What Do Gamers Want From Nintendo?
Whether successful or struggling, Nintendo is always a topic of conversation. Financially, Nintendo has yo-yoed; after suffering tough times since 2007, the first half of 2014 proved to be profitable, with strong sales of Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS to thank in driving both software and hardware sales. Nintendo had missed sales projections the last few years, including recording a small loss for the first half of 2013. Analysts were even expecting a loss of about 3 billion yen ($26 million) this time around, too.
But those are just the symptoms. Instead of addressing the cause, I’d rather talk about a related question. When game fans and nerds of all stripes say “We want the old Nintendo back!,” I wonder, what exactly do those people mean? What do gamers want from Nintendo now and into 2015?
The most obvious answer to me is the masses have never let go of the NES and SNES-era Nintendo. At that time, the Nintendo name was synonymous with “videogames” in a way that Kleenex means facial tissue and Google means searching the Internet. It was a time when the NES and Super NES had classic Nintendo-developed games AND a large portion of the best games from third-party developers on one console. Nintendo was the center of the gaming universe.
And it will probably never happen again.
That's not to say Nintendo will never make successful hardware or hasn't made great games up to this point. While the forecast was dark this spring, Nintendo’s turned things around this year -- as mentioned, Mario Kart 8 on Wii U and Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS have proven to be hits, and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is due this month. Just eight years ago, the Wii was launched to great acclaim. The DS hit its stride nine years ago. Nintendo can do it again.
But gaming history repeatedly writes Nintendo as diligently stuck on one course while the rest of the industry ebbs and flows around it. Nintendo is still dedicated to selling its home consoles and handhelds and to developing its games specifically for those purposes. GoldenEye 007 made use of the Nintendo 64’s four controller ports, while the system was cursed with a controller designed almost single-mindedly for Super Mario 64. But those both proved to be hits, so Nintendo won in the end. This has been Nintendo’s way since pulling out of the arcade market in the 1980s. As we get further away from the NES and Super NES, it seems almost serendipitous that Nintendo ruled the roost as long as it did in the 8 and 16-bit eras.
From the Nintendo 64 on, there’s been a pattern to Nintendo’s handhelds and consoles. With each new Nintendo system there’s always been a tipping point when a critical mass of first-party titles builds up and hardcore gamers more or less grant their blessing. As if they were a group of cloaked elders sitting upon the highest peak of NeoGAF, the core gamers descend and announce: “It’s time. Go forth and purchase.” Such consensus took awhile for the GameCube, but it happened within the first year for both the DS and 3DS. The Wii’s debut with Wii Sports was big enough to drive the hardcore toward immediate purchases.
And while Nintendo's self-focused modus operandi continued unabated, mainstream popularity came and went. The GameCube sold a little and the Wii sold a lot, but Nintendo never strayed off its own course. Nintendo might make the most popular console system again in the future, but that dedication to making its own consoles to suit their games will never change.
In business, I’m a strong proponent of sticking to your strengths. Nintendo is, first and foremost, a toy company. It made toys before getting into the videogame market, and its current behaviors reflect that pedigree enough to demonstrate it exists on a wholly different plane than Sony and Microsoft. Looking at Nintendo’s history through the lens of a toymaker, things begin to make more sense. The Nintendo 64’s cartridges solely benefitted Nintendo and its business model because the company could control manufacturing. Likewise, the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 both featured DVD playback, but Nintendo deemed it unnecessary for the GameCube. This variance in priorities is also pretty obvious in Nintendo’s slow adoption of common online functionality.
Nintendo hasn't offered the most powerful system in recent generations, even in the handheld space; however, it makes focused machines dedicated to playing games and producing interesting and engaging experiences. The list is long: the introduction of four-player console multiplayer with Nintendo 64; collecting, training and trading creatures in Pokémon; the kinesthetics of Wii Sports and Wii Fit; the information gap for asymmetrical multiplayer in Nintendo Land and other Wii U titles.
Nintendo's current missteps have not been related to its core competencies -- designing systems and games -- but rather its poor marketing strategy which shows little awareness of consumer's expectations in this new generation. Nintendo can create the hardware, but it stumbles in positioning, pricing and, more specifically, adapting competitors' Internet infrastructure.
Yet some positive change has come even if larger issues remain: accounts are no longer locked to Wii U systems, though the transfer process between consoles still tethers content to hardware. Compared with signing in by email or dropping an account onto a USB stick, the process archaic. But in fairness to Nintendo, Internet connectedness, online play and online shops are a tripping hazard which has caught many entrenched Japanese companies -- hardware makers especially.
Asking Nintendo to be a software developer is like telling a piano maker to put down her tools and go write some hit songs.
But contrary to online grumbling earlier in 2014, Nintendo's problems won't be solved by becoming a third-party developer or even by shifting to mobile games. Creating platforms is as integral to Nintendo as Mario because it's not a software developer, but a toy maker. It's like telling a piano maker to put down her tools and go write some hit songs.
That brings us back around to my original question: What do we, all of us who enjoy games, really want from Nintendo?
For one, we want Nintendo to take steps forward in Internet and store infrastructure. But that's a huge ask, and one that sounds impossible: Nintendo's return to technological dominance and majority control over the games market. However, the company's fortunes may improve sooner than we think: blockbusters like Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and the vast handheld 3DS catalog prove that Nintendo is still very much alive.
For many years, mainstream gaming and Nintendo’s plans happened to travel on the same one-lane road. But things changed rapidly, and Sony, Microsoft and all the major triple-A developers accelerated onto a superhighway with Internet-connected horsepower. Nintendo, stubborn as ever, is stuck on a side street in gridlock.
Whether the roads of popular opinion and Nintendo's unique vision ever meet again or not is hard to say, but I get the impression that Iwata and company won’t be taking detours anytime soon.