Never Count Nintendo Out

If there are any universal rules or golden constants by which the game industry is governed, one of them is surely this: Never count Nintendo out.

It is not an exaggeration to call the Kyoto firm the world leader in video game production. They have sold more video game hardware than anybody else (Nintendo dominates the top-selling console list; the DS is the best selling game system of all time), their software is among the best in the industry (Metacritic suggests that the only game superior to Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 is GTA 4), and they are one of the few giants in this industry that is willing to take risks.

Nintendo does occasionally stumble. Their attempts at digital distribution and online games have, thus far, been infantile compared to Microsoft and even Sony, and they can't be happy about dropping the price of the 3DS by $100 only a few months after launch. Their Wii U announcement earlier this year was met with a lot of head scratching, and they recently reported their first quarterly loss since 2004.

But whatever you do, never, ever count Nintendo out.

Nintendo can't be ignored because they are fundamentally different than the other large game industry companies. They take risks no other company would take, from the PowerPad to the original GameBoy to the Virtual Boy to the DS, Wii and now WiiU. Sometimes these experiments fail, but mostly they do not.

When Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata announcedNintendogs and Brain Age, two games that resemble nothing else in the industry and are arguably not even games, the incredulity felt by the developer community was palpable. Many developers had a good chuckle over Nintendo's utter cluelessness. Nintendogs and Brain Age went on to sell over 20 million units apiece, putting them both in the top 20 best selling games of all time (a list which, by the way, contains only one non-Nintendo title, GTA: San Andreas). To put that in perspective,Brain Age has been sold more times since 2006 thanThe Grapes of Wrath since its first publication in 1937 (Bookrags.com estimates the novel has sold "more than 15 million" copies).

The key difference between Nintendo and Sony or Microsoft is that they build hardware around their games, rather than the other way around. This approach often results in hardware that is hard to pin down at first. People had no idea what to do with the DS' two screens until Nintendo showed them; they had no clue how motion control was going to work until Wii Sports proved it. Right now I'm sure people are struggling to understand the benefit of the weirdo controller that is the main selling point of the Wii U, but I'm confident that it's a design that was prompted by the needs of a game.

Nintendo is best when they do this sort of crazy risk-taking. Sony and Microsoft sure aren't going to do it. Nintendo falters when they do not take enough risk; the Nintendo 64 suffered from their decision to stick with cartridge-based media, the GameCube was too conservative, and the Virtual Boy was just a bad product. The problem with the 3DS is that it's only an incremental improvement over the DS, and so far there hasn't really been any of that compelling first-party content to back it up. I think we'll see what happens to that console this Christmas; all it really takes is a few great games to give the rest of the industry confidence in the platform.

So it is unwise to bet against Nintendo. This year hasn't been great for them, but to count them out now would be a very foolish mistake.

That said, at Robot Invader we are not interested in developing for Nintendo platforms, at least not at the moment. Nor, for that matter, are we interested in Sony or Microsoft consoles. We believe that the era of traditional consoles is coming to a close.

I recently wrote an article about how the Sony Ericsson Xperia PLAY has the potential to change the game industry. It's a long article, but the point is this: when phones are as fast as consoles, the only reason to keep a console around is for the buttons on the controller. If phones with buttons like the PLAY succeed, I think the market for consoles will vanish. It will be increasingly difficult for console manufactures to differentiate themselves from your average smartphone as the quality of smartphones improves, and it's improving at a breakneck pace. Nintendo wasn't even able to be first to market with a 3D screen for the 3DS; an Android phone in Japan with a similar screen shipped a few months before the 3DS launch.I look at the Playstation Vita and I see hardware that will be in phones extremely soon, perhaps even before the Vita itself launches. The business model for consoles for the last few decades has been about selling hardware that could be stretched out over a multi-year lifespan, and in the face of rapidly improving phone and tablet technology that model is no longer viable.

We're in the middle of a transitional moment where the console makers must struggle to remain relevant. The internet is like a plague of locusts, spreading over traditional business models and eating them alive, and if consoles do not change they too will fall. Iwata has talked about "preserving the value" of video games (by which he means the existing pricing structure), but I don't think value is something that any single company is able to control.Once there's a market for similar content at much lower cost, traditional $US40 — $US60 games start to look pretty expensive. How can any hardware company compete with a platform that does more and has more content for less?

One solution might be to try to adapt existing technologies to weather this storm; I think Microsoft is headed in this direction with their Xbox Live integration in Windows Phone 7. Another approach might be to stick it out and hope for the best; this seems to be Sony's idea with the Vita (though, large company as they are, they are also part of the swarm with their various Android devices).

The question in my mind is this: how will Nintendo respond?

Of the three console makers I think the big N is the best positioned to survive this transition. Their hardware is unique and can succeed without being the most technically brilliant box on the shelf. Their (game) software is amazing, and their brand power is unbeatable. But as a company with a lot of pride, I am sure that Nintendo is not content to simply develop for somebody else's device. Guessing what Nintendo will do next is always tough, but whatever they decide to do will help shape the future of game development.

Make no mistake: Nintendo isn't down for the count.In fact, if there's one company to keep an eye on as the game industry shifts to new types of platforms, it's Nintendo. Developing for consoles doesn't make any sense for a studio like Robot Invader right now, but who knows which companies will stand out in the post-console world? I bet the big N does alright.

By day, Chris Pruett runs Robot Invader, makers of mechanical agents of destruction as well as awesome video games. Under the cover of night he researches horror games and tweets about the future of the game industry. His studio just announced their newest game, Wind-Up Knight, for Android and iOS.

Republished with permission.


Comments

    "one of the few giants in this industry that is willing to take risks"

    Hardware, perhaps there was some risk with the Wii and choice in the direction of cartridge rather than CD with the N64
    But risk with software? No way. Theyve been releasing the same games for two decades. Little risk has been made with the Zelda or Mario franchise.

      Whilst I think its fair to say Nintendo are guilty many times of rehashing old titles, they still innovate in their games a lot too. Wasn't Wind Waker (or the DS games, of which some of the innovations were disliked by many) risky? If not, then I'm not sure what exactly would qualify for a risky Zelda game... perhaps a game that simply isn't a Zelda game at all (an FPS perhaps) with the name banged on it like some other companies do?
      They've also got a long history of innovative titles (Pikmin comes to mind).
      Personally I thought the Mario Galaxy games were really fresh, and again I have to ask: what sort of innovation are you after in these series?
      It's hard to innovate on a series that people have such solid expectations for; and I think given those restrictions Nintendo do a pretty reasonable job of breathing new life into their franchises.

      Personally I want to see more really "new" ideas coming out from Nintendo.

        Yep if I was ever to buy a Wii I think it would be exclusively for Mario Galaxy, a game I've only played bits of but is every bit as enchanting as Mario 64

      This. while Ninty's games are enjoyable and fun, they release the same four f*cking games every year and people can't get enough of them XD

    Now THAT's an article.

    *reads bottom of article*

    Ahh, not a KotakuUS "journalist". That explains it.

    Joking aside, there are some very valid points there. Nintendo are always willing to take risks and it makes me laugh when you get people bagging them for their ideas only to turn around at the same time and say how they're sick of the industry not being innovative enough.

    By the by, I still think N64 > PS1 for quality of the games regardless of the media being cartridges. :P

      Absolutely correct (about N64) PS1 had some great games but there was SO MUCH CRAP! You literally had to sift through unplayable, uncontrollable bombs to find anything really good.

      With the N64 you could pretty much goto Nintendo and Rare and you had guaranteed quality.

      But N64 was the last Nintendo console to do this - the Gamecube had great games but the support from retailers and eventually developers dropped to near-dead levels. The lack of GTA on the Gamecube killed it dead, GTA was that generation's killer app.

      I hung back on this current gen before deciding on which one to get (I'm not made of money!) and by and large I think I made the right choice to bypass the Wii.

      As it is now I think the Nintendo's core fanbase (that they enjoyed in the 80s and early 90s) stuck with them thru the N64 but left after Gamecube crashed.

      The Wii, while entertaining a smaller core fanbase is mostly serving families who buy the machine for their kids (in the same way that the PS2 dominated young families last decade) in fact annecdotally I think you'll find most families with a Wii also own a PS2 and are not big gamers.

      As a machine for kids the Wii is perfect - heaps of support from kid friendly publishers, tonnes of G and PG games, a good, safe choice, but now 5 years in people are starting to get tired of it.

      I know three other parents who have Wii's for their kids, one bought a 360 last year, another is upgrading to a PS3 and the third is buying their son a 360 for Xmas (admittedly after he got hooked on playing Portal 2 with my son!)

      No wonder Nintendo is bringing out the Wii U next year, they need to hold on to their big casual audience.

    I liked this article, and I agree: don't count Nintendo out. They have surprised us time and again in the past, and I'm confident they'll do it again.

      It's been a long, long time since they surprised me. Probably Pikmin. I don't give a toss how many motion controllers, touchscreens or half-arsed tablets they've got, I'm interested in the games they create. Or rather I used to be interested in the games they created when I was a kid and they were fresh and original. These days I know what they're going to "create" - more Mario, more Zelda, more Metroid. All fine games on their own merit, but far from revolutionary stuff. Things like Brain Training and Nintendogs did really well in terms of sales, which is great if you're a Nintendo shareholder. Not so interesting if you're just a gamer.

      Do I count them out commercially? Absolutely not, I'm sure they'll sell well (although I'm not as sure as I was before the 3DS launched). Do I get the same sense of excitement of an imminent new Nintendo console that I used to get back when the SNES or N64 launched? No, I do not. Because they stopped leading the way in terms of actual games a long time ago.

    Whatever, consoles and PC's aren't going anywhere. Phones/portables are accessories, not the center of home entertainment! I love phones and portables, but the fact is I aint gona sit and watch a movie or play a game for any extended length of time on a phone! All these companies have got to stop basing all their ideas on money and statistics as you cannot predict peoples actions in choosing any item or getting bored of something for that matter! The fact is we like some things to stay the same, like books/magazines, physical media and whatnot (and I love the digital download space!) We are not mindless consumers and why try to force change when we are perfectly happy the way we are! All products of an infinite growth society...

    It's wrong to compare phones with socket-attached home video game consoles.

    My family owns neither iPhones nor any other advanced phones that stores graphic-wise games. They are very costly.

    Why should the phone companies and the gaming industry compete each other? Can't Apple create its own video gaming console and handhelds? Take Microsoft, for example.

    I would rather buy Angry Birds on either PSP or DS than phones.

    Well, citing metacritic is akin to citing Wikipedia - not worth much. And thinking that phones will replace an Xbox or Playstation? That's.....optimistic. Will they replace the 3DS or Vita? There's an arguement to be made there, but I don't think it should be made by someone whose company makes IOS/Android games. Certain vested interest, there.

    Thinking phones will replace consoles isn't that optimistic. People thought it was ridiculous to think tablets would ever replace PC's. Now HP, the largest PC manufacturer in the world, are throwing in the PC towel.

      HP are also throwing in the tablet and mobile towels as well, so all I can get from your statement is that we need enterprise servers to play games on.

        I was just pointing out that predicting a new technology will never replace an old one because it's too different goes against the historic evidence.

        HP were the biggest desktop manufactuer in the world and this week they closed up shop and said basically it's a tablet world now.

    I'm not a nintendo fan because I've never loved any of their games, no matter what hardware risks they take, they never seem to take any risks with new games so I'm never keen to get on board.

    Plus while they seem to innovate in some areas, they disregard basic areas i think are more important to advancing games like graphics and audio quality. Has there been anything new since Pikimin? First the Gamecube was pretty average grunt wise, then the Wii was way below average, now the Wii U looks to just catch up to the competition in time for them to jump ahead again.

    I'm sure they'll continue to be successful with a crazy loyal fanbase and accessories that appeal to a wide audience. But as a brand they never seem to do anything to expand their fan base. Or to put it another way, I don't hate Nintendo, they've just never made anything I've wanted and they continue not to make anything i want over and over.

      A game can look as fancy as it wants but if it lacks solid gameplay and isn't enjoyable then what's the point?

        Gameplay can be as solid as you like but if it's barely changed in over a decade it's going to show its age.

        I've got kids and they're big gamers. But Nintendo's core games hold no more sway over them than similar games on other machines, my daughters just as happy playing Raskulls or Sly Raccoon as she is playing Super Mario. Our Wii gathers dust and Gameboys have been replaced with Ipods.

        A lot of Nintendo's enduring success is, I suspect, down to nostalgia for a lot of the people who buy their games and they're not giving the new generation a lot of compelling reasons to pick them up. 'Solid' isn't good enough. Angry Birds has solid gameplay and costs a few bucks.

        Nintendo might do all right for another five years. The Wii and Balance Board where flash in the pan events, big flashs to be sure, but they did a poor job of sustaining that momentum. And when the average age of a serious Nintendo fan is pushing 35-40, we'll see a shift away from devices to software.

      "Plus while they seem to innovate in some areas, they disregard basic areas i think are more important to advancing games like graphics and audio quality."

      YOU'RE MISSING THE POINT OF NINTENDO, ENTIRELY.

        Yes, but he goes on to say "Gameplay can be as solid as you like but if it’s barely changed in over a decade it’s going to show its age.".

    2 thoughts:

    -I don't want my gaming device to interrupt my gaming with incoming calls

    - The vast majority of my gaming is done on PC or a big fat telly with 5.1 surround

    i have to agree in a way with this article..i think if smart phones become powerful enough and have buttons (the crux of current smartphones imo is touchscreens) to cater the hardcore market (and maybe somehow make that phone connect to the TV when not on the go, and maybe resolve on how to handle calls whilst playing a game) then it would definetly make a dent to the console market..

    i know myself if that happens ill be on board no doubt!..BUT the library of games should be good as well, no matter how good your machine is if theres nothing to serve to the users then theres no sense..

    Sony imo is in perfect position to expand on this especially with the release of their Xperia Play range..im a Sony man and it disheartens me that so many products that Sony have released should have imo been more popular than what they are now, instead they have a habit of slipping it out of their hands and letting other companies expand on them

    I think Nintendo followed a deliberate strategy to surrender the core market to Sony & Microsoft and chase the kiddies & casuals. It worked brilliantly for them in terms of money-making, but as a core gamer, Nintendo continues to hold no interest for me.

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