Take a look back at Nintendo's triumphs and stumbles in the new generation.
The one year anniversary of Wii's launch seems like the perfect time to take a look back and assess how the console has performed in its early life. I'm not only talking about sales – obviously, the system has performed spectacularly in that respect. I would like to praise some of Nintendo's choices that may not be so obvious, and also point out some areas where the company could improve in the coming years of Wii's dominance. Let's start with the biggest, smartest decision of all…
Hit #1 - Wii Sports Pack-In
Prior to Wii, Nintendo has not packed in a full game at a system's launch since the Game Boy, which came with Tetris and also dominated its market despite more technically powerful competitors. Maybe there's something to be said for this pack-in stuff after all! One interesting fact is that Nintendo did not pack Wii Sports with the system in Japan, thereby reducing the price to roughly $200, and yet Wii Sports has gone on to be the best selling game for Wii in Japan. Some people think this is proof that Nintendo of America should also have separated the two products to make more money; this theory could not be more wrong. In Japan, Nintendo has sold millions of copies of Wii Sports for about $50 each. In America (and elsewhere), Nintendo has sold millions of copies of Wii Sports for $250 each. What we may have originally written off as a graphically lacking collection of mini-games has become such a desirable game experience that people associate it directly with the Wii hardware and often buy no other real games with the system. Wii Sports is so much fun that people are willing to spend $250 to play it. That's the very definition of a system seller.
Hit #2 - Blue Ocean Marketing
After the success of Nintendogs and Brain Age, there was no doubt that Nintendo wanted casual gamers and was starting to understand how to reach them. Wii is really the first major game system designed especially to attract a mass market, and the success of this strategy is nothing less than astonishing. A major factor in Wii's mainstream success is in how Nintendo marketed the system. Even before launch day, it was clear that Nintendo's marketing strategy would be a two-pronged attack: start grassroots word-of-mouth among non-traditional gamers, and go heavy on mainstream exposure. Rather than focus on EGM and IGN, Nintendo went straight to CNN and NBC. These two very different approaches fed upon each other, as many news stories and magazine articles were based on anecdotes and interviews from moms and grandparents, while the exposure from these mass market stories led to more people wanting to play Wii (often courtesy of a traditional gamer who got a launch system), and the chain reaction continued.
Hit #3 - Wii Play Pack-In
When the year-long sales totals are released early next year, the top selling games of 2007 will include Pokemon, Halo, Guitar Hero, and… Wii Play? This meager mini-game collection, widely dissed by critics and even casual gamers, has managed to sell millions of copies despite the fact that no one really likes it. It is, in fact, a brilliant Trojan Horse designed to sell more high-profit Wii Remotes and to spread the Wii's reputation as a multiplayer system. And, because the package is tracked as a software SKU, Wii Play helps to support Nintendo's dominance of game sales charts. A lesser effect, though perhaps still significant, is the opportunity for Wii Play's mini-games to expose new Wii owners to different gameplay and control styles that are not represented in Wii Sports. Perhaps far more important is the fact that, since Wii Play is a separate disc, it forces owners to realize that the system can play more games than just Wii Sports, thus lessening the risk of consumers buying a Wii as "that sports thing" and nothing more. Yet another consequence of Wii Play is that it encourages new Wii owners to buy extra controllers, which will eventually benefit multiplayer games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Hit #4 - Virtual Console Lineup
During the drought months of few game releases, Virtual Console was the only reason to turn on the Wii for many players. Nintendo has steadily released at least one VC game every Monday since launch day, and that consistency has led to a sub-culture of Wii owners who anxiously await each week's new games, even if they rarely download anything. Certainly, there are plenty of stinkers in the catalogue, but Nintendo and other companies have also released many beloved classics and a few obscure gems. In a rare attitude shift, Nintendo has actually bowed to popular demand and listened to the fans, allowing import games and even CD-based systems to be added to the service. Virtual Console has already righted one of the great injustices in game release history with Sin & Punishment… can the Mother (Earthbound) series be far behind?
Hit #5 - Channels & Firmware
It's safe to say that a high percentage of new Wii owners don't even realize the system has online features, since they aren't used in Wii Sports. But Nintendo has provided a strong hint for new users with the news and forecast channels' reserved spaces on the menu. A little investigation will lead to other free channels like Everybody Votes and Check Mii Out, and more channels have been promised for the future. Most of the current channels could be described as "neat, but not really useful". However, they do prove that Nintendo is interested in evolving the Wii experience over time, often at no extra cost to the user. Providing more proof of that is the upgradeable system firmware, a first for Nintendo. Online Wii owners occasionally discover that evocative blue light, signaling that an update is ready. By loading the newest firmware version on major first-party titles like Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo can reach even offline Wii owners with these updates. The added features have thus far been modest at best, but the fact that Nintendo is actively providing increased functionality holds great promise for meaningful updates in the future.
Of course, it hasn't all been rosy for the Wii's first year as market leader. Here are some points that Nintendo needs to work on in order to maintain and increase its extraordinary success.
Miss #1 - Hardcore Marketing
When unveiling the plan to reach out to the "blue ocean" mass market with Wii, Nintendo promised not to leave behind their traditional gamer fans and said they could effectively cater to both groups simultaneously. In terms of game releases, they have actually done an impressive job with this balancing act. With marketing, they have not. Simply put, Nintendo sorely needs an alternative to the "Wii Would Like To Play" campaign. These ads have worked wonders for Wii Sports, Mario Party 8, and Wario Ware. They are, however, inappropriate for traditional games such as Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. The latter game has been particularly let down by Nintendo's marketing strategy, as it is an extremely high quality experience that should at least be outselling a similar game like Red Steel, much less cross-platform competition. Corruption is exactly the kind of title that Nintendo should be pushing towards the potential "Wii60" consumer, an owner of multiple platforms who is attracted by both the traditional games abundant on Xbox 360 but also interested by the Wii's possibilities. With Corruption, Nintendo has an excellent, very attractive new game that combines the best of both worlds (traditional gaming and motion controls), and yet this game has sold far below expectations since its August release. Prior to the game's launch, Nintendo claimed they could market and sell it even to moms. Maybe the company should have focused more on selling it to the audience that already understands how to play such a complex and immersive game.
Miss #2 - Online Gaming
Wii excels in providing a number of unusual and enticing online features, but online gameplay cannot be counted among that group. Despite Nintendo's experience with the online service for Nintendo DS, more than six months passed before the Wii's first online game was released in North America. Sony, a company with similarly immature online gaming credentials, provided a marquee PS3 launch title with 32-player online support on dedicated servers. Some credit is certainly due to Nintendo for having any online gameplay at all, which they never achieved on GameCube despite the technical capability to do so. But the current state of online Wii gaming is so poor, in terms of game selection and feature support, that few players are taking advantage of the service at all. Every first-party online game has its own Friend Code that must be laboriously exchanged and entered among prospective players, even if they have already done so for other Wii games. Despite these hurdles, no Wii games to date have any online communication, making it extremely hard to play cooperatively in a game like Battalion Wars 2. You can send a message to a friend outside of the game… but that requires yet another Friend Code for the system itself! Insane. This maze of annoyances isn't protecting children or sensitive ears, it's just insuring that most Wii owners won't even bother trying to play online games.
Miss #3 - Third-Party Support
This isn't a complaint about support from third-parties but rather Nintendo's support for third-parties. There has been plenty of press about Sony's insufficient technical support for PS3 developers, but just as significant is Nintendo's poor support for Wii developers. Yes, the development kits are very cheap by industry standards, and the Wii architecture is a natural extension from GameCube. That doesn't mean much for large companies who could afford dev kits anyway and never showed much interested in the GameCube hardware. What these companies desperately need are gesture control libraries, pixel shader tools, and online gameplay modules. Wii developers need effective middleware solutions to help standardize some of these basic features, and Nintendo could be helping to provide such solutions, but they are reticent to do so because they are competing with third-parties as a game studio.
Miss #4 - Virtual Console Pricing
Ask anyone what they think of Virtual Console, and you're not likely to hear any complaint whatsoever… except when it comes to the pricing of games. Nintendo's pricing schedule for classic games regularly exceeds fair market value, and for proof of that, visit your local gaming specialty shops, who dramatically mark up used game prices from what they paid the former owner in store credit. There are definitely games on Virtual Console that are worth every penny (and more) of the download price, but games aren't priced according to quality. The truth is that Nintendo is selling old games, many of them hardly worth revisiting, for more than Microsoft and Sony are charging to download brand new games with online features and high definition graphics. The prices have turned what should be impulse purchases into a catalogue requiring some guidance to navigate, hence such features as our VC Mondays recommendations. Pricing for VC games will become even more blatant when the WiiWare service launches in 2008, with new games on the very same system priced comparably with the old software. Will Nintendo bow to market pressure when the competition hits so close to home?
Miss #5 - Media Relations
Working with the media is not a new problem for Nintendo. The famously impenetrable company has been this way since at least the GameCube era, and probably long before that. While Nintendo has done a better job of reaching out to the mass media with Wii (an achievement flaunted, obnoxiously, during the company's E3 2007 presentation), traditional gaming media have seen little change in the new generation. Nintendo still hands out debug systems (required to play pre-release game code) like Wonka's golden tickets. Interview requests are routinely ignored, or worse, promised and then retracted with no explanation. Press events are kept secret up to the last minute, even from the select few media outlets who are invited. Final review copies are being shipped later than ever, now often arriving just a day before release, if they are early at all. These actions don't just hurt the enthusiast press like Nintendo World Report; they hurt Nintendo as well. There is a significant segment of the market that follows event coverage, reads interviews, and depends upon reviews to make purchasing decisions. As noted earlier, these people have largely yet to be sold on the Wii's appeal, and Nintendo is doing very little – with marketing or media relations – to change the traditional gamer's mind.
If you have something to say about any of these topics, or if you think I left out something important, please leave a note and join the discussion in our Talkback forum thread.