Let’s Start Worrying About Nintendo: And other topics to think about in the weeks leading up to E3

I lied in the title, don’t start worrying, but it may be time to show some concern towards the Big N. A little under a year ago, on the eve of Nintendo’s 2014 E3 Direct Presentation, I wrote a piece explaining why those of us who would like to see Nintendo continue to succeed should stop worrying about their future. Now, the following April, we know now what we did not know then, and I feel it’s time to have a little retrospective on what I said then, what has happened, and where we go from here.

The Future of the Wii U and Nintendo’s Nx

A year ago, there was a whole lot of doom and gloom surrounding the company, and E3 was essentially set up as the place where Nintendo needed to prove it was set to meet its various challenges. Especially, going in, there was increasing fear of a new hardware announcement signaling the end of Nintendo’s support of Wii U. Back then, I called this hogwash, and that hasn’t changed in the slightest. Nintendo still fully supports their console now, and is set to support it through the next few years.

Yet, somehow, there are still expectations that Nintendo will stop supporting the Wii U at any second, with many observers taking even the slightest hint of a hardware reveal as the obvious signs that the company was jumping ship. At the latest investor’s meeting, Iwata made mention of “Nx,” which he referred to as Nintendo’s next system which they would talk about more next year. Now, ignoring the fact that Iwata was merely using it as an example of how Nintendo was not abandoning dedicated gaming hardware, no mention was ever made as to what exactly “Nx” even is.

So many observers, including journalists and analysts, continue jumping, even now, to the conclusion that it will indeed be Nintendo’s follow up to the Wii U. But looking back at Nintendo’s history of console releases, it is much more likely that the “Nx” is Nintendo’s follow up to the 3DS. Handheld systems for Nintendo generally release a year or two prior to the release of a new home console, and 2016, when Nintendo said we would first learn more about it isn’t even likely the year we’ll see the system released. More than likely, we’ll hear first word of the system in 2016, with a full reveal in 2017 and a release in that year or the one following.

2017 actually makes sense on a release schedule aspect, in some regards, as well. Since “Mario Kart DS” in 2005, Nintendo has been surprisingly on point with releasing a “Mario Kart” game every 3 years, alternating between handheld and home console. (“Mario Kart DS”: 2005, “Mario Kart Wii”: 2008, “Mario Kart 7”: 2011, “Mario Kart 8”: 2014) However, it is unclear as to whether the DLC they have been releasing would shift that schedule back a year. Another handheld staple, the main Pokémon series, seems to also line up with 2017. Every series of “Pokémon” games since the GBA seem to offer the two main games one year, remakes of previous entries the next, the third main game encapsulating the first two, and once in a while, a single year off. With “X,” “Y,” “Omega Ruby,” and “Alpha Sapphire” out of the way, many are expecting “Pokémon Z” (or whatever they intend to call it) later this year, and as Game Freak hasn’t had one in a while, a year off of main series “Pokémon” releases wouldn’t be out of the question either. That would set the beginning of a new round of main series games in 2017 as well. Of course, this can also mean nothing, as with last generation, Game Freak produced “Pokémon Black,” “White,” “Black 2,” and “White 2” on the DS without a remake in between and after the 3DS had already been released.

Speaking of 3DS, I also predicted that if hardware were to make an appearance at E3, it would only be in the form of a handheld redesign in a vein similar to the ever-popular DS Lite. Now the “new 3DS” obviously was not announced at E3, but we did end up getting at least the XL version in the west, and to my pleasant surprise, the changes it makes far outpace the changes between the DS and DS Lite. Essentially, the new 3DS incorporated virtually every peripheral Nintendo had made for the system, more comparable to the GBA adding light with the GBA SP. I suppose I can settle for being half right over completely off-base, especially since these have all been good things for both Nintendo and us, consumers.

Oh, also I thought Wii U would get a price drop to $250. That didn’t happen, obviously (although you can find a deal for $260 and 2 games all over the web) but I think it will definitely happen this year. Nintendo has been making a profit on each SKU ever since last year and it’s likely finally time for the drop to happen. Who knows? Maybe it’ll even go to $200. Now THAT would be crazy.

DeNA, Licensing, and Unresolved Promises

Many times in the past few years, Iwata and Nintendo have continued mentioning how much more they want to make their hardware work more closely together. This isn’t entirely a broken promise as it is a show of the weight a shared ecosystem and cross-buy eshop makes on the consumer. Literally everyone who owns multiple Nintendo systems wants this in some degree. Nintendo has made steps into the pond with cross-buy for things like “Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars,” and DLC that covers both “Super Smash Bros. for Wii U” and “Super Smash Bros. for 3DS,” but it clearly isn’t enough, and more definitely needs to be done, especially with regard to the Virtual Console, where many gamers just want games they already bought for the Wii to be available for play on their more advanced (and likely more used) Wii U. Expectations for many are that this promise is reserved for whatever consoles Nintendo releases in the future, as well as the deal recently struck with DeNA, but obviously everyone is fairly cautious about the prospects.

DeNAxNinty

Speaking of DeNA, though, the deal recently struck with them to release Nintendo games on mobile devices and create an ecosystem between them has riled a great many people. Many observers are afraid that releasing games on mobile will only work to cannibalize Nintendo’s already shrinking handheld gaming market. However, Iwata and Nintendo have, even since last year’s investor meeting, reiterated that they understand that issue and instead wish to use the mobile market to give consumers a taste of Nintendo’s products and convince them to purchase Nintendo consoles. This essentially means that any games coming out of this deal are more likely to be small spin-off titles along the lines of Pokémon Shuffle or literally anything DeNA has made previously. Again, it’ll be the ecosystem they develop that will be the most important part of this deal in the long run, especially considering the issues I laid out in the last paragraph.

One of the other things I pointed to a year ago was how Nintendo was beginning to look into licensing their characters for non-gaming-related media, and to this… nothing has really come up. Sure, we got word of an animated “Mario” movie, and a live action Netflix “Zelda” series, but both were disputed or confirmed as just wants from both Sony and Netflix executives. Overall, we haven’t really heard much on this front at all. It sure got rumors spreading though, didn’t it? Here’s to hoping some of these things rear their head again in the near future.

Smash-bros-image

Wii U’s Solid Library

But the future is the future and the now is the now– at least that’s paraphrasing what I wrote 10 months ago. No matter how much Nintendo was doing to show that they could adapt, I made it a point to note what they could do to increase sales in the immediate future. They needed games to be revealed at E3 and good games released within the year to boost sales, and they ended up getting both. “Super Smash Bros.,” “Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker” and “Bayonetta 2” released at the back end of 2014 to raving reviews from virtually every single gaming outlet worth mentioning. “Hyrule Warriors” and “Kirby and the Rainbow Curse” may not have wowed critics or sold systems, but they certainly strengthened the overall library of the Wii U, especially for those gamers with ties to “Kirby Canvas Curse” and “Zelda.” “Splatoon’s” release at the end of May looks to continue that trend with an entirely new IP and a surprising amount of hype backing it up. The only real nasty spot in this whole ordeal has been the delay of “Zelda” for Wii U, which won’t even be appearing at E3 this year to the chagrin of anyone you mention it to.

Also, before I forget, let’s remember that the 3DS got “Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate,” new “Pokémon” games, “Smash Bros.,” “Codename S.T.E.A.M.” (with significantly less criticisms after the last update), and the most requested remake of all time in “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D.” Not too shabby for a system that hasn’t gotten much attention at all since it spent 2013 basically sitting in a golden sleigh at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade throwing candy and great video games to all those that came out to see it.

The Exciting and Excessively Frustrating World of Amiibo

And that brings me to the crux of this entire article. The reason I wrote it and the topic I need to talk about: amiibo. Before E3 last year, I basically held up amiibo as the product that, if it were to come to it, could single-handedly save Nintendo. In a fit of irony, in the first paragraph I spent talking about amiibo, I fool-heartedly started, “Ignoring the fact that there are many Nintendo characters that many consumers would certainly want to get figures of.” Not making this the main point about amiibo essentially doomed whatever prediction I could have made about the little figurines.

I suggested that the result of these amiibo would be new IP, when most if not all amiibo have been used for existing IP that likely would have existed with or without the existence of amiibo. Of course, I didn’t rule out the possibility that they would be used in games that didn’t necessarily need it, I started with the assumption that amiibo would be created like “Disney Infinity” and “Skylanders,” for use in a specific game. That hasn’t happened. We’ve gotten a figure for every character in “Smash Bros.” for a feature thrown into the game at the end stages of development. Many of those figures don’t even work outside “Smash Bros.” We’re also getting figures for the new IP, “Splatoon,” and that, thus far, have no other uses outside of “Splatoon.” When Nintendo said that the NFC figures would be used across multiple games, I– and many others out there– immediately assumed they mean all NFC figures would be capable of use over all those games, and that there would be games specifically created with amiibo in mind. That has not happened, at least not yet.

I suggested that Nintendo would need to make the amiibos fairly cheap. I didn’t specify at the time, but I was hoping for something between $5 and $10, as the NFC figures for “Pokémon Rumble” were even cheaper. In retrospect, I’m probably fine with $13, but I do more enjoy how some older, more common amiibo have fallen to $10 in recent weeks. The problem is that the price at retail apparently isn’t the price of the amiibo. In fact, even if you wanted to pay the price at retail, you likely couldn’t.

I suppose I can be remised for failing to predict the lack of amiibo stock that has been plaguing us for months now, as I didn’t even know what figures we were getting at the time outside of Mario. (Which was actually the one from the “Super Mario” series, not the “Smash Bros.” series) Low stock, high demand, and scalpers have made even some of the more sought-after characters almost impossible to find, and Nintendo has been surprisingly oblivious to the issue, with two tweets on Easter Day especially adding to the tension surrounding the potential market. Add on the fact that Nintendo continues announcing more waves of amiibo before resolving the lack of stock in the last and an insistence of making deals for store exclusives, it is no surprise that we continue to get issues with consumers even preordering figures in advance.

Amiibo Problems

There are obviously ways Nintendo can resolve this issue. Ending store exclusivity is the first thing. This is something that has led many to call the company greedy; as it benefits themselves and the stores they make deals with, leaving consumers to essentially be left out in the cold. Next, they could space out the release of waves to make sure there’s space on the assembly line for the previous wave to reprint if necessary. Obviously, the next step would just be to produce more stock as much as possible, but Nintendo representatives have also suggested that the problem might also be how much stock each store orders and not how much they produce, in which case, Nintendo should just circumvent that entire process and sell to consumers themselves in the same way other Japanese figurine companies like Figma sell their products.

Figma sets up a few-month window in which customers can order specific figurines from them and closes all orders on the figure at the end of the window. After, they produce the product and send it out to those that ordered it. This is a process Nintendo could easily duplicate. They already have half the structure set up in the rewards distribution system in place for Club Nintendo, and it is hard to imagine Nintendo couldn’t set up an online shop to take such orders. Even if Nintendo needs to order each amiibo in bulk, it would be well worth the risk of overproduction, as they could eliminate the overpriced second-hand market, solve the shortage issue, and make peace with consumers by guaranteeing them the amiibo they want in exchange for waiting a bit longer to receive them. They’d hit every bird with a single stone. I mean they’d still need to make games that actually use them in a way that proves their worth as more than just collectible figurines, but it gets the easy parts out of the way.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure much has really changed with Nintendo’s standing in the past year. The doom and gloom seems to have gone away, (At least for Nintendo as a whole. The Wii U, itself, on the other hand…) but there are still many issues Nintendo hasn’t resolved and promises it hasn’t kept. I may not worry, but I am a little concerned.

Oh well, at least E3 is always exciting. Expect some predictions in the coming weeks.

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