Life Inside the Nintendo Bubble (Opinion)

“Nintendo isn’t trying to compete with Sony and Microsoft.” That has become one of the most frequently used statements to argue against the need for Nintendo to improve on parts of their products and games in ways that compare to other console producers.

The origin is obvious: the wild success of the cheaper, underpowered, and motion-focused Nintendo Wii in the latter half of the previous decade that dominated the console market against Sony and Microsoft’s more popular and more heavily supported PS3 and Xbox 360. It was a great success that has both created the explanations for Nintendo’s efforts to repeat that success in the years since, and the criticisms over those same attempts to chase it.

Unfortunately, their attempts to create innovative hardware– the glasses-free 3D on the 3DS and the second-screen functionality of the Wii U’s gamepad– have not come close to the success of that initial Wii craze. It’s not hard to imagine why: The Wii’s motion controls were easy to demo, intuitive to use, and, while not necessarily new technology, were available cheaply for the first time. That blend was exactly what the system needed to garner mass market sales.

The 3DS tried to take advantage of the recent resurgence of 3D in film, and soon after in gaming, by offering a console that could provide the 3D effects without the cost normally associated with bringing it into the home. It worked to an extent, as 3DS just passed 60 million units sold last year. The problem was that its basis, 3D, was its own sort of fad. 3D films still release, as studios negotiate with individual theaters to have a certain percentage of showings be in 3D as the surcharge earns them more money, but the average crowd size for a 3D showing these days is significantly smaller than one for a 2D showing. With the public support for 3D waning, alongside more and more games not supporting it, the central idea of the 3DS became more of a parlor trick than an important feature for many owners.

As for the Wii U… well, nothing really needs to be said at this point, but I’ll do it anyway. A failure commercially, the gamepad was often more of a hassle than intuitive. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma even stated in an interview recently for Breath of the Wild that it didn’t make sense to split a player’s attention between two screens, essentially throwing the entire point of the Wii U’s gamepad under the bus at the end of the system’s lifespan. In contrast to the Wii, the Wii U’s central feature was expensive, cumbersome, and a hard sell to anyone unsure why they needed a second screen to play their video games– an assurance that even Nintendo couldn’t really find an answer to in the 4 years since the system released, let alone the third parties that inevitably failed to support it.

Upon reveal, the Nintendo Switch felt like a turn away from the failures of the Wii U and 3DS from a marketing perspective. The initial trailer quickly laid out how Nintendo’s new console could succeed: the central selling point of the console– that you could plug it into your television to use as a home console or pull it out of the dock to take it on the go– was easily conveyed within seconds, and the ease of which parts were shown to snap on and off made it clear that anyone could easily make use of its features. Even from a business perspective it seemed like a win-win: the “gimmick” of the console did not affect the central way players interacted with the video games on the system as all forms and controllers use the same base structure; more importantly, the hybrid nature of the console meant that Nintendo could consolidate their handheld and console software development onto one system– meaning more games from Nintendo more often, promising the kind of monthly releases that boosted the 3DS in its best years and less of the kind of droughts that many point to being one of the Wii U’s biggest failures. All Nintendo had to do was release the system for an affordable price and the system would be in a great position to find success. Maybe not at Wii levels but certainly far from the flop of their previous home console.

And yet, all that hope seems to be in doubt after Nintendo’s recent presentation for the Nintendo Switch, and the information that came out after.

The Switch was announced to be releasing at $300, the high end of the $250-300 range most analysts predicted. At that price it sits at $50 less than the Wii U launched in 2012, and $50 more than the Wii did in 2006. Based on everything rumored to be inside the console the price point seemed fine on its own, despite some hopeful for it to land at $250, but it was the pricing of its accessories alongside the base console that caused many concern.

The Wii U Pro Controllers, with a more classic layout that are very reminiscent of Xbox controllers, retails at $70– 10 more than the Xbox One or PS4’s controllers. The Joy-Cons retail for $50 individually and $80 for the pair you’d need to have all the buttons necessary for a full control scheme. An extra Dock, used to provide an HDMI port and charging station for the Switch, costs $90. And the Joy-Con charging grip, which lets you use the two Joy-Cons as a traditional controller while simultaneously providing them charge, costs $30– which seems like a fair bargain until you realize that the grip provided with the console does not charge the Joy-Cons.

And this is where the “Nintendo isn’t trying to compete” argument begins to wear. In the context of the current video game landscape, the Switch sits in a precarious position. The PS4 and Xbox One are both much more powerful gaming machines that have a more varied and deep library than Nintendo’s fledgling console, are more likely to be well supported with top-selling titles going forward, and currently cost the same or less than the Switch even with a game bundled in. So the question then is if the value of a hybrid console can overcome the $300 price tag with no game bundled in, a smaller library, and accessories missing components that the same accessories sold separately do include?

Nintendo seems to think so. They also seem to think that it’s good PR to dilute your press conference about a focused console with a singular, compelling feature by extensively discussing their new “HD rumble” and motion controls that had sold the Wii, but are now extensively tied to its shallow install base that quickly abandoned the console as the initial novelty wore off. The latter is not unexpected. Motion controls are still cheap, so it made sense to include them on the Switch, but the amount of focus put on them in the presentation came off poorly for many as its announcement came hand in hand with an extensive demo of the “HD rumble” feature that Nintendo did well to explain, but failed to demonstrate how it could be applied to improving the consumer’s experience in multiple games over the course of the system’s life. Which is exactly what happened with the Wii U’s gamepad.

These features are fine on their own– I personally wouldn’t mind seeing Nintendo implement HD rumble and motion controls in future products– but a question certainly arises over how many features they are trying to pack into each controller and whether the feature justifies the higher price that inevitably follows it considering their competition. Do the Joy-Cons need HD rumble? Does the Pro Controller need an NFC reader? And do those features offset the cost that puts those accessories above the price of competitor’s comparable products? They’re questions that you’d assume Nintendo asked themselves in development: because whether or not they did, I can guarantee the consumer will.

Game Development in the Bubble

Despite all I’ve said, this isolationist mode of thought Nintendo seems to have isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s the basis for a lot of Nintendo’s innovation over the years. It’s hard to believe a game like Splatoon about a bunch of squidkids shooting colored ink in a game of territory control would come from any other company. Even recently, Shigeru Miyamoto has pointed out that since before the NES, he has worked with the same team on development without paying too much attention to what the rest of the industry is doing. It explains a lot of the design philosophy behind Super Mario Run, which translates the Mario formula into an automatic runner that you can play with your thumb and that ignores the micro transactions that have become the main revenue source for many of mobile’s top grossing titles.

But while it allows Nintendo to make hardware and software without adhering to the imposing ideas already implemented in popular titles elsewhere in the industry, it can also be a detriment to their titles that lack expected features that have otherwise become standard in the rest of the industry for good reasons. Splatoon, despite how fresh an idea it is, is one of the biggest and most recent examples of this. As a game whose genre can be described as an online multiplayer shooter, Splatoon released without as big a feature as private matchmaking, and still lacks sensible features such as party voice chat and LAN support that could have greatly benefitted the kind of competitive community that tried to spring up upon the game’s release through sites like Squidboards.com.

What’s interesting is that Nintendo is clearly not beholden to the ideology that creates the Nintendo Bubble. Breath of the Wild, as Aonuma has explained, was developed by a new team he had not worked with previously, and both he and this new team had taken extended time to play modern open world games like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to get ideas for building their own open world Zelda title. The results have been nothing short of dramatic, with Breath of the Wild showing up as one of the most anticipated games Nintendo has had in the last decade.

One would have then thought that the Switch, which Miyamoto has noted is being worked on primarily by the younger blood in Nintendo’s corporate structure, would more dramatically show this kind of thinking. The only real changes so far have been the removal of region locking that the rest of the industry had abandoned years ago and the inclusion of voice chat, albeit through the use of an app on a mobile device that in all likelihood already has access to Skype, Discord, and, of course, regular phone calls.

Nintendo’s New Paid Online Service

Of course, there’s a lot more that could be announced in the coming months, but Nintendo’s marketing has essentially failed to convince consumers and even analysts as to if anything will improve. The cherry on top for those of us that are still preordering the system was the announcement of the new subscription service that offers players access to online multiplayer on Switch.

This could be one of the biggest problems with Nintendo’s system when it finally awakens from the free trial period in the Fall. There are only two ways that a consumer is going to find the value in a subscription of this kind: either through the offerings the subscription gives you on its own, and the amount of games that will make use of it. So far, neither is very certain.

Putting multiplayer behind a paywall means that Nintendo needs to have games that people want to play online multiplayer with, and a steady supply of them. Right now, the biggest online titles most likely to hold a large audience’s attention are Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2, the fighting game Arms, and if the rumors are true, the enhanced Smash Bros. port and Pokémon Stars. That’s a good number of games for the first year, but if you think about it, the three confirmed major titles from Nintendo that use online multiplayer are all scheduled to release well in advance of the paid subscription’s rollout, so it’s entirely possible that by the time Nintendo hopes players will start paying for the service, the three biggest games to do so won’t have the kind of audience they want.

And even if they do, for consistent use of the online service, it’s likely Nintendo will need multiple online multiplayer games like that a year– which is not something Nintendo is known for. The comparable subscription services on PS4 and XBO have a constant flow of online-enabled games every year that each are able to gain a sizable audience. In just this past November, both systems had Titanfall 2, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and Battlefield 1 in the span of two weeks. That kind of output is very likely to repeat this and every year from now on, which is something that Nintendo as it is now may not be able to compete with– and make no doubt they will need to compete when a consumer needs to drop $420+ on Switch to play Splatoon.

I mean just consider the sort of offerings Nintendo appears to be putting up versus PS+ or Xbox Live Gold. Both subscription services offer multiple games of varying scale and price for free every single month and keep them for the length of their subscription. Nintendo’s response to that is to give their subscribers a single game every month for that month only, and only games from the NES or SNES.

One can obviously argue about the quality of the games being offered on any of those subscriptions and how they compare to some of Nintendo’s classics, but even on its own, the offering of a single 30+ year old game that Nintendo has released and rereleased on a multitude of systems through those years and that many of their early adopters likely own or have played already does not sounds that enticing, especially if the cost is similar to PS+ and XBL.

There is, of course, always the chance that Nintendo improves on this system as they learn how subscription services work, but that may not be a luxury they have. While PS+ and XBL weren’t great subscription services when they began, and have improved over the years, they had no competing service at the time. There wasn’t a gold standard to point to and say “this is where our subscription service should be”. Nintendo has two competitors with adequate services they can learn from. By all rights, they should be leveraging their IPs and catalog better to convince consumers of the value of their online service that could make or break all online multiplayer games they release on the console going forward, and offering a single NES/SNES game per month is not likely to cut it.

But I shouldn’t be so surprised if Nintendo really does believe that one of their 30+ year old titles is worth the same as what their competitors are offering. After all, they talk all the time about how they “don’t want to diminish the value of their products.” But there seems to be a clear disconnect in what they perceive as their software’s value and what consumers are willing to pay. That’s part of the reason why their Virtual Console has been so widely criticized over the years and their games so commonly pirated.

Consider just that virtual console: a large part of the VC’s catalog has been released on multiple systems over the years, and likely many of the players have bought them on multiple systems. So when they release the same games on their new consoles and tell the players that they’ll need to buy them one more time, with no guarantee that they won’t have to do it again for another console in the future, it should come as no surprise when they’re criticized for expecting those players to buy Mario Kart 64 for $10, Donkey Kong Country 3 for $8, or innumerable other titles for more than their original working cartridges cost on the second hand market. It’s the exact kind of environment that makes consumers decide not to respect the ownership of their titles and why Nintendo titles are so often illegally emulated.

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That broken dichotomy between the MSRP Nintendo puts on their hardware and software, and the consumer’s perception of value that will determine whether or not they buy Nintendo products is one of Nintendo’s biggest challenges moving forward, encompassing the accessories they’re selling for the Switch, the subscription service they’re offering, and inevitably every game they release, virtual or not.

Because whether or not they like it, the Switch is competing with two powerful, well supported consoles, and no matter how much Nintendo says that they’re “not trying to compete,” that will never be how a vast swath of consumers view their products.

At this point, it’s just another way of saying that they’re living in a bubble.

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One thought on “Life Inside the Nintendo Bubble (Opinion)

  1. Good post, and a lot of the arguments you’re brought forward are more than valid. Nintendo is on the ropes now after the failure of the WiiU and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re going to take a more aggressive position with the Switch (which the need to). On day one, there is no real reason to get the console unless you love Zelda and don’t already have a WiiU. That said, if they play their cards right, the system could be a lot more attractive by the time the 2017 holiday season rolls around, especially if they release some appealing bundles.

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