Friday, July 23, 2010

Bringing Gamers Back Into the Fold

There's an excellent discussion going on at Gamasutra over an article discussing Eurocom's upcoming GoldenEye remake on the Nintendo Wii.  As often happens, the comments quickly veered away from the game, and into the swirling debate among "hardcore" gamers over what to do about Nintendo.  It's not just bickering between fans of game machine X versus fans of game machine Y; it's much deeper than that.  And for a variety of reasons, this remains a hot topic among people in the video game industry.

For the past five years, Nintendo has pursued a business strategy based on economic theories from the Harvard School of Business.  These theories, called Blue Ocean Strategy and Disruption, arose from Nintendo's need to combat declining revenues in the gaming market.  The video game industry, wrapped around the needs of "hardcore" adult males, many well into their thirties (!!), has fallen into a state of stagnation, and then decline, as hardware became more and more powerful and game productions' budgets would swell into the tens of millions of dollars.  Needless to say, this situation cannot be sustained, so Nintendo pursued a strategy of expanding the market by appealing to non-gamers who would like to play video games, but are turned off by the gritty, violent content and confusing controls.

Nintendo has achieved enormous success with the Wii, far more than anyone's expectations, and the result has been to severely disrupt the "hardcore" market controlled by Microsoft and Sony.  And this is why nearly every discussion about Nintendo on gaming websites quickly devolves into a frustrated shouting match.

Anyway, that's the back story in a nutshell.  The short-short version, at least.  Which brings us to GoldenEye and Nintendo in the year 2010, and my attempts to persuade the hardcore-minded Gamasutra community.  Here's the short essay I wrote earlier today on the website:


Getting back to GoldenEye a bit (well, sorta), I think this does address the rift between "hardcore" gamers and Nintendo. I don't believe this is merely partisan cheering for one console over another - Atari Lynx is way better than Gameboy, btw - I do believe there is an honest frustration. Go back to the 2006 E3 and the unveiling of the Wii. Core gamers were thrilled, there were crowds and endless lines at the show, and the gaming press was enthusiastic. Meanwhile, Playstation 3's show was mercilessly mocked - "for massive damage!"

Yes, we all know Wii Sports and Wii Play, which were clearly Expanded Audience games that followed Nintendo's strategy of Disruption and the Blue Ocean. But remember there was also Zelda, Excite Truck, Mario Galaxy, and the trailer for Smash Bros Brawl. The gaming press went bonkers for the Brawl trailer, especially all the surprise characters.

Still, despite Mario Galaxy and Mario Kart and Zelda and Metroid, there is this sense that the core gamers were abandoned, or overlooked, while Nintendo pursued the Expanded Audience with the Wii Series. Third party developers certainly didn't help. First, they were caught flat-footed when the Wii continually sold out, then they tried to capture Wii Sports' fame with a barrage of cheap, third-string party- and mini-games. Shovelware became a real problem.

I think we need to remember just how long it takes to create a modern game. Productions run as long as two years, and when we realize this, the behavior begins to make sense. First, the industry ignored Nintendo's console. Then, after schedules were freed up from PS360 productions, they misunderstood the Wii market, attributing this success to "casual gamers." The difficulty in reading this market, and learning how to build brand loyalty, coupled with Nintendo's stunning dominance, only frustrated developers further.

Now it's the year 2010, and I think we're seeing a newer strategy emerge. It's the rise of the neo-retro game, or what was considered the "hardcore" games during the 16-bit era. We've seen this begin to rise last year, with the explosion in 2D titles like Muramasa, A Boy and His Blob, Klonoa, and the rise of WiiWare games like Lost Winds.

The capstone, of course, is Super Mario Bros 5, which exploded out of the gates and continues to ride the sales charts many months later. Heck, NSMB DS is still riding near the top of the sales charts. Four years after its release! Isn't that just stunning? It really shouldn't be, since this is what 2D Mario has always done in the past. It's the ultimate killer app, and it opens the door for more games of its kind - modern games with classic game values. And this is where I think we are headed in 2010.

Now here's what I took away from Nintendo's showing at this year's E3: They want to heal the rift between themselves and the core gamers. "Hardcore" gamers were once very loyal to Nintendo, and now they're being welcomed back into the fold. We can see this with the 3DS - notice how aggressive Nintendo is courting all the major developers - and we can see this with the Wii.

Donkey Kong Country Returns. NBA Jam. Kirby's Epic Yarn. GoldenEye. Epic Mickey. The Wii has quietly morphed into the second coming of the Super NES. I've used that phrase before - memorize it. These aren't simple "retro" games, and they can't offer us anything beyond nostalgia, then they deserve to fail. These are new games, modern games, but wrapped in the values of the classic arcade era. This seems to be the agenda at play, and I think we can see the same thing in many Wii games over the past year.

I know it's a cliche for game designers, but you must always create to the strengths of the platform. What works on PS360 won't work on Wii, just as what works on consoles won't work on handhelds, or mobile, or Facebook. You need to find the right groove. I think we've finally discovered that proper groove for the Wii.

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