Two-Player Mode: Kotaku versus Screen Play

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Welcome to the first Two-Player Mode, a new regular feature where I'm joined by Screen Play editor and veteran games writer Jason Hill to debate a current hot topic. With the Australian launch of the DSi slated for next Thursday, April 2, we thought it apposite to discuss just where Nintendo currently stands in the industry landscape at this moment in time. Or, as Jason put it when first phrasing the topic, is Nintendo a pioneer or a profiteer? Hit the jump for the full email exchange and do let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

From: Jason Hill To: David Wildgoose Subject: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

Thanks for the opportunity to spar with you. We've both been writing about the games industry for a long time now, and have seen countless changes. But I'd wager that one of the few constants has been that Nintendo has been the constant innovator. The one company prepared to constantly take risks. Yet today, among hardcore gamers, it is the target of derision for being more interested in being a profiteer rather than a pioneer. I'm keen to hear what you think about Nintendo today, and their track record.

We can obviously get to controversial specifics like the Wii's New Play Control range and the DSi in a minute, but I thought I'd start by noting that Nintendo's seemingly relentless focus on "profit" is nothing new. In the NES era, Nintendo's share of the console market was something like 90 per cent. Even as Nintendo console became increasingly "less successful" through the SNES, N64 and GameCube, Nintendo still made handsome profits, and of course has totally dominated the handheld industry for two decades.

I would argue the reason for Nintendo's ongoing success is that it is a brave company prepared to make big gambles. The Wii and the DS were perhaps the biggest gambles of all, and have paid off big time. Gamers can whinge all they like about how reliant Nintendo is on a handful of licenses, how they conservatively churn out the same games over and over again (and let's address that later) but the reality is that Nintendo has bigger balls than Donkey Kong. When faced with adversity, Nintendo's response has always been to gamble on something new, that's been true ever since the company moved from the playing card business into toys and electronic games.

As the editor of a site that is well-known for its snark, why do you think Nintendo is the target of so much derision, and to what extent is it justified?

From: David Wildgoose To: Jason Hill Subject: RE: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

It's a pleasure to have you, Jason, and snarkily welcome you to your first Kotaku byline. Let's hope this is the first of many such bouts. Yet let us also hope we have the sense to quit before we find ourselves jumping the snark. Right. So, Nintendo eh?

That wager on Nintendo being a constant innovator isn't one I'm confident you'll win. To my eyes the Nintendo trajectory has mostly been of evolution, before a brief bout of hesitation spurred the recent period of innovation. And this path explains the point where Nintendo and the "core gamer" parted ways.

The NES introduced a generation to video games. Through the SNES and N64, Nintendo remained in lockstep with the demands of this generation. As the NES kids grew older and clamoured for greater graphical fidelity and deeper, more complex play mechanics, Nintendo delivered. But the diminishing sales of each successive console sent alarm bells ringing in Kyoto. While Nintendo have always profited on hardware, a shrinking market is of little interest.

The Gamecube was their moment of hesitation. Its controller design foreshadowed their now-explicit desire to simplify gaming input devices, while even the console itself harked back to gaming's youth. In retrospect, you can easily imagine internal conversations of ambitions to recapture "lapsed gamers" and even win over non-gamers with a more accessible piece of hardware. But it failed on two counts.

One, those gamers who'd stuck by Nintendo were left unfulfilled and found that Sony and Microsoft were now delivering more of the kind of experience they craved (in part thanks to a deteriorating relationship with third-party publishers still resenting the N64's cartridge system). Two, the Cube didn't innovate anywhere near enough to attract those non-core gamers. In fact, it was Sony who showed the way, particularly its European studios and titles such as SingStar, Buzz and EyeToy.

After that wake-up call, Nintendo responded in admirably bold fashion: the DS and then the Wii signified a clean break from the past, perhaps the first moments of genuine innovation since the NES. Ironically, in trying to emulate the mainstream success of that first console, Nintendo stands accused of having abandoned the audience that sustained them for the two decades in-between.

As for whether they're a profiteer or a pioneer, clearly they are both; the former all the time and the latter when they need to be. Nowhere is that more evident than the constant iterations of their handheld hardware. Over what is just three generations, Nintendo has released dozens of variations and incremental upgrades over the years, from the Gameboy Colour to the GBA Micro and DS Lite. Now we have the DSi, already selling truckloads in Japan and offering fundamentally the same technology as its precursor. And for - in Australia at least - $100 money points more.

I know you've spent some time playing with the DSi recently. Where do you see it fitting into Nintendo's strategy? Is it evolution or revolution? Or, perhaps, their first misstep in quite some time?

From: Jason Hill To: David Wildgoose Subject: RE: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

I won't pull you up on the finer points of your history lesson except to say that there was a hell of a lot of innovation going on that you've casually dismissed as evolution, mainly in software. Of course, for every Super Mario 64, Ocarina, Pokemon or Animal Crossing there was a disaster like the Virtual Boy or e-Reader, but that's the price you pay for dreaming big. And yes, I totally agree that Sony schooled Nintendo on what we now seem to label "social gaming". Obviously, there are countless advances in the industry that didn't involve Nintendo, and I'm the first to criticise the company's pig-headed stupidity over decisions like sticking to cartridges in the N64 era or (still) restricting their online offerings, or treating third-parties with contempt. But Nintendo are the industry's most significant pioneers, there's little doubt.

The DSi is certainly fascinating because Nintendo is releasing it with no dedicated software. It's almost like Nintendo releasing the original DS with no software, just expecting fans to upgrade so they can play their GBA cartridges. I guess people will rush out and buy it, but I can't imagine why anyone would considering the $100 premium over the DS Lite, which Nintendo will continue to sell for the foreseeable future. The cosmetic improvements alone are certainly not worth $100.

The lack of dedicated DSi software has really confused people, who think Nintendo is trying to sell them a digital camera and a digital music player. But the poor quality (640 x 480!) of the cameras and the fact the unit doesn't even play MP3 files to me says the critics have misunderstood it, and it's no wonder people are underwhelmed. Additions like the SD memory card support and the twin digital cameras have been purely added for play. They are the embodiment of Nintendo's philosophy of using cheap (even obsolete) technology for fun. This is something Gunpei Yokoi called "Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology" - that games don't require cutting edge tech, just innovative uses of them - a philosophy that has paid enormous dividends with the Wii and DS.

Clearly, Nintendo hopes the additions to the DSi will be used in games in imaginative ways, just like the revolutionary touch screen and twin displays of the original console. The built-in applications like the photo and sound tools hint at this, but Nintendo really should have released the machine with a killer software app that dramatically illustrated the benefits of the machine's new toys, and also fully harnessed the machine's faster processor and more RAM.

So, I wouldn't buy one currently, nor recommend one to either a DS newcomer or an existing owner. And an extra $100 is a big jump, and into dangerous PSP territory. But I'm not sure I won't consider a DSi essential very soon if the software turns up. Digital downloads on the DSi Shop might actually quickly be enough to tempt many people anyway, especially if they are a lot cheaper than the standard $70 we have to pay for cartridge-based games.

As for your question of evolution, revolution or misstep, it's too early. The hardware is evolution, but revolution could come with software. And if it doesn't come at all, which is a possibility considering that most publishers outside of Nintendo will be loathe to release a dedicated DSi game considering the 100 million plain vanilla DS consoles that have been sold, then the machine will be a misstep like the stupid and unnecessary Game Boy Micro - one iteration too many.

A question for you now... Given the astonishing sales of the Wii, why aren't more publishers devoting more resources to the platform? As I mentioned on Screen Play recently, if I was a shareholder of a publisher, I would be demanding to know why the Wii version of their upcoming blockbuster franchise wasn't the company's biggest priority in terms of manpower, budget and release date. Should developers and publishers start turning the tables and making the Wii their lead platform instead of the PS3/360?

From: David Wildgoose To: Jason Hill Subject: RE: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

Your claim that the DSi launch is "almost like Nintendo releasing the original DS with no software" is spot on because the original DS essentially did launch with no software. Yes, there were first-party games that used the touch control and dual screens, but I'd argue the likes of Yoshi's Touch & Go represented little more than tech demos rather than fully-fledged DS games. And the less said the better about many third-party efforts that gave us a GBA experience with some sort of menu or inventory on the touchscreen.

It wasn't until what you might call the 2nd generation of DS games arrived with Wario Ware: Touched, Nintendogs and Brain Training that we saw how the hardware's unique features could translate into genuinely fresh play mechanics. Who knows how long we're going to be waiting for Nintendo themselves to once again point the way forward.

Splitting the market has to be a major concern. As you mention, why would any publisher wilfully ignore a market 100 million strong? I fear we're going to see very few titles supporting the new features of the DSi, certainly this year and next. And when they do, I suspect it may well be a case where a publisher will release the same game across the DS and DSi, but offer an extra camera-based mini-game or something in an effort to appease owners of the latter. It simply wouldn't make financial sense to do otherwise.

Quite where the concept of financial sense fits into the question you've asked about Wii development resources, I'm not sure. I wouldn't expect Bethesda to make the Wii its lead platform for the next Elder Scrolls. But I think we are finally seeing publishers wake up to the fact that Nintendo will have the most popular console this generation. Thing is, I'm not surprised it's taken so long. Remember, games can take 2-3 years to make, and 2-3 years ago everyone except Iwata-san had the Wii pegged as a fad. Back then I bet many publishing executives were still banking on the PS3 to "win".

Yet while they've realised how wrong their prediction were, I'm not sure they're any closer to working out what kind of games to make for the Wii audience. A major issue is the attach rate: the average Wii owner buys significantly fewer games than the 360 and PS3 owner. The Wii may well have the highest install base, but it also has the least committed consumers. Does it make financial sense to invest heavily in an audience that, to be honest, probably isn't paying you much attention at all?

Another factor to consider is that the best-selling Wii games are bundled with some sort of plastic peripheral. A third factor is that the low cost of development is offset by the lower retail price for Wii software. But I don't think these factors are the most problematic. The biggest hurdle for third-party publishers and developers is that the Wii represents a risk.

Indeed, I think it makes financial sense to not position the Wii as the lead platform. It's too risky.

Why? Well, think about what every publisher and developer has been doing for the last decade. Think about where their skills and expertise and development experience lie. They know how to make traditional, hardcore games for a traditional, hardcore gaming audience. This is what the vast majority of them do best and where they've invested the majority of their resources. Isn't it risky to stop doing what you're best at and try something else?

Secondly, when you make a Wii game, you're making it for one platform. You've got one shot at success. If you're looking at other consoles, you're doubling your chances - tripling, if you're also looking at the PC. If you can spend a little bit more money to bring your game out on three different platforms, then that's a less risky proposition than releasing on just one. Sure, I know we've seen publishers attempting to cover themselves by porting that Wii title to PS2 or PSP, but was that really a successful or even genuine Wii game in the first place?

It's funny how when we discuss Nintendo's perceived problems, we end up citing all kinds of difficulties other companies are having with Nintendo. Is it a problem that third-party publishers still can't get their heads around the Wii? Is it a problem that the DSi has no dedicated games at launch when we're sure Miyamoto is toiling away on administering his genius to the format right now? Nintendo's laughing right now. And counting the money.

From: Jason Hill To: David Wildgoose Subject: RE: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

It is a fair call to argue that the Wii still represents a bigger risk for some developers, and the install base of the PS3/360/PC coalition is obviously still bigger than Wii. But what is clear is that the Wii deserves more resources thrown at it rather than being treated as an afterthought once the lead platforms are out the door. It's no wonder Wii owners have bought less games than PS3 and 360 owners when so many of them are rubbish.

And yes, few companies (and analysts, and journalists, and gamers...) predicted the Wii's success. But I wanted to ask you whether you thought Nintendo's New Play Control range was an acknowledgment that even Nintendo got caught with its pants down and under-estimated how strong the demand for Wii software would be. The company's own release schedules have been disappointing barren of late, so the cynical view suggests Nintendo has taken an easy quick fix and re-released GameCube titles to bolster their line-up.

I imagine you have played with the likes of Pikmin and Mario Power Tennis by now, could you possibly recommend to anyone to spend $50 on them when you could buy the originals for mere pennies on eBay instead? As I asked in my tennis review, do you think the range is fan service or a shameless racket? And is Nintendo's slow trickle of releases (and their constant advertising of three-year-old games) another example of how they have realigned their business to new, less demanding consumers and left their old audience far behind?

From: David Wildgoose To: Jason Hill Subject: RE: Nintendo: Pioneer or Profiteer?

Recent statements from Shigeru Miyamoto suggest there's a deep sense of regret over the fate of the Gamecube. Perhaps the inspiration for the New Play Control series stems from a desire to right those perceived wrongs. To be fair, games like Pikmin, Donkey Kong Jungle Beat and even Metroid Prime are surely deserving of wider appreciation, and to Nintendo's credit they are releasing them at a mid-range price point.

(As an aside, you could even argue that Super Mario Galaxy, Super Paper Mario and of course Twilight Princess, to name but three first-party games aimed at the core gamer, are little more than Cube titles given a motion-control make-over. Hmm?)

To my mind, these Wiimakes aren't fan service because they're not intended for the guy who owns every Nintendo console. They're for that expanded audience who has probably never even heard of the Gamecube. Wouldn't we all rather see these new gamers picking up Mario Power Tennis than some rubbish mini-game shovelware?

You're absolutely correct to describe Nintendo's release schedule as barren. But with Wii Fit, Wii Play, Mario Kart et al immovable at the top of the charts, why would they be in a rush to release anything new? The "old audience" may complain about the long wait between core games, yet they'll still buy them on day one. Of course, Nintendo will throw out the occasional bone (Sin & Punishment, WarioLand) to placate their old fans. However, analysing decisions the company makes through the lens of the core gamer strikes me as misguided. Core gamers are no longer Nintendo's core business.

Two-Player Mode is a regular column across Kotaku and Screen Play. Join in the discussion on both sites and let us know if you have an idea for a future discussion topic.


Comments

    That was a great read! More on this, I say :)

    I think Nintendo are pioneering in order to increase profit. There was an interesting article in the u.k. mag "Games" which explored Nintendo and their whole "Blue Ocean" business strategy, which, from what I understand is about forging new markets and fields of play instead of competing in an already overcrowded and difficult one that has seen them post diminishing returns. That said I have had my Wii for about 18 months and have bought 7 games. I have had my xbox 360 for three months and have bought 17 games. I also own a DSlite and won't be upgrading to the DSI. I missed out on the whole Gameboy experience (perhaps if the name didn't have such childish connotations I would have been more inclined to buy one) and am really enjoying playing GBA games on it and can't see the point in upgrading and losing this functionality. I hope nintendo and the third parties lift their game, but to be honest, I haven't been this disappointed with a console since the days of the 3DO. I enjoyed your article immensly and look forward to the next one.

    Good collaboration, but a pain to read when the site reloads itself every 15 minutes. Why do the AU Gawker/Allure sites even have the silly setTimeout("doRefresh();", 900000) Javascript?

    Great series. Keep 'em coming.

    I read both sites everyday and enjoy both sites greatly. This Two Player Mode was a wonderful post from both parties. Thank you.

    Today I read on Screenplay comments about how Kotaku has been labelled as just another 'aggregation model' site. Re-posting other peoples original content.

    Where do you see Kotaku in publishing its own original content?

    Will it increase or do you find it is at an acceptable level currently?

    Does Kotaku rely too heavily on reposting or using other peoples original content and publishing it in such a way that the reader does not need me to go to the original source?

    I do realise you post links to where the content has come from, and I do not infer you steal content and label it as your own in any way. But nearly by posting the details everyone wants to read means we don't need to go to the original source decreasing valuable traffic to that sources site.

    For example, Kotaku publishes the list of top 10 selling games for the month/week etc. meaning we don't need to go to the source material for this vital information. Is this wrong?

    Regards, Christian

    Great read guys, having two 'players' to bounce ideas back and forth gives the article a nice flow. Definitely looking forward to more of these!

    I was a loyal Nintendoist through the SNES era, and some of my best gaming was (and still is!) on the N64. As a very happy Xbox360 owner (and previous owner of the original Xbox) I am in two minds about Nintendo’s Wii.

    On one hand, I cant help but look down on it’s severe lack of ‘AAA’ titles and casual approach to gaming. It simply can’t hold my interest for more than a few minutes of solo play.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen entire families come together and play rounds of Mario Kart to great fanfare. I’m talking grandparents, kids, the works. Age barriers and game experiences are completely demolished - everyone knows how to hold a remote and swing their arms around. It’s the ultimate equaliser. The Wii has touched a nerve, found a sweet spot, whatever you want to call it, and it’s introduced an entirely new audience to this form of interactive entertainment (as well as printing money for Nintendo.)

    A few short years ago, would you see an entire family gathered around the N64 playing an arguably superior version of Mario Kart?

    @Paul P

    "A few short years ago, would you see an entire family gathered around the N64 playing an arguably superior version of Mario Kart?"

    That was a fairly regular occurrence in my family. Moreso with Super Mario Kart though, which is still the superior version!

    As a fan of Croal and Totilo's Vs Mode, I'm happy to see someone carrying the torch for intelligent games criticism. Good work guys, looking forward to the next one!

    Pioneer or profiteer? Seems a silly question to me. Nintendo ain't no charity. Like any business they just wanna make money. If they think innovating will make them more money, they'll do it. If they think churning out the same shit to clueless n00bs will make them more money, they'll do it. Sony and Microsoft are the same. There's nothing wrong with it, it's just the way business works.

    @The Wildgoose

    Touché on Mario Kart, what the N64 version did to rainbow road was a travesty. And respect for the gaming family!

    I agree with darkstalker. Nintendo are only interested in money. It's obvious that Nintendo, along with everyone else. Believe that the install base is casual. Though I'm not sure we should be dismissing the core-gamer so quickly. Surely games like Mario Kart and Zelda Twilight Princess (core games) consistently topping out the sales of the Wii show that their is a market for AAA titles. I think there is a lot of profit to be made for a 3rd party developer willing to gamble on the Wii instead of pushing out ports and shovelware.

    Let's see how well MadWorld sells. Maybe it can bring back some faith in the systems users as intelligent consumers not looking for crap.

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