Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nintendo in trouble, and why the next generation cannot save them

There’s no denying it, Nintendo is struggling. Although posting a loss for the first time would hardly seem like a company on the slide there are more issues at work here than meets the eye. Please note this is an analysis from someone who loves games, and reads news both gaming and business and world related, it is not intended as an insider view at all and it certainly is based upon my assumptions and observations, so take them as you will.

This ‘next’ gen of Nintendo’s is built soely on gimmicks, namely the obvious 3D capability of the 3DS and the slightly less obvious tablet controller of the WiiU. Both of these smack of desperation in the concept, look at the 3DS and it’s announcement at the peak of the 3D fad, everything was in 3D, movies, games, TV all being marketed as this massive selling point and for a time it was and I must admit that I was excited for the glassesless  3D tech and yes it works as advertised does it make for a more compelling gaming experience? I’d answer no. Every game I’ve played on the 3DS the feeling of depth sure has been there but not one has needed it, you could have chucked any of Kid Icarus or Tales of the Abyss onto the DS and they still would have been successful (maybe a revision that included the circle pad). It seemed like Nintendo was shouting, ‘hey guys you like 3D, right?’ 

Truth was we saw it as a novelty, nice in patches but we still not how we want to consume a majority of the content. Even Sony who was championing the 3D angle with the PS3 and their TV lines have relegated games with stereoscopic 3D as nothing more than a bullet point. Even with movies, it’s the big dumb ‘blockbusters’ that get 3D, and people put up with it because they must, it seems not because they want to.

Nintendo took a gamble that 3D was what consumers want, they lost that one. In the end you get the evolution of the DS that gives you games that look better but unfortunately the average smart phone now can produce far better looking games. Now I’m not saying the Smart Phone market is going to destroy the hand held market that Nintendo has dominated for 20+ years, but already it’s teetering on the edge, the metaphorical boulder just hanging over the head of mobile gaming. I’m not going to say for a second this is a Nintendo only problem, Sony looks like it has tried for the second time with the Vita and it seems like it is burning, I suspect Sony has tread these waters too often now and unless something dramatic occurs this will be their last hand held. I digress, though.

Think about it you have in your pocket (or bag) a device which makes calls, has a near constant data connection, has a massive library of games that cost between nothing and around $20 as a maximum as well as playing music, video and almost anything you can think of through the expansion of apps and it does it better than the 3DS does these things natively. Admittedly a lot of games on iOS or Android don’t click with me because on-screen controls are, to put it plainly, ineffective, lack feedback etc, etc (everything that has been said 100 times before is true). The thing is that even with these issues they will satisfy some 90% of smart phone owners, and despite the shortcomings of the platform in comparison to the 3DS, it sure does suit me on the go.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Wii’s tablet controller, oh I’m sorry, the WiiU. Yes that’s right Nintendo can’t get the message across this is a whole new console. It hasn’t helped that in all promotional material that white box appears alarmingly similar to the Wii (even though we have no idea what it will look like at all). I’m not saying that the core will be confused, the core know the ins and outs of the industry follows news with fanatical passion, the problem here is those just on the edge those that know games a little maybe buy 2 to 3 games a year that find out technology news from the BBC or CNN. This console and campaign just hasn’t been doing enough to differentiate itself to those consumers on the fringe and that’s a worry.

A new console or a new peripheral?

The next problem is the controller. Now think for a second, just one will do, what made the Wii wildly popular? That’s right the ability to appeal to a wider audience, now good or bad and whatever your thoughts on appealing to the ‘casuals’ it sure as hell made a lot of money. Now think on this the attach rate of software was poor, yes Wii Fit and Wii Sports sufficed for a large portion of the community but balance out the fact that Nintendo never loses on hardware (until recently). How many Wii’s were sold? Yeah that’s a fair chunk of change. Now think on this what made that console so ridiculously popular with the casual market? I’d bet it’s the fact that you had a controller that would work using basically 2 buttons and motions that while not exactly 1 to 1, translated what you did in the real world into the game world.
Now as a parallel think on the tablet market, what has made this product explode in popularity? Without fully studying consumer habits and marketing research I would wager that some of the top answers would come back as portability, simplicity of use, vibrant display. Now this is speculation but the touch resistive displays in the DS and 3DS have tended to be pretty lacklustre, looking dull and only useful for menu selections and very limited gameplay options. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot you can do with a touch interface but I am sceptical about how many compelling experiences you can create and add to that there is still the option to use Wii-motes and that 360 styled controller. To me it seems like an each way bet, in that they have no idea how compelling the tablet will be as a controller so they can bin it and transfer across to another scheme when it doesn’t work as planned. Also think about your tablet, or any tablet you’ve used ever how many buttons did it have? 2 or 3 perhaps?  Now look at the tablet above, yeah it's not as simple and frankly it looks a bit cumbersome.

I sure hope as a gamer this comes off but to be perfectly honest I can't see it happening Nintendo has been producing fantastic games and consoles for 30 years, I hope it all doesn't come crumbling down with the WiiU, here's hoping Nintendo know what they're doing.

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