Soon to be the Nintendodo? Don't count on it.
Each week brings fresh prophecies of doom and destruction for Nintendo, but is there no ray of hope?
The past fortnight has made for some uncomfortable reading for fans. With the news that the company has been forced to downgrade their yearly sales predictions - from an excessively optimistic 9 million Wii U units to a meagre 2.8 million, a figure they may still struggle to achieve - came a hit on their share price. Thankfully that’s now recovered somewhat, but obviously still sits well below the 2007 peak attained thanks to the overwhelming success of the Wii. Nintendoomed headlines unfairly comparing the company’s stock then and now, highlighting the 80% drop in value, don’t tell the whole story, yet still hold unsettling truths: something needs to be done.
It’s easy to assume the downward trajectory to be permanent; but considering the company began by making humble playing cards, and has survived over a century, not to attribute some skill in their flexible negotiation of both global and market turmoil is arguably a touch disrespectful.
A share buy back scheme and talk from CEO Satoru Iwata of progressive thinking and changing the way they do business steadied nerves, but long term the problems for the company remain the same as they were before the Wii. The world around them, and the competition has changed. The dedicated company in any field is being swallowed by mega-corporations able to build veritable ecosystems of content. Nintendo have cash stockpiles but not the deep pockets to plumb huge sums into R&D that can be shifted and utilised from one wing of a technology firm to another like their competitors. Nintendo are solely a videogames company, and in a world of hybrid devices that can be tough. However, Iwata has reiterated that the company’s main objective remains the same, stating that “dedicated video game platforms which integrate hardware and software will remain our core business” which seems plain enough.
It’s all too easy to see the Wii U era as a downturn in fortunes, but a little context is required. The lifetime sales total of the Gamecube was a measly 21 million and the Wii U looks on course to possibly fall below even that, currently standing at about 5.86m, so Nintendo have been here before. Their competition at the time was significantly different, with the PS2 steamrolling to dominate the generation and the Xbox a derided concrete block by many outside the States.
Yet, the lessons that should have been learnt there are primarily the ones that have hindered the Wii U, chiefly an inability to garner enough 3rd party support. The reasons behind this could be twofold: firstly, the accounts of small or up-and-coming developers being courted by Microsoft and Sony, but having to make the significant effort to establish contact with Nintendo may have more truth than hearsay to them. More importantly, with budgets for games spiralling out of control, and platform exclusivity dwindling, developers wanting their titles to hit the widest audience is the current norm; so why has third party support still been thin on the ground?
It’s not new, it’s a trend for the Big N, and it’s been heading this way since the Super Nintendo. The reason is as much to do with literal design as it is failing to forge strong links. Ever since the SNES, Nintendo have approached the subject of design in an obtuse way, and this can be symbolised by such aspects as choosing carts over disc, but more key is the controllers. By approaching the control methods in an artistic rather than a business fashion, putting the emphasis on how to evolve their first party titles and exciting their own developers instead of empowering and easing development by others.
Fellow console manufacturers have converged their designs, choosing common ground over fighting in that particular field, and the reason is simple: porting code is complex, but transposing a control scheme to a controller that doesn’t fit the title is potentially impossible. Who was really happy playing a beat ‘em up on the N64? Who championed the octagonal gate on the Gamecube sticks as great for an FPS?
Nintendo’s a company of refinement though, and within each mistake (even the Powerglove) there lies somewhere a gem of an idea ready to be exploited. The Gamecube may have failed, but the innovation of a primary button that can be used contextually to simplify controls would find itself re-used to magnificent effect with the Wiimote. It’s easy to write the Wii phenomenon off as a triumph of motion gimmickry, but the simplification of the control method via physical buttons was arguably just as important. Perhaps the GamePad - though criminally underused - will point towards the next refinement too.
Satoru Iwata’s comments at a recent investor Q&A hint that the future could bring a more unified handheld/home console system, something many hoped the GamePad would effectively be. His statement that “Whether we will ultimately need just one device will be determined by what consumers demand in the future” is highly encouraging given the rise of smart device gaming. If there’s one area the company seems more likely to find a synergy with, it’s that of portable gaming. For each underpowered device which has steadfastly stuck to cartridges and eschewed twin thumbstick in the face of better specced opposition, Nintendo has triumphed.
There’s also the small ray of hope embedded in the somewhat begrudging foot-dragging decision to enter the new millennium and finally offer consumers a proper network account. Having content tied to consoles and without the drive to properly enter the e-commerce era, Nintendo have sat on their hands with regards the huge array of legacy content available for them to exploit. Their e-shop is steadily gaining more prominence though, and with the right push could help abate the decline of their image in the West amongst core gamers.
On these shores we have long been used to late, and often shoddy localisations going back to the SNES era, and all too frequently missed out on titles that have been deemed too niche for retail release. But with the latest in the Pheonix Wright saga being a digital only outing, the chance is there to tap into the kind of ingenious and obscure gaming franchises that would otherwise have been overlooked. Sony and Microsoft may not budge when it comes to the home market, but few consoles showed a range of titles as broad as the DS, and Nintendo’s only challenge in that sphere comes from smart devices.
This may all be too late for the Wii U; matched up against the PS4 and Xbox One it's Toad vs. Bowser. The independent breakdowns last year of the console's manufacturing costs was eye-opening, and highlighted why a price cut wasn’t swiftly forthcoming when it started to falter. A prohibitive price attached to a peripheral-centric console, in comparison to the bonus the addition offers, is never satisfactory for consumers in an economic slump; something Microsoft are now learning. Momentum was lost, and even with a couple of GOTY contenders in The Wonderful 101 and Super Mario 3D World, the tag of which title will save the Wii U became as underused as the console.
Fans will point to the accumulation of quality 1st party titles as an indicator that, with a long tail sales-wise, at some stage people will fold and accept it has a good stable of software. The problem is the videogames world moves on, and Sony and Microsoft are showing no signs of waiting, with talk of VR headsets and increasingly inventive uses for Kinect, plus the lure of ever slicker multiplayer integration and bonus content for subscription customers.
The push to unify OS, and a focus on what the company has done right can still reap dividends though. Home console gaming has been on the wane in Japan, and handhelds rule the roost. Consider the lucrative mobile and tablet market worldwide, which offers much in ubiquity and ease of use, but still remains unsatisfactory to a core audience. Iwata is resolute that Nintendo won’t simply become a 3rd party developer, saying Nintendo “are not planning to give up our own hardware systems and shift our axis toward other platforms.” However, he accepts they don’t have the resources to launch multiple devices in the smart sphere to tap into that market either, so any sideways steps must be calculated and based on revision of previous successes.
The lessons learnt in this generation could be vital, not least the GamePad’s form factor and excellent use as a display. In trying to be ahead of the game, perhaps Nintendo just got things the wrong way round this time. They designed a lower specced console that could display on a tablet-cum-controller - but tied users to a limited radius - rather than a high specced Nintendo mobile that could display on a TV. A DS GamePad XL hybrid tablet anyone?
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