Saturday, 17 August 2013

Why we need Nintendo

Random News: I have recently purchased a Nintendo 3DS XL. I'm not the biggest console gamer, but I've always been fond of good, portable gaming and especially these days I appreciate the ability to play a quality game, without having to ignite the nuclear core that is my gaming PC. With it's good games line-up now and on the horizon, I felt it was time to buy in; and it's been worth every penny.

Don't get me wrong, I love PC gaming, but console titles often don't make it to our elysian fields. Either because developers incorrectly don't see a viable market, or because of console exclusivity; the biggest weapon in the gaming war. Ultimately, what is the difference between a PS3 and an Xbox 360? You can't play Halo on a Playstation. This is even more the case with Nintendo. Some big exclusives from Microsoft and Sony have been ported to PC (eventually), but it seems likely that Nintendo titles will never officially cross over. Maybe a little annoying but it's fair business practice. It encourages a degree of competition, which is always good.

But as I plough on through Luigi's Mansion 2, I've been reflecting on my past where Nintendo featured more prominently. The release of the new Xbox and PlayStation has forced Nintendo into the background, and it seemed right for an opinion piece on why we need Nintendo and how our gaming is better with them around.

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Should Nintendo License their franchises out?

Nintendo is going through a bit of a rough patch; to be honest the Wii U sales are almost humiliating. The catch-22 of "no games, no purchases, no developers, no games" is firmly in place. Of course "there is still time", but they are struggling. Recently I've been hearing the suggestion that to increase their revenue, they should license their games out. If the next Mario game was available on the Xbox/PlayStation then it would sell more copies. Alternatively, they could re-make Super Mario 64 or Pokemon Blue for the iPhone and watch the millions roll in. This makes sense as there are plenty of people who own an Xbox 360/iPhone, but not a Wii/3DS.

Recently the president of Nintendo, Satora Iwatu, firmly rejected this idea. And ignoring my personal desire to have all N64 games legitimately on my PC, I agree with him. Nintendo is not a publisher, developer, or hardware manufacturer. It is all three and for better or worse this allows them to provide a unique experience. An experience which would be fundamentally incomplete if just one element was licensed off. It's hard to predict how, but the overall Nintendo brand would inevitably change and Iwatu-san is not willing to do that at this time.

Would the financial gain even be that high? In 2013 Q1 Nintendo posted £57 million profit on £575 million sales (bear in mind this is "underperforming"). Contrast this to the £127 million sales/£45 million profit by the developer of Angry Birds, arguably the most popular Gaming App franchise, for the whole of 2012. We do not know how well iOS versions of classic Nintendo games would do, but it's important to note that one of the biggest players in App gaming makes money that Nintendo would consider small. Getting that extra few million from iOS is not worth changing who they are, or how their franchises are perceived.

They will also be competing against themselves. A large part of Nintendo's business is hardware manufacturing. Console exclusivity is their best tool to entice potential customers and it is hard to predict how a move to game licensing would cannibalise their own sales. It is sometimes suggested that Nintendo should go the route of Sega, and leave the hardware to the 'big boys: Sony and Microsoft. Well, I'm not sure Nintendo would look at Sega's 2013 Q1 profit of £262,000 and see that as compelling motivation.

Fact is, the Nintendo brand is still worth a lot. Their last home console was a runaway success. They turned the 3DS into a huge success, from a very shaky start. Changing their whole way of doing business in order to scrape some extra cash is not wise or necessary at this time.

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Nintendo is different

Microsoft and Sony have been slowly increasing their involvement in the development of video games, but no one publishes and develops for their own hardware to the extent of Nintendo. It's why they've always seemed conceptually apart from the other two. But is their unique approach to video game development good or bad?

To be honest it is a bit of both. Much like Apple and the iPhone, controlling the hardware and software has the potential to make a product that is that extra bit special. The outstanding success of the iPhone and iPad are testament to this. Nintendo has a similar methodology. Their developers can design games that access every scrap of available power, and use all hardware features to the maximum because the engineers who designed and built the device are in the same company. There are no secrets between divisions and it's clear how potentially rewarding this can be.

So, what is the bad? Unless specific effort is made this method results in a very closed environment for decision making. Truly disastrous decisions are usually avoided, but without the benefit of outside influence there can sometimes be very questionable choices. This is why it took 4 iterations of iOS before iPhone users were allowed to change their desktop wallpaper and how Nintendo still has not got to grips with online gaming. It also partly explains the current Wii U controller mess they find themselves in.

Despite this potential for bad ideas, the potential for good means that I would always want a company like Nintendo around in the games industry. Because...

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...look at what they have done. Their positive contribution to the Video Games industry is simply undeniable. It is not hyperbole to suggest that over the years they have defined and redefined what it means to be a gamer. Listing their accomplishments would take too long, but anyone familiar at all with Video Game history ... knows. If you rank games by number sold, then the top 10 of all time are from Nintendo (Yes, you better believe it...). Their biggest achievement? How about developing and producing the highest critically-rated game of all time: The Legend of Zelda - Ocarina of Time. Or maybe making the "highest selling video game of all time": 1985's Super Mario Bros (over 40 million copies sold).

No one has equaled their best (Nintendo Games). They are in it for the games and the gamers, pure and simple. No company is above criticism or mistakes, but as I sit here playing Luigi's Mansion 2 on a fantastic piece of hardware (with the 3D firmly turned off), I feel those responsible still have what it takes to deliver quality gaming. Maybe I will never relive those golden memories of the N64 and it's staggering games line-up, but the company responsible is not gone.

If anyone in this industry has earned the right for a bit of faith and support during some bad times, it's Nintendo. Who are they even hurting with their recent odd decisions? How could any thoughtful person want them gone? The absolute worst they can do is make a console you never buy, or games you never play. But the best they can offer you? Video game experiences almost impossible to match, and contributions that propel gaming forward to the benefit of all.

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