Jul 30 2014

Where Does Nintendo Go from Here?

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Video Games

mario-done

The Nintendo 3DS has slowly trudged its way back uphill thanks to a desperate price cut and building a slow momentum of quality titles. While the Wii U could eventually end up in a similar situation, all investors see now is a scary record of weak sales and next to no market presence.

Nintendo now finds itself under the scrutiny of millions of anticipatory eyes, who point to several quarters of losses and want to know what’s to be done about it. Responding at this year’s E3 in typical fashion, Nintendo tantalized long-term fans with announcements for supplements to venerable franchises like Mario, Zelda, and even a new, fun-looking IP, Splatoon.

But will this be enough? Can Mario Kart 8 and a Super Smash Bros. game they haven’t bothered to give a title to encourage people to pay attention to the wayward system and boost sales numbers?

Nintendo has always banked on the strength of their first-party titles to convince people that a console is worth the price of admission, but those purchase decisions were typically bolstered by confidence that more games than a once-every-three years Zelda title will show up. They have also been accused in the past of merely upcycling older games to work on the new consoles, rather than boldly staking out new, creative IPs.

So what is Nintendo to do? Here are some realistic possibilities for their future, and why those may or may not happen…

Become a Third-Party Publisher

ninten-3rdparty

People seem to have been screaming about this ever since Sega went under and the Wii was mocked as feebly-powered. While the Wii was able to scrape by as an underdog, the cheap price and gimmicky crowd-pleasers like Wii Sports only meant that the consoles had been bought up by a typically non-gaming demographic… then largely forgotten.

So people say, “Hardware is dead. Jump ship and start making games for other people and turn a more reliable profit.” However, all I hear is, “I want to criticize Nintendo and call them dumb, but I gotta admit they make some damn fun games.”

To them, it seems simple. Cut out the part that doesn’t seem to be working, and stick to what you know. Unfortunately, what Nintendo has always known is how to make hardware that leads to good software. Ever since Super Mario World, Nintendo games and consoles have always been intrinsically developed side-by-side to ensure a quality consumer experience.

Super Mario 64, for example, dictated an enormous amount of technical specs for the Nintendo 64 as it was being developed. The processor, the controller design, even the RAM optimization were all being considered in tandem with the ongoing creation of the game.

This focus has been the reason that Super Mario Galaxy can look amazing on the Wii, but most third-party games look like garbage. Nintendo first-party software has always made the most out of the proprietary hardware with primarily art-driven decisions, followed by technical considerations. Mario Kart 8 is a stunning example of how the Wii U may be underpowered compared to the rest of the current-gen but can still offer amazing graphical experiences.

mariokart8

In addition to the fact that Nintendo games and consoles have always been made for each other, there’s also the fact that Nintendo is an extremely conservative company from a business standpoint. To put it bluntly, if Mario was a real person Nintendo would rather shoot him in the head and hide his corpse than see him make a competitor one single dime.

Because of these two factors – Nintendo’s reluctance to share IP and their relationship between hardware and software – I would say that Nintendo will never take the route that Sega has. Nintendo’s tight-lipped refusal to join the foray of mobile software has been colored by their not-so-subtle criticisms at that market’s standard of quality. Couple that with the fact that many Nintendo games would be nigh unplayable with touch-screen controls, and you can see why they don’t take mobile gaming seriously.

However, I think Nintendo is doing some of their titles a disservice in the process. Addicting games like Tetris Attack seem like a perfect fit for the mobile phone. Releasing a mobile version of Tetris Attack (or Pokemon Puzzle League or Panel de Pon) would show some of those shallow companies like Zynga how a simple game can incorporate incredibly deep mechanics.

Nintendo making mobile games would also allow the opportunity for new franchises with multi-touch controls explicitly in mind. Nintendo obviously isn’t in the business of making money for their competitors, but even if they have to pay royalties to the app store they will have made themselves a household name all over again with incredibly popular titles.

The biggest issue would be Nintendo’s perspective that they are eating into their own market share, which is definitely a fair point. So, if they can’t join em, then why not beat them?

Make Competing Hardware that’s Not a Traditional Game Console

Nintendo-Phone

Xbox One and PS4 have both taken the strategy of avoiding irrelevance by positioning themselves as entertainment devices, and not just game consoles. All that has come of this are frills that gamers don’t necessarily want, like voice commands and DVR capabilities. These technologies may someday prove themselves to offer the integration they promise, but to most casual users the experience can be downright frustrating. This reaction can lead them to revert back to playing games on the Xbox and watching TV on their cable box, which were both doing fine on their own thankyouverymuch.

What I mean instead by “non-traditional” is a direct response to the so-called “console killers.” Specifically, the Steam Box and smartphones themselves.

Even though they’ve filed patents for cellular-type technology in the past, Nintendo has already acknowledged the huge costs and infrastructure changes that becoming a cell-phone carrier would cause. Thus, making a better iPhone doesn’t seem to be an option. Instead, they could make a better “iPod touch” and include VoIP to have a skype-type network. This feature would also necessitate some heavy investment in data technology, but it would mean less co-contracts and regulation in general.

Imagine a Nintendo gaming device with dedicated controls that could be tucked away when not in use, an iPhone-esque touchscreen, a spot for cartridge games, the ability to make calls, and Wi-Fi or even 3G capability. If that sounds like I just described the Vita, then well… yeah. The only difference would be to learn from the Vita’s mistakes; too high of a price tag and too few good games.

Positioning themselves as a multimedia device could just have people asking “Why would I carry this around if I already have a smartphone?” Playing kickass Nintendo games would be the response, coupled with the fact that it should have some interesting interactivity features with social media and other electronics.

Nintendo has already begun to move in this direction with their Wii U Miiverse, but the interface hasn’t quite caught on in the way that Nintendo had hoped. Spending more effort on refining these out-of-game experiences could help integrate Nintendo with current market trends.

nintendosteambox

The other possible console would be a cloud-based gaming system like the venerable but still-a-work-in-progress Steam Box. Nintendo would again have to work on their navigation and interface to bring their Virtual Console up to par with Steam’s content delivery, but they could also potentially share content on their consoles through such a service while providing their own dedicated, exclusive first-party titles.

This hardware style would allow Nintendo to develop their games in their own idiom and according to specific technical specs, albeit scalable for whatever system was running it. Nintendo has already hinted that this may be the path they’re taking; rather than splitting their handheld and “living room” consoles, Nintendo has hinted that they will try to develop titles that will run on both systems at modified specs. Nintendo has even already begun to merge their software branches for this expressed purpose.

One can see traces of this process with their decision to co-release the new Super Smash Bros. titles on both the 3DS and Wii U. Nintendo has a new console in the works as we speak that will offer a slightly downmarket machine that can still play contemporary games. It was made specifically for emerging countries’ growing middle class, such as India or China where entertainment spending in that sector has exploded.

Scalable technology could even mean that the hypothetical “Nintendo Phone” could run most “Nintendo Cloud Console” games and even allows for potential interaction between the two devices like using the phone as a controller.

On top of this, Nintendo could switch to a “gaming as a service” model that would draw in the crowd who buys their consoles for one or two games, but would hold them hostage with a subscription service that encourages them to try other games. This model has been met with criticism recently, but it does offer people lower initial costs than buying two or three $60 games at launch in addition to the pricey console.

All of this reconfiguring of corporate structure would be quite the whirlwind for Nintendo, and it would incur a significant amount of risk as well as technological investment. While the company is no stranger to investing in unproven or weird technologies, abandoning traditional console development would be quite the sore separation. However, this prospect seems less painful than the other alternative…

Play the Game

gta5wiiu

By this I mean compete directly with the latest-gen consoles in terms of available graphic capabilities and features. No one wants to see Nintendo ditch their colorful franchises for a bunch of Modern Warfare clones, but allowing third parties to not have to revamp their development for a down-powered console would preclude many people from having to buy “a Wii U and a…”

This adjustment would obviously come at a hefty price tag – Wii Us are already being sold at a loss at $300 – but it would mean that there would be no more griping about processing limitations and Nintendo being “just for kids.” Nintendo doesn’t seem hugely interested in throwing their necks in the ring with the likes of Sony and Microsoft, but the lack of third-party titles on the Wii U is certainly hurting their licensing revenue and not just their reputation.

And, honestly, while everyone likes Nintendo marching to its own beat it would be nice for them to at least try to keep up with modern standards. Their internet multiplayer has always been a joke, the Virtual Console is messy, and while the Wii U has been trying to bump up games with a web experience, it’s usually felt nothing but vestigial.

As a great counter-example, how many people peed their pants when they saw that preview for the new Zelda Wii U game? As I pointed out in last week’s article, this was because people are excited that Zelda – always known for quality and an involving experience – was going to offer game content on par with games like Assassin’s Creed or Skyrim.

This expectation might be hoping for a bit much, but the Zelda formula has felt stale as of Twilight Princess in terms of user interface and basic game mechanics, and it could use some updating. Titles like BioShock Infinite happen to feel fresh because they cut out some of the junk old games thought they needed and they replace it with exciting interactive stories. Having a Zelda game up to snuff with the likes of GTA would shut up a lot of people and renew faith in Nintendo despite a recently spotty track record.

A console that had the processing power to perform on this level all the time would bring Nintendo up to current standards. However, because their first-party games always look that good it would be hard to convince them that letting third-parties able to join in easier would be worth the extra investment and retail price.

In the end, Nintendo seems happy to be underpowered since the Wii got away with it so well. Coming up third place every console generation hardly seems like a viable strategy, though. Clearly, Nintendo is going to have to make some concessions in the near future in the graphics department or come up with some other ace-in-the-hole than a 3D display or a gamepad, neither of which have proven useful.

Nintendo’s deviation from making completely game-centered consoles has been evident from the fact that – despite being two consoles down the road –  they are still conceding that the Gamecube controller is the best way to play most of their games. Obviously they’ve been willing to alienate other developers by doing quirky things like using the gamepad that are obviously hard to implement and don’t seem to add a whole lot to the experience.

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So, in conclusion, Nintendo has many options at its disposal, albeit ones that they probably don’t consider very appetizing. Let’s hope that if they don’t rely on current trends like mobile games to turn a short-term profit, they’ll come up with something unprecedented that will put them on the map all over again other than for making a new Smash Bros. and Zelda.

Until then, I’ll wait until the Wii U is cheap enough on Craigslist that I won’t miss out on my favorite titles, and keep my ear to the ground about what Nintendo plans to do next.

 

Jarrod Lipshy is a BA English graduate and freelance content writer. He collects old Nintendo games but still hopes to enjoy new ones well into the future.





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10 responses so far

  • goseebananafish

    iOS ports

  • Vonter

    It is a difficult decision, since in one hand they don’t want to be compared to Sony and Microsoft, they’ve always stated that. Also the current strategy seems to be to keep the console afloat with their QOL project (which as of now is unknown what type of product for health it’ll be). Finally Nintendo doesn’t consider presentation as the basis to sell a game, doesn’t think online play is important (they don’t even charge for it), and they also have talked that their next console will be both a house system and a portable. So yeah, it is just playing the waiting game of either really expecting things will change or that one of the Wii U or 3DS games interests you enough.

    • Vonter

      Also to add most japanese developers have been overshadow by western ones. It’s a trend that most games are made for western audiences, something also Nintendo is a bit stuck since while they make games for everyone it’s too improbable they’ll make a mature game.

      As for IOS not even other japanese developers have made something worthwhile. Square Enix ported less appealing and cumbersome playing Final Fantasy, Capcom only made one Megaman X game and several others have just gone free to play since no matter the quality people don’t want to spend more than 5 dollars on a game for that platform. Seems also a reason why Nintendo hasn’t done it. They’ve just say they’ll make software to promote their games, but not necessarily being demos.

  • Nick

    The problem with Nintendo is that they only make one type of game. Aside from a few 3rd party titles, everything on the Wii and Wii U has been a family-friendly, bright and colourful “fun” game. There’s no real variety, nor ambition in the their titles.

    You have a small vocal minority of people who adore the console for games like this, and the majority of people who simply have no interest in it at all. Nintendo needs to do something about that now before they are permanently known as the “for kiddies” console.

    It’s not impossible – look at Naughty Dog for instance. For a decade they were known for their simple platformers with Crash and Jak. Then they changed gears and moved in to a more mature space, and they crafted the defining games of last gen. If Nintendo started to produce games that appealed to something other than my sense of nostalgia and “fun”, I’m sure they could turn it around. It’s just a shame that their not inconsiderable talents are wasted on sequel after sequel after spinoff after spinoff of a thoroughly flogged horse series.

    • Vonter

      And still the type of games they make has no competition. I have yet to see the Nintendo alternative at other places. I mean appreciate mature titles also, but the lack of levity and wonder is lacking on other places. If anything indies are the only ones carrying the torch, but they’re still too small.

  • cypher20

    I can only speak for myself but the biggest reason I don’t have a WiiU is the third party issue. They aren’t even trying to compete with Sony and MS and while Nintendo’s first party games are great, you simply miss out on too many other games in order to get those great first party games. I remember my Wii sitting there gathering dust while I was waiting for Skyward Sword, etc, and I feel no need to buy a WiiU as it feels like it will be the same thing all over.

    Frankly, I think if Nintendo would just release a console that is on par with its competitors it would be fine. Then you could have all those great third party releases and Nintendo’s great first party offerings. As it stands right now, it’s like you said. WiiU is a great 2nd console, but lots of us can’t afford two consoles.

    I wouldn’t write off Nintendo yet because, if nothing else, they have a lot of money in the bank and could weather WiiU being a flop. Still, if they don’t get their brand name up to snuff, their next console may very well do worse. I hope they turn things around but I’m not going to buy a WiiU out of charitable feelings towards Nintendo, I’m going to buy it if I think it is the best console I can get that will have the most enjoyable games and not spend months gathering dust.

    • Vonter

      The issue is more deeper than not having the raw power. Online wise they have a less develop network in comparison to the other two. Also it seems is an issue in the business sense, they don’t market third party games as fervently as Sony or M$. They also aren’t into jumping into current business models as Microtransactions or DLC as frequently as other companies.

      In short, Nintendo lives in another universe entirely, which may or not be the reason they only still make cartoony or stylized games in comparison to the realistic games the competition makes.

  • Caleb

    They should know that if they remade the older DS games with the older DS they would make more $ then they are with the 3DS. Also there are alots of people that would buy a 64 in seconds just for the memories that they had when they first came out.

  • Ben Robinow

    I don’t know why Nintendo gets so much crap! Sure their past couple of consoles haven’t been all that great but the games have been on a different level then Cod or GTA could ever reach. The most recent Legend of Zelda game was my favorite of all the series and the same goes for Pokemon. The next Smash Bros. has a lot of anticipation for a good reason. It looks incredible. Frankly, I think that Nintendo has been spending a lot of time on games. Their consoles haven’t been the greatest but at least they have a lot of games to go with them, unlike the Xbox One or PS4.

  • Vonter

    I really don’t know. Mainly because if that ever happen I’ll see them putting old games at Square Enix prices.

    Also… IOS is mainly a cash cow, good games are the exception not the rule and at least for me it offends me the types of business models it has. Might as well add a slot machine to how some additional content is handle.

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