franchises older than the Napoleonic Wars.

Name me one unique feature of New Super Mario Bros Wii U that wasn’t present in a previous release.

Take your time.

Mario jumps, there’s goombas and coins. Bowser holds the princess hostage again. Oh, you can play with up to 5 people. Locally. The  big innovation? Bowser invades the castle as opposed to kidnapping Peach. That’s it. That’s the big change. They took their archaic, sexist idea and slightly changed it a bit. At least the 3DS is starting to take notice of its own capabilities, hence its popularity.

Sadly, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nintendo may be creatively bankrupt at this point internally. There hasn’t be a decent new first party IP for Nintendo since, in my opinion, Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword in 2011. Almost all of their 1st party games are retreads, sequels, crossovers, or ports. Is that a bad thing? Not inherently, because they make high-quality, polished games, but it doesn’t compete well with an indie scene that churns out innovative, genre-breaking surprises like The Unfinished SwanThomas Was Alone, or Limbo. Nintendo is running on the nostalgic fumes of its previous incarnations and it’s only innovation is to push things onto the 3Ds’s wow factor, like the new Link to the Past. That novelty will run dry at some point and they’ll be left to dredge up some old, tired franchises that haven’t seen the light of day since the Bush years, like Metroid, Star Fox, or even Fire Emblem.

Where’s our gritty reboot of GYROMITE where you have to fight R.O.B. in your living room with your bare hands?

Bringing in some of these indie darlings into the fold for a game design dust-up would be a smart move. They need a Braid to give the Wii U and 3DS some sorely needed juice in terms of game innovation, but right now Nintendo is indirectly hostile to indie developers by limiting what they can develop. The Binding of Isaac in the Wii was almost a possibility until Nintendo took offense at its religious content. They must not know that over a 1/3rd of Americans don’t even have a religious affiliation anymore.

This resistance to new blood communicates to me that Nintendo is still thinking it’s sailing on the high seas of the early 1990’s and late 2000’s. Bolstered by their success with the Wii, they’ve fallen into this trap where they think they can forge ahead in the wrong direction, ignoring all the evidence around them that they’re simply out of touch. The Wii was lightning in a bottle, hard to replicate mechanically. Having a few grubby student developers with interesting ideas hanging around, and giving us a digital-only “wow”  title, would help alleviate a lot of their woes.

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Growing Pains

Kick Cameron’s mullet. That is the important thing to take away from this.

I was a hardcore Nintendo kid. I was a flat-out fanboy. I specifically remember defending the Nintendo 64 against the PlayStation 1 so freakin’ hard it makes me cringe now to think about it. With the stumbling of the Wii U and their pathetic online presence, it seems Nintendo is making the same argument with its recent console decisions. Yet I grew out of it. They’re arguing that their lip service to online is good enough, and that retail is the future, and that 3rd party games and indie development don’t matter that much.

The most messed-up thing about this is that Nintendo are stellar game developers. They know how to make a fun, classic game (that often lacks originality), but they don’t know how to exist in this strange, scary online world were an indie game like Minecraft can dominate the conversation. Perspective: Minecraft has made almost more money last year than all of Nintendo’s online sales for the last 3 years ($250 million for Minecraft versus $279 million for Nintendo digital sales).

They simply need to understand that games are changing radically in a rapid way. Sometimes for the better, with amazing indie titles popping up everywhere, and not so good, with the spectre of always-online DRM always around the corner. The Big N can’t keep rehashing the same games with the same business strategy as 10 years ago. For example, with all its success with the 3DS, they haven’t done jackshit with smartphones. They’re trying to keep all their software and hardware in a closed system, and with the advent of online, connected games and communities, they’re going to hit the digital ceiling hard and fast if they don’t adapt. And with the Xbox 720 unveiling happening May 21st, Nintendo doesn’t seem to have the slightest clue on how to compete with these new boxes coming out. If they want to be a player in the next gen market, they need to mash the “Start” button asap.

Next Week: The first installment of “War Games”, my multi-week analysis of modern combat games.

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Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte

Carl Wilhoyte is the Video Games Editor of ScreenInvasion.com: a class warrior poet who writes about all things video games. He's sure everything is not under control and is not going to be okay. For a good time, follow his angry rants and smart thoughts on Twitter: @carlwilhoyte.