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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.