Nintendo’s perfect week

Infendo

wii bubble stronger than everI think this week is a great opportunity to reflect on Nintendo’s future.

There was the megaton press events in Japan and San Francisco that showed more new content than I think even the big media rags were prepared to see. There was the exhaustive list of third party titles that Nintendo fired off on Thursday to showcase the fact that yes, third parties had signed onto this Wii thing, and the DS too, and had games planned well into Q1 2008. And there was also a fair share of negative news: Smash Bros. Brawl was delayed in North America until February 2008 (January in Japan), and a Friday article detailed how some Japanese developers have uncovered the old “bubble burst” argument.

Call me a fanman all you like, or even a shill, but I will still think this was a perfect week for Nintendo.

I’ll tackle the week in steps just to keep things simple.

First, the press conference. Did anyone get the memo on this one? IGN, a huge presence in U.S. gaming news, had to translate a Japanese magazine’s live blog and work from that. As a result of this haphazard method of reporting, many of the important revelations about this conference trickled out or were missed entirely until later in the week. Why this conference was such a clandestine affair is anyone’s guess (I’ve only seen reporting on the announcements at the event, and not the event itself). Maybe it was as simple as a language barrier, and the American press didn’t give it the importance it deserved. If that’s the case though, we wouldn’t have had the in-depth coverage of other Japanese Nintendo press conferences that we’ve become accustomed to in the past (see also: 2006, 2007).

A second explanation is one that I discussed briefly with Infendo overlord Blake Snow in the aftermath of this week’s Japanese press conference. Nintendo simply didn’t need to make any announcements beyond what they did, because the content — when it did breach the surface — would speak for itself. That may sound arrogant at the onset, but think deeper. A more arrogant company would have trumpeted the event to anyone and everyone who would listen. My uneducated opinion? Nintendo truly is a changed company, and is one that sees itself as a humble changer of the industry. It sees that, but additionally it sees that role as a privilege, not a right. At the Japanese conference, president Satoru Iwata, as humble as ever, simply went through his laundry list of features, games and revelations, and allowed the public to make comments, informed observations, and commentary. Iwata did not TELL, he SHOWED.

On a related note, do you know what they didn’t talk about ad nauseum? Casual gamers stuff, like the Wii Fit Balance Board. This conference truly was a gamer’s conference with Wii Ware, Mario Kart Wii online news, and the CAPCOM Monster Hunter 3 coup all taking top headlines. How quickly people forget that just last week people were still attacking or dubious of Nintendo for pulling the rug out from under the “hardcore” community. Thing is, Nintendo just doesn’t care about that kind of hypocrisy. In fact, I’ll wager that Nintendo prepared for that kind of backlash beforehand, but didn’t make it a number one priority. As always, their No. 1 was creating great interactive content and new ideas. So, when Iwata makes comments like he did this week, that Nintendo is purposefully targeting “hardcore gamers,” it almost felt like an afterthought. It felt to me like a prepared remark he had in the hopper for when a “passionate gamer” media person came up to him with yet another question about alienation.

Exhibit A as to why this was Nintendo’s best week ever is the conference itself. It showcased serious gaming, major industry coups, Wii Ware’s potential (now 150 games in development), established franchises in Mario Kart and Smash Bros., and confirmation that Nintendo, for now, is as humble as ever.

Second was the list of upcoming DS and Wii titles Nintendo published following the Japanese and U.S. conferences. When the list arrived, half the response was as typical as the one you’ll get from me when Halo 3 gets a bunch of 10.0 reviews: pessimistic. In fact, the negativity was borderline insane. Lost amongst all the complaining were wild new DS titles like Assassin’s Creed (hopefully the DS version features more realistic fight sequences).

I love to quote Ghandi on this site, and for good reason. First, Nintendo was ignored; the GameCube era. Then, people laughed at Satoru Iwata when he said people who would ordinarily ignore gaming would cease to do so if the controller looked like a remote control. Today, many people’s first response, their knee-jerk response, to Nintendo’s announcements is to attack (or fight, in Ghandi’s parlance). At first, the attacks seemed rational: Nintendo did appear as though it might be completely refocusing its efforts on casual gamers. But what they really were was foolish. Focusing on only one type of gamer is a failed, short-sighted strategy. You do that, and your competition is likely to outsell your system in nine months even after you’ve had a full year’s head start. Adding to that, the Wii’s library is beginning to resemble in some ways the PS2. This means a handful of great games arrive every quarter under a pile of really, really bad ones. That’s a great thing. Reminds me of the days of unlicensed titles on the NES.

So exhibit B for Nintendo’s best week ever is the slew of crappy games coming out for the system from today until the end of Q1 2008. For every 10 Dogz titles that hit the Wii or the DS, there will be a surprise in Assassin’s Creed, or a proven winner in Advance Wars. All the while, the number of great games increases exponentially.

But now the negatives. Smash Bros. Brawl is delayed. Again, knee jerk reaction is negative. I’ve already detailed why this delay is not so bad earlier this week on Infendo, so I won’t beat it to death here, but basically it boils down to competing with yourself. Nintendo simply doesn’t do that. Even though they had a date in mind for a North American launch of Smash, they honestly would never had had that title competing with its true breadwinner, Super Mario Galaxy. Now, you may think you’re privy to some insider knowledge that says Smash Bros. is somehow secretly more popular that a straight up Mario title, or that it will somehow revive the passionate gamer’s interest in Nintendo,  but you’re not. It’s just not. For Nintendo to take away even one sale of Galaxy with another sure fire winner, thereby watering down BOTH titles’ sales, is irrationally stupid. They are a business, the holiday season is where they make a majority of their money, and they would never put that dynamic in jeopardy, especially when they can push back Smash Bros. a month or so and have everyone who was going to buy it in a month buy it then anyway. But wait. You’ve decided to make a stand? You’re not going to buy it now to make some kind of point? Trust me, you’re in the minority of the minority with that mindset. This is not some kind of political movement, it’s a gaming business. Truth of the matter is Nintendo has banked so much collateral these days, they can afford to do this. People will be blown away by Galaxy, their appetite’s whetted, and they will buy Smash Bros. in February.

Exhibit C is that delays suck, but they happen. If you were going to buy Smash Bros. in December, nine times out of ten you’ll buy it in February too. But if not, then make your point. Millions of other people will be having ten times more fun that you come February. Including yours truly, as if that was in any doubt.

Lastly, some Japanese developers are apparently disgruntled. They think Nintendo’s bubble is set to burst because there were fewer Wii consoles sold in September than in the past. They think the Wii was an impulse buy (where have we heard that before??), because it’s probably collecting dust as people were off doing other things (if this is true, it’s more troubling for gaming in general than Nintendo because people — with the exception of those flash in the pan PSP numbers last month — certainly aren’t buying other systems instead).

Unnamed developers (red flag right there) also said Nintendo is the only winner on their system, while at the same time they say that Wii’s are collecting dust. Both of those paraphrased quotes read like they were taken from the hardcore, angst ridden message boards of the past year. They’re also a glaring contradiction that betrays the real motives of these mysterious developers. How does one have a failed, dust collecting system when Nintendo is having such success selling software for it?

Secondly, how does one explain CAPCOM, or Ubisoft, or the handful of other third party developers that have found their legs on the Wii and made a substantial amount of money over the past few quarters because of Nintendo’s Nintendo-only system? No, what I think is happening here in this “report” from Japan is that a number of shitty (excuse my French, I’m watching a Euro 2008 qualifier between France and some island as I write this) developers tried to pass schlock off as innovation and got burned. Instead of expanding their portfolio and their strategy, these unnamed developer houses chose to try and capitalize on the hype, and not the substance, of the Wii. They failed, and instead of owning up, they attack Nintendo. I did similar types of things when I was six.

But what of the dust? What of the novelty of the Wii and its declining sales? Well, any Google search will tell you Nintendo is hurting in the supply chain department right now, and to accommodate U.S. demand for the holiday, it has shifted substantial amount of product to the North American territory. But why do your research when a bunch of anonymous Japanese developers come a knockin’ with a juicy anti-Nintendo story on their hands, right?

The article, now Slashdotted, also implies that developers are wary of committing resources to Wii because it’s so unproven. Ladies and gentleman, there is no greater example of how awesome this week has gone for Nintendo than that point.

Exhibit D shows delusion at its finest. It shows that the developers who do not get Wii are on the cusp of fading away, and the ones that do get it are about to capitalize this holiday and in 2008. They cling to familiarity like the drowning entity that they are, hoping to keep the past alive in one last doomed attempt to stay afloat. Again, I cite CAPCOM to disprove this mentality. I cite EA, which physically changed its mission statement this year to encompass different types of titles. I cite Ubisoft, which capitalized in 2006 at the onset and appears ready to do it again with Rabbids 2. I cite Atlus, and its sleeper hits in the Trauma Center series. This holiday will see even more evidence, and even less complaining as the stubborn developers fade away.

In 2006 these kinds of articles had weight because Nintendo’s strategy was so new and disruptive. Today, they read like the sad little afterthoughts that they are.