The Next-Gen Gameplan: Nintendo - o_JMan240_o Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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The Next-Gen Gameplan: Nintendo

I continue my series of blogs outlining what I think would be the best approach to the next generation of gaming for some of the industry's biggest companies. This time my focus is on the console manufacture in the most unique place moving forward. Keep in mind that this is just what I think they need to do in order to be successful, your opinion as well as what they choose to do may be completely different.

Nintendo

Nintendo finds themselves in an interesting spot in comparison to their console competitors. Whether interesting denotes peril or optimism in this case is open to interpretation. Perhaps weird might be a better choice. Last generation the company watced their GameCube console flounder in comparison to Sony's world-beating, headline grabbing Playstation 2 sales numbers. Bellow the fold, Microsoft's late foray into the space eroded Nintendo's share of the console market even further. These days that little purple box is probably just as noteworthy for its odd shape, choice of MiniDVD media format, and insane controller layout as it is for some of the handful of undeniably great games that launched on it. Without a doubt the less than dominant performances of the Nintendo 64 and GameCube systems helped shaped the company's philosophy moving forward.

Logic might have suggested that an obvious route for Nintendo to take entering the current generation of gaming would have been to return the rather straightforward days of their breakout NES and SNES consoles; essentially abandoning the oddities of their two most recent consoles in order to reestablish a foothold outside of the core Nintendo audience. In some ways, they did just that. The Wii is a rather nondescript box, its controllers are fairly nondescript rectangles, and the media format is about as nondescript as discs get. What all that disguised though was a unique gaming experience; one that would eventually see Nintendo jump from middling, aging core gaming dinosaur to cutting edge casual gaming robot over night.

The Wii did what many thought was impossible for Nintendo. With that unassuming little white box the company recaptured the interests of the fair weather gamers who likely didn't upgrade from their Xbox or PS2 while simultaneously capturing the attention of those who normally wouldn't play games. In the process they helped to create a whole new corner of the industry as people realized that there was space for games outside of the gaming community. Unfortunately, a lack of strong support from developers outside of Nintendo and the demographic they targeted means that the company isn't as far ahead as one might think, in spite of the fact that they moved nearly 30 million more units than their closest competitors. On top of that, the system did little to draw in support from the hardcore gaming community that had already been transitioning away from Nintendo's home consoles. Now the Japanese heavyweight is jumping feet first back into the same space that they were so roughly muscled out of. This is the spot where things get weird, or interesting, or whatever you want to call it.

What They Need To Do

Nintendo may be the only member of home console manufacturing's dominant trio to have announced its next generation product, but that doesn't mean the company's future is any clearer. Sony and Microsoft have already rolled out similar functionality to the Wii-U's unique touchscreen controller, with Playstation Vita Cross Control and the Surface tablet respectively. The console itself is looking to break back into a sector of the gaming market that they largely ignored for the past half decade or so. In order to successfully gain a foothold in the arguably more sustainable side of the market, Nintendo will need to find a niche again; fill a role that the others can't or won't because they don't think there's room for profit. 

  • Low Budget, Big Value - Nintendo has positioned itself at the lowest possible end of price spectrum with the Wii, and all signs seem to be pointing to the Wii-U doing the same. That's a good thing though, since the price of technology in gaming certainly won't be shrinking anytime soon. With some careful navigation Nintendo might even find itself in a situation similar to the relationship between current HD consoles and PCs. There's certainly space for a low budget alternative in the gaming space. Similarly, it's unlikely that the Wii-U will match Sony's Orbis or Microsoft's Durango prototypes in power when they finally transform into real products, but that doesn't mean the system is dead in the water. If they can get in the ballpark visually, and line up an array of previously released AAA titles for sub $60 prices, they may tap the market of people who are still playing on their last generation consoles. At the right price it may even bring Nintendo's currently casual audience into the world of gaming as we know it, and expand the entire market as a whole. Gaming is permeating the mainstream even as we speak, but cost is still a barrier. In Nintendo's case, it's a barrier they might very well be able to remove.
  • Indie Influx - Nintendo's home consoles have notoriously provided little in the way of quality software from outside the company, and even less from their online marketplace. That said, reaching out to independent developers could be the best way to show off unique Wii-U technology. The independent side of the development community thrives on doing things that no one else will attempt, and suffice to say they'll be using the Wii-U's touch pad for more than an inventory or map if they get the chance. The fact that Nintendo can provide that functionality built in, while Sony and Microsoft both require development for additional devices, should make the Wii-U even more attractive in that sense. Nintendo should be chomping at the bit to establish the Wii-U as more than just another system with flashy HD visuals since, as previously mentioned, the system won't likely keep pace with its next-gen competition for very long. At the moment Sony holds a slight advantage on the console side of the Indie Game market thanks to Microsoft's strict and costly certification process for games released outside of the nuthouse that is Xbox Live's Indie Games section. While Sony tends to acquire the teams working on higher profile independent games, there's still room for Nintendo to court future developers to their side and their platform provided they remain conscious to the hurdles these small teams often face.
  • Developer Development - Again the idea of Nintendo looking outside of their own company for developers rears its head. This is a little different than the idea of courting an ever expanding indie market though. Nintendo needs more support from 3rd Party developers, and not just the support that will bring them large multi-platform releases. Their console needs a developer with a name and a face. Gamers want to be able to look and say: "Here is a company that works very closely with Nintendo, who may even owned by them, but still maintains their own identity and creative vision and when I hear that name I know the game it's attached to will be worth buying." Sony has Naughty Dog and Insomniac among others. Microsoft has the Bungie offshoot 343 Industries and Epic Games. In the eyes of most gamers Nintendo just has Nintendo. Just as in movies a name with a solid reputation can sell a product. Hype builds around announcements from big developers, and it certainly wouldn't hurt Nintendo to have that ball in their court. On top of that, pursuing a strong outside force could be the kick in the pants that their systems have needed in order to stimulate more quality releases on their platforms. This isn't to say that they should stop making games that are uniquely Nintendo, just that they might find more success in re-entering the side of the market they stepped away from with help from the other shore.
  • Marketplace Before Playplace - Many people are looking to online gaming as the biggest place Nintendo can make up ground. There's a myth out there that Nintendo is somehow incompetent when it comes to online features, though its more likely that they just don't care much about the space. Although it's certainly true that competitive multiplayer is a driving force in the industry, I don't think the Wii-U needs to go out of its way to focus on it. A simplistic, bare bones approach that is reliable but also leaves most of the grunt work up to developers is their best bet. Instead, Nintendo's focus should be primarily on building a marketplace for games. Since a good portion of Nintendo's install base is likely to remain casual gamers putting purchases at a user's fingertips will put games into people's hands. The less thinking and planning a casual gamer has to do before making a purchase the more sales that will be made. Some people may not like that approach but the fact of the matter is that Nintendo needs to move more software. Right now the average number of games purchased by a Wii owner would sit at around 8 with about 95 million consoles and 825 million games sold. While that may sound like a decent number keep in mind that come this fall Activision will have released 6 individual Call of Duty games in this generation alone. I myself just hit the 100 games played mark on my Xbox 360, and I've played at least another 25 or 30 games between my PC and PS3. If that isn't enough to convince you that offerings are sparse on the Wii, take into consideration that roughly 260 million of that 825 million units sold figure is comprised of just 9 games. Software sales for the system as a whole have hurt Nintendo this generation in spite of their astounding ability to keep moving units in a down economy. A solid marketplace packed to the brim with new games that people want to buy, and classics that people would love to replay, may be just the thing to help turn that around moving forward.
  • Keep The Past Playable - One of the most head-scratching decisions by console manufacturers this generation has been to abandon the backwards compatibility of their systems after launch. While Sony chose to abandon the feature fairly early on, citing hardware constraints, Nintendo only just released a non-backwards compatible version of the Wii last year with the "Family Edition", which originally launched in Europe before finally making its way stateside. Nintendo hasn't fully abandoned the idea of backwards compatibility, but the Wii Family Edition shows that they are willing to sacrifice it for the sake of lowering prices and/or saving money. With questions about the cost of the Wii-U still buzzing about and Nintendo promising that their new console will not be extremely expensive, this may very well be a place they look to for the sake of cutting costs later on in the system's lifetime. In fact, Nintendo has already announced that the system won't be backwards compatible with GameCube games. That might turn out to be a mistake if they choose that route though. Gamers have proven time and time again that they are willing to play Nintendo titles like Mario and Zelda multiple times, regardless of when the games themselves actually released. While releasing updated versions of those old games into a buffed up online marketplace may satiate some of that crowd, there are still those who will want to play their classics from the discs they came on. Likewise, telling a casual crowd that they'll have to buy all new games if they purchase Version X.0 of the Wii-U will probably be a turn off. After all, most of them are already satisfied with what they have which is why Wii software isn't exactly flying off the shelves. 

The Wrap Up

The Wii-U is a potentially unique piece of hardware that comes with a unique set of challenges to tackle. It almost certainly will not be the most powerful piece of technology in the coming generation, but there is a place for it. If anyone can take something odd and make it into a phenomenon it's Nintendo. However, being successful for the Wii-U will rely on the system doing more than just what it seems to be setting out to do. It can't be just another box with HD games that every other system has or a device with lower fidelity ports of next-gen titles. It sounds counter-intuitive to suggest that an alternative to the $60 price point and graphics heavy focus of modern video games that still provides a comparable experience might come from an industry staple, but it is a very real possibility that Nintendo's Wii-U could do just that. Then again... Nintendo has done some weird things in the past and they don't appear to plan on taking a break from that anytime soon.

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