Nintendo’s Obsession With Finding One Game That Can Sell Consoles

Dec 10, 2013 at 11:10 pm/ Author:

3d world bullet

Nintendo has accumulated thirty years worth of intellectual properties, popular franchises, and iconic characters.  They are essentially the Marvel Comics of video games in terms of how many franchises and characters they own. It is frustrating to watch Nintendo sit on a vault of hundreds of IPs collecting dust while the internet discusses whether “3D Mario” and “Mario Kart” can save the Wii U. When people act like the entire fate of Wii U rests in the hands of three games — 3D Mario, Mario Kart, Smash Bros — then you know Nintendo has failed to keep most of their franchises relevant in popular culture.

Most of Nintendo’s IPs are either abandoned, poorly marketed, rebooted 15-20 years after most people forget about them, or published exclusively on the eShop where not everyone looks. Nintendo’s mismanagement of intellectual properties has shrunk the diversity of their software lineup over the past three console generations. Nintendo lives by the motto of creating intellectual properties one generation and then trashing them the next generation.

The Nintendo Entertainment System represented a time when Nintendo was not afraid to work on genres outside of their comfort zone. Nintendo’s willingness to experiment in various genres like sports is why NES’s library of software was very well-rounded and marketable. Having a well-rounded library of software that covers all genres and appeals to all tastes is one reason why NES found massive success.

Nintendo was once a company that published various racing games like R.C. Pro AM, F-Zero, Wave Race, 1080 Snowboarding, Cruis’n USA, Stunt Race FX, Excitebike 64, Diddy Kong Racing, and Famicom Grand Prix: F-1 Race. Today, they mostly make Mario Kart because that sells the best.

Nintendo was once a company that made sports games like NBA Courtside, Ken Griffey Jr Baseball, NCAA Basketball, NHL Stanley Cup (SNES), Pro Wrestling (NES), Nintendo World Cup, Super Soccer, and Super Tennis. Today, they no longer make sports games unless Mario or Miis are attached.

Nintendo was once a company that published exclusive first person shooters like Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and Geist. Today, they no longer publish first person shooters.  Third parties are expected to make them. (Side note: Metroid Prime is more of a first person adventure than a straight up shooter)

To maximize the company’s potential revenue, Nintendo traded away software diversity to focus on their five or six best selling franchises. But throwing all their eggs into a few baskets [franchises] has limited the appeal of Nintendo’s hardware, and if third party developers aren’t willing to fill in the gaps, then you have essentially created a niche product for people who only enjoy a handful of franchises.

It makes good business sense for Nintendo to be different from their competitors, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of offering consumers a diverse, well rounded library of software that sufficiently covers most (if not all) genres. When you make consumers choose between innovation or a diverse software library, most people will choose a diverse software library every single time. If Nintendo wants people to take them seriously, then Nintendo needs to provide software for all genres, because major third party publishers are not going to do it.

Today’s Nintendo insists that one game can change everything, and this mentality has become so laughable that NeoGaf even created the Wii U chalkboard.  A gaming company as large as Nintendo shouldn’t plan their entire long term strategy around the hopes that one or two games can turn things around. In fact, you would think Nintendo would have already learned that lesson already.

In 2003, the Seattle Times asked Satoru Iwata what was the biggest problem with the GameCube.

Iwata replied,”I think the biggest problem we were having was that thinking (that) one single software can make a great change on hardware sales. But we have come to realize by now that the circumstances have changed. No single software can do it, but rather, Nintendo, or more specifically GameCube, does need a great variety of different software which must be put into the market at appropriate intervals.”

In 2003, George Harrison, senior vice president of Nintendo of America, was asked by Electronic Gaming Monthy about what GameCube’s biggest shortcomings were.

“If there’s a shortcoming for us on GameCube, it’s not delivering enough consistent breadth and variety of software. That really is the key. Consumers, I think, are past the time when they buy a system just to get one game. We used to believe that was the case,” says George Harrison.

Fast forward to today in 2013. The Wii U is struggling in sales. So what does Satoru Iwata tell reporters?

“One game has the power to change everything,” said Iwata during an October 2013 meeting with reporters.

Satoru Iwata explained to reporters, “The key title that is going to drive this year’s year-end sales season is Super Mario 3D World, the latest installment in the Super Mario series that is set to be released in November.”

As you can see, he learned absolutely nothing from the GameCube.  Just like the GameCube, we’re back to hoping and praying that one of these three games — 3D Mario, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros — will turn around sales.

In an interview with former IGN writer Richard George, Satoru Iwata explained why he believes one game can change everything.

Iwata says, “The existence of one software can change the entire picture. Of course, it depends on circumstances,” Iwata said. “Here’s a hypothesis I seriously believe. If there hadn’t been a Pokemon game, maybe the market for handheld game devices would have gone extinct. If there hadn’t been Wii Sports, maybe the situation surrounding Wii could have been completely different.

Did Iwata know Pokemon would become a phenomenon before it released in Japan? Did Iwata know Wii Sports would become a phenomenon before it was released?

Satoru Iwata is not wrong for believing that one game can change the entire picture.  We’ve seen evidence of that throughout the history of gaming.

Satoru Iwata is wrong for gambling the Wii U’s entire future by putting so much stake into two or three franchises. Considering how “Sing Party” and “Wii Music” both bombed in sales, I highly doubt that Satoru Iwata has a crystal ball inside of his coat pocket to predict the future.

I don’t understand why Satoru Iwata keeps trying to find that special game to turn around Wii U’s fortunes. Spend more time diversifying your software instead of trying to find that game that fixes all of Wii U’s problems. When you listen to Reggie Fils-Aime speak to IGN at E3 2013, he comes off as a logical person who admits that gambling your system’s entire future on the “one game can change everything” strategy  is not a smart strategy in today’s environment.

“One game can sell the system. Having said that, I’m not sure that today, in today’s environment, if one game can sell the system,” Fils-Aime said. “Why do I say that? Again, if you roll the clock back to 2005, the gaming industry, in terms of who was playing games, was much more narrowly defined. If you look at the ESA data that was put out during that time, what it would suggest is that less than 40 percent of households played video games. Where do we sit today? That same data suggests that more than 65 percent of households play games. It’s much more diverse. I would argue that, given the increased diversity, unless the game has that same type of breadth, I think it’s a little bit more challenging for one game to truly change the momentum.

The company’s current obsession with Mario, more than anything else, is driving the Wii’s expanded market away from the Wii U. Everyone tells me, “Why would anyone buy Nintendo hardware if they have no interest in Super Mario?  What’s the point? Nintendo IS Mario!”

The perception that “Nintendo is Mario” is poison for the company’s overall long-term growth and well-being. Mickey Mouse might be the mascot for Disney, but Mickey Mouse is not the company’s entire identity like Mario is with Nintendo. Disney is Marvel.  Disney is LucasArts. Disney is ABC. Disney is ESPN. Disney is Pixar. Disney is a music record label. Disney and Nintendo might both own iconic characters, but Disney understood the importance of branching out to teens and adults. If Disney’s identity was only known for a couple of characters — like Nintendo’s identity is Mario — they would only be a small fraction of the company that they are today.

The “Nintendo are Mario machines” perception is why most Nintendo consoles struggle to reach the record sales of NES, SNES, or Wii.  The Wii sold 100 million, not 49 million like SNES, because it broke the perception of being “just a Mario system”.

If Mario is so important to the success of Nintendo hardware, then why did GameCube — a console flooded with Mario spinoffs — only sell 21.7 million units of hardware?  GameCube had Paper Mario, Mario Party, Mario Kart, Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Mario Strikers, Mario Baseball, Luigi’s Mansion, Wario World, and Super Smash Bros Melee.  People will say that the market has expanded since the GameCube days so Mario is much more popular now. Yet, every month when I look at Wii U’s sales, the sales continue to trend significantly worse than the GameCube.  We’re talking about Wii U, a system that is bundled with a 2D Mario platformer, and they just released a new 3D Mario platformer.

Take a look at the original Game Boy and Game Boy Color for example.  The highest selling game on Game Boy was not Mario, it was Tetris.  When Game Boy first came out, it was Tetris that helped put Game Boy on the map and made women want to play with Nintendo products. The second highest selling game on Game Boy was not Mario, it was “Pokemon Red and Blue”.  ”Pokemon” was a brand new, fresh IP when it released on the Game Boy.  ”Pokemon” helped breath new life into Game Boy’s sales during a time when sales were getting sluggish. The top three highest selling Game Boy Advance games were “Pokemon” games, not Mario. If you look at the 3DS, the sales trends for non-Mario games like “Animal Crossing: New Leaf” (6.38 million) and ”Pokemon X & Y” (sold 4 million in two months) are on pace to eventually outsell “New Super Mario Bros. 2″ (6.42 million units sold).

Nintendo doesn’t need to rely on Mario to sell systems, but they’ve done a good job brainwashing themselves (and their fanbase) into believing it.

“Super Mario” and its spinoffs will only help Nintendo hardware reach a certain point (20 – 25 million sold). Once you reach that 25 million mark, you need something bigger to continue selling more consoles. “Goldeneye 007″ helped Nintendo 64 sell over 32 million consoles and maintain strong momentum in the west.  One out of every four people who bought a Nintendo 64 bought Goldeneye 007. Eight million copies of GoldenEye were sold which is more than what “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” sold when first released. Did Rareware know “Goldeneye 007″ would be a huge phenomenon before it was release? No, I doubt they knew it would outsell most of Nintendo’s Japanese developed games.

Selling 25 million consoles may have been somewhat sustainable in previous generations, but I don’t believe it’s sustainable today when software development costs are through the roof. The costs and resources for HD software development can’t be compared to the Nintendo 64 or GameCube days, and if Nintendo wants to break even on those development costs, they need a larger install base for their hardware.

It’s time for Nintendo to focus on diversifying their software.  Third parties are not coming back.

Stop with this charade that it has to be Mario and Mario spinoffs to save Wii U out of its situation. Stop with this charade of releasing one Wii U game every two to three months to see if it will create a boost in hardware sales. It’s not doing the company any favors.

If Nintendo’s Japanese studios don’t like making certain genres then it’s time for them to invest in new studios that actually do.

Nintendo is sitting on a gold mine of intellectual properties.  Microsoft and Sony would kill for your intellectual properties and franchises. Yet, Satoru Iwata says Nintendo isn’t good at competing? Give me a break. You are one of the best gaming companies in the world.


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