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Is it time for Nintendo to go multiplatform?

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We discuss how Nintendo can improve their game (sorry)

Nintendo have found themselves in a precarious position this year. After leading the console race in the last generation, Nintendo have recently announced poorer than expected financial results, largely due to the Wii-U underperforming. Nintendo have shipped only 4.3 million units since its release in 2012, just 100,000 more than PlayStation 4’s sold in its first three months of release.

Nintendo’s position this generation has been in stark contrast to last, which saw the Wii put Nintendo comfortably at the head of the podium. The key contributing factor was the Wii’s appeal to a much wider audience than their competitors. The revolutionary nunchuck controller attracted customers who previously may have had no interest in gaming. The Wii wasn’t just suitable for dedicated gamers; it was part of the dinner party itinerary.

Nintendo’s emphasis on originality is the biggest driving force behind the Wii’s success, but external factors played their part too. The £179 Wii was very affordable relative to the £600 PS3, which halted the momentum of the PlayStation brand created by the unprecedented success of the PlayStation 2. Having sold over three times as many PS2s as the Xbox and the GameCube combined, the following generation should have been a straightforward continuation for Sony, but core gamers would have felt little reason to invest in a PS3 when they could buy the Xbox360 and a Wii together for less. Even when Sony announced much needed price drops they found it difficult to pick up sales. The Cell processor that the Playstation 3 ran on was meant to be a technological marvel, but it wasn’t developer friendly and consequently Sony also suffered developer relations. As a result, core gamers were now equally split between Xbox360 and the Playstation 3, meaning that neither were going to come close to global Wii sales.

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This generation, it appears as though Nintendo are facing difficulties in selling the Wii-U, much like Sony did with the PS3. There’s no issue with its price, but the Wii-U’s deterrents are causing this video game equivalent of second album syndrome. The biggest problem that lies with the Wii-U is a strong selling point. Its main feature is the awkward looking gamepad – an iPad like screen with an analogue stick and buttons on either side. It was Nintendo’s way of finding new ways to play games but so far it hasn’t attracted much of a following.

It’s not giving core gamers enough reason to buy into Nintendo’s gaming revolution and it’s not giving the casual gamers who own a Wii enough reason to upgrade. Although a slightly enhanced nunchuck and an ordinary game controller can be used to play Wii games, it’s the gamepad that is marketed the most. Placing so much emphasis on the gamepad has proved to be a critical error. On closer inspection, the Wii-U is akin to the poorly received connectivity gimmick that Nintendo tried to push so hard with the GameCube whilst the other two console developers were focusing on online play.

It’s this refusal to not go where the market is moving that hampers Nintendo with consoles. It’s admirable that they try to come up with original concepts, but it’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off. Even when they do hit the right notes like they did with the Wii, it isn’t without compromise.  The motion sensor technology incorporated into the Wii came at the expense of the most up to date graphics.

Official GDC

There are rumours that Nintendo are reacting to the poor performance of the Wii-U by developing a home console and a handheld as part of a project called Fusion. It’s undeniable that action is necessary, but just what exactly can Nintendo hope to achieve by announcing a console soon? It won’t be released for many months and it will be behind both the Xbox and PS4 in sales at a time when both of them will have expanding game libraries. Most importantly, history suggests that Nintendo will try to make it innovative, but if it’s anything like their latest one then Nintendo will find them in an even more difficult position than they are in now.

This tendency to try something different has wider implications, especially during the current generation. Game developers will be looking to harness PS4 and Xbox one’s power, but these games won’t appear to be anywhere near as glamorous on the Wii-U. Not many gamers will choose to play a multiplatform title on the console that produces least impressive graphics just because they can benefit from having the dual screen provided by the Wii-U gamepad. Similarly, developers will be reluctant to develop for a machine they don’t feel will spur the sales of their games. EA have already announced that they will not be supporting the Wii-U and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other developers follow suit.

Nintendo needs to focus on making games

Even without strong 3rd party support in the past, Nintendo have always coped thanks to their library of self-made games. They may be hit and miss with making hardware but in the world of game development, Nintendo are the masters of the universe. The only problem is that these games don’t generate the sales that their quality deserves because it’s difficult for consumers to justify buying a console just to play games developed by one company. This causes problems for two parties: gamers who miss out on Nintendo games because their consoles are seen as a bad investment and Nintendo miss out on maximising their game sales.

Considering the above, the solution is simple. Nintendo need to abandon the console market and go multiplatform.  Rather than concentrating on selling hardware, Nintendo need to play to their strengths and focus on making games. Just imagine the possibilities. Imagine a Metroid prime that looked as good as Killzone or Halo. A Zelda that was as expansive as Grand Theft Auto, or if Pokémon got turned into a MMO RPG. By utilizing the more powerful hardware of their old competitors, Nintendo could make games that might not be possible on their own hardware.

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Even if their games weren’t the biggest or the shiniest, it wouldn’t impact the quality. Despite having the weakest hardware in the previous generation, Nintendo still made the best platform game in Mario Galaxy. Unlike other developers, Nintendo don’t need the best hardware to make the best games, they could decide to develop solely 2d games and they would still be better than 99% of the games out there – they are that good. With the above in mind, the decision to go multiplatform would be less about utilising better hardware and more about getting their games in as many hands as possible. The longer Nintendo develop games for just their own consoles, the bigger the opportunity cost of not selling through others.

It’s not just the home console market that Nintendo should walk away from: there may appear to be madness in the suggestion to pull the plug on their handhelds, but despite the success of the 3DS in the last year, abandoning handhelds could also be a wise long-term move. Nintendo recently confirmed that they will not be supplying smartphones with their software in a statement about their future plans. It is perhaps counter-intuitive to provide smartphones with their games given that the Nintendo 3DS is going strong, but the handheld console market and the mobile market are two different beasts.

Abandoning handhelds could also be a wise long-term move

The mobile phone market may have been little more than a goldfish when the N-gage was released, but in the smartphone era is has evolved into Moby Dick and is only going to get bigger. Supporting the 3DS may be the logical strategy to adopt for now, but how long can Nintendo resist the temptation to sell to the estimated 1.3 billion worldwide smartphone owners?

Nintendo shouldn’t pull the plug immediately – it makes sense to squeeze out what they can from their current consoles, but Satoru Iwata and the rest of Nintendo’s higher management should really be looking to make their next move concentrating on only making games. If they want to make the world even a slightly better place, they need to learn to provide their greatest asset – their games – to people without making them pay for hardware. It may be painful making that admission that hardware just isn’t their thing, especially as they have been in the market since the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, but in the long run the benefits for gamers, developer and most importantly themselves will be enormous.

 

Images: Geninho Marrafão via Flickr, Wikipedia, Microsoft Studios

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