Nintendo Needs to Focus on Creating Customers, Not on Bending to the Industry

My colleague Ben brought up an interesting point in his recent article, “The Wii is Both the Best and Worst Nintendo Console“: Nintendo may have gained a lot of fans with Wii, but it didn’t gain a lot of fans within the Industry. It’s pretty much 100% true. We’re seeing a lot of companies hesitate to bring games to Wii U with the belief that only the first-party games will sell anyway, or that no matter how they use the hardware they’re better off just sticking with PlayStation and Xbox.

According to the article, this was a weakness for Wii – but I’d like to propose something different. Doing differently than what the Industry wanted was actually Wii’s greatest strength.

The Controller That Defied the Industry…and Won

As game technology advanced, game controllers became more complex. It was a logical step given that each hardware generation aimed to offer players more control than previous ones. By the time Wii launched, most controllers featured at least eight action buttons and two analog sticks – and all those inputs were often required.

wii-remoteThe Wii Remote was a startling contrast to that trend. Instead of featuring more buttons and sticks and more sophisticated grips to accommodate, it reverted to a simple remote-style design. For buttons, it had a familiar D-pad, and depending on which way you held the controller – remote-style or NES-style – you could use the A and B buttons or 1 and 2 buttons for primary actions, and the + and – buttons as substitutes for Start and Select. In most cases, that meant games would use only two-to-four buttons for actions, with other buttons reserved for things like menus.

At first, many people weren’t even sure it was a controller.

Why the startling change in design? Nintendo believed it had something to do with contemporary controllers failing to connect with the broader consumer market:

Controllers for current consoles have more than doubled [in complexity] from older consoles. They may satisfy the hardcore gamers, but they’ve become too difficult for more casual gamers. (Source: GameSpot)

Perhaps those who have quit gaming or who have never played with games looked at the controller and felt it may be too difficult to play, even before they dared to touch the controller. (Source: GameSpot)

Today, if you don’t understand the controller, you’re not able to enjoy video games. (Source: CNN)

We made it [the GameCube controller] as a culmination of everything leading up to it, but it really underwhelmed. This line of thinking doesn’t give us anything else to shoot for, does it? The GameCube controller is a product of us feeling that, without this or that, people wouldn’t be able to play the games we make. But then we realized that was a problem, that we were thinking based on that controller as the premise.

For GameCube software across the board, we weren’t able to predict the sales figures as well as before. It was around then that it hit us: the market was disappearing.(Source: 1up)

Because Nintendo had been in the hardware market for a long time, they recognized that they’d once had a large and loyal fanbase on NES and SNES, and that those fans had left them during the Nintendo 64 and GameCube eras. The Wii Remote was the result of their research into the factors that led to those customers suddenly becoming non-customers.

SONY DSCThe move made sense. I can definitely see why someone who was used to the “gamepad” design of the NES and SNES controllers would be scared away by the N64 controller, which doesn’t really seem like a logical next step. I can also see why the “remote” design of Wii’s controller – the TV remote being a device almost everyone is familiar with – would be a great choice for drawing people in. It makes even more sense once you show old NES fans how it can be used like a NES controller if you hold it sideways.

That’s before even touching on the motion controls. I think it’s safe to say that Wii easily connected the controller and its use to the actions performed on-screen:

Swing the remote, swing your bat. Point the remote, aim your weapon. Later on, we’d have games like Mario Kart Wii that turned the remote into a steering wheel. It’s all instantly-recognizable, and instantly-accessible. There’s little to no controller familiarity barrier with the Wii Remote because so many of its controls are handled by body movement. If you can master your body, you can master the Wii Remote.

The same was true for the Wii Balance Board, which debuted at E3 2007:

What’s interesting here is that, even more so than the Wii Remote, the Balance Board is really secondary to the movements of the players themselves. You could almost take the Balance Board out of the action entirely and still deliver the same effect (which, of course, is what Microsoft would wind up aiming to achieve with Kinect).

In any case, sales data doesn’t lie – the Wii Remote and Balance Board were widely accepted by non-gamers, many of whom either had never owned a home console before or had skipped out on recent platforms due to their relative complexity. Mr. Iwata’s adage proved true: all that was necessary to get more people to play games is to give them a controller that they can easily understand.

Looking back on Nintendo’s history, this same thinking was what put them in the hardware market in the first place. The NES gamepad was first introduced as an alternative to the increasingly-complex arcade-style joysticks and PC keyboards – and because Nintendo bucked the trends and introduced a simpler controller, video games managed to become the entertainment giant that we know of today.

nes-ad wii-ad

The Industry, however, isn’t willing to go this far out of its way to attract players. In fact, as we’ve learned with Wii U, even Nintendo isn’t willing to do it anymore. The Wii U GamePad may do its best to resemble both an iPad and a SNES controller, but it also packs the dual-analog, double shoulder button madness that turned people off from consoles like GameCube in the first place. That doesn’t logically follow the original mission of the Wii Remote to cut out the extra buttons and sticks so more people are willing to play – it completely contradicts it.

Sure, you can use Wii Remotes on Wii U, but they’re not the primary controllers, and so far, no game that matches Wii Sports in terms of instant expanded market appeal or dominant use of Wii Remotes has come to the surface. Not even Nintendo Land could do the trick, despite Nintendo’s hope to make it for Wii U what Wii Sports was for Wii.

In creating a primary controller that panders to the wishes of the Industry, Nintendo single-handedly alienated the market segment that brought them out of their last downward spiral. The competition doesn’t even need to do anything to prevent them from capturing those gamers now. Those Wii gamers – not the ones who bought Wii Sports and then never touched another game again, but the ones who went on to buy over 869 million Wii games cumulatively (despite the supposedly high rate of Wii Sports-only customers, that’s a better attach rate than NES!) – are already unlikely to buy Wii U because Nintendo did not make Wii U for them.

It is like Nintendo looked at Wii’s success and said, “You are right, Game Industry. The Wii Remote is a bad controller, and we should make our main controller for Wii U more like yours.”

Did it ever occur to Nintendo that the Game Industry might actually be wrong about what controller is better at creating customers, and that Nintendo should let them keep pushing their strategies into stagnation while they pursue the path that is better for people outside of the Industry? Oh, wait: it did – back in 2005.

Meanwhile, as Wii U fails to recapture the gamers it created thanks to the accessibility of the Wii Remote, it’s clear that Nintendo hasn’t produced a real follow-up to Wii. Wii U is more of a follow-up to GameCube.

GameCube Sequels, GameCube Sales

After the release of Super Mario 64, it seems as though Nintendo believed that the future of Mario was all 3D, all the time. Yet between 64 and Sunshine, which combined sold a respectable 17 million, the 3D Mario series didn’t even outsell any of the internationally-released games in the 2D Super Mario Bros. franchise (Super Mario Bros., Mario 3, and Mario World).

3d-mario-wiiu-2013Yet, when Nintendo introduced Wii, with its NES-like controller, what kind of Mario game did they release? Another 3D Mario game. Galaxy sold well – more than 11.72 million copies – but it still couldn’t touch the wide audience of the original series.

Nintendo apparently caught on to this, because they decided to try a crack at another side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game – and thus, New Super Mario Bros. was born.

Mario had advanced to 3D and we would discuss the fact that there were now two different strands to the Mario series: there was the Mario that had developed in step with consoles as they had become more advanced, and there was also the basic Mario that anyone could play. When I talked about this with Tezuka-san, he said: “Right, if we make another one, it should be a side-scrolling Mario.” (Source: Iwata Asks)

New Super Mario Bros. proved that the real potential for expanding Mario to a wider audience didn’t lie in 3D – it actually resided in the old-school 2D style. Looking specifically at Wii, New Super Mario Bros. Wii has attracted more than 27.88 million players to date – that’s more than twice the sales of any 3D Mario title released so far.

Despite the voice of the players affirming massive support for the return of 2D Mario, the Industry has resistance to its comeback.

nsmbu-smw-successorMatthew Razak at Destructoid wrote an article titled “The Truth about New Super Mario Bros.” in which he said:

Here’s the problem: no one is right about the NSMB series. Well, to be more precise, the fans are treating them incorrectly and Reggie is being deceptive about them. You see, we’re coming at these games from the totally wrong angle. The fans are treating NSMB as main series Mario games, which is exactly what Nintendo wants us to believe.

The trick is they aren’t.

At GameSpy, Bryn Williams said this in response to the New Super Mario Bros. Wii announcement at E3 2009:

This is not the news I was looking for. Sure, it looks like it’ll be a good amount of multiplayer fun, but… meh. I wanted a new Super Mario Galaxy-style affair.

There’s a general trend within the Industry – and that includes journalists – to show preference for 3D Mario over 2D Mario. You’d think based on the commentary of “gamers” that the 3D games have rendered the 2D ones soundly obsolete. They certainly hold up 3D Mario as if it’s one of their “hardcore” games. But as we’ve seen, that doesn’t translate over to the actual customers: 2D Mario fans aren’t “hardcore,” and they outnumber 3D Mario‘s audience two to one.

2D Mario is a pure arcade-style platformer that offers a sense of adventure. 3D Mario, with its large open-ended spaces, is more of an adventure game with some platforming elements.

When making New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mr. Miyamoto was clearly thinking about satisfying those customers who passed on the 3D games:

… My aim was that the Wii version of New Super Mario Bros. should still be selling copies a year after its release, just like the DS version did. I wanted it to become a staple for Wii owners. I put an enormous amount of energy into achieving this. (Source: Iwata Asks)

nsmb2-coop-leaderHowever, when you look at the way Nintendo allocates production budgets – graphics, music, new content and worlds – it’s clear the development teams favor 3D Mario over 2D Mario. New Super Mario Bros. is the home for rehashed content from the NES and SNES games and goofy soundtracks; Super Mario Galaxy, by contrast, is the place for new enemies, bosses, and settings, as well as Nintendo’s first ambitious step into the world of live orchestral scores.

What was so impressive about the original Super Mario Bros. games was that they demonstrated Nintendo’s mastery of their hardware’s power. The first game was one of the first games ever to ditch a black background, showing how NES was capable of displaying beautiful colors in a way that hadn’t been done before. Super Mario Bros. 3 added tons of content variety, proving that Mario still had a long way to grow. Super Mario World was a giant leap visually over the NES games.

Where was that “enormous amount of effort” in the latest New Super Mario Bros. games for 3DS and Wii U? All I saw was the same eight worlds, the same enemies and bosses, and most disappointingly of all the exact same music. It’s clear Nintendo just isn’t putting in the work it’d take to keep up Super Mario Bros. as the powerhouse brand it has the potential to be. Instead, they’re putting all that effort towards games the Industry wants – like 3D Mario.

I use Mario as an instructive example, because the series has proven that Nintendo can release lots of side-scrolling Mario games without falling into franchise fatigue. The three NES games were released over a period of five years. The problem isn’t too much New Super Mario Bros. – it’s that Nintendo is more interested in pleasing the Industry than pleasing customers.

This extends to more than just Mario. Rather than making Zelda games that fit Zelda‘s unique mold – a blend of arcade action and non-linear Ultima-style role-playing – Nintendo has over the last decade or so instead focused on turning Zelda into a story-driven adventure game, where combat and exploration take a back-seat to characters, puzzles, and “new gameplay ideas.” The same goes for Metroid, which since the first Prime has cast aside its open-world structure for a more linear, plot-delivered format.

rationalizing-metroid-other-m-1This isn’t a customer-focused development process. It’s Industry-focused, as it’s the Industry that’s pushing for more narrative and “character development” and less actual content. Nintendo has let these Industry trends seep into their development approach since GameCube, and as long as they follow the Industry instead of following the example they set with Wii, they’re bound to get GameCube-like results: a microscopic player-base that doesn’t line up with their expectations.

As a kind of symbolic affirmation of Nintendo’s movement in a more GameCube-like direction, the three biggest games we know are headed to Wii U later this year are all direct descendants of GameCube games – Pikmin 3, a new 3D Mario… and even a GameCube remake in the form of Wind Waker Wii U.

New Kinds of Games Demand Revolutionary Brands

Today, Wii Sports is the best-selling game of all time, and to date has sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.

Let that sink in for a moment: Wii Sports is the best-selling game ever.

It’s because of Wii Sports that Wii was sold out for almost two years in North America. Everybody had to have it – even people who didn’t normally play games.

And yet, Wii Sports completely ditched the Nintendo brand. No Mario, no Zelda, no Metroid – just generic sports with generic characters and generic graphics. According to the team, one of the driving factors behind the decision to leave these brands behind was that they got in the way of the purpose of Wii Sports, which was to offer a completely new type of game that anybody could get into:

I believe that a collection of games like this is truly ground-breaking. It’s not a single lavish stand-alone game, neither is it a compilation of 100 different mini-games. It has no official licenses or endorsements, nor are there any famous people featured in it. It lives up to the initial concept of offering a revolutionary control method, a brand new type of game. Moreover, it contains five different games, all of which have been individually designed so the player never tires of them. I don’t think there has ever been a collection of games quite like this. (Source: Iwata Asks)

When we tried playing with these very simple characters, we really felt that we were the ones in the game. We tried using Mario as a character once, but then it didn’t feel like we were the ones playing anymore. It felt like Mario was actually the one playing and we were just controlling him. But it wasn’t the same when we used these simple models. Rather than feeling that the kokeshi model was playing, it actually felt like we were the ones in the game. (Source: Iwata Asks)

wii-sports-systemsellerWhat does this say about Nintendo’s brands? Unfortunately for Nintendo, it says that their ability to connect with people in their current state is rather limited. It was by ditching Mario that Wii Sports was able to find its audience. Frankly, the audience cares less about Mario than it does about whether a game is appealing to them.

This seems to suggest that the GameCube-era policy of “let’s take our new gameplay ideas and pair them up with our established franchises” is a bad policy, and helps to explain Nintendo’s struggling sales. It’s as I said about 3D Mario: if you start to turn a brand into a new type of game altogether, you’re going to leave a lot of the original fans of the brand behind.

With Wii U, however, Nintendo took the opposite approach. They designed tech demos to test the capabilities of the Wii U GamePad…and then they built those demos around Nintendo characters and brands. Where the developers of Wii Sports said “the Nintendo brands get in the way of the game,” the minds behind Nintendo Land said “let’s put in as many Nintendo characters as we can.”

Is there any wonder why Nintendo Land isn’t taking off like Wii Sports did? It’s not only failing to present itself as a new type of game, its failing to present Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Pikmin, and all the other brands it tries to bring on board. The attractions try to capture the feel of each brand, but due to the exceptionally-limited nature of the games, they miss so many of the core elements required to convey the strengths of those franchises.

With older brands, new control schemes, new worlds, and new game mechanics aren’t a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that Nintendo avoid any innovation for their established franchises. Metroid Prime, for example, took the 2D Metroid format and plopped it into a first-person 3D world. But Nintendo tends to believe that “innovation” within their franchises means “a new type of game,” rather than taking steps to take old game-types and push them to the next level. Games like Super Mario Sunshine and The Wind Waker are the epitome of the former approach; New Super Mario Bros. and A Link to the Past 2 represent the latter.

everything-we-know-nintendo-landFor truly new kinds of games, Nintendo is better off building up a completely new kind of brand – and that’s what the Wii franchise – beginning with Wii Sports – represented. Wii was once synonymous with “Revolution,” the console’s original code-name. Now Nintendo seems content to leave the Revolution behind, outside of a few obligatory sequels, rather than embracing its incredibly successful approach.

Frankly, it looks like the Industry is happy to see the Wii series take a backseat with Wii U. They coat their disgust for Wii Sports in the notion that it’s a terrible game. They think that Nintendo has dragged its name through the mud with Wii, and Nintendo seems to have decided to bend to that impression.

However, this means the Industry doesn’t have to worry about Revolution-style games capturing the attention of potential customers and can continue pressuring Nintendo into making the kinds of games the Industry wants – that is, the games that wound up putting Nintendo in last place in the GameCube era, not the games that create new customers and bring more people to gaming.

Wii U is made not for Revolution gamers, but for hardcore gamers. Because Nintendo’s successes have always always always been predicated on opposing the wishes of the Industry, as long as Nintendo aims first and foremost at games that appeal to the hardcore, Wii U will continue to struggle.

Thanks to Emily Rogers at NotEnoughShaders for compiling quotes about Wii Remote’s mission to break down barriers between people and games.