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PING/PONG: Nintendo’s Next-Gen Strategy – From Wii to Project Café
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PING/PONG: Nintendo’s Next-Gen Strategy – From Wii to Project Café

Just how wise is Nintendo’s decision to move on to the next generation? Listen as we discuss the upsides and downsides of Nintendo’s strategy.

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On April 25th, Nintendo made headlines by confirming a flurry of online reports and rumors that they would finally be showing off their long-awaited successor to their best-selling Wii console at E3 2011 this coming June, and made even more headlines by announcing it would arrive in stores in 2012; a full six years after launching their motion-controlled revolution back in 2006.

The specs are impressive: HD graphics, more powerful than a PlayStation 3, and revolutionary new controls with HD touchscreen display built right in – a hardcore gamer’s dream come true. But not everyone is impressed with Nintendo’s timing, especially those who think this so-called “Project Café” may be prematurely cutting the Wii’s market life short.

Now in the latest edition of PING/PONG, your adored arguers John Lucas and Nathan Evans (AKA Mr. Universal) discuss and debate the wisdom behind Nintendo’s decision to move on from Wii to the new Project Café. Bring a soda and sandwich. You’ll be here for a little while.

Nintendo’s Next-Gen Strategy

Let me start off by saying that I’m totally disappointed in Nintendo with this move. Totally disappointed. It’s just too soon. Gonna sound like a cranky old man on this one. I don’t like it. No sir, I don’t like it one bit. You listen to the videogaming comment boards and forums of the internet and everybody’s wild-eyed with all these overblown tech dreams. Feening over “The POWER, The POWER” like a bunch of lovesick groupies. How many times do I have to say it? Power Doesn’t Matter Anymore. It simply doesn’t matter and Nintendo’s very own DS and Wii PROVED it.

Cartoons look like cartoons, realistic looks like realistic. It’s over now. It is no longer about the look. It is about the game design and that’s what I loved from Wii. There have always been those who focused on the Video over the Game in the world of videogames. Wii brought it back to the basics, sacrificed raw power so that game design could be the focal point, and succeeded with games that could not be made ever before. Nintendo President Satoru Iwata had it right in 2004: “The time when horsepower alone made an important difference is over.” The supposed self-proclaimed “hardcore” have been disgruntled ever since. But with every record broken, every success against the tide, Wii made me proud as it proved its philosophy, its mission.

Now it looks like Nintendo is going backwards. They’re catering to those spoiled children that call themselves the “hardcore”. Aborting a leading console in its prime for what exactly? More graphics? More HD? Valid 3rd party support? Kudos from the gaming press at large? Better review scores for the metacritics of the world? The knowledge that they have finally satisfied the whims of the “hardcore”? Nonsense! It’s not time to move on from the Wii yet. There is so much unexplored ground that Wii has yet to discover. So many things left to achieve. How wasteful it would be to throw away all they have earned chasing fruitless tech dreams. It took Nintendo a long time to get back to this place (almost 20 years) and now they’re just going to walk away from paradise? When I first heard the rumors, I was absolutely certain Nintendo wouldn’t be foolish enough to prematurely launch a new console in the midst of the just-released 3DS and still strong Wii. But they have totally scalded me with this hot coffee project called Café. It just doesn’t make sense!

Well, I agree with you that it’s potentially “too soon” to cut short the Wii’s lifespan with a new gaming console at this point, I’m not that surprised. Everything is speculation until its actually confirmed, and it would have been silly to assume that Nintendo wasn’t hard at work on their next “whatever” project, I’m a little disappointed that we won’t see their game-changing console go the extra innings its HD brethren will. I’m not positive, but I think we may be witnessing yet another (and possibly last) record for the Wii – premature obsolescence. Has any (gaming) company ever pulled the plug on what is still its best-selling hardware at this stage?

But where I disagree is on the investment issue, namely that of Nintendo and third-parties, and how both might might see what – if any – beneficial partnership would come from developing for a newer, more powerful Nintendo console would have at this point. Despite selling nearly twice as many Wii consoles as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 (often combined), Nintendo was never able to get publishers fully on-board, and while you make a compelling argument about the irrelevancy of technical prowess for art’s sake, in truth the Wii was deficient in several key areas that would have made it attractive to help get more – and exclusive – software onto the machine. HD visuals aside, the puny internal memory and complete lack of a cohesive online environment made them leery of releasing titles that could be easily upgraded, patched, or – better yet – monetized to hell and back.

I understand your frustrations, John, and can easily see where you’d think this “Project Cafe” is little more than Nintendo’s version of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policies of WWII (look it up, history buffs) to make third-party developers and their publishing masters happy. As ugly an argument as it is, Nintendo’s reliance on essentially reusing what was already outdated tech to help put cost-effective hardware on shelves to let them concentrate on pushing the “everyone can play” inclusiveness nature of the Wii meant the console was always living on borrowed time. That and a history of relegating most third-party software to second-class status in favor of their own was never going to endear them to most publishers, especially not with Microsoft and Sony bending over backwards – often with open pocketbooks – to lure them in. Both HD consoles have seen their previous hardcore-only missions take a dramatic casual-curve recently, and with great success. The Kinect and Move have apparently connected with audiences and effectively moved them away from Nintendo; perhaps its time for something new from them.

And this is what gets me about the whole thing. I maintain to the end of days that Nintendo will NEVER AGAIN enjoy the 3rd party support they once did in the NES/SNES days. No matter WHAT they do. When Sony broke open the piñata in the mid-1990s, that forever ended 3rd party allegiance to Nintendo. Just like I said in the PING/PONG about the 3DS, I don’t think the big independents will ever truly support anything Nintendo does if given a choice. Microsoft’s and Sony’s platforms are built by the 3rd parties. They may have 1st party standouts here and there but the 3rd party titles are their bread and butter. Nintendo being the last of the true gamemakers in the console manufacturing business is, has always been, and will always be 1st party-based. Their products will always take precedence and customers trust their well-earned name. The all-time best-sellers list shows a deluge of single-platform Nintendo-produced games then sprinkles of multi-platform games from 3rd parties in-between even more Nintendo titles.

It’s a long shadow to get around and the 3rd parties know they will never shine on Nintendo platforms like they do on those 3rd party-centric platforms. They also know that Nintendo being the very reason why the videogame console still exists will never die off (proven by the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube eras). So if they give all of their power to Nintendo resulting in 1st party, 2nd party, and 3rd party support, it’s NES Monopoly time all over again and they lose their influence over the industry perhaps never to gain it back. For that reason, their support of Nintendo’s platforms is based on politics not hardware performance.

So what’s the real reason for the change? I hear Iwata saying this week, “It became difficult for developers to surprise customers with the current Wii.” That quote annoyed me like you wouldn’t believe. Surprises are all around within Wii if they actually took the time to look for them. Before Wii came along, we had been playing by the same control standard since the mid-1980s, a standard Nintendo created no less. Left thumb over directional pad, right thumb over action buttons, with controller comfortably resting in palms—the NES standard. Wii gave us new evolutions on that old standard while creating a new one with the pointer and motion capabilities of the Wiimote. Those capabilities mixed and matched together heralded new frontiers to explore in control mapping standards which had been the very same since the mid-1970s! Up, Down, Left, Right, Action button, Action button, Action button. Both Atari’s joysticks and Nintendo’s gamepads follow this underlying mechanism. What the Wiimote brought to gaming is brand new and largely unexplored unlike the standards set 30 to 40 years ago. There are PLENTY of surprises to be found, PLENTY of new ideas and new kinds of games that can be produced.

I can’t figure out why they would want to leave this kind of pioneering up Sony and Microsoft through Move and Kinect. Nintendo STARTED this Revolution and they should finish it. In the handheld fight, it’s pretty easy to see why they have become so reactionary with release after release of consoles (see Apple, maybe Android). But on the home console scene, I can only come up with one answer for their fickleness: Nintendo simply doesn’t appreciate what they have in Wii. They lost faith in their own revolution. They lost faith in this audience they have earned. They got scared and they wanted to go back to where it was safe. It had nothing to do with Microsoft, Sony, or even Apple. Even Nintendo themselves were not fully ready for the revolution they began.

I think you’re right when you say the Wii Remote led to a break from the usual “Up, Down, Left, Right, Action button, Action button” gameplay from decades past; it led to an equally-tired deluge of “Waggle, Waggle, Shake, Shake” bargain-bin knock-offs, and in record time. Whether this had more to do with the questionable (and questionably cheap) developers hoping for quick ‘n easy ports of once-free Flash internet games or a genuine hesitation for more marquee developers to join the motion-control revolution we’ll never really know. But where Nintendo pioneered the field, Microsoft and Sony have conquered and pillaged, at least in introducing platforms that cater to more than one market exclusively. Yes, Nintendo should be given their due for helping break this industry from its creative stagnation and a valid (and justified) argument could be made that they helped save the industry from a second crash.

Again, I point to the critical question of investment: will higher-powered hardware be enough to lure publishers back to a Nintendo console that is, by all accounts, only on par technically with similar consoles that will have a combined 100+ million head-start on whatever “Project Cafe” ends up being called? Developers have only just begun seeing returns on their investment in higher-powered tech, HD, and even motion-controlled games, even becoming somewhat reliant on post-purchase DLC and other online transactions financially. Given their history, is it possible that Nintendo will be able to offer them equal footing on their untested machine? This seems to be what’s happening with the 3DS, and there’s no end to the upcoming list of ports in sight.

Another fact is that Nintendo no longer “prints money” as the online meme once touted. They may have enjoyed unparalleled success and brought record profits with their powerful Wii + DS combo-punch, but that was several rounds ago; this is a tired Nintendo. Maybe its their stunning lackadaisical approach to supporting their own hardware and peripherals (Wii Speak, anyone?) or perhaps corporate negligence, but all those investors who lost millions when their stock began to tank can’t be happy about the recent downtrend. Gaining a leadership position was easier then staying on top, and it seems Nintendo’s been burning the midnight oil figuring out how to cling to the summit. Too bad its their own platforms they’re burning.

As much as I liked my portable DSi, I never loved it the way I did my DS Lite. That upgrade felt so right, so necessary. The DSi, on the other hand, felt every bit the knee-jerk reaction to the iPhone (and iPod Touch) encroachment onto their once-untouchable portable island it was. A lackluster and shoddy online DSiWare store, poor online browser, and complete lack of online ecosystem may have helped Nintendo (and their stockholders) sleep tight, but consumers saw through it. It may have sold millions, but it also sold millions less than its predecessors, and may have helped drive a new generation of independent developers and consumers directly into the waiting arms (and fingers) of Apple’s button-free alternatives and attractive development ecosystem. Do you think Angry Birds, both the game and phenomenon, would have been possible in a Nintendo world?

Likewise, as much as I feel Nintendo’s willingness to discard their soon-to-be 90+ million base of Wii consoles is to assuage the ever-changing whims of publishers, I think the other impetus is the one that’s scaring the heebie-jeebies out of every electronics company in the world – Apple. If the new “Project Cafe” controllers end up having touchscreen displays in them, this is owing more to the likes of the iPhone/iPad than Nintendo’s own DS (which came first). The DSi portended their willingness to introduce non-essential hardware to keep up with the digital Joneses, and the 3DS proved they were more than willing to release a successor with current-generation tech to help bring the developers/publishers back, regardless of its design and own technology flaws. This is a Nintendo that’s entirely too comfortable reacting and not acting. I’m more than willing to give their new console a chance, but it’s going to be one hell of a hard sell; the next Mario game had better be tanooki suit-tootin’ SPECTACULAR.

Let me corrupt a famous Shakespeare quote by saying: The game’s the thing. And that’s all Wii ever needed. Games. Games for all audiences not just a select few. And it was up to Nintendo by and large to produce these without the backing from most of the major 3rd party developers. That’s why they no longer print money like they used to. Neglect and abandonment is the truest reason why Wii has declined from its heavenly heights. Any time Nintendo gives the console even half-attention it picks up. It kept the on-a-roll XBox 360 from taking the sales crown in America (the 360’s strongest region) this past holiday season and entire year of 2010 based on little more than red painted Super Mario Bros. 25th Anniversary packaging. The surely-coming gold painted Wii for The Legend of Zelda’s 25th Anniversary will do the same. It’s easy! The system still has lots of life left in it.

But lately it seems like Nintendo has forgotten one of its core tenets. Instead of producing a motherlode of varied imaginative games on a regular basis, they’re satisfied with producing motherlodes of new consoles year after year after year. As much as I love and use my DSi today, it was a bit rushed when it first came out about 2 years ago (we said so even back then). It was supposed to be the one to stop Apple’s subtle invasion into the handheld gaming scene. A little more time in the oven could have made it better stand up to the scrutiny of Steve Jobs’ iGlasses. Because neither it or its parallel, the DSi XL of 2010, could get the job done, here we are in 2011 with yet another try in the 3DS. With Wii’s successor to arrive in 2012, that’s 4 different console introductions 4 years in a row! Which is it, Nintendo? Does software sell the hardware or is it now hardware sells the software?

Regardless of the merits Project Café may have, Nintendo WILL NOT be able retain all of the audience they won over with Wii on its successor. Wii was a solid unified platform with a solid unified vision. The console’s name was simultaneously a pun, a pronoun signifying togetherness, a catchy brand name that can be universally pronounced in any culture, a name that needed no abbreviation leaving its 3 letters intact and memorable, a simple humble name unlike all the grandiose and technological names of consoles past (TurboGrafx-16, Intellivision, Master System). A small compact design in a white box that tells of a clean fresh start. Low power consumption despite always being on unlike the heat-arousing power bricks of its rivals. It was the little console that could and “playing is believing” became more than just a corporate catchphrase. Just think back to the impact of Larry Longstreth and Jacob Drake’s animated short film “Old School Revolution” as one single example of the excitement this console caused. People in my very own family who were never EVER interested in videogames suddenly came to me asking for advice on what to buy for their Wiis. Grandmas, grandpas, aunts, and uncles playing just like the youngsters. This is what Nintendo is willing to walk away from.

My feeling is Nintendo is too hasty in ushering in the 8th generation of home consoles. Touting that Wii’s successor is stronger than the PlayStation 3 isn’t saying much. That’s to be expected. What happens when Microsoft and Sony, who so far are both riding out their 7th generation vehicles, introduce consoles easily stronger than Project Café with any of Café’s unique features? Doesn’t this put Nintendo in exactly the same boat they’re in now with Wii? And will they run away to make a 9th generation console when that happens?

Timing is everything when it comes to introducing new consoles. Nintendo usually launches consoles last or at least contemporarily with its competition. This premature start along with Nintendo’s motivation for rushing out new systems is beginning to remind me of Sega in the 1990s (as much as I hate to say that). And somehow I feel their new system will be Dreamcasted. Sega’s stumbles with the Sega CD, 32X, then Saturn forced Sega to prematurely abort Saturn for the Dreamcast in order to get the jump on Sony’s PlayStation 2. But the accumulation of bad business planning and lost customer confidence left the Dreamcast for dead in the face of the mighty PS2. Sega didn’t have enough reserves to see the battle through so they exited the console-making business altogether. Nintendo’s not in this situation market-wise or financially but their short-sighted planning is looking more and more like “Nintendoes what Sega did”.

Before Wii was launched, I was absolutely on board with Nintendo’s direction lock, stock, and Donkey Kong barrel. I used to say it all the time: “Wii is the Future of Gaming.” As much as I was for the Wii, I am against Project Café coming out at this stage in Wii’s life. With gas prices most likely reaching $5.00 on average in America this summer and Japan faced with environmental/economic issues in the aftermath of March’s deadly earthquake/tsunami combination, it could be bad timing to launch a new full-priced console as slower-than-expected 3DS sales are showing. Regardless of Project Café’s good points, I fear this rush to the next generation may be one of the biggest mistakes Nintendo has ever made.

About the Author: Popzara Press