Bad Press Can Equal Good Business.

Sometimes, you really do need a slap in the face to get the message…

Nintendo’s losses last week are not a sign that the end is nigh for Nintendo consoles. If anything, it’s the start of a fight back.

You might think that’s a bit of a blind leap, but there are plenty of very good examples in the games industry that show off a fundamental truth of business – if you stray too far off message, or simply fail to understand your main audience, you will see a serious dent in your annual earnings and get terrible press. As a company, you have to learn from such things if you are going to survive – and more often than not, it’s when you really have to get your market back that some of your best work can shine brighter.

I’ve said many times that the Wii U echoes the beginnings of the PlayStation 3 in my mind; how easily we forget the horrendous launch that Sony had with their big, black and actually quite unattractive box. Right from the off, we had footage that was of questionable authenticity, alongside that $499.99 price tag that gave rise to a number of animated .gif images. And then you had their executives and their almost cavalier attitudes towards the price increase – that “people will take a second job to purchase our console”. In spite of talking a good game, it became quickly apparent that the PlayStation 3 was not going to have the easiest launch run – the Nintendo Wii was a runaway success story, and in response to Jack Tretton saying he’d pay a bounty for any PlayStation 3’s people could find in stores, Penny Arcade posted a scathing comic showing how many they could find in one day. With Sony losing over $300 on each unit sold, and few software sales, it was a rough and difficult time to be a Sony fan.

Sony began to change things around, as the heat wore off and prices began to crumble at a retail level. It released good software, and it was doing okay until one fateful event would give the company an even bigger smack in the chops – the PlayStation Network Hack. Somewhere between April 17-19th 2011, Sony revealed that 77 million Sony accounts – both PSN and SoE – had been compromised, with details taken from their servers. At the time, it was one of the largest security breaches in history – and remains one of the highest to date. It was a development that could have killed lesser companies dead – Sony were posting annual losses, and still getting criticism from developers over the technical minefield that was the Cell Processor, and the considerable lack of technical support. It was hardly in a healthy position, and as the network came offline and days turned into weeks, it seemed Sony were themselves doomed.

But it wasn’t. Sony were forced to invest in better security, and to compensate people and in some ways to regain consumer confidence, the PlayStation Plus service was born – sign up for their subscription service and they would offer you free games. And these were not just any old games – Sony offered some of their very best titles as an incentive, and rebuilt consumer confidence with even more stellar games as themonths rolled by. In spite of a few awkward moments – Jack Tretton having to apologise at E3 one of the most painful moments to watch for many gamers – Sony radically overhauled what it was doing, and where it was headed, and what their next console was all about.

The end result was that the PlayStation 4 was easily one of the better releases, and had bags more consumer respect. Sony had to earn that though – it wasn’t simply a good E3 showing, it had worked hard to be better.

ps4cringe

Although looking back, this probably was a bit overkill…

Similarly, at the same time, Microsoft was headed for a market hammering with the reveal of the XBox One. The XBox 360 had issues at the start – the Red Ring of Death scandal certainly didn’t make life easy for them, and it cost Microsoft significant amounts of money when they could no longer deny the severity of the problem. But it was the XBox One which was wildly off-message; a focus on Television, on apps and on the Kinect 2.0 instead of games seemed to surprise Don Mattrick, then head of the XBox Division. So surprised were they that when the press and consumers began to question the gaming aspect of the machine, the response was conflicted, messy and often incomprehensible. As the weeks rolled by, Microsoft came under fire for more egregious decisions – trying to force consoles to be always connected to the Internet, forcing the Kinect 2.0 to always be attached to the console in order to use it and a messy attempt at trying to stifle used game sales.

It’s still a bit early to tell if this will severely impact the future of the XBox One – although regular technical issues, a reduced framerate and resolution problem that seems to not affect the PlayStation 4 or Wii U are still yet to be fundamentally addressed – but the backlash was enough to see Don Mattrick leave the company, and several of their key points neutered if not downright abandoned. Not wanting a commercial mauling on release meant that they had to listen to what consumers wanted; games, a good interface and no DRM were high priorities and criticisms. Consumers and the press forced Microsoft into a humiliating retreat, and even the Kinect 2.0 is no longer an essential component of the machine (however, it is still bundled with the machine, artificially inflating its price over its rivals).

Nintendo has, by contrast, always had a relatively easy run. Not that the gaming press ever lets up on its opinions about Nintendo being doomed, but Nintendo always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat early on, enough to ensure serious financial rewards for itself as a company. The Wii U is, arguably, the first time Nintendo has been presented with a situation like this – even the 3DS didn’t have nearly the image trouble the Wii U has suffered.

In terms of games, other companies have had similar issues too – Square Enix not too long ago was forced into an embarrassing situation with the success of Bravely Default, having to admit that its current business model of making games “to appeal to wider audiences” had failed spectacularly. Capcom has also been forced to consider what it does with critical maulings of recent offerings, whilst titles like Monster Hunter 4 tear up the Japanese market and are hotly anticipated by Western audiences. Even EA, in all its oft-even glory, has found itself in hot water with recent titles like Battlefield 4 suffering chronic technical problems, and a serious market backlash to Paywall titles like Dungeon Keeper Mobile. So much so that it offered the original Dungeon Keeper for free via Good Old Games. Hilariously, even this backfired on EA; the credit went to Good Old Games, and EA were still being insulted and ridiculed.

All of this is pointing out one thing; bad press can be the catalyst for change.

However, change is NOT instantaneous. The nature of the video game market now is one where games take time, and firmware updates need rigorous testing to avoid bricking consoles. Sony’s journey to change took it the best part of eight years – a lifetime in the industry, it must be said, and it was by no means a straight line from disaster to success. Microsoft is still tackling its own issues, and by token, so is Nintendo. The Wii U is a good console; robust, had good power (we know that now, compared to the XBox One) and has an increasingly devoted stable of developers both second party and independent.

But it’s easy to see the seeds of change in Nintendo.

wiiubundle

No really, this bundle is going to happen!

It’s more content-heavy Direct presentations have become quite popular on YouTube, with a sense of humour interlaced with their content delivery. At E3, Nintendo is hosting a Smash Bros. invitational – finally beginning to embrace the eSports sphere which continues to keep alive many fighting games years after many would have forgotten them. More interaction and linking with social media has begun, with YouTube video uploads to be a part of Mario Kart 8, and Twitter Images to go alongside the numerous crazy antics in Tomodachi Life (and even there, faced with a backlash on having no same-sex relationships, Nintendo ended on a classy and positive note for future iterations!). The consoles firmware is soon to get a quick-boot option, and with titles like Bayonetta 2 and X pencilled in for release by the end of the year, some of those titles it has long since been dangling in our faces and frustrating us all by not giving us a proper release timeline are finally coming to fruition.

Nintendo also has bigger plans for third parties – allowing them usage of Nintendo characters in a way that some years would have seemed utterly improbable. The start of this is Hyrule Warriors – a cross-over of The Legend of Zelda with the Dynasty Warriors series – but Nintendo is hoping to make this more the norm, and no doubt is entrusting a lot to third parties in the process. At a point where these third parties have often fundamentally failed Nintendo on many levels, this is a bold move (and let’s face it, we’re all seriously waiting for the Zelda/Dark Souls crossover – I will buy it I will buy TEN FREAKING COPIES!).

It won’t magically solve all their problems overnight, of course not. But considering where Sony were at this point in the PlayStation 3’s lifecycle, Nintendo is at least beginning to show signs of turning the big ship around and sail back into more interesting waters. And that’s good. It’s more evidence that companies often need to be reminded – both by the media and by their consumers – that they can’t just get away with anything they want. If anything, it does them the world of good, it instils a little humility into them.

And the end result is that we, as consumers, often get better deals too. The Mario Kart 8 “Free Game” offer is typical of Nintendo when it needs to get good press, and has served it well on the 3DS. Buy one must-have game and get another quality title for free. When your choices are between Pikmin 3, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, the difficulty is choosing which free one you want most. It’s an incredibly generous offer and one that may very well begin to shift the Wii U off shelves; and underlying it all is that we, the customers, get a damned good deal in the process.

Will Nintendo ever reach the dizzying heights of the Wii? It’s doubtful, but success for the company will not be measured in unitary sales. If the company begins to make a profit on the Wii U and its software again, it will have succeeded. And at the end of the generation, when we look back at the games we’ve played, will Nintendo still be there at the upper reaches of the lists? All signs point to yes on this front – a new Mario game in the works, new Zelda and several great releases already under its belt, it’s just a matter of giving customers an offer they can’t refuse. That’s business at the end of the day. And perhaps the failing of the Wii U to date – Nintendo has simply sat for far too long on games which, arguably, should have been released months ago. Or at the least, have a more clear message in terms of release dates and content features.

And by the end of the generation, if Nintendo gets its changes right, chances are we’ll forget about the Wii U’s initial struggles in the same way we forgot the PlayStation 3’s initial struggles. It’s not always how you start, but often how you finish. If Nintendo can show significant change, can show it listens to customers and developers better and can end on a positive note or two, then it will put itself in a strong position to release its next console. But that may still take a little time, and anything can happen between now and the end of this generation.

After all, you rarely learn valuable lessons when things go right, do you? You repeat the same action when it works. Because it works. It’s when it doesn’t work that you change what you’re doing…

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