E3 Analysis: Nintendo - Not Quite Status Quo
[Reporting from Nintendo's E3 press conference in Los Angeles, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt gives a detailed analysis of its performance, suggesting a "robust, full of surprises, and appealing", with one or two exceptions.]
Nintendo's press conference wasn't as loud and ostentatious as Microsoft's, of course, but the steady message -- with one major exception -- was continued success and progress of its two platforms in the manner to which we are accustomed.
The catchphrase for the conference was the dual-meaning "Everyone's Game", meaning both "games for everybody" and "everybody's ready to play." The company clearly did its best job yet appealing to both its core demographic of gamers that stuck by it in the lean years, and those who have come to its systems thanks to innovations like Brain Age and Wii Fit.
The presentation was lead by Cammie Dunaway, the company's executive vice president of sales and marketing. "Everyone here has a professional connection to video games... We know that how well we do individually is directly linked to how well our category is doing," said Dunaway, as she took the stage, and began to lay out some predictably robust statistics:"Video games are just as big as home video, toys, and even bigger than music and movie box office put together. Today, it's clear. Everyone's game."
Reiterating what Iwata said at his GDC keynote, Dunaway said, "We've been working on one goal -- create surprise."
Building The Core/Casual Bridge
The presentation began with a Mario retropsective -- before launching into New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a four-player, 2D Mario adventure that clearly takes all of the lessons learned from its DS predecessor, as well as Nintendo's other franchises, including Smash Bros., Zelda: Four Swords, and Mario Party to bring cooperative, combative multiplayer action to the system.
It was a crowd-pleaser, and allows the company to retread the second dimension -- hewing back to Miyamoto's sometimes assertion that 3D is tough for novice gamers to deal with.
Of course, the company announced the already-leaked Wii Fit Plus, which seems to refine the original title with requested features. Said Dunaway, "There are millions of people who never stepped up to gaming until they stepped onto this." And for those gamers, this bit-more-than-an-expansion-pack (which will be sold both separately and with the Balance Board) offers new exercise options and a Mario-like platforming game mode -- a further unification of the company's two audience strategies.
Reiterating what Iwata pointed out at GDC -- that Wii Fit was coming close to selling as well as the PlayStation 3 -- Dunaway reiterated: "Some analysts have stopped looking at the balance board as a simple accessory and started looking it at as a platform."
Iconoclastic Nintendo of America president and chief operating officer Reggie Fils-Aime took the stage to demo the company's potential best-ever seller, Wii Sports Resort. "Over the last few years, physical reality has become the new proving ground for game innovation," he said, and with that, the presentation led into the requisite tedious Wii Sports Resort sizzle video.
Fils-Aime admitted that "video can show pretty much anything," and brought out longtime Nintendo staffer Bill Trinen to actually demo the game; Trinen started a demo that began with a new skydiving minigame that uses the tilt sensors in the controller.
"This is just the beginning of the game," said Trinen, which, along with its island setting -- the original didn't even have a setting -- implies a more traditional, linear game progression. This may or may not play to the jump-in, jump-out audience Wii Sports has built up -- though has clear implications for its core gamers.
This was followed by a demo of the archery minigame: "As you can see it's not about learning the controls; it's about what comes naturally," says Trinen. "And it's just the kind of challenge long-term gamers are looking for."
Moving to a sport with a bit more contemporary American currency, Fils-Aime took the stage again to play the basketball 3-point shot minigame and banter with Trinen. After winning, said Fils-Aime, "Wii Sports Resort brings a new sense of reality to a world that is distinctly Nintendo."
Of course, the Wii Motion Plus add-on also ships with EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 -- and EA's Grand Slam Tennis and Sega's Virtua Tennis 2009 will also support it this summer.
"For Ubisoft's Red Steel franchise," which requires the add-on, Fils-Aime said, "the commitment to Wii Motion Plus is absolute. And these new titles suggest that third-party commitment is shifting to Nintendo." With the top third-party sales last year going to Wii and the second place going to Nintendo DS, that's not a shock.
The Casual, Adventuresome DS
Dunaway returned to the stage with a sharp observation: "The Nintendo DS line remains the most lucrative target for game development -- coupling low costs with over 100 million installed units."
James Patterson's bestselling Women's Murder Club book series is becoming a DS game in the form of Games of Passion from THQ -- a logical move that mimics some of the most popular casual games on western PCs (hidden object and adventure) and the Japanese DS -- which also has several successful adventure games based on popular mystery writers in that market. Ubisoft also has a game called C.O.P: The Recruit, which regurgitates the plot of 2 Fast 2 Furious while looking like a family-friendly Grand Theft Auto clone.
Nintendo's immensely successful DS dress-up sim Wagamama Fashion Girls' Mode is coming to America as Style Savvy, and according to Dunaway, "We expect it will further expand the market for girls and teens." The game still looks very Japanese -- with a somewhat subdued but still big-eyed anime style (notably, this style is often used in mainstream fashion marketing in Japan.) We can only assume Nintendo focus-tested it, though, to make sure American girls like the visuals. After the sizzle reel, said Dunaway, "As you can see, Nintendo DS equals diversity."
When it comes to the DSi and the DS Lite, "We expected that the systems would complement each other," said Dunaway. According to her stats, total North American DSi sales as of today surpassed one million units; in that time, the DS Lite sold 400,000. The implication was clear: the DS Lite will continue to exist as a distinct platform.
Emphasizing the DSi's move towards user-generated content, Dunaway showed three games with a similar thread. "People today don't just consume entertainment -- they create it, and then they share it," she said. "Today, we can announce that the simple movie maker called Flip Note Studio will be available to DSi owners this summer. Other user generated content is on the way." DSiWare Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again also offers user-generated levels -- next Monday.
And of WarioWare DIY, which is TBD for North America, Dunaway said, "We believe this is as close to essential game design as any title has ever come." Finally, Facebook and Nintendo will launch direct link for uploading DSi photos -- but no implications of a more robust Facebook application were made.
The Growth and Maintenance of the Nintendo Market
At this point, the man everyone loves to love, Satoru Iwata, came to the stage -- the only Japanese representative (Shigeru Miyamoto, name-checked frequently, was AWOL.)
In increasingly typical fashion, he addressed the market in hard terms. "There are some who now believe the audience expansion movement is beginning to fail. We have been continuously conducting our own research around the world to discover what's happening." This breaks down, said Iwata, into three groups:
- Those who actively play games
- Those who say they will never play
- Those who might some day
Countering his own notorious comments that the Nintendo Wii is in its worst situation since launch, Iwata showed some interesting statistics. "How many [maybes] are there?" Japan, U.S., and six European territories comprise 295 million who actively play console or handheld games -- "big software purchasers." However, 149 million "maybes" exist. "Imagine the opportunity, if the number of players is 50% larger than it is right now," Iwata said.
Though he didn't offer a concrete answer to this challenge, he did offer some of Nintendo's philosophy: "Our next goal is to create a title that can satisfy each type of gamer -- even though the range of skill levels is now much wider." Though most gamers consider those games which test skill to be the most appealing, "This assumption concerns me," said Iwata. But, he cautioned, "On the other hand, if we lower the bar, we won't satisfy highly-skilled players. And I'm concerned about the wall between veterans and the novices."
Iwata reminded us that the original 1981 Donkey Kong was "intuitive enough to be enjoyed by anyone" and "ideally, this is still possible." With Mario Kart Wii and its plastic Wii Wheel, said Iwata, "we feel we have made a certain amount of progress... And we intend to move closer to the goal with some products you have seen today." Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Wii Fit Plus all slot into this mission.
However, said Iwata, "This kind of solution alone may not be entirely convincing. Most of the names we've talked about today are familiar to even non-players. But what has attracted new players mostly has been unfamiliar. What's next?"
What's next is the incredibly odd Wii Vitality Sensor.
Debuting without a game or release date in tow -- no demo of any kind, in fact -- it's a pulse tracking tool that looks just like what the nurse clamped on my finger after surgery last month. The audience groan -- granted, from enthusiast press by-and-large -- was audible. However, visions of Japan's aging population flew by my mind's eye.
"You can use it as a way to relax with a video game," said Iwata. "Games have been traditionally used to give an increased sense of stimulation. But it may not be long that games are used to help people unwind, or even fall asleep." Alert the developers of the iPhone's Prescription For Sleep; Miyamoto's new hobby must be napping.
Fortunately, Dunaway took the stage with the promise "we've still got a little stimulation to deliver." She announced Super Mario Galaxy 2, with sidekick dino Yoshi, to enthusiastic shouts and applause from the audience -- capturing the best reaction of any game at the event.
Fils-Aime returned to further champion the company's offerings for core gamers: "I'll be honest -- I read the blogs too. And I've been a gamer myself for a long time." A quick glimpse at three third party, 2009 core titles -- all of which looked very competent -- came next. Sega/High Voltage's The Conduit, Capcom's Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, and EA/Visceral Games/Eurocomm's Dead Space Extraction weren't as climactic as what followed, but may show something of a trend. However, one wonders if any, besides the Resident Evil game, will sell at all.
"Could a new ediger game coming from us? The answer is, absolutely," teased Fils-Aime, and then debuted the Team Ninja and Nintendo collaboration Metroid: Other M for 2010 -- solidifying the relationship the company has forged with Tecmo in the wake of last year's Nintendo-published (yet unreleased-in-the-U.S.) Fatal Frame title. It looked great; it left me wondering what shape Metroid Prime developers Retro Studios is in.
Fils-Aime made a surprising segue -- into the world of RPGs. Of course, Square Enix's commitment to the platform and its Final Fantasy title on Nintendo's two competitor consoles behooves that. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers, a Wii exclusive, doesn't even look as visually advanced, at present, as the company's PlayStation 2 Kingdom Hearts games, but will obviously capture many sales -- along with the KH game the company is prepping for DS (note: a different PSP version is also on the way.)
Nintendo also stepped up to the RPG plate with Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story, which has the power of franchise and quality to ensure solid sales as well. And the audience of core gamers was pleasantly surprised by the re-emergence of Camelot Software Planning's Golden Sun series in a new DS installment -- after a six year absence.
What Nintendo's Up To
These games tell us two things: the company knows that the core gamers as as much of its audience as ever, and that competition from Microsoft and Sony is strong enough to encourage the company to do something it's never done: get a top-notch, second-party action developer (Team Ninja) to handle a new Metroid while pumping out a second 3D Mario title on its own platform.
In all, the conference was robust, full of surprises, and appealing -- though the banality and not-quite-a-sequel-ness of Wii Fit Plus and inscrutability of the Wii Vitality Sensor showed a little weakness in an otherwise strong showing.