A Curiously Nintendo Problem.

Circle of Fire…

It’s never just one problem.

Commenting on other sites I’ve come to rely on a response to most Nintendo-negative articles with the tagline, “It seems to be a curiously Nintendo problem.” When someone says that Nintendo cannot survive when it clearly has the financial reserves and profit margins to do so, compared to a company like Sony who only got into profit this year arguably by selling off a massive multi-million dollar building? It’s a curiously Nintendo problem. In fact, it’s quite widespread; it’s almost as if the basic norms of business don’t apply to Sony or Microsoft because hey, they’re popular, right? Nintendo isn’t therefore it must surely be in trouble, right? Right?

A while back I argued with a group of people whether there was an image issue at the heart of Nintendo. I said that there was ample evidence that they were secretly totally okay with Nintendo games – and they were, completely okay with the games output of Nintendo, and they couldn’t really argue that when the company puts out content, you know you’re getting your moneys worth – very, very few games developers have a track record that’s as high-class as Nintendo, after all. We all agreed that saying Nintendo games weren’t very good was a bit like saying German cars are badly engineered – there’s a distinct untruth to it that is insidious in how commonplace the viewpoint is, when it’s clearly the complete opposite.

But then it came to the whole idea of buying a Nintendo console; at least, a home console. And the general feeling was, they wouldn’t. “If my mates came round to see a Wii U by me telly, they’d think I’d gone all peado!” was one of the comments – a brutal summary of how they saw Nintendo, as a machine only for children and that they thought that anyone seen with a Nintendo machine was… well… yeah. But then I had to ask, if Nintendo released games on the PS4 or XBox One, would that feeling they had towards Nintendo really disappear? Think of it this way, what if it was just one Nintendo game by the side of your telly – let’s say, The Wind Waker HD. You left it on the side and your mates saw it. Would you believe your mates would have a different opinion just because it’s a PS4 game? Or is it more the fact that it’s a Nintendo game, and that Nintendo is generally speaking seen as a company for kids?

The answer to that never really came. I think we all kind of knew the answer to it, and it lies at the heart of Nintendo as a company in the modern era; as a company, it’s hard to truly fault Nintendo. They make money, they do great games and say what you like about the poor Wii U sales in recent months, it still sold three million in the first month (probably it’s biggest mistake, limited quantities tend to make things more desirable. Go figure!). But it’s not enough for many people; people who keep the company at arms length because they are afraid that they will look very shifty and somewhat uncool if they were to be seen ever admitting to liking Nintendo in any way, shape or form. And it’s strange, because I like to ask if they’d consider telling me their views on the XBox One.

It’s almost as if the bad XBox One reveal never happened now, isn’t it? Do you remember when the Internet was completely outraged by Microsoft’s new policy ideas? By requiring games be installed and activated? By not allowing second-hand games? By ensuring you couldn’t even lend games to your mates properly? All compounded with a set of rules and guidelines so messy and mixed-up that solving the Euro Crisis looked like a walk in the park in comparison. The outrage was palpable; it cost several people their jobs (although Don Mattrick jumped from a ship that was in danger of sinking to a ship that is definitely sinking! Not exactly a sign of self-preservation…), it allowed for some of the most brutal web comics in living memory and a critical response from market experts who were all utterly astounded. Of course, Microsoft have been undoing each stupid idea one by one and that’s okay, isn’t it? As long as they don’t do them, that’s fine. The simple fact they even contemplated forcing this upon us isn’t anything to be concerned about at all, is it?

“Oh, but that was then and this is now. Stop living in the past!” is one such response I’ve had, and it got me thinking; isn’t this exactly what people are doing with Nintendo?

I mean, there’s obviously no distinct standard, but most of the games on the Wii U right now are anything but childish; indeed, Zombi-U is about as grown-up as you could ever hope for. Even the poorly ported games are mostly grown up ones; Super Mario U, Nintendoland and Pikmin 3 are cartoon-like, sure, but they’re outnumbered by the gritty grown-up fare that is largely what the market turns out now. If the problem is that Nintendo games tend to be animated and child-like, then the current majority fare on Wii U should have fixed this image issue, right? But clearly, it hasn’t, because the problem is far deeper rooted than just the Wii U. It is not the fault of the console, is it? Because if it was, then we could talk tangible improvements that Nintendo could make. No, the image problem lies far deeper still.

Sony are another company that hasn’t had an easy ride of it. Discounting that they’ve had years of financial issues lying at the heart of the company, when the PS3 was new and shiny, it was also hideously expensive. Way more expensive than the Wii or the XBox 360. The net result? Coupled with a sustained PR campaign that backfired on them so brilliantly that it beggars belief, the PS3 sold less in the same time period than the Wii U currently has done so far. But we know the story here, don’t we? We have forgiven that, and we have also forgiven the potential disaster that was the PSN Network Hack. We’ve forgiven Sony all of this because the company swung around their PR efforts and ensured that gamers were put first; so we got the new PS+ service, with free games for subscribers and not just the dregs either; Demon’s Souls, Catherine, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD and more. Coupled with a more consumer-tolerant support service that replaced my PS3 even though it was so far out of warranty that I was fully prepared to pay to have it repaired, Sony have fought to get back to being the company that people want to be seen supporting.

But this wasn’t the first year; it has taken many years for this to be the case. No doubt Sony deserves its current successes; ┬áThe Last of Us an incredible example that Sony is prepared to invest in innovative new games and content. But then, so are Nintendo; not so long ago, Animal Crossing didn’t exist. It’s largely taken the place of Harvest Moon now. Dillon’s Rolling Western and Pushmo/Pullblox are both new Nintendo properties from the last couple of years and have both been quite successful and well-recieved. Xenoblade Chronicles won multiple accolades across the industry and that was released at the tail-end of the Wii’s life, and was a brand new IP itself. It’s easy to be quite selective and to prioritise the idea that Nintendo value Mario, Zelda and Metroid more than new content. But then, Sony clearly value Uncharted and Gran Turismo as well in the same vein; these are games which people will buy, and they generate the money by which they can invest in the new IP. It’s strange how we can be so fixated on Nintendo’s IP and yet somehow forget all that Sony and indeed, Microsoft have as well that operates in the same vein. If you don’t think Halo is Microsoft’s main meal-ticket in terms of financial security, you don’t really get a right to discuss this problem. So clearly, new game aren’t the issue either. So let’s try another problem.

Success. The Wii, contrary to popular opinion, was a massive financial success for Nintendo in ways that Sony and Microsoft could only ever dream about. It’s common knowledge now that Nintendo made more than a billion dollars – that’s $1,000,000,000 – in hardware profits alone. Just the hardware made that kind of money, and that’s before software sales of things like Mario Kart Wii, which sold 37 million units, or Wii Sports Resort, which sold 32 million units, or even Wii Fit – which sold 23 million units. We’re talking figures that dwarf most other games in the market; it’s no wonder then that aside from Call of Duty, that many developers assume they will get the same sales (more on this later).

But the Gamecube – to which many cling to and claim was Nintendo at its most successful – was really not a success. It sold less than 22 million units. That was the total sales over six years; 22 million Gamecubes were sold. I mean yes, Nintendo made a profit on the machine, but in terms of sales it was beaten by the new kid on the block, the XBox – which sold 25 million units in four years or so, and way short of the 100 million PlayStation 2 machines that Sony were pushing onto the market. It seems therefore quite strange that people complain about the Wii, and yet felt more attached to the Gamecube; both made profits, sure, but the Wii made ENORMOUS profits; and ended up with many games that sold more in a year than Nintendo could sell Gamecube machines in six years.

And again, it must be pointed out that Sony’s finances are only just recovering after a massive reorganisation of the business; and Microsoft were on record some years ago stating that the XBox Live service was running at an operational loss (presumably before they brought in advertising and the dramatic commercialisation of the front end of the machine to offset these losses). So clearly money and success isn’t Nintendo’s problem; it’s said that Nintendo has already cut a profit on the Wii U, in spite of its slow sales.

Perhaps the problem is developers? Developers assume that they can have the same market as most Nintendo games, but really, they can’t. But this isn’t a specifically Nintendo issue either; Square-Enix expected more than 5.25 million Tomb Raider sales in the first month, because they wrongly assumed that with 100 million+ consoles and PCs out there that we’d all clamour for their game; and we didn’t, obviously. This is a completely separate issue from Nintendo, one which I addressed a few times in asking if third-party developers are being entirely honest with themselves when it comes to the finances put aside the potential market they assume they’ll have; a business that uses a sliding scale to justify costs by “appealing to a wider audience” deserves nothing but failure and contempt, really. So even here, it’s hard to put the blame on Nintendo.

Which ends up with it swinging back to us, the community. Perhaps the problem is that after twenty-two years of continuous “Nintendo is doomed!” commentary, that it’s just a considered fact? Something the likes of MythBusters would cripple on their show at some point? It’s often not very popular to sort of defend Nintendo or even bring up any evidence that Nintendo are in fact not doomed, and in reality making money, because the general consensus is that Nintendo is for kids and if you defend Nintendo, you must be a kid or someone who likes kids in the wrong sort of way, and anyone who is “adult” is therefore going to buy a PS4 or an XBox One. Which seems a sweeping and ultimately childish way of debating the validity of Nintendo as a company in the modern era, no? It’s hard to sit down and ask the question of what it is Nintendo has to do to win back the favour of the gaming fraternity because they don’t want to sit down and talk about it; just stand on the sidelines, hurling insults and jibes so everyone can join in, cheering on the rampant bullying of a company that at times even borders on xenophobia.

But of course, why they even started with this and why it’s so accepted as a norm swings us back into the previous muddle of issues.

It seems that Nintendo is therefore doomed to struggle with a serious image problem; rather than people doing their damnedest to find a means to stop it and break the cycle, every stumble by Nintendo is taken as an act of attrition, something to mercilessly remind them of constantly and repeatedly, whereas when Sony and Microsoft make mistakes we are more than happy to forgive and forget. Some may argue that Nintendo has no justification considering it’s an old company; true, but they started games consoles in 1986, Sony in 1995 and Microsoft in 2002. All of these companies have been in the industry long enough that mistakes and the issue of annoying their customers is harder and harder to forgive – Microsoft, considering the amount of times they’ve been taken to court over monopolization and anti-competitive practices, really had no excuse with the XBox One. They knew what they were doing, it’s just we also knew what they were doing. Just because the bad press changed their minds doesn’t negate the fact they seemed perfectly happy to go ahead with any of their measures at all.

And some may argue that it doesn’t matter; Nintendo has the potential to do some good, and even if it never hits a hundred million sales, Nintendo is in the best position right now to “do some good” for the industry, in a position to accept and indeed, encompass the indie scene, to help fund games which otherwise wouldn’t have gotten made at all as is the case with Bayonetta 2. At a time when some developers are discussing a rampant increase in development costs again for the PS4 and XBox One, there’s even an argument that in a year or two, the cheaper and more budget-friendly Wii U could enjoy a real turnaround; all Nintendo has to do is hold on, and wait for that to happen. But then, you could rightly argue at the same time that if this is the case – and the logic is sound – that the Wii U, as a machine, was very likely far too early to the market to really capitalise on this reality. That Nintendo just released it too early, and the slow-down of sales and developer disinterest is because they got caught up in the whirlwind of the PS4 and the XBox One. Had it come out this year, sure, there’d be some comments about its power and stuff. But similarly, you could more directly compare the machines, and developers could more wisely summarise which made more sense to them as a business.

It all makes Nintendo one of those curious beasts to discuss. Because yes, for every untruth there’s something which is worth criticising, for every action there is an equal and opposite inaction. Nintendo as a company is never short on ideas or money, but when you get down to it, there’s something in the wider gaming community that still struggles to like Nintendo. Admittedly, asking some of these people to love Nintendo at this stage is completely pointless and utterly silly and shouldn’t be attempted without the aid of a fire-proof suit and a canary, but still; I can see where they are coming from, Nintendo does have to do something more to attract them, if they can be attracted at all. Some might argue that if they aren’t interested at all, why they’d even suggest Nintendo do more to appeal to them?

But similarly, Nintendo is in one of those positions where it was so eager to get to market that no-one seems to be quite sure whether this is as a result of being too late to the last generation or too early to the next generation. It has managed to pull off that dangerous trick of landing itself on the market just as the market is shifting, and sometimes this works and sometimes this really doesn’t. Some think you can tell now; but then, some would argue equally that until this generation is over, you just can’t tell, can you? An eight or nine year generation is a long time; look at the Wii/PS3/XBox 360 as proof that every generation is extremely eventful.

Nintendo is a curiously Nintendo problem. It always seems caught in this strange juxtaposition of being popular enough to be profitable, and yet unpopular enough that the widespread gaming press and community enjoy hammering it at every available opportunity. It’s never forgiven its mistakes, never given the benefit of the doubt others are given; and yet, it seems mostly everyone agrees Nintendo make some of the best games in the industry. It’s never good enough now; but time is kinder to its past incarnations, which we can look back on more favourably.

It all just seems utterly insane to me. I don’t want to say if anything is right or wrong – at this point, that’s a facetious argument. You’ll know which side of the debate you fall on; and I doubt any of this changes your mind. I can understand that, to a point.

Just that in reality, considering the vicious circle effect, whether we’re frankly wasting our time, because it’s a war that can never be won…

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