Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What's Next For Nintendo?

 
To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Last week, on September 30th, Nintendo discontinued its Club Nintendo customer loyalty program. A week before this date I was instantly reminded, by an official Nintendo e-mail, of all the leaflets I had collected since the dawn of the Game Boy Advance era. Enclosed with the games they came with, they held all the 'stars' that made up the currency of this loyalty program. These could then be traded online for Nintendo branded tchotchkes. A few nights later I was staying up late, scratching strips of gunk with a 50p coin till I was blue in the fingertips. I had to toss about half of my vouchers because they had expired half a decade ago! Ultimately, the net result was 2200 stars which I readily traded for 2 digital downloads: Wario Land and Metroid 2. Both were made for Game Boy and were quickly downloaded to my 3DS. The whole experience felt rather novel, liberating too. But it also felt like a sign of the times.

As you may have noticed, gaming giant Nintendo has recently entered a state of transition. The middling hardware sales, the retrospective outlook of the company, the recent passing of Satoru Iwata. Though the quality of the games it creates remains high, it seems the company can't get a break. A cynical mind would say that, after the unexpected success of the Wii, it would seem only logical that this giant would eventually stumble over it's own loamy feet. I agree that success can come from a flash in a pan and that recreating it may be next to impossible but Nintendo is too experienced to just fumble its business and perish.

So what could be next for Nintendo?

Nintendo used to innovate. They brought the analog stick, adapting it for 3D gaming; the rumble feature, introducing haptic feedback; the handheld market... and more recently, some would say infamously, the motion controller. The latter opened up an interface that required minimal button input and with it opened up gaming to a wider audience. Personally, at the time, I couldn't help but feel a little puzzled why Nintendo had made a console that was hardly more powerful than the GameCube. The only immediate advantage I felt with the Wiimote and Nunchuck was that the combo didn't make me feel as though I was cuffed to a controller. That feeling never quite changed until I played Super Mario Galaxy. A game that made me believe Nintendo still gets it. What they didn't get was what was happening with the Internet: Friend codes, paid software tied to hardware instead of player accounts... Were they too proud to ask for advice? Time and time again, the headstrong nature of the company seems to have lead to about as many negatives as it did positives.
Case in point: the WiiU. First and foremost proof that brand recognition will not guarantee sales. At least, brand recognition is how the name was intended. I like to imagine WiiToo was on the boards as wel. How the public may have perceived this brand is patently obvious: it was confused. "How is a Wii different from a WiiU? This one has a remote that one has toy version of the iPad, and we already have an iPad. What do you mean this Wii can't run WiiU games?" Queue more brand confusion with games made for the New 3DS and won't run on the 3DS. Have you ever tried explaining a parent that the new 3DS is called the New 3DS? I have yet to master the art of speaking in capital letters. I imagine it's the same with Nintendo, Iwata was the only one to pull thàt particular trick. Needless to say, Nintendo's naming convention is needlessly messy and conservative in times where Android phones and iPhone iterations are numbered, there's no danger in putting a number at the end of a name. Children won't put off because it reminds them of math class and in any case: parents do all the shopping anyway.

I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth.

I'm of the opinion that hardware has become a liability to the big N. Don't get me wrong, I love the quirky Nintendo branded boxes in my home. Especially the handhelds are some well-designed pieces of kit, I don't think I'll ever fall out of love with my Game Boy Advance SP. The hours spent with Advance Wars 2, Metroid Fusion, Fire Emblem, Wario Land 4, the list goes on... Sterling memories! This was another go at the 16bit era. This was a nineties gamer's second youth. Yet they remain as just memories.
A point could be made that all of Nintendo's best games are in the past. Until they commit yet another classic to history. But what I mean is that we should focus on the Art of Nintendo and not on the Tech of Nintendo - because they haven't been on the cutting edge of technology since the Super Nintendo.

I'm going out on a limb here, but it seems sensible to me for Nintendo to drop out of the hardware business. At least to the extend they are trying to remain inside of it today. It even seems sensible for Microsoft, and to a lesser extend Sony, to do the same. But they are sitting a bit more comfortably in the Tech Green Zone, so for now the pressure remains solely on Nintendo. Couple this to the trend that we, us that deal in games, software, are ever shifting away from a product economy and into a service economy - just look at Steam. Nintendo hasn't been blind to this, given the strides they are (trying) to make with the e-shop. E-shop by the way, is an equally, or should I say: typically, old sounding idea when compared to e-mail or e-music. In times were everything is electronic anyway. The added 'e' is a meaningless additive that only seems meaningful to a company that thinks there's a difference when in reality it has become the norm. That 'e' is superfluous. A bit like the WiiU, but at least they have got the right idea.

This right idea may very well be the Nintendo NX. Widely considered, by the wider gaming press (not this blog) to be yet another Nintendo Console. Queue some e-hand-wringing: will this be another failed collection of taped-together GameCubes with an attached gimmick? Just look at the WiiU, Lolz! People seem to take to these newfangled tablets, so let's stick one in a controller, instantly voiding the appeal and flexibility of a tables (which does away with buttons). Then void their portability by tethering them to a console with a connection so finicky you need to stay withing a 6 meter radius or the controller becomes little more than a dinner tray. Finally we'll demand game developers use this innovative technology into their unique concepts to realize their full potential in times where The Sequel is both the best idea ánd what gamers expect!
Fruit juicers may well become the next technological fad, so expect the Nintendo OrangeBox with innovative, juicy juicing gameplay. Out with the wiggle, in with the wrangle! I can already see Wario wringing coins out of poor old Syrup. Attach the Wiimote on top of it so it becomes a steering wheel! silly old Nintendo, can't you see that all you have left to innovate in gaming hardware are badly ported mainstream gimmicks? Everybody else is innovating for you, because that's all they do: they specialize. The irony here is that Oculus is putting two and two together, they are using 2 technologies Nintendo pioneered with varying success. Namely, the VR headset (the virtual boy) and the motion controls (the Wiimote). Nintendo simply cannot compete with tech specialists. And even Oculus are coming up with new software because of their gimmick. They are outgimmicking Nintendo's gimmicks with Nintendo's old gimmicks!

Games have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. More concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC.

Nintendo's wealth lies in ideas and intellectual property rather than its material and tech. So they should focus on games and their gameplay ideas without the required USP. Without constant innovation, tech becomes old fast, even more so as time goes by. So why bother? Nintendo realized this when they made the Wii. But today even the gimmick has become old hat. Both their unique console (best when it was the SNES) and unique interface (best when it was the N64) method have become yesterday's news. Everyone has caught up and surpassed the tired giant.
However, they are still on point when it comes to games. Games are, and have always been Nintendo's saving grace. The fox may lose its hair, but not his cunning. That is why I think the NX is not a console but an idea. Or put more concretely: all of Nintendo's games presented on a unified platform free from hardware restrictions. Run NX on the WiiU, 3DS or PC. Maybe even Android or iOS. If Nintendo seems to be aware of the software modding scene with Mario Maker, they must be aware of the emulation scene (see: the Dolphin emulator, to name just one). They must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast, and frankly: stellar, library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

Nintendo must be aware of Steam's success. They must realize that their vast and stellar library of games is a goose that will lay its golden eggs indefinitely whether they make hardware for it or not.

There are more signs that this may become a trend, Xbox will share its platform on Windows 10 on PC, the idea has existed since Xbox Live was first presented. The concept of Crossplay is no longer an idea that endangers a platform, but something that strengthens it - we'll be able to see how it plays out when Street Fighter V shares its player base with both PlayStation and PC players.
But take heart, dear gamer, all this does not rule out new Nintendo hardware. Just not a separate line of spending that would pile the costs into Nintendo R&D, and thus take away from game development which is their primary strength. They may even partner-up with a computer company. After all, even Microsoft and Sony made their consoles in the image of the PC - the real difference is in the platforms they run and these will become more complex and less hardware dependent over time.
Nintendo, learning from past mistakes, wouldn't be a company that would refuse another manufacturer's hardware twice, would they? A Nintendo Branded Vaio? Stranger things have happened. And all things considered it's a vastly more preferable scenario than letting a heritage sink as if a ship, once so beautiful that the inheritors didn't even dare renovate it to keep it afloat.

1 comment:

Thomas Pottie said...

Nintendo has been informing the world about their plans for the future.
http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-10/29/new-nintendo-account-system-loyalty-scheme

So far so good.