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For a generation, Nintendo's business is personal Exclusive
For a generation, Nintendo's business is personal
February 7, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

February 7, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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    27 comments
More: Console/PC, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive



In the wake of Nintendo's recent financial shortfalls and the wave of opinions about what Nintendo must do to fix its problems, Leigh Alexander examines why we're so invested in this company.

Everyone in the video game space seems awfully invested in what Nintendo should do about its business. To some extent it's always been this way: After the company unveiled its perplexing Wii console in 2006, all the talk was about what ought to be different. The name, for one. No one believed that the word Wii was any kind of plausible household name. Surely the company would change it, we thought. We couldn't picture ourselves tonguing such a thing in common parlance.

Of course, we were wrong. Wii did become a household concern, in name and in fact. Nintendo is accustomed to doing this kind of thing -- becoming successful by ignoring us. And boy, did we feel ignored. And betrayed, too, as its family-friendly brand exploded across the market. The company's presentations focused on Wii Fit boards, children's software, and more of things like that, and less of the things longtime fans loudly clamored for -- new installment in this and that franchise. And when we got one, we just wanted some other one. No matter what Nintendo does, the conversation will be about what Nintendo should do.

The kind of hardware innovation that confuses traditional fans has always been what kept the company booming. Even while other platforms marched forward into the social media age, offering living room apps, connected entertainment and high-fidelity multiplayer, Nintendo dealt stubbornly in walled gardens and loathsome "friend codes." Its handheld business weathered the popularity of mobile games. Nintendo just has its own rules, and we were helpless to prescribe or opine otherwise.

When Nintendo unveiled its Wii U plans, it was pretty easy to believe that most family homes would buy into the idea of an "upgrade for the Wii." At least it was easy for me to believe it. Lots of people, myself included, felt that the market for traditional next-gen console wasn't all that assured to begin with, and personally I felt that since all our firmly-held opinions about what Nintendo should be doing had proven totally irrelevant to its bottom line so far, it was pretty useless for me to have another one.

Now, Nintendo faces an interesting challenge: Its Wii U has been a significant underperformer, and now it faces a market whereby it seems to have few choices. The company doesn't seem to know how to play in markets other than those it's created itself. It's easy to say it should just "go mobile," but where's the infrastructure for that? The vacuum has created no end of opinions and dialogues about the company's future. As usual.

This isn't another editorial about what Nintendo ought to do. I mean, not exactly. It's an editorial about what I want Nintendo to do. Which is maybe what these conversations have been about all along: less about what's best for Nintendo, more about what we want. And we want things for Nintendo, probably more fervently than for other companies.

"The dialogue about Nintendo's future has to be personal"

People take all kinds of brands fervently. But our prescriptions for Microsoft and Sony have always been so much simpler. We expect them to be consumer-friendly -- we want things like used games and backwards compatibility and reasonable prices -- and that's really as far as it goes.

The dialogue about Nintendo's future has to be personal. By occupying a special place in our console-gaming lives that belongs exclusively to Nintendo, the company has earned an indelible place in our hearts and histories. As Nintendo goes, so goes our lifelong relationship to games.

IGN contributing editor and veteran UK journalist Keza McDonald has seen the conversation up close for some time, out in front of it in July of last year with "Exactly How Bad Is The Nintendo Situation" and, more recently, "Does it Really Matter if the Wii U Fails", providing a big picture for anxious fans.

"The truth is that for a lot of gamers between about 20 and 35, Nintendo is gaming," she reflects, pointing to the indelible mark the Super Nintendo left in North American family homes throughout the '90s. "Nintendo carries powerful associations of formative gaming years for many, many people, and its powerhouse franchises like Mario and Zelda have become inseparable from the love of video games as a whole."

"I know that for me, personally, Zelda was the first video game that ever captured my mind, and it's a series that's been with me for my whole life, turning up every few years," she says. "It means something different to me at different points in my life, but it's always there. If that franchise went away, it would be heartbreaking."



I wonder if we have a special protectiveness toward the game experiences that parented us in the basements and "rec rooms" of our childhood especially now that an entire generation faces a landscape where the thronelike "home entertainment" ideal has been fractured. Today's brothers and sisters don't sit up late, faces upturned to the glow of a single light. There are so many screens, there's a disbursement of our attention.

But it's more than that -- many young adults are saddled with unprecedented student debt, face a disrupted job market, and go without health insurance. The dream of a nuclear family and its shiny entertainment center feels for a lot of people like a relic of the 80s and 90s. The possibility of the kind of home ownership I remember my parents having feels far away for me, and a lot of my friends and colleagues feel the same.

"The games really are good enough to inspire fanaticism."

For a long time I've wished Nintendo would make and sell a wonderfully simple device -- a durable rectangle with a screen, a D-pad, a couple buttons. It would come in classic old gold or muted old silver, like the chrome hi-fi aesthetic visions of our yesteryear. Maybe a couple trendy editions: Highlighter yellow, 1990s puffy-paint pink. It connects via WiFi to an app store where you can download classic Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. And that's it, really. I feel like if it cost $150, everyone would want one. The simplicity and depth of those designs endures. You could buy one for your kid and then play it yourself after the kid goes to sleep.

"I think Nintendo genuinely has the best development record of any games company in history," says McDonald. I am relying on her to keep my head on straight in the face of all this fanaticism. "Its games really are wonderful, and its consoles have usually been completely different from what anyone else was doing at the time. This, more than anything, is behind the special investment that fans have in Nintendo - the games really are good enough to inspire fanaticism."

In my fantasy Nintendo portable, indies could also publish on the store. Successful indie games have been borrowing the influence and aesthetic of popular SNES games forever. Pixel art has been so trendy it's almost over. It wouldn't be a big leap for someone to work with Nintendo Japan and help them reach out to the right folks. New games that shared the same design values as Nintendo's classic stuff would keep a steady stream of fresh content coming.

Okay. I know. I'm doing the thing, the useless ideas about what Nintendo ought to do. And I guess it's disappointing that the best idea I can muster involves the company primarily returning to its roots, instead of moving forward. I just can't help it.

"Nintendo desperately needs to invest in its future by honoring that legacy of innovation and building up new brands rather than relying so heavily on its old ones," McDonald reminds me. Although she says any kind of actual doom for the company is a long way off if it's even possible at all, "it's in danger of becoming exactly what its critics say it is: a company that trades entirely on its past glories. That would be very sad indeed."

It really would. Nintendo still plays a big role in the lives of today's kids. When I get on the subway in New York City, or when I'm waiting in line at the bank, experiencing dread, there are children in chairs, legs swinging, immersed in a DS. The unmistakable chime of a coin can be heard from whatever new Mario game they're playing. My head turns in that direction, reflexively.

But there are just as many kids playing Where's My Water on the airport floor, hogging the charger pillar with a explosion of white cables and touchscreen devices. I know I'm just growing older, or not the target audience, when the bug-eyed chomper of Cut the Rope or the cheap-looking color car-accident of someone's Candy Crush Saga game annoy me. I guess this is the world my kids will grow up in, if Nintendo's role in the market changes. Of course I don't like it, but that's always how these things go.

I guess you can't blame us for all the armchair business advice, personal theories, and the editorials (this editorial). This all feels pretty intense. I hope the company will keep surprising us, keep triumphing, like a tiny hero running sideways along a line in an eternity of pits and its platforms. Like a speck of our childhood adventuring onward, sword in hand.


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Comments


Mike Griffin
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"...pointing to the indelible mark the Super Nintendo left in North American family homes throughout the 1980s and '90s."

The Super Nintendo didn't exist in the 1980s whatsoever, whether we're talking about the Super Famicom in Japan (released November 1990) or Super Nintendo in North America (released August 1991).

Sorry, just to be technical and stuff.

Kris Graft
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Whoop! We're ok with technical. Thanks Mike :)

Javier Degirolmo
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I guess it's supposed to mean NES and SNES (since NES is around since 1985, or technically 1983 which is when the Famicom launched).

Mike Griffin
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Right. If it said NES and Super Nintendo in the context of "throughout the 1980s and '90s" -- no problem, as it also covers the "gamers between about 20 and 35" point made just prior to it.

So it was either add "NES" or delete "1980s." I'm sure many of us presumed what it was supposed to mean on first read, either way. :)

John Mooney
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Excellent piece, and I wholehartedly agree. As a 21 yr old whose childhood was defined by late nights of Super Smash Bros., Zelda OOT, and Pokemon RPGs, I want nothing more for Nintendo that to triump with "Sword in Hand."

Buying Nintendo's work, especially the Wii U, has been a constant positive in my life. There's nothing quite as fun as racing around NintendoLand with 10 close friends into the early hours of the morning. I hope that more people get to have the same experiences. As of now, the age of the Internet has become the age of isolation for video gamers.

Cordero W
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The two quotes that destroyed your article.

1)

"For a long time I've wished Nintendo would make and sell a wonderfully simple device -- a durable rectangle with a screen, a D-pad, a couple buttons. It would come in classic old gold or muted old silver, like the chrome hi-fi aesthetic visions of our yesteryear. Maybe a couple trendy editions: Highlighter yellow, 1990s puffy-paint pink. It connects via WiFi to an app store where you can download classic Nintendo and Super Nintendo games. And that's it, really. I feel like if it cost $150, everyone would want one. The simplicity and depth of those designs endures. You could buy one for your kid and then play it yourself after the kid goes to sleep."

2)

"In my fantasy Nintendo portable, indies could also publish on the store. Successful indie games have been borrowing the influence and aesthetic of popular SNES games forever. Pixel art has been so trendy it's almost over. It wouldn't be a big leap for someone to work with Nintendo Japan and help them reach out to the right folks. New games that shared the same design values as Nintendo's classic stuff would keep a steady stream of fresh content coming. "

It's called the 3ds and the 2ds and the DS and all the other handhelds Nintendo made over the years. I was following your article until you made comments like this, which makes it seem like you're not really invested in Nintendo like you were just making it out to be. To me, it sounds like you're simply someone from the other side of the fence trying to garner sympathy. Aside from the disregard of Nintendo already catering to their old age fans, you also said they should keep things simple. They are perhaps the simplest console compared to Xbox or Sony. They don't put fluff in front of you featuring ads and other media shenanigans. In addition, they feature the most amount of possible control peripherals for a console: a traditional game controller, the wiimote, and the gamepad, which gives the greatest amount of innovative qualities for game developers. This is a good thing, and allows us to not remain stagnant in game design and possible games to develop.

So yes, Nintendo's business is personal, but clearly not to you.

Joe Zachery
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After reading came off the same way to me as well.

I just love in general how Sony can report losing 1 billion, and cutting 5k more jobs. It just seems like another day in the industry. Nintendo loses money their higher ups take pay cuts. Everyone at the company is still employed, but you will find 100 articles talking about them filing Chapter 11. The industry really seems overly invested in Nintendo death. You think people would be more supportive with them re birthing it after the crash!

Christopher Ingram
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That's because Nintendo is a sole gaming company, whereas Sony (and Microsoft) is a large corporation with numerous divisions, with gaming only being one part of it (one of the few profitable aspects, as well).

Over 60% of Sony's profits stem from its life insurance division in Japan. In fact, that division alone has produced over $9 billion USD over the span of the last decade for Sony. Sony always has the option to drop the vast majority of its electronics divisions (television, movie studios, laptops, etc.) and keep its PlayStation division to become a highly profitable company overall. It most likely won't do this type of drastic cut, but it's always an option for it to do so. In short, Sony's losses aren't as damaging to it as it is made out to be by the gaming press, for the most part.

On the other hand, Nintendo loosing market in the gaming industy is an entirely different matter, because it doesn't have a fall back option. Nintendo can't cut ends and be guaranteed to stabilize. Is Nintendo going anywhere any time soon? Absolutely not. But if Nintendo's next handheld and home console failed to capture the mainstream market - remember, the 3DS released very poorly, showing that the mainstream market won't simply buy anything Nintendo produces - Nintendo's future in the long-term could actually be questionable.

We care, because like this editorial so cleverly points out - a gaming industry without Nintendo would be a very sad place to be.

Timmy GILBERT
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To bad that if you followed her long enough you would know that she had almost all nintendo consoles ... even though she start on appleII

Katy Smith
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Did you just "fake geek girl" Leigh Alexander, or did I completely miss your point?

Arman Matevosyan
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@Katy So is there a way to say "it doesn't seem like this author really represents the viewpoint she's claiming"? Or are you automatically "fake geek girling" someone if you do?

Arman Matevosyan
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@ Cordero be careful. People here take great personal offense to any and all disagreement with this author's articles.

Timmy GILBERT
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"To me, it sounds like you're simply someone from the other side of the fence trying to garner sympathy."

This is beyond "personal offense to disagreeing with the author's article", this is one step too far.

Arman Matevosyan
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^Exhibit A. What exactly is so extreme about his comment?

Devon Scott-Tunkin
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Mostly just that it is incorrect and I currently cannot play snes games legally on my ds or 3ds xl. And I really want to.

Victor Soliz Kuncar
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It is just a raging comment putting in doubt the author's gamer credentials as opposed to, you know, actually arguing with the content. "To me, it sounds like you're simply someone from the other side of the fence trying to garner sympathy." Othering the author like this is not nice or useful to whatever the commenter wants to prove .

Nothing "extreme" about it - it is pretty standard gamer deuchebaggery. Still got to call it out though, else we would have people keep doing this.

Arman Matevosyan
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@Victor Interesting. From where I'm standing, describing his comment as "standard gamer deuchebaggery" is itself a raging comment.

Something to think about.

Gianfranco Berardi
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Arman, someone is being called out for getting personal and doing the all-too-common "you're not a real gamer" raging comment.

I don't know what you would call it, but with how all-too-common it is, "standard" is appropriate. Since it happens in the context of games, "gamer" works for me, and with the nature of the comment, so is "deuchebaggery".

Calling out something for being horrible is not nearly the same thing as being horrible. I don't see how they can be, but I'm curious about where you're standing that you see otherwise.

Arman Matevosyan
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@Gianfranco Sure, I'll spell it out for you.

Victor called Cordero a douche bag. Maybe you don't know what that is since you think that's an appropriate response. It's a small syringe used for feminine cleaning and hygiene, especially as a contraceptive measure. You don't think that's offensive? That's merely "calling out somebody for being horrible"?

Cordero wrote an extensive paragraph highlighting the disconnect between the author's claims and the content. He didn't just say "you're not a real gamer." He went into some detail about his perspective. One of the many things he concluded was "To me, it sounds like you're simply someone from the other side of the fence trying to garner sympathy." That's "horrible"? That's "raging"? That's getting personal?

Kenneth Wesley
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Does anyone know that Nintendo did released a huge amount of content that's not Mario and Zelda? This is what frustrates me about this article and this line of thinking from journalism: that Nintendo machines are Mario/Zelda devices.

Between the Wii,3DS, and Wii U, there's ton of amazing content they released that caters to all. Wasn't WiiWare the debut consoles for World of Goo and the Bit.Trip series-two indie developed games?

Jeferson Soler
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@ Kenneth Wesley - And don't forget that some of those contents are not even for kids, so Nintendo games and contents target all different audiences.

Michael Joseph
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Interesting article. On the one hand Nintendo should be flattered that so many folks are trying to give them advice on what to do next. On the other hand, when you think about the reasons people are so emotionally invested, it makes you wonder if Nintendo can ever get back to that place or whether the necessary time and context has come and gone.

Eric Harris
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Nintendo never left "that place". Giants like Microsoft and Sony moved in. In addition to software dev cycles becoming more complicated. Since Nintendo is the only company who has spent $500 million to figure these issues out, I imagine they should be better off than anyone else.

Eric Harris
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To all reading this article and the slew of other articles like it. Gamasutra is a brand of UBM Tech. If you scroll to the very bottom of the screen, you will see what business they are involved in. Their Markets: Business Technology, Channel, Electronics, and lastly, Game and App development.

I had to laugh at this article because, the writer says how Nintendo is targeting children with it's consoles/handhelds, so how will they lose the market to candy crush saga? People who like Nintendo games are not fanatics. I like the family angle Nintendo uses. I also like the art style their games uses. Also their game play is unlike any other game I have played.

Tyler Wissler
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This article pretty much captures those conflicting... ideas that I have about Nintendo. Do I want them to come out with new, weird IP or technology that completely blows everyone away? Do I want more of the same to recapture that childhood sense of exploration and fun? Would it even be in Nintendo's interests to make things that *I* would want to buy? Interesting things to think about, and thanks for writing the article.

Chuck Hunnefield
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To me, the biggest missed opportunity was the 'Wii Mini', in which they did EXACTLY the opposite thing they should have. What it SHOULD have had was a small amount of internal flash, and SD card slot, wireless - no DVD drive - and have the menu dump you directly to their app store. Include a few classic games, and you can mass produce these for almost nothing.

Apple's IOS and Android have shown that microtransactions ARE profitable - you just need numbers. Had Nintendo released the Wii Mini with those specs, they might have had a winner. No, not a front-running console, but something that is both affordable and fun.

Now, it appears Apple will soon get into this space with Apple TV - at least from what I've been seeing on a few boards, 'in the know'. What a missed opportunity!

A W
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Games and Gaming devices are not monolithic. Nintendo is just a company that has found a way to survive making game machines and software that plays on them for X number of years. They don't have to lead to survive. Why do Nintendo fans believe that the devices they play games on have to be the market leader? Apple was not a marker leader for many years, and they never went out of business. They are not a market leader today just because they can offer games on a phone.

We all have different reasons for liking Nintendo and it style of business and games, now we just need to share that reason with out getting bothered about kids and the competition.


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