Let me begin this thing by saying that I love Nintendo and I always have. When I hear the word Nintendo, my reaction is Pavlovian. I immediately associate them with all of their classic games and remarkable history. Growing up with Nintendo games more than anything else, they’re who I identify with gaming. I don’t just like Nintendo–I’m borderline obsessed. So whenever I criticize Nintendo or think of them in a less than positive light, it’s always from the perspective that I adore their games and simply want them to improve. If Nintendo goes down, as far as my interest in games goes, the industry goes down. The only company I have a vested interest in is Nintendo.
With that out of the way, Nintendo has made a lot of mistakes over the last two generations. Not so much as a software developer, but as a business. Decisions that alienated third-parties, injured their reputation with mainstream gamers, and ultimately contributed to a situation that is monetarily sound but has them solidly in last place with western audiences.
The biggest of these mistakes, in my opinion, was the decision to use cartridges with the N64. People bitch about it even to this day, but I don’t think they realize how significant it really was. Not only did they make the system extremely hard to develop for when compared to the PS1, but it generally turned off developers. Instead of what Nintendo envisioned, which was developers creating a better product, developers simply stopped making products period, opting wisely to develop for a system that was easier and cheaper to work with.
This should have been Nintendo’s wake-up call; that they were no longer in an industry-leading position, that they didn’t have the control over the industry that they once did. But it wasn’t. As the N64 chugged along, Nintendo and their second-parties provided software that they could, but it still resulted in extended droughts of games, while the PS1 continued increasing in popularity.
And it was over. Nintendo was still successful–they had some amazing games for the system–but their image was severely damaged. With the mainstream, the notion was that if you wanted Nintendo games, you bought an N64, and if you wanted anything else, you bought a PS1. Tons did, and Nintendo’s years of being the industry leader were gone.
Then came the PS2. It was the nail in the coffin for the notion that Nintendo had the industry sway it did in the SNES days. It was a huge sensation, and is today the biggest symbol of the mainstreaming of videogames. When people look back at this industry decades from now and ask when video games stopped being the domain of teenage, friendless virgins and became an honest-to-God major part of pop culture, they’ll say “That’s why.” It can’t be overstated what a huge effect Sony has had on making games cool.
And in the course of just a few years, Nintendo went from number one in the home console market to the underdog. Yeah, it had plenty of supporters, especially when the GCN was first unveiled, but it simply never built up anything close to Sony’s steam. Sony had the majority of gamers in their pocket. If you were a console gamer, you had a PS2, just like, in the early 90s, if you were a console gamer, you had an SNES. That never happened with the GCN when it launched.
Why? Sony was popular with the mainstream even without video games. They were an institution in electronics without the gaming market. And consumers, let’s be honest, as a whole, aren’t as scrutinizing as we’d like to believe. Name recognition is often more important than quality. (This is why Charlie’s Angels grossed over $100,000,000 at the box office and partly why we’ve had two Presidents with the same name in the last 15 years.) Nintendo, as big as they were in games, never was the institution Sony was. Sony was a safer bet to consumers because they had a solid track record in everything else they did. That, combined with the fact that it came out way earlier, had exceptional advertising, and functioned as a DVD player, meant people would be much sooner to just buy Sony’s product rather than wait a year for Nintendo’s.
Plus Nintendo made quite a few mistakes with the GCN launch. They didn’t advertise enough or to the right audience, seemingly didn’t even try to give it appeal to casual gamers, made it look almost like a toy with the lunchbox shape and default color purple, and had a pretty mediocre launch, or at least a below average one. To stand a chance, GCN needed a Halo. It didn’t have one. We all know that. But that’s not the point. It’s how much that mattered that I think is often understated.
These problems, I’d say, are probably why GCN is where it’s at today. All of the problems it still has, with third-parties bailing out and hesitating to create exclusives for it, could be traced back to the GCN’s launch, where it came off as kiddy and simply didn’t have enough games. Consumers never got past that conception, no matter how goddamn awesome Resident Evil 4 turned out to be. As cliché as it sounds, if Nintendo had the new Zelda and RE4 at launch, they’d be in a much different position today. The majority of a console’s livelihood is determined by its launch.
But regardless, they blew it. And that puts the GCN in the bitterly ironic position of being one of Nintendo’s best ever, with truly spectacular games like Eternal Darkness, Super Mario Sunshine, two Metroid titles, not one, not two, but 3 exclusive Resident Evil games, Zelda, an exclusive Metal Gear Solid title (which would have been nigh unheard of 5 years ago, as would the thought of Resident Evil exclusivity and the re-emergence of Metroid), and more, but a decisive last-place finisher in the console wars, with a public perception that is both outdated and almost entirely Nintendo’s fault.
Nintendo unquestionably botched the job on the GCN launch. It wasn’t outside factors that gave it a crappy launch, bad advertising, and a poor appearance–it was poor planning, poor market research, and a behind-the-times attitude toward western gamers. The biggest aspect of Nintendo’s failure was Nintendo.
With Sony’s absolutely monstrous presence in the United States, though, with one of the robust advertising out there, it’s doubtful there is any kind of scenario, no matter how much hypothesizing you do, that could put Nintendo in first place with the GCN. Nintendo could have positioned itself, possibly, for first-place next generation, for an uphill climb with sales, but it’s hard to imagine the GCN coming anywhere close to the PS2, even if they did everything right. They certainly could have done much better than they are now, however. Don’t get me wrong.
And now, this generation, for all intents and purposes, is on the way out. More than anything else, the gaming community is starting to focus on the next round of consoles, and what they’ll do for games. And Nintendo is going to enter with less going for them than either Sony or Microsoft, no matter what happens between now and 2006.
So what do they do about it? Well, some say, they could merge with Microsoft. Let Microsoft handle the dirty work of advertising and creating a good system, they say. Nintendo can handle the games. And they’ll never have to worry about online or third-party support because that’s all in the hands of the other guys.
Theoretically, this would be the ideal situation, as far as I see it. This would be one hell of a combination, a combining of forces that could have a damn good chance to beat Sony. The ability to play Halo and Zelda on the same machine is a fanboy’s wet dreams come true.
In theory, it’s the best thing Nintendo could do and then some. They would still be in a good position in the console market and they’d still be a huge force with handhelds.
But it’s the worst thing Nintendo could possibly do in reality, and here’s why: Mergers are never friendly. As much as businesses try to make it sound a healthy teaming up to really help out one company and make another company more successful as well, that’s never how it works. The big company always takes over the smaller company. Look at G4TechTV, a so-called “friendly” merger that, at first, was just some of G4′s more popular programming replacing TechTV’s least popular. Not a bad idea, necessarily.
But they took over. They fired everybody at TechTV and completely revamped the only shows they had left to better suit G4, e.g. The Screen Savers. That merger resulted in G4 taking over TechTV’s airspace and slowly erasing their presence entirely. Today, there is no trace of the TechTV of a year ago.
And like it or not, that’s what would happen if Nintendo and Microsoft merged. That’s what happens in the overwhelming majority of instances, although perhaps not as direly as the G4 merger.
At first it would seem friendly, with Nintendo going about their merry way, but Microsoft would take over. They would fire people, bring in consultants to realign Nintendo to Microsoft’s strategies, they’d put Nintendo on projects marketing thinks will sell, they’d turn Nintendo into “just another developer” doing what Microsoft wants them to do. If Nintendo joined with Microsoft, we would see lots of Zeldas and very few Pikmins, because Microsoft wouldn’t want them to simply do their own thing–they’d want them doing stuff that has a sure fire chance of selling. A merger would be disastrous to Nintendo’s creative control over their games, and it would result, ultimately, in a company driven not by creativity and innovation, but strictly by the bottom line.
So that’s not even an option. A basic understanding of business will let you see in about 5 seconds that if they teamed up, Microsoft would grab them by the nuts and never let go. They’d become Microsoft’s dog, rather than a company in charge from a creative perspective.
Nintendo knows this–such a thing would never happen unless things really went south for Nintendo and it became a last resort move. That means the only choice, going forward, is to keep making consoles and, hopefully, better understand the console market.
Now here’s what I think: the launch of the Revolution will be the most critical aspect of its success. Or lack thereof. If it isn’t a hit right away, it won’t become any more successful than the GCN. Nintendo has to be extremely good with its launch. Nintendo needs to prove itself fast, and in ways most of us are betting won’t happen.
First, they have to advertise way in advance and get hype moving not just with the E3-going crowd, but with the mainstream.
I’m talking TV ads months before the thing even ships. They need to make the Revolution something Nintendo never has been: cool. They’re improving their advertising, and they have been for some time, but it needs to be taken up more than a few notches. The ad campaigns need to be freaking massive.
Second, they have to deliver.
In addition to cultivating the “cool” image, the Revolution needs to physically be cool. It needs to be a really cool looking machine–eye-grabbing–and it needs to have must-own games right out of the gate. Even one huge game could do it, a realistic Zelda or a Mario platformer, or maybe something completely out of left field. Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto as a timed exclusive, something. They can’t make the mistake of launching basically with Rogue Squadron and Pikmin as was the case with GCN. It simply cannot happen again.
(Author’s Note: I spell-checked Rogue Squadron four freaking times to see if I accidentally called it “Rouge Squadron,” and I have no idea why.)
Third, they need to get third-parties.
As crappy as the GCN third-party support has been as a whole, they have been making significant strides toward this; just compare the N64′s third-party support to the GCN. There’s no comparison. It’s improving. But they still need to pick up the pace. This doesn’t just mean cozying up to them and creating friendly relationships. This means hardware that is easy to work with and not at all underpowered. No space constraints or totally new programming languages. The first thing they need to do is make it easy to port games to it and easy to create from the ground up. No “quality over quantity” approach like in the N64 days. This also means paying lots of people off. Nintendo is, after all, a pretty big company; they can afford to take a loss at the beginning, if the result is a long-term better image of Nintendo’s third-party backing and eventually higher sales as a consequent. If someone is thinking of making their next huge game for the PS3 and Revolution, bribe them to put it on the Revolution exclusively, or at least before the PS3 version. They need to do this extremely aggressively. They need to destroy the image that one only buys a Nintendo system for Nintendo games (though naturally that doesn’t mean Nintendo should slack off on developing themselves). Nintendo openly discourages the notion of paying off third-parties however, which is somewhat worrisome.
Fourth, the Revolution can be innovative.
It can be different. But it shouldn’t be exclusionary. Nintendo needs to follow the DS route and create a system very much like what’s out today, but with innovations on top of it, like the DS’s touch screen and microphone. If they’re going to make a controller, go ahead and make it gyroscopic, but include all the normal buttons so consumers and developers have the option of whether or not to use the new features. The DS is, at its heart, just an evolution of the Game Boy, but with extra features. The point is that forcing a new feature down our throats while eliminating one we already like will not be good for business. It can’t be something inherently different than today’s videogames. Consumers will be hesitant and developers even more so–the current videogame model works.
It may need to evolve, but it doesn’t need turned on its head. I, for one, am comfortable with how games play today. I want them to be better, but I don’t want them to be completely different. The mainstream, more or less, is going to feel the same way. Dramatic change can be successful, but it can also be a spectacular failure. The comparison to the Virtual Boy is not a bad one. Revolutions can backfire.
Fifth, don’t underpower the thing.
Just because technology is becoming a less important factor as graphics begin to approach a plateau doesn’t mean you should ignore them. People still want better graphics and technology. And so do developers. Let’s be realistic, though: Nintendo has never really delivered an underpowered console before. The N64 was more powerful than the PS2, the SNES was comparable to its competitors, and the GCN is certainly more powerful than the PS2, and is capable of producing graphics almost on-par with the Xbox. Up until now, it’s never been an issue. It’s only worth thinking about because the DS is comparatively underpowered and Nintendo shouldn’t let that happen with the Revolution.
Sixth, they must really encourage online.
They seem to be doing that now though, which is good. So for the time being, I can’t criticize a damn thing about online. From my perspective, they’re doing everything perfectly until we get a better idea of what their plans are. They’ve taken some pretty good steps forward in this department based on what we heard at E3 and some of the rumblings from Reggie and other Nintendo higher-ups.
Finally, and this is more general, Nintendo needs to quit acting like they own the place.
Nintendo has always had this attitude that they are the industry leader and people want to work for them and buy their system. That’s not true any more. Nintendo needs to work their way back up, and stop any arrogant business practices. They have to work to make the Revolution a success. They can’t coast on this one–it could very well determine whether they stay in the business, so they should be giving it their all. They need to really, really invest in the thing. If Nintendo’s system isn’t immediately appealing, people are going to go out and buy a PS3 or Xbox 360. Nintendo will be quickly forgotten with the mainstream if Nintendo doesn’t work in their interest.
That’s what needs to happen, of course. What do I think will happen?
The Revolution, scared as some are, won’t be a bizarre gyroscopic board game with a projector and a microphone. It won’t be mind-blowingly different. I, for one, think it will be a normal system with a pretty normal control mechanism, with typical next-gen technology and games, albeit showcasing new features as well. Such as a normal controller with gyroscope tech, maybe with online communication technology like a microphone and video, as opposed to the headset. I also have a sneaking suspicion that they’ve developed some technology that will make games look better than the competition, as possibly indicated by that intimidatingly technical patent for technology that displays pre-rendered graphics in 3D or something (it’s not like you understand it either, so shut up).
I also think a lot of the “revolution” will be an unprecedented grasp of what the hell Nintendo wants to do with online. I think they skipped it with GCN so they could understand it better, maybe to get cracking on a truly original online experience. I believe, at least, there will be a major encouragement of community and games that incorporate online in an original way. Nintendo is going to make something big of online play, the likes of which people won’t be expecting. They missed the boat with online not because they didn’t like it, but because they wanted to understand it better and make something more of it than the competition. I honestly think we’ll see something major in this department come E3.
And speaking of E3, I think we can breathe safely. The Revolution, in all likelihood, won’t be something too different: Nintendo is smart enough to know something bizarre or off the beaten path will alienate mainstream consumers. They won’t do that.
Maybe it’s Pavlovian, but I have faith in Nintendo on this one. I don’t think they’ll let us down. I don’t think it will be the be-all, end-all of gaming systems either, but I just can’t imagine Nintendo doing something totally whacko, as has been suggested. At its heart, the Revolution will still be a traditional home console. The odds of anything else are too slim–Nintendo may make some bad decisions, but they have an understanding of the industry competent enough to make sure they don’t screw themselves.
Let’s put it this way: I’ve been gaming for over a decade, and above all, I’m excited for the Revolution. I can’t damn wait to see what they’ve got in store for us. I’m skeptical, but my enthusiasm for the system overrides it, and this notion of Nintendo being doomed, of the Revolution being an exclusionary system that won’t initially be received well, is mostly unfounded. There’s a difference between healthy skepticism and downright cynicism, and the former is a better approach than the latter. Don’t go nuts over this one: there’s not that much to worry about. Nintendo has never disappointed with their home consoles, and I don’t see why, after so long, this will be an exception. Besides, all companies exaggerate the claims of what their new product will be like in the name of PR. Nintendo is no different.
And that, as they say, is that.