Everyone is aflame with commentary about Nintendo’s recent dismal projections of Wii U sales. I won’t go into details – if you’re reading this, you probably already know that the company expects several million fewer Wii Us (that is one weird-looking plural) sold through the end of this fiscal year. 3DS projections were also lowered slightly.
The Wii U has not been a success, but why has it struggled? I tackled this question a while back, largely discounting the specs issue while giving some credence to the possibility that marketing was at fault. My hunch, though, was that the 3DS – the world’s most successful dedicated console – was cannibalizing the Wii U. Nintendo’s portable has all of the company’s important IPs represented, better third-party support, and a lower price. Basically, a 3DS provides the comprehensive Nintendo fix, and the Wii U brings nothing else to the table for Nintendo’s audience except HD graphics and a sadly underutilized controller that permits asymmetric gameplay.
The Game Pad: A sad tale
The name “Wii U” is awful, and Nintendo itself has done little to show off or exploit the unique capabilities of its own system. The Game Pad has been orphaned, and its issues are indicative of the console’s problems as a whole.
The best software tailored to the Game Pad includes the third-party The Wonderful 101, ZombiU, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Assassin’s Creed 3/4. In some cases, these games have gone to great lengths to show off the possibilities of a touch screen controller – The Wonderful 101 lets you draw patterns and navigate entire indoor sequences with just the Game Pad, for example. But the Game Pad has also shown great ability to trivialize painful gameplay mechanics, such as map navigation and inventory management. This is why I mentioned ZombiU (in addition to its terrific Game Pad vs Pro Controller multiplayer) and AC3/4 – the Game Pad is a natural way to get clutter off the TV and into the controller.
This is why I think arguments such as “Nintendo makes bad hardware” miss the point. The hardware is plenty capable, but its strengths aren’t in demand by demographics such as hardcore gamers (for whom online services and graphical capabilities are more important) or casuals (who do not care about hardware at all). Part of the issue is probably mobile devices, as the typical fallback argument goes – billions are being channeled into ripoffs such as Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga. And the XB1 and PS4 have given the hardcore exactly what they want in the form of sophisticated online gameplay and x86 processors, so Nintendo gets squeezed in a way. Nintendo has tried to cater to both markets while not having completely what either of them wants.
Game Over? Not yet
But I don’t think all is doom and gloom just yet. Nintendo’s financial position is solid, giving it the cash and time to figure out what’s next. And I think the company can turn this challenge into an advantage, if it looks at things right. Here’s what I mean: The disruption from tablets and smartphones is important but at what point do these endpoints stop being mobile devices and just become, well, devices? Many of them have processors clocked at > 2 GHz, with displays to shame any HDTV or PC, not to mention faster data connections than many PCs or consoles. I think Nintendo should look at the 3DS/Wii U with a similar attitude – the 3DS is already basically a mobile GameCube, and that’s only the case because the company ridiculously lowballed its specs. With more devotion to power, it could have been more than a mobile Wii – i.e., a mobile Wii U. What if the company just merged its consoles into one line?
Doing so would solve the cannibalization problem I highlighted. At the same time, making something that can give gamers a Nintendo fix on the go and in the home – maybe it support HDMI, along with an updated, smarter StreetPass – would fit right in with the underrated transition of mobile hardware into do-everything-hardware that is just as good on the bus or in the lobby as it is in the conference room or at the desk. Of course, the challenge would still be carving out a niche independent from the Swiss Army Knife functionality of Android/iOS devices.
Rising to the challenge
But Nintendo has shown a great knack for innovation – and I don’t use that word lightly as a synonym for “new VC-funded photo app.” They’ve innovated for the past 30 years, and many of those innovations have failed, from the Virtual Boy to the Famicom Disk System to the Wii U – failing spectacularly is often a sign of real innovation, innovation for which many consumers aren’t ready. Others have succeeded – the N64’s joystick controller, motion sensors on the Wii, dual-screen on the DS. And that’s not even mentioning StreetPass, which as a real-time, proximity-based social network was years out ahead of the “Internet of Things” or iBeacon.
Moreover, Nintendo usually has its pulse on the future, but its insularity often means that it arrives at jarring conclusions, some of which it can’t explain or market to would-be customers. At other times, the sheer novelty of their creations sells itself, as was the case with Wii Sports. Still, I think that a company that has already dabbled in something as cool as StreetPass and two-screen gameplay can find some niche in the Increasing Complex Hyper-Connected World (TM) or whatever “the world” is being called now. There are more gaming endpoints available than ever before, but as they are iterated with better specs they’ll probably merge with the functionality and form factor many of our existing devices and stop being a discrete category. Rather than despair at this likely state of affairs, Nintendo should take heart and create something that bridges gaming needs on-the-go and in the home.
3 things Nintendo could do to get started
In the meantime, I think there are a lot of areas Nintendo could work on to lay the groundwork for its future. My wish list:
- Stop tying downloads to hardware
- Create a comprehensive account system, while keeping online services free (one of the Wii U’s underrated advantages over its competitors
- Continue ignoring PSN/Xbox Live – imitating competitors won’t help Nintendo get rolling again, no more than Mac OS licensing helped Apple keep up with PCs in the 1990s
Nintendo isn’t destined for failure, no more than Microsoft was after the first-gen Xbox struggled mightily to get traction. But they’ll need to do a lot of things smarter in the short and long terms.
Intro: Ace Attorney and “Art”
When I looked at the complex relationship between video games and established “arts” like cinema, music, and literature, I argued that the final sequence of Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney: Justice for All, with its intricate plot lines and dynamic characters, transcended video games and entered into the realm of drama or the novel. Justice for All wasn’t the strongest title in the GBA/DS line of Ace Attorney games; the original and Trials and Tribulations were more consistent and arguably more critical to the series’ overall mythology because they introduced characters such as Miles Edgeworth, the Von Karmas, and Godot. But that infamous Matt Engarde case from Justice for All is without equal among the Ace Attorney games or most games, period.
Engarde’s different personae and the high stakes of Maya’s kidnapping made “Farewell, My Turnabout” not just an outstanding piece of art, but the quintessential Ace Attorney case. More than any other, it was a story that you had to experience rather than play through – insofar as you could “win” the game, your progress was only a mechanism for moving the story along, a state of affairs that is the opposite of most games, in which the plot is just window dressing as you go about collecting more kills and corralling more items. That focus on plot was always what made Ace Attorney special and “Farewell, My Turnabout” has it in spades.
It was as black as a spade, too. The case’s darkness went above and beyond that of its peers, including the Manfred Von Karma showdown from the original. The player could even suffer a “bad ending” if Engarde weren’t acquitted. It can be easy to overlook the fact that characters are dying and being putted into danger against the backdrop of Ace Attorney’s melodramatic digressions about film, aesthetics, and culture. But what if we finally got an Ace Attorney game that took its latent darkness more seriously, that found a way to?
The dark pathways of Dual Destinies
The newest title in the series, and the first for the 3DS, is unmistakably an Ace Attorney game. The same investigation/trial structure from the first four installments shows up here, as do the characeristic shouts of “Objection!” But there’s something fundamentally different about Dual Destinies, and it’s primarily a difference of tone.
First, check that ESRB rating. Yep, that’s a big fat “M (17+)” and it’s well-deserved. This game is full of blood, sinister laughs, and foreboding. I mentioned Ninja Gaiden – The Dark Sword of Chaos in my entry about video games and art, and I couldn’t help but think of it again during one of the cutscenes involving new prosecutor-villain Simon Blackquill. The sea of blood that covers the floor after one of Blackquill’s trademark blade slashes is a dead ringer for the bloody action from Dark Sword of Chaos. Like that game did for the NES, Dual Destinies is blazing a new trail and bringing something new to the table for the normally family-friendly 3DS.
Blackquill’s status as a felon makes him perhaps the most wicked of Ace Attorney’s antagonists – or does it? Manfred Von Karma and Godot were also killers, although their actions were not known until they were melting down in the face of Phoenix Wright’s torrid strategies. Still, Blackquill’s past is a sign that the game isn’t messing around or confused about its identity – it wears its darkness proudly.
The graphics are a big bump up from the GBA/DS games, with beautifully rendered 3D models. This game makes better use of 3D than any 3DS title I’ve played except possibly Super Mario 3D Land. The effect is both subtle and complex.
In the courtroom, 3D adds a nice layer of depth to revelatory moments when the camera pans across the crowd. It also makes the witnesses and attorneys really pop out from the screen, giving life to their gesticulations. There’s also a nice effect in one of the gardens, in which the 3D makes the lanterns appear to sway on the line.
The game now has a retraceable conversation history, which is helpful if you skip through dialogue with the B button or need to review clues. And new attorney Athena Cyke’s emotional intelligence scanner is intriguing, although not that much different than Apollo’s magical bracelet.
Dual Destinies may be the best all around Ace Attorney game. From a technical/graphical standpoint, it’s much richer than its predecessors, and its story lines have a certain darkness that makes the player feel like what he/she is doing is much more important than ever before.
It’s only $26 in the eShop, making it significantly cheaper than previous installments. If you have a 3DS, then this game beckons.
Lukas Mathis nails it down:
“If the «post-PC era» truly had such a devastating effect on the console market that the Wii’s sales just deflated after 2008, it’s unlikely that the same effect would not also be seen in the PS3’s and Xbox 360’s sales. But Asymco’s huge 2008 peak mainly exists because the Wii peaked in 2008, and because back then, it outsold its competitors by large margin.
In other words, many consoles show Wii-like sales curves – but not the Wii’s direct competitors, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. If the Wii’s sales peak in 2008 was indeed mainly caused by the «post-PC era», you’d expect the Wii’s direct competitors to be similarly affected. They’re not.”
I remember thinking in 1998, with Age of Empires, that I would abandon consoles for immersive PC-only gaming, but here I am clinging to a 3DS and a Wii U. My PC became a distraction conduit for email, ICQ, AIM…well let’s just stop there.
But I think my anecdote shows why dedicated consoles can still work, at least for the tasteful gamer. For the dedicated gaming market to truly feel the pain, smartphones would need much better battery life than they currently have. Their very strengths – being Swiss Army knives with tons of radios – also means that they cannot muster the battery life (or rather, the singularity of vision and focus) to support the longer-form gaming experiences unique to consoles, especially the DS line.
Great post up by Lukas Mathis, responding to John Gruber, about the 3DS and the temptation of pigeonholing it as a mobile device:
“I don’t think most people buy portable gaming systems with the intention of regularly carrying them in their pockets. I don’t think they ever did. I don’t remember knowing even a single person who routinely carried a portable gaming device in his or her pocket.”
I got my first Game Boy in August 1998. It was a Game Boy Pocket – apparently, Nintendo was giving all of its Tetris-playing Link’s Awakening-loving gamers the green light to start carrying their Game Boys everywhere. That was feasible, as long as the gamer also wanted to pack some batteries, game cases, and maybe a Game Boy Printer, too. The Game Boy ecosystem was huge, occupied by peripherals and palm-sized cartridges; it did not lend itself to mobility as well as even pre-iPod CD players and disc-carrying books, and in retrospect very little about it foreshadows what the breathless press now calls mobility, i.e., carrying a consolidated networked device.
The “Pocket” moniker was no declaration of revolutionary mobility – it simply showed that the gargantuan first-gen Game Boy had been succeed by something smaller but no less capable. Nintendo is not a company given to consolidation for its own sake, or even for the sake of forcing new technologies on its users (unlike Apple) – the slim Pocket and its upgraded partner, the Game Boy Color, gave way to the stockier widescreen Game Boy Advance, whose backward compatibility now meant that there was even more to carry around. The DS similarly introduced a easily losable stylus and backward compatibility with the Advance. These devices are not even trying to be smaller or more amenable to “on-the-go” players with limited attentions spans, or even to IT execs who think mobility will solve world poverty.
The 3DS, released in 2011, is often compared to the smartphones and tablets. The narrative goes: do-everything touchscreen devices have obviated the need for dedicated devices, and the 3DS (and presumptively, the PS Vita) are doomed. This line of reasoning betrays ignorance of the dedicated handheld market, a unique space that only Nintendo has ever really dominated. To see how the (3)DS is different from a smartphone or tablet, it’s necessary to look at one of its quintessential offerings, the Zero Escape series of adventure games/visual novels.
Desktop adventure gaming declined long ago, but it has gotten new life in the last decade thanks to studios like Quantic Dream and from third-party DS developers. Games like Last Window have demonstrated the DS’s unique abilities to create an immersive, almost book-like experience – that game in particular required that you hold the DS upright, featured lots of text to read, and one of its most stunning puzzles could only be solved by closing the DS’s clamshell. However, Cing (the studio that made Last Window and its prequel, Hotel Dusk) closed its doors several years ago. In contrast, Aksys Games, the makers of Zero Escape, scored one of the original DS’s most unlikely hits with Zero Escape: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, and had similar success with the beautiful 3DS/Vita sequel, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. Buoyed by strong sales, a third game is apparently in the works.
Zero Escape is like little else in mainstream gaming, either on desktop or mobile. Most of your time will be spent reading; every now and then, you might solve an escape-the-room puzzle. Despite having little action and being on a traditionally family-friendly platform, it is also incredibly violent and nihilist. Without spoken dialogue (at least in much of the first game), it’s like a creepy, interactive silent movie. Or, as I alluded to earlier, a book – and here we may see exactly where the (3)DS resides in the device landscape.
The Zero Escape games, like the best ones on the platform, are games most easily played at home, where players do not have a set amount of time to kill, like reaching a certain subway stop, or finally getting called in by the doctor/receptionist. Those scenarios are perfect for smartphone/tablet games that can be suspended and resumed at any time, but the 3DS usually works better at home or with time to spare.
As Mathis points out, the home is an environment in which consumers typically favor dedicated devices, rather than the convenience of consolidation. If they didn’t, then PCs would have long ago cannibalized TVs, music players, game consoles, streaming boxes and much more. Non-consolidation also means that devices like the Kindle Paperwhite, which in theory should be under tremendous pressure from hi-res tablets, remain favorites even of Nintendo pessimists like MG Siegler.
With its sophisticated reading capabilities and false front as a “mobile” device, the Paperwhite, rather than Android and iOS hardware, may be the best comparison for the (3)DS. I’ve been skeptical about how long Amazon would continue selling reading-first/reading-mostly devices, but like the DS, they appear to serve a sizable, loyal audience that likes dedicated functionality. It can be easy to overlook that when one’s main perspective is mostly limited to the rapid iteration and refinement of phones and tablets, which follow different lines of logic and occupy a largely separate market at least for now.
^ That’s a compliment, not an insult. The similarities between Nintendo and Apple seem overwhelming at first blush:
- They both develop tightly integrated hardware/software experiences. Apple’s minimalist, Rams-inspired aesthetic is an unmistakable as Nintendo’s dorky neoclassicism.
- They share conservative attitudes toward specs. The iPhone didn’t have LTE til late 2012, and still has considerably less RAM than its Android rivals; the best-selling Wii was standard-def.
- They’ve both had to compete with Microsoft, with varying levels of success. Apple has basically defeated Microsoft in mobile; Nintendo won a surprising victory over the Xbox 360 in the seventh generation, but the Wii U’s prospects don’t look so good against the upcoming Xbox One.
For these superficial similarities, Nintendo attracts a lot of attention (most of it negative) from Apple-centric bloggers who are eager to suggest remedies for Nintendo’s current struggles (also, many of these individuals are of an age that would have been the prime audience for Nintendo’s gold/silver ages with the NES and SNES, respectively). Perhaps they also see Nintendo’s predicament as similar to Apple’s dismal 1997, when it needed Office and a cash injection from its main rival just to stay afloat.
But there are a number of differences that make the Apple/Nintendo comparison faulty:
- Making one’s own hardware is a given for the dedicated gaming industry’s major players, and it alone does not make Nintendo special or different from its rivals. Starting with Atari, and continuing on to Sega, Nintendo, and Sony, if you made a gaming platform, you made your own own hardware. Even Microsoft – a software company, at least during its heyday – had to delve into hardware as an entry fee to the console business. In this respect, the gaming world is a lot different than the consumer/enterprise software realm, in which software-first or software-mostly companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook can wield great influence without dabbling in hardware (tho that is certainly changing)
- Accordingly, Nintendo is not a hardware company. It’s a software company that makes hardware that makes its software better. Look at the N64 controller: examining its analog stick and trigger button, you just know that Nintendo’s hardware team was future-proofing it for Ocarina of Time and Super Mario World 64. In this respect, Nintendo is the opposite of Apple, which is a hardware company that makes software that enhances its hardware – iOS is much like a virtuosic exercise in preserving battery and maximizing touch technology.
- The suggested remedy for Nintendo – that they make iOS games – is appropriately the reverse of the remedy that Apple needed and got back in 1997, i.e., the porting of Microsoft Office to Mac OS. Since Nintendo is a software company at heart, it would seem to make sense that, if desperate, they take those assets to other platforms; by contrast, Apple is a hardware company, so dire straits fittingly translated into trying to attract more software to their own platform.
- If it’s not clear by now, you should realize that Nintendo is uninterested in making a platform. It makes toys and the workshop/play space in which those toys are used. That’s the total opposite of what Apple has done, especially with iOS.
John Gruber and John Siracusa recently had a great deover Nintendo’s future. Gruber argued that the lucrative DS line could be jeopardized by its basic requirement that users carry a dedicated handheld in addition to their phones – I can definitely see this happening. But Siracusa hit upon some subtle advantages that Nintendo may still have, especially in terms of gaming experience.
Discussions of Apple vs. Nintendo (or Nintendo vs Nokia/RIM) often lead with anecdotal stories like “my kid doesn’t know what Nintendo is,” which I think are unhelpful. The tech literati are not really Nintendo’s audience, and their children are probably a small subset of all Nintendo fans. The recently announced 2DS is not a device to be analyzed with the same eye as a new iPhone or Nexus device. Still, I’ll contribute my own – I’m already fatigued of Android/iOS gaming. The limited input mechanism (touch) means that games cannot do as much with on-screen information or elements since fingers get in the way, and the freemium pricing of so many mobile games means that they often do not over immersive experiences but rather play–by-ear arcade-like ones.
Sure, there was a time when people defended BlackBerry’s hardware keyboard as a non-negotiable feature for plowing through “serious work” and email. But as Siracusa pointed out, hardware keyboards were superseded because software keyboards imitate their every last functionality while adding exclusive features like predicative typing. Touch screens cannot do that with gaming controls, if only because there’s no QWERTY-like standard for controls: every controller may have buttons, but their arrangements and numbers are radically different from one system to the next. The fact that Nintendo has realized this has been a historic source of strength – it’s hard to appreciate now, for example, how groundbreaking that N64 controller was in introducing analog sticks to the console world.
The variety of controller layouts is matched by the variety of software that they power. Games are, on the whole, a much more fragmented sector, in terms of design and input, than mobile apps. What are mobile devices used for? Standards like email and Web browsing, mostly similar social media clients with a standard set of gestures, passive content consumption. They don’t need varied controls or inputs because their specialty tasks don’t require them
Now, imagine Nintendo trying to bring its quirky, unique sense of sophisticated hardware-specific software to iOS, a platform which takes for granted that no third-party app is more special than any other one and as such. Even with an iOS controller peripheral, I don’t think it would work – not only would it de-incentivize customers to purchase Nintendo’s own hardware, but it would create a bad experience, topped off with the inevitable long string of 1-star App Store reviews bemoaning users’ unawareness that they needed a separately sold item to play the $14.99 app they purchased.
Whether Nintendo can make its traditional approach work going forward is a separate question from whether porting software to iOS would be a good idea. For now, the company appears to be in sound financial shape, and even a minor rebound in Wii U sales would help buoy its already robust DS business. And mobile device sophistication need not be synonymous with consolidation – a breakthrough gaming device, like the original Wii was 2006, could fit alongside the growing fleet or smart wristbands, HUD displays, and smart watches that co-exist peacefully with phones and tablets.