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Analysis: The Nintendo bubble

Analysis: The Nintendo bubble Exclusive

June 10, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

June 10, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3

Nintendo is in a tough place. The company's Wii U is not selling. Often that's been put down to a lack of good software for the system. I don't think it's that simple. I think what it is, is that the public has left Nintendo behind.

Usually, that sentiment is couched the other way around: Nintendo can't adapt. I'll get to that. But it's worth recognizing that casual consumers don't want to buy dedicated hardware without a very good reason, as core gamers have moved on to experiences like Sony's The Last of Us, an emblematic game of the prior generation if ever there was one.

To stick by Nintendo's side, you have to prefer Nintendo's games to these experiences to the point where you want to entirely focus on them, and that's the Wii U's problem in a nutshell. It's easy to decide to buy a 3DS in addition to a console or PC. It's not easy to justify a Wii U if you don't feel that Nintendo games are an essential part of your life.

I don't think anything Nintendo showed in its digital presentation today will change the Wii U's fortunes. While many of the games are extremely promising, it's hard to imagine anything but the die-hards, me included, buying them.

Take the new IP, Splatoon, for example. It's a competitive shooter with an imaginative mechanic based around spreading ink on the battlefield to claim territory. It's appealing, colorful, and looks like it has a lot of strategic possibilities. But for gamers who've spent the last years baptized in the fire of Call of Duty, it's going to seem like kids' stuff. It doesn't pander to the adults and adolescents who make up the shooter market.

I find military shooters at best sophomoric and at worst distasteful. I also have faith that Nintendo is crafting fun mechanics and, perhaps most important, a game that feels great to play. But I also know that the number of people who think "I'd play a multiplayer shooter if Nintendo crafted it" is vanishingly small these days. Most of the players who grew up with Nintendo's older systems, I think, either adapted to or embraced the grittiness of games over this last generation -- or fled games altogether as they became unwelcoming.

Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime promised "something different to celebrate what it means to be a Nintendo fan" from its E3 presentation, and that is what it was -- and all it was. As

"This was a presentation for Nintendo's existing fans. How many more of them don't already have a Wii U?"
polished, lively, and creative as its games looked -- all the existing IP, except Pokemon, was either reimagined wholly or heavily tweaked -- it was a presentation for Nintendo's existing fans. How many more of them don't already have a Wii U?

The company will accrue more and more of those players over the course of the next year and beyond -- slowly gobbling up all of the possible fans, maybe even the lapsed ones, who've been reluctant to shell out money for its latest console. But that, I'm afraid, will be it.

Nintendo is aware of its uphill battle. It formally announced its Amiibo toys -- that's Nintendo's Skylanders-esque figure platform, which will work with multiple games, starting with this holiday season's Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. It's also one of the only really mainstream-feeling things in the presentation. By "mainstream," I don't mean "core gamer" but "mass consumer." E3 is a festival for its fans, of course, but it's also a bellwether of the direction the company is going.

Amiibo is going to work -- particularly as a delivery vector for new content for older games (Mario Kart 8 functionality, where I suspect it will act like DLC, was teased.) But the company was caught flatfooted by the toy-based boom Activision kicked off, and is now catching up with a product that may be more thoughtful and flexible than its competitors, and of course capitalizes on the strength of its IP, but also relies on familiarity and fondness for its stable of characters, and an understanding of just what it's trying to do.

Nintendo requires forbearance as much as it requires enthusiasm. It creates the kind of complex systems that kids love puzzling out and adults feel like they don't have time for.

Nintendo has a certain naivete about it, too, which the presentation showcased. Yeah, Robot Chicken made some funny bumpers. But the pace of the video was staid, and it also spent a lot of time talking to developers. While all the developers who made it on stage at Sony faked spontaneity, and the ones in the Xbox sizzle reels simply belched core gamer cred, Nintendo's patiently explained the design ideas behind their games. Is anybody listening?

"The big difference is that Mario games are about performing challenging tasks in a given time limit. But the difference is Yoshi games don't have a time limit, so you can explore the vast game world. You can make new discoveries," Yoshi's Woolly World producer Takashi Tezuka said, in the slow-paced segment devoted to that game.

Meanwhile, producer Eiji Aonuma said this about the company's badly needed new Wii U Zelda game: "the puzzle-solving in this game begins the moment the player thinks about where they want to go, how they'll get there, and what they want to do when they arrive." Sure, there was a flashy, cinematic boss battle in the trailer. But it was fundamentally a presentation that aimed to explain to players why they'll be interested in playing the game.

Nintendo always, in the end, relies on its games and their designers as the argument for the company's viability. And from a pure artistic standpoint, that's an argument that brooks no response: These games are all promising, and all unique. But it's also a strategy that appeals only to a select few -- at least enough to get them to spend; at least as long as they like Nintendo's visual and gameplay aesthetics; at least as long as they don't want TV-esque drama; at least as long as they stop and think and appreciate what the company is all about.

Yesterday at Sony's conference, there was a moment during the Far Cry 4 demo when the player shoved a knife through an NPC's head -- right up from under the chin. A cheer erupted in the crowd. It reminded me of that notorious The Last of Us headshot episode from a couple years back -- a revolting moment when the audience erupted into cheers and applause in response to point-blank shotgun blast to the face.

But during the Far Cry 4 presentation, I was also left with an uneasiness that was borne from a lack of understanding. What are they cheering for? Because they like wanton violence? Because knifing people in the head is a fun gameplay mechanic? Is it an emotional reflex to a stimulus? What in the world makes them cheer? I felt like a psychologist from another culture -- maybe another planet.

I don't know, but whatever it is, Nintendo doesn't have it. Nintendo doesn't want it. Nintendo will not deliver it, and that's one reason Nintendo has been left behind by the audience that once embraced it.

If you looked at the "my favorite game" titles splayed underneath developers' names during the Microsoft presentation every time someone came in to show off their own personal flavor of face-shooty, so many of them were first party Nintendo games, usually for the SNES.

"We can always count on these games to deliver fun and great gameplay, because it's Nintendo," Fils-Aime said. That sums up the company's naivete and also its arrogance in one statement. Arrogance born of naivete is a particularly dangerous, because it is the kind of thinking that comes up with things like the Wii U's GamePad -- an answer to a question nobody was asking. Yes, you can think of good ideas for the GamePad. Yes, you can think of use cases for the GamePad. But with those thoughts consuming your processing power, you can't see that the device's primary effect will be to be an albatross around the neck of the Wii U.

"We came up with the gameplay first and then created characters that fit with the gameplay. That's how Nintendo prefers to do things," one of the Splatoon designers said of developing the company's new game. And the game looks great, and that approach will definitely lead to a seamless integration of its mechanics and its world. That approach works on a game level. But that thinking doesn't work when it comes to hardware, because hardware is an unforgiving business to be in, with a whole different set of pressures than game design.

I could point out the obvious: Nintendo didn't shove all of its announcements into the presentation (it's apparently picked up Tomonobu Itagaki's Devil's Third, which he was originally developing or THQ, as a Wii U exclusive -- in a similar style of rescue as Platinum Games' Bayonetta 2.) I could point out that there were no third party games, and discuss all of the implications that carries. I could point out that most of the Wii U games showcased had 2015 release dates, meaning Smash Bros. and Amiibo are really all the company has for 2014, which is going to mean a painful uphill fight for anything but eking out the dollars of any but the most die-hard Nintendo fans.

For all that news reports like to point out that the 3DS is selling worse than the DS, it was also

"Nintendo has to find a way to pierce its bubble without letting its fans escape."
the overall best-selling dedicated game hardware platform of 2013 and, more to the point, fits into a lot of lifestyles, smartphones be damned -- a lot of people who like games feel like there's room in their life for it, because it's easy to pick up, put down, and it has different kinds of games. As long as you like playing games as more than a supermarket checkout distraction, it has appeal -- no matter what other platforms you focus on. But the Wii U demands attention, as dedicated consoles always do. It demands dedication.

In the modern era, where Nintendo is competing not just with Sony and Microsoft, but with Steam, the attrition of its audience, and its own handheld platform, it's no wonder that the Wii U is having a tough time. Everything from Xenoblade Chronicles X to Bayonetta 2 to Mario Maker and beyond looked intriguing and appealing in their showcase demos during the presentation.

Microsoft and Nintendo both had the pitch "we have a lot of games" this year. Microsoft, because it repeatedly alienated its audience with the Xbox One, hence the Halo revamp. Nintendo, because it is simply still that kind of company -- when the other two are not.

The culture of games has been wracked with change over the last several years, and Nintendo is in a bubble. It's a wonderfully inviting bubble if you care about the company's output. Games have expanded so dramatically as a space in the last few years that no one company can claim to capture "the audience" -- no one game, no matter how popular, can pretend that it appeals to anything but a splinter of the huge mass of people that plays video games right now, and every day some developer or publisher somewhere is working to further work another splinter away from the mass, because that's how you get to be the next Riot Games.

But that very explosion into subcultures is what is hurting Nintendo now, because hardware doesn't work that way. If it wants to stay in the dedicated console business, it has to find a way to pierce its bubble without letting its fans escape. And that will be a painful transition -- if it's even possible.

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