Nintendo's Inevitable Success and Failure

As usual, Nintendo-centric topics dominate most message boards and just as I was about to partake in another round of the endless battle against the forces of irrational fanboys, I remembered something I once read (and probably shouldn't repeat): Arguing online is like racing in the Special Olympics; even if you win, you're still retarded. And with that, I promptly closed Internet Explorer and picked up a pen. You remember pens, right? They're those things we used to use to sign checks. You do remember what a check is, right? Nevermind, I can see this is going nowhere. Let's just get down to it.

Nintendo surprised me in a big way last year. Going into 2005, I had a Nintendo DS handheld sitting on the shelf actively engaged in a dust-collecting showdown with my Gamecube. The release of the every-bit-as-good-as-you-hear Resident Evil 4 catapulted the Gamecube to the tops of my daily rotation while the DS languished in no man's land. Come spring, Sony released their tribute to all things converged, the PSP, and I immediately pronounced the pealing of the death bell for Nintendo's lock on the portable gaming market. After all, the PSP had everything: it had some good launch games, it could play movies and music, and a web browser was right around the corner.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the morgue. Sony decided to seemingly stop supporting the PSP as a games machine. The companies that were supporting it were releasing nothing but ports of dated Playstation 2 games, and the moronic decision to ship the PSP without the equivalent of a Right Analog Stick started to rear itself as being a debilitating, if not crippling, flaw in the system. Especially as more and more standard 3D action and platforming titles are released. Standard in every way except an ability to manipulate the camera. Add to that the fact the low-res (dimensionally) screen positively sucks for browsing the Internet and you've basically lost two of the biggest reasons to buy the system.

Meanwhile, Nintendo's dual-screen system starts to gain some traction with the release of Mario Kart DS and Meteos. And before long, a host of original titles are being released for the system and not only does the DS become a feasible platform, but it makes the purchase of a PSP seem like a giant mistake. By year's end the Nintendo DS becomes the system of choice for many of the same people -- like me -- who had given it up for dead earlier in the year. And to further elaborate on my mea culpa, I'll point out that I've purchased two console games since Thanksgiving and both have been for the DS. I haven't purchased a PSP title that I did not immediately return or trade in since June.

Unfortunately for Nintendo, this fun-filled story of the unrelenting underdog who overcomes the might and majesty of Sony's shiny new portable toy has no bearing whatsoever on how the next-generation consoles will fare. I commented recently on a message board that the Revolution will receive critical praise, but fail to help Nintendo regain any of their lost marketshare. I was immediately cast off as a hater and told to look at the success of the DS as a reason for the Revolution's inevitable success.

Let's be clear about what we're talking about here. We're talking about home entertainment consoles, not handheld portable gaming systems. Nintendo has always been extremely succesful in the portable side of the industry. And they likely always will. They pwn it, to put it in words the less literate of you may understand. But on the console side of things, they have been losing marketshare steadily since the days of the Super Nintendo system (early 1990's). That's going back three generations now. In other words, it's a historical trend that isn't easily reversed. Difficult in a two-competitor market, but all but impossible in a three-competitor market. Don't believe me? How's Sega fairing these days? Or Atari? Add to that the Nintendo sold fewer Gamecube systems (by a slim margin) than the new kid on the block, Microsoft, and you're looking at even more of an uphill road to climb.

In my opinion this is because, speaking in terms of the country I'm most comfortable with, Americans like the familiar. They like the standardized. Much to Nintendo's credit, they have always gone in their own direction. They were the first to go to 64 bits, the last to endorse CD-Roms and DVDs as a media choice, and the last to go online. They've also always believed in creating a unique controller for each of their systems. This is the most crucial point in my opinion. Sony's Dualshock controller that released for the original Playstation was a watershed moment in gaming as it was the first controller that seemingly did everything we would ever need. Sony refined it with the release of the Dualshock 2 for the PS2, as did Microsoft with the release of the Controller-S for the Xbox. Microsoft then refined it even further (and dare I say perfected it) with their version for the Xbox 360.

Nintendo, on the other hand, replaced the decidedly odd controller used with the N64 with their own Seuss-like version of Sony's Dualshock for the Gamecube. And while this controller works very, very well for most first-party games, it has proved limiting in third-party, multiplatform games. As an example, developers of the snowboarding game SSX3, one of the best-selling titles of this generation, went on the record stating that they had to remove nearly a third of the trickset for the Gamecube version on account of the controller. That's just one example, but there are sure to be others.

Now, with the Revolution, Nintendo is not only employing a different and slightly limiting controller, but they have gone in a totally different manner and are challenging the way games are played and the way humans interact with said game. Again, kudos to them. But whereas developers always had to make small allowances for Nintendo versions of their games in terms of the controls, now they may well have to make completely new games. This is of course a great thing for gamers if the third-party developers actually do it. But will they? All you need to do to answer that question is take a look at the shelves of any game store. How many Gamecube-exclusive third-party games do you see? Sure, there are the Capcom ones on account of the now-expired deal Nintendo and Capcom struck several years ago, but how many else? Not many.

Hold that thought.

So, gamers now have gone through two generations of console gaming in which the Nintendo-made console has suffered in terms of third-party support, whether it be because of business practices or funky controllers. And now, in round 3, Nintendo has saved their funkiest for last. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft have seemingly perfected a standard controller for gaming. A controller that will likely be very, very easy for developers to design multi-platform games around -- not to mention the fact that the Xbox 360 controller also works on the PC. And these are controllers that the majority of us status-quo-loving Americans will embrace. In other words, Nintendo has further isolated themselves from the third-party publishers. Publishers with names like Activision, Konami, Square-Enix, Capcom, Electronic Arts, Sega, Namco, Take-Two, and others. You may have head of them.

So this gets back to the problems Nintendo will face with the Revolution. People know that the system will likely have a smaller catalog of games than the Xbox 360 and PS3. And as a result, gamers will be more reluctant to purchase the Nintendo console than ever. Either because of a fear of the unknown with regards to the mysterious remote-waving controller, or because they will make a choice to go where the third-party games go -- to Microsoft and Sony.

Unfortunately, this is all a self-fullfilling prophecy of doom and gloom. Third party publishers are reluctant to invest the tens of millions of dollars needed to make an original game for a Nintendo console because they are concerned about the limited installed userbase. And the user's are hesitant to invest in the console if it's going to lack in software. And while the Gamecube's userbase wasn't much less than the Xbox's, companies seem to understand the demographics of the Xbox owners better and are seemingly far more willing to take a chance on them.

The way I see it, the Revolution will be critically praised by the so-called gaming press (who apparently nursed on the Nintendo teet from birth), but will fail to steal marketshare from Sony and Microsoft. This is not the same as saying Nintendo is a failure. Nintendo may not need to regain a portion of the market to turn a profit. I don't know. What I do know, is that history is bound to repeat itself unless two or more of the following three things happen:
  1. The Revolution is launched at a price of $179 or less. The pricepoint in which Americans seem willing to take a chance on unproven technogadgets has risen since the last round of the console wars and the $399 price of the Xbox 360 and suspected $499 price of the PS3 helps Nintendo's cause. At $179 or less, many Americans will see it as "why not" purchase and get it for the sake of experimentation. Also, many of those with much tighter budgets will not be able to responsibly choose a console twice as expensive. Having a lower price point isn't enough, however, as a $99 Gamecube (with a free game or two) still wasn't enough in the last go through. They must also...
  2. Release more first-party games than ever before. And I'm not talking about a gaggle of sports games featuring Mario. The Revolution will likely lend itself to some very unique gameplay experiences. Take advantage of this opportunity to create new intellectual properties and expand that lovable universe of Nintendo mascots and creatures. But do make sure these games have substance. One of my biggest concerns about the Revolution's control system is that it is going to be another EyeToy and of little practical usage beyond playing mini-games. If Nintendo can release enough quality content (not one real Mario game every 4 years and a Zelda every 3 years) throughout the year then enough people will buy the Revolution and maybe, just maybe...
  3. The system gets the necessary third-party support it needs. Even if it means striking deals that you wouldn't normally even consider, third-party support is crucial. Especially if Nintendo still finds themselves unable to produce an adequate number of games throughout the year (and given their exceptional quality, I doubt they can), they must get the third-party companies to commit. I'll concede that this is the one area where the success of the Nintendo DS has surprised me and may prove relevant. Perhaps there are companies willing to experiment with something totally new and yearning to go in a different direction? I don't know, but whether there or aren't, Nintendo needs these other companies.

To say 2006 is going to be an interesting year in gaming is an understatement. and to put the success and failure of Nintendo's year at the feet of the Revolution would be grossly errant of me. This spring brings the long-awaited installment in the Legend of Zelda franchise, as well as several anticipated games for the DS. And I am glad to say that although I was forced to miss the previous two E3 Expo's on account of work (2004) and a wedding (2005) I can't wait to be there this year. And one of the things I look forward to doing most is spending some hands-on time with the Revolution and returning home to report to you, my readers. The 2 of you. And I'll say now, as one of those youngsters who grew up "playing Nintendo" I'll be happy to admit I was wrong again. I was totally wrong with respect to the DS and maybe I'll be wrong with the Revolution too. Time will tell.

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