It seems like years since E3 ’06, when it’s only been a few months. As we struggle through the summer drought, it becomes simple to lose sight of the imminent and enormous change that is ready to overtake the entire gaming industry. We’ve had a good taste of the coming generation with Xbox 360, and while it has fared much better than the Dreamcast, round two is approaching quickly. In a few months, Sony will unleash its Playstation 3 entertainment powerhouse, and Nintendo’s Wii will finally be on store shelves. While there are plenty of questions about the PS3, Nintendo Wii seems to be gaining strength towards it’s release later this year.
As the Nintendo guy, I’m zeroing in on Wii. You might predict that I have a positive slant toward Nintendo and you would be correct. After all, developer support is the strongest in years, there’s a radical and compelling new dynamic to the console, and people are proably still standing in line to see the Wii in the LA Convention Center. So, it’s pretty easy to presume success for the House of Mario, right? Wrong. Not by a long shot. Today, we examine the question…”Could the Wii Fail?”
Dumb mistakes. Nintendo’s made plenty of them in the past. From cringe-worthy advertising to burning bridges with developers, the gaming veteran has hit most of the metaphorical potholes. Does disaster loom? Well, that all depends on the new Nintendo, the Satoru Iwata Nintendo, and if the risks he’s taking are right. Iwata has done a good job to cleanse Hiroshi Yamauchi’s imperialistic Nintendo image, making amends with scorned developers and paying some honest-to-god attention to the American market (Reggie, anyone?)
These improvements considered, the Wii is still Nintendo’s biggest risk since the NES. A massive philosophy change is sweeping the company, and here I’ll examine how disastrous it could be if the overhaul isn’t handled with the utmost care. Let’s look at some key elements of this new movement.
1: Bigger ideas, not bigger budgets.
Iwata stated that Wii will embrace more creative game concepts that haven’t been tried before, focusing on fresh gameplay instead of graphics. This seems like a good idea in principle, but a firm balance must be maintained. We need a healthy, diverse collection of software—the low-budget quirk games, the pick-up-and-play titles, and most importantly, the epics. The magnum opuses that fuel the industry and stir speculation must not be abandoned. Is Nintendo doing just that? Not entirely, but there is reason for concern.
As an example, Wii Sports garnered as much criticism as praise during its E3 showing, from diametrically opposed factions in gaming fandom. Nintendo loyalists were shouting rhetoric, while the PS3 fans from just across the way were smirking and guffawing at the simplistic visuals. Wii Sports is admittedly low-tech in its presentation, almost embarrassingly so.
However, the most telling response has come from Nintendo’s new target market: the non-gamers. E3 was dominated by gamers and gaming journalists, but I saw an older man and some other uninitiated passersby who were truly engrossed. Even some of the booth babes, hired to understand the game only to the extent that they could show someone else how to play it, couldn’t put Wii Sports down.
Do I think Wii Sports is a good idea? Certainly. But it has to be executed correctly. Nintendo can’t charge top dollar for this low-tech game, and they can’t expect the Wii to stand on simple content alone. It’d be perfect as a pack in, ingenious even; we Americans do love our sports, and what better way to get good old dad interested in video games? But when I, the gamer see it next to Metroid Prime 3 on the shelf—well, no contest.
On that note, we also shouldn’t be getting an overwhelming volume of simple games like Wii Sports. At least, they shouldn’t be crowding the displays at EB or Gamestop—they should be on the Virtual Console, but I’ll get to that later. Without masterpiece titles, Nintendo’s loyal following might actually start to dry up, for the first time since the 80’s. We need our Zelda, Metroid and Mario to keep us gaming long into the night. We need our Final Fantasies and Sonics to remind us why we love gaming. Some call it franchise stagnation; I call it nostalgia. And, there will always be a new generation of hardcore gamers to introduce to the classics (I didn’t know about Metroid until I played Smash Bros., and now Samus’s series is my personal favorite).
Iwata made a nice analogy: sometimes you don’t want an elaborate banquet, but a simple bowl of rice and soup. Quite true, but gamers do not live on rice alone.
Probability of Disaster: SmallSo far, we’ve seen evidence of a healthy balance, much like the one we have on DS. DS drew in hardcore gamers with the Mario 64 remake, but also slipped in Meteos, Nintendogs and Brain Age. The rate of female gamers on the DS is staggering, rivaling the early 90’s Game Boy Tetris craze. Meanwhile the top-tier titles, Mario Kart, Metroid Hunters, are satisfying the appetite of the hardcore. With a nice skew of gaming tastes, DS is sustaining two different demographics: old-school and brand new, never-before-touched-a-controller consumers. Wii seems to have the same lineup. Zelda Twilight Princess and Prime 3 will definitely make launch, with Super Mario Galaxy not long after, but Wii Sports will draw in the non-gamers, and titles like Elebits and the virtual console offerings will keep them playing. I only hope that Nintendo doesn’t start to cater to the non-gamers exclusively as we definitely don’t want the Apple Syndrome taking over.
2: Virtual Console.
The massive backlog of Nintendo games is potentially one of the Wii’s greatest assets—and an equally dangerous threat, if fumbled. Iwata has promised original content on the VC, the aforementioned simple low-budget games, and that’s great—we need an avenue for indie developers. But we also need our classics, just like a literary connoisseur needs Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby. And in the gaming sense of classics, that is where we hit our first major snag: the Virtual Console will be Rare-less.
That’s right. Perfect Dark, Banjo Kazooie, Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini, they’ll all be totally absent. Every IP owned by Rare will never see new life on Wii, but will more than likely show up on Xbox Live Arcade. For Nintendo, that is very bad. We all know that Rare saved the N64. You can talk up and down about Ocarina of Time, Mario 64 and the rest of the first party hits until you’re blue in the face. It doesn’t change the fact that a massive chunk of Nintendo fans cut their gaming teeth on masterworks from the UK developer.
For a practical example, I didn’t have the slightest interest in Nintendo until GoldenEye 007. Once I played that hallowed shooter, I was a Nintendo fan for life. GoldenEye was the hinging point for many fans, and without it, the N64 download section will feel fundamentally wrong. However, with the Bond license being tossed about in a mess of red tape, there’s a slim chance we’ll see GoldenEye anywhere soon, except right where it began: on that N64 cartridge you still have in your attic. But that still doesn’t give us the rest of Rare’s gold. About the only saving grace is Donkey Kong 64, as Nintendo still owns that property and Rare will grudgingly have to allow them to use it on the VC. The rest of those classic franchises are for Microsoft to do with as they please.
But not all is lost. Far from it, actually. The NES, SNES and N64 catalogues will go mainly untouched, with most, if not all of Nintendo’s first party software showing up eventually. Third parties are coming out of the woodwork now, with Sega going so far as to put their own Genesis titles on the VC. Hudson is onboard with their slim but good Turbografx-16 library. Here’s hoping Sega will include 32X and Sega CD games. The real problem is polish and porting. We’ve all seen crummy emulators, some of us know the inane hassles of getting them to work, and Nintendo could capitalize on that hassle by offering a much easier (and legal) alternative. A quick micro-transaction and you could be playing a fast easy game of Mario Kart 64 or Sonic and Knuckles. No plugins, no controller setups, just buy and play. This is where Nintendo’s double-edged sword of simplicity will serve them best.
But suppose they don’t go the extra mile, and give us a half-baked emulator? The demos at E3 were somewhat rough, with Mario 64 lacking anti-aliasing and Bonk’s Adventure looking rather grainy. PR people reassured us that the demos weren’t at all final builds, so hopefully we won’t be stuck with a worse deal than pilfering illegal ROMs from spyware-infested websites.
We also have the issue of storage. Wii’s 512MB of internal flash memory could theoretically hold every NES and SNES game, but only a few of the really big N64 titles. And we still have to take save games into account for the actual Wii software. Yes, there will be support for SD cards, but until I can hook up a beastly 120GB external hard drive, I won’t be completely happy.
That leaves the classic-style controller. I played around with it a bit at E3, and it takes some definite getting used to, but it’s serviceable. They’ve actually done a decent job on a pad that’s supposed to work for five console’s worth of games, with only the N64 controls feeling awkward. There might be some ergonomic add-ons for the VC controller, to make it more comfortable for N64 use. Just as long as they reposition that cramp-inducing Z button…
Probability of Disaster: MediumI say this because so many things could go wrong. Omitting the wrong games from the list or pricing them too high could spell doom. Decades-old software should be priced in the iTunes neighborhood of $1 or so per game; I’m not paying $20 for an N64 game when I can get the original cartridge at EB for half that price. Meanwhile the classic controller still has a ways to go before it fits like the proverbial glove. The absence of Rare will be felt deeply by all old-school Nintendo fans, the exact market that Nintendo is aiming for with the nostalgia-laden VC. The ability to use the near-perfect GameCube controller for all the downloadable games would solve several problems. The GCN saw many ports of older games—NES Metroid, Zelda: Link to the Past and Ocarina—so it can clearly triple team for Nintendo’s older consoles at the very least, and it shouldn’t have much trouble conforming to the Genesis and TG-16. Then they’ll need a significant storage option for the nostalgia buffs who want to download every last game they offer on the VC.
3: Third Party Support.
During Hiroshi Yamauchi’s long rule over Nintendo, the company took on a very isolationist strategy. Developing for Nintendo was considered a privilege, and if a developer didn’t like the strangling restrictions Nintendo put on them, well, they could hit the road. This approach worked at first—Nintendo had tight control over all of the games being developed for their home consoles. This made it easy to regulate their reputation as a family friendly company, as well as maximize profits. However, as competitors like Sega entered the market, Nintendo began to lose support. When Sony came along with the Playstation, a notoriously easy system to develop for, Nintendo began hemorrhaging developers and cash faster than energy from a ruptured Metroid. Sony’s friendly attitude and loose regulations made them even more appealing to developers. One of the heaviest losses was Squaresoft and their Final Fantasy series.
Yamauchi stood firm, declaring that Nintendo didn’t need Square’s help, he formed the Dream Team, a core of Nintendo’s best developers, and put them to work on the N64. Nintendo supported the N64 admirably, but the isolationism eventually cost them in the form of long delays between software and a relatively sparse library in comparison with the Playstation’s massive game lineup.
So, why the history lesson? Because current Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata is trying to reverse his company’s stubborn image and offer the hand of friendship to developers once again. Let’s see how he’s doing.
Admittedly, the GameCube saw a great gain and loss of development houses. Rare was taken out of the picture when they were purchased by Microsoft, Factor 5 stayed long enough to make two Rogue Squadron games and then went to the PS3, and Silicon Knights is now making the Too Human trilogy exclusively for the Xbox 360 exclusively ,with no plans for an exclusive Eternal Darkness sequel in sight. On the other side of the coin, Nintendo built up a great deal of support. After a very rocky start, Retro Studios braved the fire to become one of Nintendo’s most prestigious assets. One look at any of the Metroid Prime series will show you that. Capcom came back around, with Resident Evil 4 topping the charts as a CGN exclusive, at least initially. Kojima Studios is warming up to the Wii, with one unnamed title confirmed for the console and, above all people, Solid Snake in the new Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Clover and Grasshopper and hard at work on their twisted designs for Wii, which will no doubt be compelling.
But what about emerging support, new blood, so to speak? It seems there is plenty. NiBRIS, an indie Polish house is working on Raid Over the River for Wii and DS, and a psychological thriller called Sadness that will take place entirely in monochrome, much like Sin City. nSpace, a minor industry presence, made themselves known with Geist on GCN, and they have stated support for Wii (hopefully a sequel to the ambitious but under-appreciated Geist). Nintendo Software Technology, a new internal branch that proved themselves with Metroid Prime Hunters is moving up to the Wii with Project: H.A.M.M.E.R. Monolith surprised all with their edgy survival title, Disaster: Day of Crisis. Konami meanwhile is delivering Elebits, with other projects on the way. Lucasarts recently pledged support; maybe that lightsaber game isn’t an impossibility after all. Hudson has several new projects going at once. This is only a brief list of the people working on the Wii and the titles in the works.
Probability of Disaster: Small
That is, if the developers stay with Nintendo. The GCN had a healthy stable of support, but it dried up quickly due to the lack of online functionality and Nintendo’s “less is more” strategy in regards to graphics. The sparse opening lineup didn’t improve any reputations. Wii is in decidedly better shape, with a much more appealing launch list made by respected industry names. If the Wii and its ambitious concept work, most of the talent will stick around to produce successful second and third generation software. If not, well…we can always wait another four years for the next Zelda.
4: Nintendo Wifi Connection.
The NWC is an elegant, simple way for gamers all over the world to play together on some of their favorite Nintendo games. New titles, such as Star Fox Command, will support online play, and the DS is only better for it. There’s just one problem: simple and elegant may work for a portable, but it’s going to feel cheap and half-baked on a home console.
Mario Kart DS was a good starting point for Nintendo Wifi—it was a wildly popular franchise, one of the best DS games to date and it was multiplayer-centric. It was easy to dismiss its shortcomings, the lack of options, the exclusion of some levels, and above all a very limited matchmaking system. It worked, it proved the concept and paved the way for more complex online games. But Nintendo isn’t getting more complex, and their “safety first” mandate is strangling creativity.
I understand the fears of the Nintendo corporate brass. They don’t want kids exposed to perverts and deviants and all sorts of dangerous people on the internet. Lawsuits probably haunt the nightmares of these executives. After all, back in February ABC Action News did a sensationalistic (and wholly false) report on how pedophiles could use the DS to Pictochat-stalk children. So, for the safety of the children, we the gamers get stuck with the “Friend Code” system.
I’m not saying that friend codes don’t work, but compared to the server-based system we’ve had on PC’s for a decade, Nintendo’s way is stifling. In order to play with someone you know, you can’t simply look up their ID on a game, search for their callsign or browse the server that they frequent. You have to input their friend code, and then they appear on search lists. Your friend must also have your friend code in order for them to find you. And each game gives you a friend code, unique to that game. So you’re stuck swapping friend codes for every online DS game you own—even if you and your buddy known each others’ Mario Kart codes, the ones for Metroid are different, so you’ll have to go through the short (but annoying) input process again.
What’s worse, many of the cool online features on DS games like voice chat in Metroid Hunters or town visits in Animal Crossing are unavailable when you’re playing total strangers. This prevents trolls from ruining your town, but it also keeps you from good natured trash-talking between matches of Metroid. You basically have to know a person and have at least email contact to exchange codes—you can’t very well make friends online if you can’t ever find out who you’re playing. Metroid Hunters has tried to loosen things up a bit with their “Rival” list. Basically, it lets you flag opponents as rivals once the match ends, and if they do the same, they are added to your rival list and vice versa. You can see when they’re online, but you still don’t get their friend code.
The final blow comes from Nintendo’s friend code policy: it’s illegal to post friend codes on their forums. I know there are other fan forums dedicated entirely to the sharing of friend codes, but when the official forums ban the practice it just feels suffocating, and liability issues be damned.
So, what’s all this DS griping mean for the Wii? Well, the Wii is rumored to have the same exact system. For a company like Nintendo, who is trying to build a thriving online community similar to Xbox Live, this move is basically a self-inflicted shot to the foot.
Probability of Disaster: High
Nintendo has to streamline this concept, and in a good way, or they’ll be hurting big time. First of all, friend codes for each individual game should be replaced with a single code, similar to Xbox Live’s gamertags. That way only one swap is needed, and then you can compete with a person on anything from Red Steel to Excite Truck. Secondly, the issue of servers. It’s wonderful that so far the NWC has been completely free, with Nintendo running all of the servers. But that opened up other problems; there have been laggy nights and errors galore. To smooth things out, the Wii could act as a standalone server for moderately sized multiplayer games. I’ve run non-dedicated matches on my PC, and it’s hardly top-of-the-line, so I’m sure the Wii (and a moderate high speed connection) could handle Wifi games. That way, I could do a server search on my Wii similar to scanning the net for fan-run Unreal Tournament servers on my PC. Coupled with the Opera browser and an IM app, friends could tell each other when they’ll be playing, and swap friend codes easier. It isn’t the perfect system, but it’s better than the one they have now. The DS online play is fine within the limits of a portable—it’s amazing it works as well as it does—but for a home console, we’re going to need more of everything: features, options, games, and most of all freedom. If Nintendo doesn’t heed the warnings, they’re looking at a very stagnant online community.
5: Marketing.I sustain that if Nintendo does not come up with a miraculous ad campaign for Wii, the console will fall flat on its glossy white face. This is the big hurdle, the near insurmountable obstacle that means life or death for the Wii. Unfortunately, Nintendo doesn’t have a very good track record in regards to advertising.
Remember the NES Zelda rap ad? How about the Game Boy “Play it Loud” campaign? I’m sure you recall the N64 player’s choice shower room gem. Let’s face it: up until recently, Nintendo flat out sucked at marketing their products. There were a few good moments, but those are recent; the Metroid Prime series seems to have the good fortune of uniformly slick advertising. But for every good commercial there are five bad ones—I could barely tell that the ad for Zelda Majora’s Mask was actually for a Zelda game.
One typical problem is a scarcity of gameplay footage. Nintendo has always been reclusive with their details, and with their conservative stance on graphics they seem even less willing to show you what you’ll be playing. For Nintendo, it’s always been about the experience. That’s good in terms of gameplay, but conveying one person’s emotional response to a game is hard, and when Nintendo does it, it comes off as arty and bizarre.
The DS campaign is still suffering from the problem. Each game concept is introduced in a way that average people will understand, again Nintendo is reaching out to the non-gamers. As an example, the Mario Kart DS ad featured people all over the world throwing random objects into TVs that were showing a NASCAR race. The objects caused the cars to dodge and spin out. The emphasis was that no matter where you were, you could go online and influence the race in crazy, nonsensical ways. The ad ended with about five seconds of actual game footage.
I understand that ads have to be short, but acting weird only gets attention, it doesn’t spark interest (I haven’t eaten at Burger King since those “Bucking Chicken” ads started showing). As the old saying goes, you may have their attention, but you don’t have their respect.
Times seem to be changing at Nintendo, despite the continued artiste mentality. E3 had the most promising campaign yet, in the form of “Playing=Believing.” Nintendo had a really great idea, in that they emphasized how you played the game, as much as what you were playing. The booth babes were going on about how you should watch the players’ hands as well as the screens. It worked well in person, but in print (and I suspect on TV) it needs some tweaking. The print ads all have game screenshots, but down in the corner is a picture of someone holding the controller in a dramatic position, like swinging a sword or golf club.
This is an interesting approach, but it drips of excess. All of the people are “slice of life” kind of models, the age/race/gender diversity of people you see in a catalogue modeling clothes or furniture. That would be fine, if they didn’t have the most played-up “OMG I’m having such an awesome time!” expressions on their faces. Coupled with these fake expressions, the poses look rather embarrassing too. The whole thing is meant to imply the Wii’s universal appeal, but comes off as, for lack of a better word, dorky. It’s like Nintendo tried to imitate those pretentious iPod commercials but didn’t quite hit the mark.
Probability of Disaster: High
What Nintendo needs is a fusion of their previous tactics and their current ones. They need to show a wide array of people enjoying the Wii, but in a casual way; the different game tastes should be presented with their appropriate audiences, so the crucial message is sent loud and clear: Wii has something for everyone, NOT just for gamers. The artistic element from the old ads should be reworked to lend sophistication and credibility—Apple is great at doing this, so much so that Microsoft is ripping them off for their new Zune campaign. Then, almost subconsciously, Nintendo should show that playing the Wii is more exciting, more engaging, than just listening to your iPod. Wii needs to be the thing the whole family does on a Friday night, the ideal party machine, the easy-to-use online alternative to computer gaming, and above all, low-cost and power efficient.
Can Nintendo communicate this? Yes, in a good way, and in a bad way. They can’t bounce all over the place in their commercials, or it’ll end up sounding like a late night infomercial (it even does your taxes!). What’s more, they need to keep the feeling of suave consumerism, the understated popularity that convinced everyone that everyone was buying the overpriced iPod.
I think the DS “Touch Generations” campaign is a good indication and a great start, but that line of thinking has to be exploited to the fullest extent before the average game-shy American is convinced that those there newfangled video games won’t turn them (or their kids) into Columbine imitators.
Nintendo needs to fix this problem, and fast. Within the next two months fast. They need a marketing blitz the likes of which they’ve never attempted before, and more importantly, it needs to be handled with finesse. The enjoyment of the people in the ads has to be tangible, but not extreme. Nobody wants to look like a fool when they’re playing a game, unless they’re a diehard DDR nut. And that’s a different story altogether.
Is this the End?
Analysts have been predicting Nintendo’s demise for an entire console generation. Our own Ben Berry predicts that they will go the way of Sega. Me? I am reserving judgment, because like it or not, Nintendo is finally doing something worthwhile: they are making a change and sticking to it. The GameCube’s life was spent catering to too many different audiences while shifting away from an outmoded philosophy; the GCN was a transition phase. The DS was an experiment. Nintendo is sticking to their guns and hitting as many marks as they can, and prosper or fail, I’m impressed. There is still PR doublespeak, but it’s consistent now. There are still the quirks and idiosyncrasies that endear and aggravate us, but there is also something more: a defined purpose.
For the first time in six years, Nintendo is 100% behind one idea, the idea of change. And whether it’s instant success or a ripple of influence far down the line, change is only good for gaming in the long run. Making it work now is up to Nintendo. And despite their numerous shortcomings and mistakes, I think they have a better chance now than ever.