Losing Faith: Nintendo's Ignorance of the Hardcore


Like many, I was utterly bewildered by Nintendo's E3 2008 press conference. The missing "core" game announcement was disappointing, but not quite as unsettling as the unshakable notion that I was ultimately wrong about Nintendo's intentions towards gamers who've stuck with it since the beginning.

And as I walked out, I had the concentrated sense that as a longtime Nintendo fan, I was being forgotten, or at best, misunderstood.

With an hour to burn at its E3 conference, Nintendo offered up Wii Sports Resort, Wii Music, Animal Crossing: City Folk and just a few others, plus a swift mention of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on DS to get those pesky 18-24 year-old males out of the way. See? We've got something for everyone.

What's troubling isn't that the title for hardcore gamers never materialized--it's that Nintendo thought it had.

"How could [core gamers] feel left out?" Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime asked CVG. "The Animal Crossing that we've been hearing about that people wanted. Fully connected to the Internet, go to other people's towns. Plus as I said, Grand Theft Auto on the DS. How do you feel left out with those types of announcements?"

As it turns out, pretty easily.

Regardless of what Fils-Aime believes, Animal Crossing: City Folk is not a "core" game. While its fans are most certainly a dedicated bunch, the title itself serves a particular gameplay niche that is not easily relatable to traditional gamers, least of all the hardcore audience.

The one offering in Nintendo's conference that could be construed as valuable to core gamers, the Wii MotionPlus peripheral, was only demonstrated alongside Wii Sports Resort, a game that simply didn't matter to that particular audience.

Nintendo marketing VP Cammie Dunaway later told Wired that she thought Nintendo was "addressing both [hardcore and casual gamers]," adding that she hoped that third-party games such as Treyarch's Call of Duty: World at War would deliver for the core audience. As for the Wii MotionPlus, Dunaway said that she expected the device--slated for a Spring 2009 release--to "very rapidly" spawn sequels to existing games.

What core audience is available to Nintendo isn't looking to the Wii for a Call of Duty experience, or the Nintendo DS for Grand Theft Auto. There are other platforms where those franchises are more richly realized, and compared to those versions, the titles are seriously limited on Nintendo's hardware.

And while games like Star Wars The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels could potentially show those gamers the possibilities afforded by the MotionPlus, developer Krome Studios didn't have a chance to implement the device prior to E3, because they likely weren't aware of it. With improved functionality in the pipe, Krome's efforts this fall—along with those of numerous other Wii developers--will ship with a sort of built-in obsolescence.

Most core gamers who own the Wii also own an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3 or both, rendering titles like the Wii edition of Call of Duty: World at War rather unimpressive in the shadow of other beefier versions. The Wii can't win with meager ports that feature waggle controls; the core gamers that Nintendo can and ought to attract are looking for the excellent gameplay that served as a cornerstone to the company's storied past.

And Nintendo does have those titles, coming from both its in-house development and as part of its third-party support. While Nintendo's executives and the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto yukked it up in the Kodak Theater with Shaun White Snowboarding and Wii Music, a handful of excellent games were being quietly demonstrated on the E3 show floor.

Rhythm Heaven, a North American localization of Nintendo's formerly Japan-only and utterly brilliant Rhythm Tengoku series, wasn't even announced at the conference; the official word was slipped into the post-show PR documents. And when I asked to play Wario Land: Shake It!--arguably one of the most beautiful 2D games created in the last decade--before Wii Music at Nintendo's booth tour, the representative looked at me like I had just crapped in her hat.

Perhaps worst of all, one of the most exciting pieces of Nintendo news to come out of E3—the revelation of a new Pikmin title in development—had to be pried out of Miyamoto at a roundtable discussion. Even as little as a terse mention and a logo could have turned a lackluster E3 conference into something special.

Turn the page for more evidence of Nintendo's burgeoning disconnect with core gamers, and ideas as to how they might make things right. _PAGE_BREAK_

It's not a sin to tout the publishers and developers working on your machine, either--Microsoft and Sony have no qualms about marching their third party support proudly beneath their banners. Why stop with Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars when there's Madworld and The Conduit coming for the Wii, as well as a number of other solid Nintendo DS titles on the horizon?

Beneath the immediate need for a more diverse showcase at press events and exhibitions lies the frustrating notion that those first- and third-party titles, which embrace more traditional gameplay, may not fit with Nintendo's new marketing strategy. And while I can see the business end of sticking with a successful plan—Nintendo has seen record-breaking profits since the rise of the Wii—but success with one demographic doesn't necessarily require the company to ignore another.

With the runaway success of its flagship platforms, Nintendo has the reach, the install base and the resources to truly satisfy lapsed fans and recover some of the lost core demographic. Now that the masses have been roped in, it may be time for the company invest in promoting a truly diverse portfolio—a company truly for everybody, not just for the newly-tapped market.

It's not enough to wait on Treyarch to deliver a crass, motion-happy Call of Duty: World at War port to the system, nor should core gamers expect to wait three to four years for a new Mario or Zelda title to keep them coming back. Nintendo's internal studios are some of the best in the world, and their products deserve better than a quiet demonstration on the E3 show floor.

It's not likely that Rhythm Heaven and Wario Land: Shake It! will pull in the same kind of revenue as Wii Music, and would accordingly merit something less than the marketing blitz we saw with Wii Fit. But relegating them to the quietest corners of Nintendo's marketing campaign is unfair to those looking for more than aimless waggling, as the poor sales of a relatively unknown product only serve to reinforce the company's current direction.

Arguably one of the most anticipated core-oriented titles on the Wii, Retro Studios' excellent Metroid Prime 3: Corruption started off much slower than most had expected, largely in part due to a sluggish and uninspired marketing campaign. Corruption eventually sold well, but fell short of expectations in short- and long-term sales performance. A little clever marketing—along with appropriate fanfare at the year's biggest gaming conventions—can go a long way.

Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Brawl, meanwhile, pushed hype to critical mass thanks to designer Masahiro Sakurai's brilliant Smash Bros. Dojo—a blog that trickled out screenshots, playable character reveals and other information at a ridiculously slow pace, but managed to keep consumers utterly entranced.

In an odd twist, Nintendo Japan's corporate figureheads appear to recognize the issues more easily than their counterparts at Nintendo of America. President Satoru Iwata apologized for the lackluster showings, addressing those gamers who had expected big announcements and were disappointed by the company's lineup.

"If there is any perception that Nintendo is ignoring the core gamers, it's a misunderstanding and we really want to get rid of that misunderstanding by any means," he continued. "The so-called big titles need a long, long development period...we really didn't think this year's E3 media briefing was the time to do so."

While a valid explanation, Iwata's remarks overlook the fact that core gamers would play more, purchase more, if more was available. While by no means a "hardcore" system, the Wii still has the capacity to provide thrilling gameplay experiences to the core demographic. Games like Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes, EALA's Boom Blox, Capcom's Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure and Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, and Frontier's downloadable LostWinds proved to be excellent titles on their own, more than mere distractions from the wait for the next big franchise sequel.

Take some risks, Nintendo. Revive NST's Project H.A.M.M.E.R. with MotionPlus support, farm your old franchises, introduce some bold new properties and fund those projects that will provide quality stopgaps between the eventual Zelda and Mario iterations. Build a brand around those games that embrace traditional gameplay elements and—God help them—require some skill behind a controller, and market the hell out of them.

Those titles may not rake in the kind of cash that billows out of the Wii-labeled titles, but consider it an investment in reinforcing consumer loyalty and providing a haven for disenfranchised traditional gamers. They built your company with allowances and paper routes and they're quite fond of what you do, even when you're not developing for their grandmothers—an audience exists for these games.

I grew up on Nintendo, and I'll likely always be a bit of a fanboy. There's a bit of magic there that I've yet to find with any other developer. So when the company was saddled in third place and hurdling towards irrelevance in the GameCube era, I'll admit I was a little worried—an industry without Nintendo just wouldn't feel the same.

But a cash-laden and arrogant Nintendo might just end up becoming worse than no Nintendo at all—a company with a stable of capable developers, franchises and games, but with little thought as to the customers who actually want to buy them.

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