Thursday, June 4, 2009

e3 2009: on nintendo’s treatment of the “core” gamer

i've played it before, but i'll take it anyway Oh, Nintendo, rich uncle of video games. We all thought you were getting old, and then you got that diamond stud and red convertible and now you’re back on top of the world. Has any game company inspired debates as heated as those that rage on between those who spend their time debating the chronology of the Legend of Zelda series?

But, I digress. On to the topic at hand.

At E3 this year, I’d contend that Nintendo had perhaps the strongest showing of the Big Three console makers, at least from a software perspective – they announced a lot of games, including some surprises, and even though they spent some time with Wii Sports Resort and that stupid useless vitality sensor thing, it was clear from the amount of time they spent on good old-fashioned Mario and third-party exclusives like Dead Space Extraction that they’re trying to reach out to the traditional set, composed mostly of those who cut their teeth on the NES and Super Nintendo. These same people grew up to deride the Gamecube for being “too kiddy” and the Wii for trying to appeal to a group of people who would actually purchase it – I have no idea why Nintendo tries so hard to please us, because they really don’t need to, but they keep trying again and again. My question is, can they ever really appease this crowd of sticklers?

I started thinking about this after reading Dan Hsu’s recent interview with Denise Kaigler, Nintendo of America's Vice President of Corporate Affairs. I like Kaigler’s interviews because they show an executive unafraid of firing right back at the small but vocal Internet minority who has called the Wii out on everything from graphical power to storage inadequacy – where most suits would deliver a canned response from a press release, Kaigler will give you a straight answer, and argue back a little to boot. The exact quote in question:

“[Nintendo] came out with so many [core games] -- title after title after title last year. You named them all, boom boom-boom boom-boom! And still it's, ‘Where are all the games for the core?’ And it's like, ‘C'mon, c'mon!’”

And another quote from an earlier Joystiq interview:

“So [Nintendo] cannot win! Oh my god, we can't win, you guys say ‘bring us some of your old franchises,’ we do that, ‘well, no, no we want new IP’ come on, ah, oh my god, we can't satisfy, tell me that we can satisfy you guys?!”

It’s hard to tell from the quotes or from context, really, whether she’s exasperated or flustered or just plain feisty, but she does have a point – most gamers have a way of wanting everything right now all the time – they want a new Mario, and some new IP, and portable versions of both, and the games can’t retread too much old ground or looks bad, and if you could have them out this year before Christmas that would be just great, thanks.

There’s this perception that we, the “core” gamers, are unhappy with Nintendo’s current market strategy, that we feel like the Wii has forsaken us and taken a whiz all over our favorite hobby. The truth of the matter is that they’re putting out “core” games just about as frequently as ever they did. We’ve seen appearances from all the old familiar faces – Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart, Smash Brothers, Metroid, Pokemon and others have already been given their customary refresh, just as on the Gamecube and Nintendo 64.  Nintendo has always been a company that puts out product when it’s done, and not before. We put up with that from Blizzard and Valve, and yet Nintendo is always railed at for being light on the “core” game experiences. Where is this perception coming from?

I think it can be explained partly by the lack of truly compelling third party support for the Wii – Nintendo has increased prominence on their platform because they’re very nearly the only ones doing anything worthwhile. No one’s clamoring for Microsoft or Sony to release more games more often because experienced third parties, often with millions invested in the hardware, are more than willing to pick up the slack and release Exciting Games. There are some decent third-party efforts on the Wii, and there are some studios that do seem to be giving it a genuine try, but compared to the Xbox or even the DS the quality just isn’t there.

Compounding this issue is the increased presence of new “blue ocean” casual games alongside the old favorites in Nintendo’s catalog. We see about the same number of traditional Nintendo games as we always have, but they’re being shown on the same stage with Wii Fit and Link’s Crossbow Training at big trade shows like E3 where no one gives two shits about Wii Fit or Link’s Crossbow Training. These games are where the advertising dollars tend to go, and these games are what’s paying Nintendo’s bills lately – you tell me if it’s good business sense to put more time and effort into products which are yielding less and less money, especially in Japan. The presence of these casual games is also what makes it into the mainstream press, making sure that every mother and grandparent among you knows about Wii Sports and has no idea what a Punch Out!! is.

Nintendo’s problematic relationship with traditional gamers is more a matter of perception than of any actual shortcoming on the company’s part. Nintendo is trying to cater to the core gamer – look no further than Mario Galaxy 2 and the newly announced Team Ninja-developed Metroid title for proof of that, and if you need more, look at the way the Wii has evolved since launch – an extensive Virtual Console library teaches young padawans in the ways of the Old School, Wii Ware is a serious and ongoing effort to provide good downloadable originals, and the SD card storage solution has recently become both viable, competitive and reasonably elegant. At the same time they’re doing that, though, Nintendo is drawing in a new crowd, often with silly gimmicks and faddish gameplay. That stuff is what’s going to make the news, but if you ever find yourself thinking that the Nintendo of old has turned its back on you, you really just need to check out the release schedule.