Ruminations on Nintendo power

grandma (1)Just last week, as the Infendo editors were assembled virtually in our super secret Gmail lair, we started discussing the topic of “year in review.” Like dirty hipsters, I suppose we felt uber powerful and self-important about bucking the status quo, and for some reason found ourselves discussing 2009 (and even 2008) in the second week of January. So tardy!

For me, the conversation mirrored ones that we’d had in 2008, and then again in 2009 (and maybe even in 2007, not to date myself too much). Dusty consoles, “casual gamers” and their “real” impact on gaming…these chestnuts had all resurfaced, for better or worse.

Anyway, the conversation, IMO, was a healthy debate about Nintendo. Did it succeed in 2009? Was the software lineup weaker than it was in 2008? What would happen with the great swaths of new gamers created by this company over the past three plus years? We all weighed in, it seemed.

Will, with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the Nintendo library, mailed in this 1rst party software comparison when the discussion veered toward 2008 versus 2009:

2008 –
Advanced Wars Days of Ruin
Smash Bros Brawl
Mario Kart
Animal Crossing
Wii Music
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon

2009 –
Metroid Prime Collection
Wii Sports Resort
New Super Mario Bros Wii
The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks
Mario and Luigi Bowsers inside Story
Punch Out!
Professor Layton Diabolical Box

For my money, that’s a win for 2009, even though Mario Kart Wii is a console-defining game. And there’s no denying the impact of Brawl. It’s one of the best games on any system, period, and the online stats, tracked by Nintendo and made publicly available every month, are tops amongst all Wii online games (as of a few weeks ago anyway).

The variety is clear. Puzzles. Portable titles. A pseudo racing game. Metroid, tweaked. A platformer that somehow managed to reinvent a 20+ year-old franchise with 4-player support, modest motion controls, new suits, and updated graphics. If you would have told me NSMBW was going to hand a Final Fantasy title its hat in 2009 (in Japan no less!), I would have believed you, of course, but I doubt a majority of people would have done the same.

Continuing on…there was a retro refresh of Punch-Out!! A refresh of Wii Sports with a new peripheral. Hell, even WiiWare had a few shining stars in Monkey Island and retro revivals of Mega Man and Castlevania.

Nevertheless, there was some pessimism regarding the non-traditional gamers abandoning Nintendo in 2010 (why they didn’t choose to abandon the Wii in 2007, or 2008, or 2009 wasn’t explained). So I ranted. It’s a shock to no one, I’m sure, but nevertheless our Managing Editor David asked me to clean it up and print it here with some context, so I’m going to oblige. Happily, because for me, with my life outside gaming, and work, and whatnot, I think I played video games in the “just right” zone these past two years (yes, beyond the Wii, there is more to gaming! shock! awe! I admit this!). Nintendo’s power? Still strong, and getting stronger. It’s a good thing, too, because with all the third party developers and mega-publishers downsizing or closing up shop in 2009, gaming is going to need a backbone in 2010, and its not going to come from the elites—it’s going to come from everyday, non-traditional people who play once in a while, for a maybe a half hour or an hour at a time. No, they’re not casual, or stupid, or lesser gamers—they’re normal. They play all sorts of stuff, and they’re the majority. Always have been.

The Rant

Just last week, from CES, Microsoft, not some analyst or me or Reggie, said that only 50% of its 39 million Xbox 360 users are on Xbox Live. They didn’t specify gold or silver. They should have, but it’s understandable why they would not. And 50% of GoW2 players have HD. To me that says maybe this passionate minority, while always a minority, wasn’t that important to begin with–and still isn’t. And to say they’re “driving” gaming with their early adopter tastes is a bit wrong too. HD programming is old hat now. HDTVs will be ubiquitous by the end of 2010. Even Grandmas talk about “being online.” And yet Blu-Ray, HD gaming, online play on the console that DEFINED online play…sits at 50%. The hardest of the hardcore! What a joke! And then I’d love to see just how active those 50% are. Maybe 50% of them are “active.” The influence tumbles even more. Dare I say it, some of those people probably use their Xbox Love service as often as dusty Wii owners use their Wiis! The irony! And then, if they’re predominantly just Silver users, the number tumbles even further down the hole or irrelevance. Hate to kick an online service when it’s down, but if people are going to hold it up as some kind of standard for the WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE, it needs to be done. Reality checks, and all that.

Now is this data shocking? Maybe for the casual video game blog reader, or Kotaku comment section dweller, but for journalists this is something we should have seen developing in 2007, ’08 and yes, last year. And yet most articles I read on these kinds of topics today are just that, shocked. Just look at crazy hair over at IGN! “Nintendo doesn’t care about us!!!” The hubris is amazing, but expected. That’s what happens in the echo chamber. You lose sight of where things are going, because you’re kind of stuck running in place. Moving with the herd. That online play and HD graphics are literally not in the driver’s seat when it comes to gaming are something I’ve advocated for a while, to the chagrin of critics, but nevertheless it’s true.

It sounds crazy, and some people spit some wonderful vitriol around when this next fact is brought up, but this anti-desire for online, HD graphics and horsepower is exactly why Nintendo is where it is today, and it is why they are undeniably responsible for a majority of the growth in gaming. I find it kind or irresponsible that we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that this group (Infendo) here is pretty into gaming, yes, but that our behavior, and our friends and their dusty consoles and their similar tastes (that’s just human nature and community) are in the minority.

The answer: To be hated for increasing the size of the gamer pool. The question: What is Nintendo? What a paradox this industry has become….

Being hurt by something you never had

Meanwhile, using critics’ own words against them, the gazillion Wii owners out there today “don’t count” toward the future of “real” gaming (because they are not truly “serious” about the medium, or something), and Nintendo never had the illustrious “hardcore gamer” to being with, so…um, wait a second…how can Nintendo, with its three straight years of record-breaking growth, “lose” or be “hurt” in 2010 by somehow not catering to the elite tastes or a market critics says it has no chance of ever getting? I’m confused just writing about it.

The logical leaps are curious, to say the least. And, again, why didn’t the cas-core market leave in 2007, or 2008, or last year? What kept them, especially since 2007-2009 always managed to end with people talking about how poor Nintendo software was that year!? Was 2010 the year they marked in red on their calendars? I guess they’re like all those latent PS3 purchasers that are going to ride into town 5 years after that console released to save it and make Sony king of gaming again, just in reverse?

If anything, Nintendo GAINS in the coming year, especially as we continue to see backlash against absolutely stupid quotes from big time publishers who can’t figure out how to sell a game on Nintendo consoles/portables. Case in point: Can you imagine any other industry where one of the key players (Capcom–CAPCOM!!!), says that it is basically going to abandon the MARKET LEADER, and then in the same breath BLAMES THE CUSTOMERS for their problems? Double word fail score! Forget the word “Nintendo” in this example–why does no one find this behavior completely mind boggling? Strike that, actually I can: The American Auto Industry when it said it knew what its customers wanted best over the past decade or so, and had their asses handed to them by the Japanese and the Germans and pretty much anyone who could see that the Hummer wasn’t the future of automobiles. This doesn’t sound familiar to anyone? If it doesn’t I’m curious as to why gaming is so special, and immune to common sense.

With the auto industry still in mind, another prediction for 2010: Even more layoffs, closed shops and consolidation, even amongst the Big Publishers, as their angst against the new markets Nintendo have created continues. And no, to quote Bill Clinton (and this is directed at no one personally), it’s not the economy, stupid. Then the shareholders get involved, and the meetings, populated by those “worthless” Wii grandmas, females, aunts and uncles, get really interesting. “Why did you shun this continually growing user base of 60 million people? Pride?! Because you think we don’t really count?! Really?”

The perpetually bursting bubble

Lastly, it’s amazing how many different iterations I still see of “it’s a bubble, it’s going to burst” or “all the Wii’s I know gather dust” from bloggers and journalists. As a semi-journalist/former full-timer, I actively discouraged myself from using close friends and acquaintances as sources or anecdotes, because as I said human nature is to hang with like-minded people. Instead, I relied on numbers, professionals, and cold calls of customers out in the field using the product in question. A quick example: In December, the Wii broke a record when it purportedly sold 3 million units. Now, do a lot of people I know play their Wii occasionally? Maybe even go without playing for days on end? Will many of these three million do the same? Sure, but that’s normal, and to still somehow dismiss or talk down to these people is something we should have left in 2007 or 2008, let alone 2009. And yet it persists. Like most people–and I mean an overwhelming majority of people on this planet–I can afford/choose to buy maybe one game a month, if that (this is in terms of price and time available to play games). Gaming complements my life, it doesn’t dominate it. And then when I’m away for a while, like most people, I don’t feel guilty or “let down” if I don’t play the system for a few days, or even a week or so, which is ironic considering all the accusations I get for being such a fanman.

Doubly lastly, if I may be an obvious hypocrite, my friends and acquaintances all own a Wii. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t bought one, or played one, or participated in a Wii bar event, demo’d one, or whatever. There’s several in my place of work. I see them at malls. I see them at CES, still getting peripherals. I see two in some households. They’re still on morning talks hows. Reporters outside of gaming still write poorly-sourced articles on the fitness benefits of EA’s exercise line. I see the next two biggest video game hardware companies clamoring to copy motion tech with the usual hardcore hard-on “let’s turn the features up to 11 and price it into the stratosphere” bravado we’ve seen for the past 10 years. I see a PS3 diehard friend of mine get one for Xmas from his mother, and grill me for a list of games that he’s going to go buy and play the hell out of—in 2009 this happened!!!

You know where I see XBox’s and PS3s? In finished basements. In boys rooms. In elite, intimidating “entertainment centers.” None of these, by the way, are mainstream. I’ve never heard/seen a parent mention playing one, or many people over 30. I’ve never heard a girl, and I know a few, say she wanted to turn on an Xbox 360, let alone play something like play Dragon Age. This group is largely unchanged, and looks largely as it did in the Atari days, when it was uncool to like little gray 8-bit boxes that sat under the TV and not in the computer room. That’s group one. Remember it, because…

Meanwhile, all those Wii owners–those worthless, fickle grandmas and moms and girls and little kids and, oh, people just like me (28-year-old former frat boys who work 40 hours a week, still play organized sports, drink beer and go out), well, they’ve all said they’re at the very least CURIOUS about gaming now. Some of them will game more in the future. Some will game the same. Some will give it up, but all of them are “new” to gaming and are expanding it in every direction. And they’re all curious about gaming now. Decided to give it a shot. There’s potential there. That’s group two. Remember that one as well, because…

Which group is more threatening to the future of gaming? Which sits mired in a swamp, moving in no real new direction at all?

It’s an open question. It’s not asked with any venom, or angst. It’s asked by someone who cares enough about the gaming to put pen to paper and talk about it; by someone who wants to see gaming grow and inspire new developers with ideas beyond “variations on an M-16” or “I Wish I Were a Movie 6” or “I put nudity in my game because it makes it more adult and serious.”

I mean come on. When you say aunts and uncles and parents and girls are somehow a detriment to “real” gaming, you’re dismissing people like Jade Raymond out of hand. That’s absolutely foolish, in more ways than one.


But really, it’s your turn now. What was 2009 to you? Compare it 2008, going beyond just the first party lists provided above (which lack solid titles like ExciteBots, et al, IMO). Word on the street is Nintendo will drop Galaxy 2 and Zelda this year. Maybe Other M or even a platforming Metroid on the Wii. Is that not enough? What do you expect in 2010? Do you get offended when grandma plays Wii? Or your parents? Dig deep if you do, and ask yourself why? Do these demographics really contribute nothing to gaming?

Flames, rants of your own and honest debate are welcome below. Have at it, and here’s to a healthier 2010. For all gaming.