Game Over: 6 Horrible Choices Dragging Down Nintendo
Mario's papa has run out of warp whistles. Time to gracefully exit the hardware business and focus on games?
April 11, 2013 - 7:00 am
Political activists have a saying: when you’re explaining, you’re losing. The same could be said of business. When you have to explain to prospective customers why they need your latest innovation, when the product does not sell itself through mere presentation, you probably have a dud.
So may be the case with the latest iteration of home console hardware from Nintendo, the Wii U. iDigitalTimes reports:
Wii U sales are bad now, but it’s not the end of the world, according to Shigeru Miyamoto, who hopes that people will just give the Wii U some time to breathe before coming to a final conclusion about its worth. The console launched in November 2012, to huge initial sales and a quick decline, followed by slow and modest sales thereafter and predictions of doom and gloom from every quarter. Nintendo would leave the hardware business. It would go out of business altogether. It would go handheld only. Miyamoto thinks that’s all nonsense. We just need to give Wii U some time.
Miyamoto, a legend in the industry responsible for the creation of Nintendo’s hallmark Mario and Zelda franchises, goes on to explain how the Wii U represents an incredible innovation in gaming much like the handheld Nintendo DS did before it. Whether gamers at large come to realize they’ve been cheated all these years by the limitation of a single gaming screen, time will tell. Meanwhile, here are 6 horrible choices dragging down Nintendo.
6. Gamers Grew Up, Nintendo Did Not
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good Super Mario yarn as much as the next nostalgia-prone thirty-something. However, like so much else in life, there comes a point where one’s palate demands more sophistication.
The last console generation saw the beginning of a divide in the video game market between family and mature play. In that period, the Nintendo Gamecube fought the Sony PlayStation 2 and upstart Microsoft Xbox for a piece of the same home entertainment pie. Nintendo made the decision to focus on family-friendly titles like their flagship Mario and Zelda franchises, and shied away from adult content.
Microsoft went the other direction. With a vision to import the PC gaming experience to the living room, the creators of the Xbox welcomed development of first-person shooters and eventually led the market in online multiplayer with their revolutionary Xbox Live service. Sony played it down the middle, serving as a platform for everything from gruesome survival horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill to kid-friendly fare like Crash Bandicoot.
As that generation of consoles approached the end of its lifecycle, cross-platform titles which released on two or more competing platforms became all the more frequent. By insisting upon marketing their console almost exclusively to families and children, Nintendo positioned itself to land outside the cross-platform AAA market. Fortunately for Nintendo, their first-party development remained consistently outstanding. However, older gamers who craved something a little more gritty than Mario Kart were forced to decide whether that itch was worth the scratch. Unless you could afford multiple consoles, it was Mario or Halo. It couldn’t be both.
5. This Whole High-Definition Thing Is Just a Fad
Certainly, Nintendo’s choice to launch its Wii console without high-definition capabilities comes in as one of the most mind-boggling moves ever perpetrated by one of the Big Three. Since Nintendo is a company which prides itself on its innovative game development, you might think that it could easily translate that same leadership to its hardware. Instead, the company proceeded as if high-definition were a fad, or as if high-definition would not be broadly adopted by the market within this console generation. Either proved a foolhardy assumption given the known trend in technology toward improvements in quality alongside consistently lower prices.
Both Sony and Microsoft foresaw the dramatic transition which has taken place in this console generation. While the game industry has lamented the number of years which have gone by without a new console to work on, the consumer has benefited tremendously as value has been continually added to this generation’s machines via online upgrades which fundamentally expanded the scope of what the consoles can do.
When I stayed up all night camped outside a Best Buy in the freezing cold to snag the Xbox 360 console back in 2005, the machine I brought home was something entirely primitive compared to what it has since become. With incremental updates and expanded applications like Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, and so forth, my Xbox has gone from a mere gaming machine to the most essential component in my living room aside from the television connected to it. I don’t have cable, don’t rent movies on discs, and never watch live television. I don’t need to anymore. Entertainment is delivered through my Xbox whenever I find it convenient, on-demand, in high-definition. Sure, I can watch Netflix or Hulu through my Wii as well. But with resolution slightly improved over a VHS cassette, why would I want to?
4. The Lowest Bidder
While Sony’s entry into the current generation triggered some sticker shock with their $400-$600 price point for the PlayStation 3, Nintendo erred on the other side of the spectrum. Likely believing they could gobble up a larger market share with a low price tag, Nintendo conceded the hardware development race to Sony and Microsoft. With that decision, they signaled that they were not interested in appealing to the hardcore gamer.
Again, the philosophy in play favored innovative gameplay over technological wizardry. Nintendo made it clear that their machine was not going to deliver the highest quality graphics or the most horsepower under the hood. But none of that mattered, they attempted to sway consumers, because motion controls in a game like Wii Sports are super fun.
As with the decision to forgo high-definition capabilities and the established focus on family titles at the exclusion of mature fare, the decision by Nintendo to aim low with the Wii’s system specs cuts them off from the growing adult gamer segment. Now we have a situation where Nintendo has released the Wii U, supposedly the first console of the next generation, with technical capabilities on par with its current generation competitors. Even worse, many of the third party titles being released on the platform are games which have long been available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Why would anyone want to buy a new console which plays like the ones they already have? Turns out they don’t.
3. There’s Innovation, Then There’s Fixing What Isn’t Broken
There’s this great viral parody that mocks people who take vertical videos with their cell phones. An ergonomic point made in jest proves legitimate; our eyes are horizontal. We were made to see things from side to side, not up and down.
Similarly, we were made to focus our visual attention on one thing at a time, which makes Nintendo’s decision to release the Wii U with a bulky touchscreen controller rather mind-boggling. I see this thing in the store and ask myself, where am I supposed to be looking? Why do I want this thing? What does having a second screen down by my hands, which I have to look away from my television to see, do for gaming? I honestly don’t know. It could be the best thing since online multiplayer. But, since I don’t immediately understand it, I can’t perceive the value and have no interest in giving it a try.
Nintendo has a track record with bizarre innovations that don’t pay off. Past consoles had extension ports which became the technological equivalent of vestigial organs. The “expansion pack” serves as an example, a cartridge you could buy and plug into the Nintendo 64 which doubled its memory, enabling improvements in certain games. Whether higher graphics resolution or improved color depth was worth the effort was up to the gamer. But there couldn’t have been much incentive for developers to cater to such a niche market. Similarly, even if the motion controls of the Wii or the touchscreen controls of the Wii U hold some hidden potential for incredible applications, why would developers want to take the time to figure those applications out when they can just as well work on AAA cross-platform titles with an established consumer base?
2. Refusal to Adapt
You would think that a company which prides itself on its innovation, willing to stand boldly behind counter-intuitive ideas like a dual-screen home console, would be just as willing to adapt to any and all emerging trends in their industry. In the case of Nintendo, you would be wrong.
Nintendo shares the same stubborn streak which holds Apple back from wholly dominating the world. Both companies insist that consumers purchase their hardware in order to use their software. Want iTunes on your Android device? Forget about it. Want to play a Mario Kart app on your mobile? Not happening. Instead of getting what you want, how you want, you have to choose between access to a few great applications and the hardware you otherwise prefer.
This leaves all kinds of money on the table. I would buy a lot more songs and albums from iTunes if I could manage and play them on my Android device. Likewise, Nintendo would earn much more of my hard-earned cash if I could download their retro titles over Xbox Live or through Steam on my PC. Foisting subpar hardware upon consumers by clinging stubbornly to the concept of exclusivity does not a winning plan make.
Nintendo could learn a lot in this regard from looking to its old hardware competitors Atari and Sega. Neither company is in the hardware development business anymore, yet both continue to take in revenue from licensed titles on other platforms. I can get Sonic the Hedgehog on Xbox Live and Steam. I can download old Sega Dreamcast games like Crazy Taxi, Soul Calibur, or Sonic Adventure. That leads to real money in Sega’s pocket.
This refusal by Nintendo to adapt to emerging trends also manifests in a conspicuous lack of social features and integrated online capabilities. Sure, Mario Kart Wii has an online multiplayer component. But where is the overarching online presence that players maintain on services like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network? Where are tracked achievements? Where’s any meaningful competition? Where are the bragging rights, the smack talk, and the trophies?
Sony recently revealed PlayStation 4, a true next-generation console. As opposed to the Wii U, it appears to double-down on the social aspects of gaming. A new share button easily accessed from the controller enables players to record and upload their gaming highlights, or even invite friends to watch a live stream of their play in real-time.
Two applications for such sharing come immediately to mind. Players can solicit help from veteran gamers and get over-the-shoulder coaching to improve their game. More importantly, gamers may be able to preview titles in action before running out to buy them. Imagine game developers hosting live demonstrations of the projects they are working on, getting public feedback during the development cycle. That’s innovation with payoff.
There’s a part of me which hopes that the Wii U will be remembered as the last console Nintendo ever made. Free of the struggle to carve out a niche in the console market, Nintendo would be incentivized to turn their vast game-development experience to other platforms, most notably iOS and Android. Plus, they could bring their vast catalog of quality titles to digital distribution platforms like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam. It has always been about the games with Nintendo. That’s their wheelhouse, and they ought to shift their focus to it.