I love Nintendo. I have since I was an elementary school kid begging for an NES Action Set. The Wii U is my first Nintendo system since the Gamecube, and it hasn't been powered on in three months.
The recent System Update has drastically improved its speed, but there's a lot more wrong with it and Nintendo than loading times.
Nintendo has problems galore, many of which spilled out over the last week, following their announcement of their second consecutive annual earnings loss. I'm not sure that there is a clear path for them out of this. They have, however, done a couple of things right in the midst of a bunch of PR spin deflection. This is my analysis of the current state of Nintendo, a company that could be doing much better than they are.
It's troubling when their Worldwide President, Satoru Iwata, openly admits that he thinks people confuse the Wii U for an add-on accesory to the Wii:
"Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii," said Iwata. "We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product."
Iwata said Nintendo will make a greater effort to help consumers understand the console and bulk up its software lineup. Nintendo plans to "intensively launch" key titles throughout the rest of year to help the Wii U regain its sale momentum, beginning with Pikmin 3 on July 13 in Japan and Aug. 4 in North America.
Iwata said that after making the smartest move in some time by killing off their traditional E3 keynote event:
"As a brand new challenge, we are working to establish a new presentation style for E3," Iwata said. Nintendo's E3 presence will be "specifically focused on our software lineup for the U.S. market," Iwata says.
At E3 2013, Nintendo plans to hold a closed event for American distributors and another closed hands-on event for Western gaming media. Iwata, who did not present at last year's E3, says he's not planning on speaking at these events.
"Apart from these exclusive events for visitors, we are continuing to investigate ways to deliver information about our games directly to our home audience around the time of E3," Iwata explained. "During the E3 period, we will utilize our direct communication tools, such as Nintendo Direct, to deliver information to our Japanese audience ... and we will take the same approach outside Japan for the overseas fans as well."
In that same piece from Polygon, they mention that the most recent Nintendo Direct saw the announcement of a new sequels in the Mario Party series, and 3DS-based followups to fan-favorite Super NES games Yoshi's Island and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. That's great and everything, but those games are coming out months from now, when new Sony and Microsoft consoles will be the hot news.
Nintendo of America's Charlie Scibetta updated Polygon further with this:
"As you've already seen, a lot of news about Nintendo games and services that traditionally would be held until E3 is being delivered this year through Nintendo Directs, and various press events. This approach will continue between now and E3. No matter where you are in the world, you'll be fully informed. We look forward to continuing to provide you with Nintendo news and content in ways you haven't before experienced. Beyond the news that will be communicated through Nintendo Direct videos in the run up to E3, at the show itself we're hosting two smaller events on Tuesday morning before the LACC opens instead of just our traditional one event. A media event and a partner presentation will both occur that morning. While the audiences will be different between the two events, both will occur on the Tuesday morning of E3 (June 11) which is the date and time period the public has come to expect for Nintendo to deliver E3 news.
This is great! Segmenting messaging for different audiences, rather than spending loads of money trying to address everyone at once and pleasing no one.
"At the Nokia theater we'll meet with business partners (retailers, publishers, analysts, etc.) from the NOA territory and discuss our plans for driving the business and providing tailored information that this group finds useful to their operations. Nintendo has done these same type of business meetings at past E3 shows, but has not in the past few years. This year we are returning to that business partner meeting format. New this year at our booth in the LACC, prior to the show opening, we'll invite a small group of media to play our games. We will have a strong line-up of beloved franchise experiences available for immediate hands-on play. We are continuing to consider exciting new ways to bring the news of our games and information directly to the players at home during the E3 timeframe, and will have more to say about that at a later date."
That reads like PR-speak for "we're going to start doing our own versions of Disney's D23, Apple's WWDC, and so on", which would be great news. Honestly, they should integrate into the comic convention circuit and do their own regional NintendoCons. The Penny Arcade guys appear to make loads of money off of their PAX franchise of conventions. The Big N has one of the most recognizable collections of characters and properties anywhere.
The periodic Nintendo Direct video stream mini-announcements they've been doing for a while)
That announcement sent shockwaves through the Nintendo fanbase as yet another sign of a sinking ship, but I find it to be quite the opposite.
Like I discussed with Rene Ritchie, I think keynote culture needs to die so that it can be reborn. Media and hardware companies need to stop their endless cycle of trying to imitate Apple at conferences they don't own. That's why Apple broke away from their MacWorld keynote.
In light of all this, Nintendo has three major lingering problems:
1) They (still) need more games
a) Nothing New for Wii U until fall: We're heading into summer, and there isn't a big pile of unplayed games for kids or adults to gobble up. There's no way to go back in time to fix that.
b) 3DS Sequelware: It's great that more sequels in beloved series are being announced, but they need more top-level titles (like the sales-leading Mario titles) than just sequels going to 3DS.
c) Back Catalogue Locked in a Vault: It's great that more classic titles are hitting Virtual Console, but it's unconscionable that Nintendo hasn't just dumped its entire back catalogue into the storferont that they themselves own. Wired's Chris Kohler wrote an excellent editorial on this subject (and things I discuss in point 2 below), and I couldn't agree more.
Apple's entire platform, plus a very easy-to-enter emulation/piracy community on Android are eating Nintendo alive. That they missed this milestone throughout the entire life of the Wii looks irresponsible. Nintendo has the most storied and famous game library in the world, and they're allowing it to sit mostly dormant. In a broader sense, wouldn't it be great for indie developers to make cross-platform games that work on Wii/WiiU/3DS in the way iOS and Android developers can across phones and tablets?
d) Indies in play: As recently as two years ago, XBox Live Arcade was the place to be for indie console devs. Now Sony is making a major, x86-based play for them and they're jumping in droves. Indie console devs are in play, but Nintendo can't get them if they insist on blockading content from working across their entire installed base.
2) Nintendo isn't simple anymore
The original NES required pushing in a cartridge and pushing a button. The GameCube had you put in a disc and press the power button. The Wii U finds you pushing a single power-on button and then being assaulted by loads of confusing menus. Upon first power-on, my wife said she was "sick of it" inside of the first 5 minutes of a 45-minute setup process.
Nintendo should be cornering the home market the way they started to retake it with Wii, where once again it was "I'm gonna play Nintendo" instead of XBox/PlayStation/whatever. They've self-imposed barriers upon themselves that dumbfound me
a) "Nintendo Anwhyere" is the missing "killer app": We know all these "Virtual Console" (aka soft-emulated) games can function on both 3DS and Wii U hardware, so why not make your purchase for any given "VC" game work on both? This would be like iPhone and iPad games being forced as separate purchases and not allowing cross-compatibility. Wouldn't it be the biggest no-brainer added value in the world to introduce cloud saving? The Wii U Virtual Console already includes the "save anywhere" ("save state") feature. That way, a game you save on the Wii picks up where you left off when you load it on your 3DS. Think of how both iTunes media streaming services "remember playback position". There is no technological reason these games don't already do this.
b) Virtually not worth the effort: The labrynthine, insanely lengthy process to transfer Wii Virtual Console games to Wii U is something out of 1993, not 2013. Tethering one console to the other to transfer files is ridiculous in the age of "enter your Apple ID to download". It's more than a launch-window pain in the ass at this point. It should be a "log in and then download what you already bought". It's embarrassing that this hasn't been fixed yet. It is not too difficult a technical hurdle to clear.
c) Wii U upcharge for Wii U features: If you previously bought a Virtual Console game, you have to spend an additional $1.50 to do any of the following... 1) play it on the Wii U GamePad screen, 2) save anytime, 3) change the control scheme, or 4) play without booting the entire system and using a Classic Controller. They could easily make up this "lost revenue"
d) The missing hardware link: If Nintendo is actually serious about staying in hardware, they should be developing a phone. That the most profitable gaming platform (mobile phones) completely lacks Nintendo software is bizarre.
Their tablet platform already exists, and is attached to their set-top box. The same VirtualConsole-scale games could run on a phone with physical gameplay buttons, just as they do on the Wii U GamePad and the 3DS. They already make a mobile-scale OS, and have been doing so for years. Their classic games just don't work on phones that have no physical controls. If anyone can truly break through with a smart gamerphone, it would be Nintendo, but they show no interest whatsoever in this space. They're moving into first-party refurbished hardware sales, dropping a middleman they don't need anymore. They opened their Miiverse social hub to the web. They need to make strong, forceful moves somehow, somewhere.
3) They need a real new media marketing strategy.
a) Boring videos: Iwata was a programmer before he became a suit. He's a great spiritual leader in general. He loses me about two seconds into each sentence he speaks in a Nintendo Direct presentation. Even their gregarious American spokespeople come off stilted in these videos. The first step is owning your messaging, but the equally important second step is in making it engaging.
b) I want my Nintendo TV: The Nintendo Direct content needs to go out to a broader audience, and they are squandering their ownership of the Wii U home screen. One of the marquee "apps" on the home screen should be a dedicated "Nintendo TV" channel, which offers exclusive trailers, playthrough/expert tips, and lifestyle programming. Comcast's G4 channel is dead, and if you make hardware, you control the flow of content to the user. If you're going to have a set-top box menu, why wouldn't you make a real push by way of "cable quality at YouTube cost" programming that keeps people on your box, right alongside Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and others? Nintendo says they want to make the Wii U the "one box to rule them all", so why not make that happen? There exists 30 years of Nintendo video content that could be used to backfill this. Each month, offer a few movies as "free to watch", by partnering with Netflix or Hulu.
c) Attack of the Nintendo: As it stands, Nintendo Direct is great for the existing core audience, but it does nothing to draw in new users or further engage parents. On top of a channel offering, Nintendo should have something like Attack of the Show, a weekly lifestyle program. Iwata providing talking points over gameplay videos is fine and everything, but Nintendo needs to create their own lifestyle programming in the mold of what Marvel is doing with Earth's Mightiest Show. They need English and Japanese market versions at a minimum, and why not offer both versions subtitled in the other territory, too? It would be a great way to gauge localization interest in both directions.
c) Get better targeted commercials: Commercials like these don't successfully draw in a new audience.
How the mighty have fallen. I hope this sleeping giant wakes up.