Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Nintendo's history and current strategy

Today, Raph provided a link to an interview in which Nintendo's CEO, Iwata Satoru, pointed out that each generation of Nintendo consoles has sold less copies (http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/10/03/how-the-wii-was-born/#comments). Satoru also references Nintendo's current strategy of skipping the high-definition bandwagon to build games more cheaply and perhaps encourage focus on gameplay.

I was raised on the Nintendo consoles, starting on the NES when I six or seven years old and playing each new console through Gamecube. I never owned a Sony console and I considered myself a Nintendo faithful all that time. Sure, I spent an entire summer over at a friend's house playing Twisted Metal 2 on his Playstation, but I was never convinced into buying a Sony console, and I had countless discussions defending Nintendo against my Sony rivals. Whether or not this lifetime of experience with the Nintendo consoles and games represents the common journey of Nintendo fans, I don't know. But, entertaining the possibility that it does, I'd like to explain why my interest in their consoles waned alongside their sales, and why their new strategy may or may not attract American gamers like me back into the fold.

With each new console, the number of available games got smaller, and the number of really good games along with it.

Two decades after playing an NES, I can still name 10 great games with hardly a pause for thought in between (Excitebike, Marble Madness, Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Castlevania, Master Blaster, Paperboy, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Contra, Final Fight, Double Dragon), and that's by no means the extent of that console's impressive games. With the SNES, I owned half as many games, though there were still plenty of great titles (Street Fighter, ActRaiser, Super Mario, Donkey Kong Kountry, Mario Kart, etc). With the N64, again, I owned half as many games as the console before it, with just a few stellar games (Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros, DK 64, Star Wars Pod Racing, etc). Finally, with the Gamecube, I played just four games (Luigi's Mansion, Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness, and Super Smash Bros Melee) and kept only one (SSBM) before trading it in for an Xbox and Halo. I had never traded in a console before.

During this time, as fewer and fewer Nintendo games attracted me, it became harder to justify my preference for Nintendo to my Sony fan friends. Sony had what seemed a monstrous collection of games...but I told my friends "yeah, but few of them are any good" (I didn't know, I hadn't played them).

That said, Xbox didn't seem much more attractive. I played the hell out of Halo, bought Halo 2 and returned it after a few days, but never bought another game (I rented many and didn't care for any enough to buy).

Another factor, though I'm honestly not sure how effective it was in my loss of interest, was redundant IPs. Mario's a cool enough guy, but I didn't think I was buying the Mario Game Console. I don't care how popular the original Mario Bros game was, most of the games on the NES that I played religiously were not Mario games. I wouldn't even call most of them cartoony. Yet, by the time the N64 had been out a year, the famous Italian plumber was in desperate need of a strong smack with his own wrench.

But, like I said, maybe that's a mistaken impression and it wasn't really much of a factor.

So now they're avoiding the high-definition war. Great. Hey, I love high-definition gaming. But if skipping that innovation allows Nintendo to get back to the old model of pumping out game after game after game, then I'll take it.

I bought an Xbox 360 last year. I enjoyed the hell out of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Call of Duty 2, Oblivion and even Dead Rising for a while, but right now I don't own a single 360 game. Sometimes, I think of trading it in, but I keep it in hopes that next year will be different and offer a steady stream of great games (though Hellgate: London and Spore will have me ignoring consoles completely for a while, once they're out).

The point is that a steady stream of quality game releases is important to retaining customer interest and loyalty.

...but wait!
Of course, simply skipping over high-definition might not reduce the production cost of Nintendo titles enough to realize that revolution (as in the old definition of "returning to the good path"...you see, that name was better). For one, they've created a very new system with a significant learning curve for developers. And second, people tend to dislike saving money in practice, if not in theory. Is Nintendo demanding small budgets, rather than allowing everyone to spend the same high budgets in a different way? High-def graphics aren't the only drain money can go down, you know.

Even assuming Nintendo has the right business model this time around, they lost Rareware to Microsoft. That's huge. Rareware was behind some of the best titles ever released on Nintendo consoles (Donkey Kong Kountry and Goldeneye, among others). It was the first developer I ever really cared enough to research, long before I had any interest in a game design career.

More than just designing great games, Rareware understood how to design games for an American audience. I'll be the first to admit I simply don't understand a lot of Japanese games. I've taken college courses in Asian Philosophy, Asian Literature (modern) and have sprinkled knowledge of Chinese and Japanese histories, ancient and modern...but I just don't get their games sometimes. Looking at the games I've seen advertised for the Wii so far, I get the impression these games just aren't my style. If they go back to a model of extensive game libraries, maybe there'll be enough my style to suck me back in.

Anyway, long story short, I have a lot of respect for Nintendo still, but they'll need more than a fancy new controller to bring me back.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're dramatically under estimating the potential UI innovations of Wii.

    That said, I dropped off the Nintendo bandwagon back at gen 5.


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