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Why Nintendo's REAL problem might be an internal rift

Nintendo’s E3 2014 Digital Event had several excellent qualities. Coherence, alas, was not one of them. The show started as strongly as any big Nintendo event has in years, with a Robot Chicken-animated Reggie Fils-Aime smartly addressing the internet’s anti-Nintendo cynicism with self-aware wit and fireballs. From that point on, we got an unbroken cavalcade of in-jokes and lunatic spectacle, each and every scene--from Bowser and Peach’s awkward back-stage doughnut altercation, to live-action Reggie’s pyrotechnic showdown with company President Satoru Iwata--precisely pitched as both a big hug to Nintendo’s core fanbase, and a self-effacing disarm to everyone else.

As overtly goofy as the show’s early execution was, the underlying intent was calculated with immense intelligence and insight. Packed with references to all the right bits of Ninty heritage and fandom, right up to a sly, unspoken nod to Mario Kart 8’s recent Luigi death-stare, Nintendo’s presentation of itself was the most modern and cleverly conscious that it’s been in years.

But then Nintendo of Japan took over, and we found ourselves watching nice men politely stare at wool, while sedately explaining their creative process for far too long. At that point it became clear that the preceding fight between Reggie and Iwata perhaps packed more than a little underlying metaphor.

Because increasingly, it seems that Nintendo is actually two separate, somewhat at-odds companies, wrestling over a shared set of commodities. The nature of the bout? Nintendo of Japan vs. Nintendo of Everywhere Else, in a ceaseless, attritional grudge-match for control of the company’s products and persona. Nintendo US, when it gets the chance to take centre-stage, is entirely capable of engaging and exciting western press and punter alike via its in-touch approach to Nintendo’s modern position and audience. Nintendo of Japan though? Quiet, reserved, stuck in its ways, and spiralling ever faster down a rabbit-hole of self-deluding insularity.

But the real problem with the Wii U is simple, right? The console doesn’t have any games. It’s high of price, low of power, and between first-party releases, has a game schedule as busy and inviting as the surface of Mars. All of that is true, yes, but problems that big don’t just happen. Failures on the scale of the Wii U’s current plight are the result of severe and systematic errors of judgement. And global failures, such as botched consoles, raise severe questions about the effectiveness of the global operation behind them. In the case of Nintendo, the answer to those questions has been quietly simmering for years. Nintendo of Japan seems closed-off, out-of-touch, and is missing many opportunities to leverage the advantages of having a western arm.

It’s long been understood that all big decisions at Nintendo--from product design, to marketing persona, to methods of dealing with the press and public--come straight from Japan, with less autonomy among the company’s regional arms than would be found at the like likes of Sony, for example. In a best-case scenario, when times are good, that kind of rigid structure can lead to odd occasions of disharmony and cultural misunderstanding. But when times are bad, a closed, bunkered, strictly hierarchical approach to international business can exacerbate a misfire into a full-blown disaster. Basically, if only one guy is ever allowed to make decisions, and that guy isn’t considering the bigger picture, then you’ve got a problem. And a great deal of NoJ’s decisions have been rather ill-conceived for a number of years now.

If you need a simple (perhaps simplistic) summation of how a divided Nintendo is problematic, you need look back only as far as Tomodachi Life. Nintendo’s otherwise rather excellent, cartoon life-simulator was marred horribly by its comedically out-of-touch lack of same sex couples as playable characters. Designed, by Nintendo’s own admission, primarily for a Japanese audience, and seemingly unaware that Mass Effect was a whole seven years ago, the game made Ninty appear woefully out of step with both its fans’ needs and the wider world at large.

But this problem extends further than archaic cultural naivety. NoJ’s seeming ‘Make for Japan, sell to everyone else’ attitude is only intensifying the furious financial haemorrhage that is the Wii U. Think about Nintendo Direct in general. What’s the general perception now filling your brain-cave? I’d guess that it’s something along the lines of ‘Lots of fun larking about in Luigi hats, no big games announced ever’. But the thing is, that’s only partly true. Nintendo’s online presentations have dropped plenty of absolute mega-tons over the last few years. Problem is, the shockwaves have only resonated in Japan. They’ve only been designed to resonate in Japan.

Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest and Xenoblade Chronicles X have and will continue to make big splashes in Nintendo’s home town. But when touted to the west? Barely a blip on the radar. The same goes for the likes of Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101. While there’s no doubt that the former is going to be an insanely good game, the fact remains that it’s still the previously unsellable sequel to an excellent game that tanked in the land of the setting sun. It’s not going to help Nintendo’s global fortunes.

Of course, even Nintendo’s staggeringly talented internal development teams cannot make enough games to build a competitive line-up for the Wii U, so external deals are a vital move. But the current choices being made just aren’t doing the job. Compare Nintendo’s approach now to that of the N64 and Gamecube days--when companies like Rare, Silicon Knights, Capcom and Konami made high-profile exclusives which catered to a truly global audience--and you can see a very clear shortfall in the Wii U’s catalogue.

Indeed, Reggie seems fully aware of head office’s inward-looking self-absorption. As far back as late 2012, following Iwata’s criticism of 3DS sales in the west compared to the region’s much bigger potential install-base, Fils-Aime responded as follows

"When he said that, I had a sharp pain in my neck. It was in the middle of the night, and I viscerally reacted to it. The fact of the matter is that Japan is doing better than the North American marketplace. That is a factually true statement. It’s driven by the strong level of support that they’ve had from Japanese third-party publishers. There’s been a number of games like Monster Hunter that did big numbers. But just as important, there was a group of games in the Japanese market that did between 250,000 units and half a million units. Those sustained that gamer desire to have something new on a regular basis."

Of course, the NoA President stopped short of explicitly mentioning a dichotomy of audience provision, but it’s not hard to imagine the sentiment festering quietly between the lines of his statement.

In fact the problem goes back further than that, and is something that Nintendo’s Japanese office seems to know about as well. Even before the Wii U’s launch, Iwata was professing the importance of balanced international output for the console. 

"I think that, over the past three or four years, the presence of Japanese software developers has become relatively small. Nintendo is doing what overseas software developers do not do, so Nintendo’s software is selling relatively well also in foreign countries, but for the software oriented to enthusiastic game players, such as 'Call of Duty,' the ones created by overseas developers are more mainstream in the overseas markets...

"Of course, Nintendo will continue to run a business by creating Nintendo-like games, but we will not be able to meet the various tastes of consumers by only doing this, so I feel that it will become necessary to reinforce the development resources in the foreign countries."

Initially, that seemed to be happening. The Wii U’s launch line-up contained a host of (admittedly previously available) western-developed, AAA big-hitters. Deus Ex. Arkham City. Assassin’s Creed. Black Ops 2. Darksiders 2. Tekken Tag Tournament 2. It was looking good. But as soon as that initial momentum dropped, Nintendo seemed to retreat to its comfort zone, and very little high-profile western support appears to have been courted since.

It’s possible that NoA is just failing to make big, western Wii U dev deals. But given the amount of money Nintendo currently has stockpiled despite its present troubles, but it’s hard to believe that such an oversight would be allowed to continue for several years in a row, amid Japanese complaints about western sales, unless something else was amiss.

Whatever the cause of the problem though, something needs to change. If it continues, Nintendo’s penchant for subdued, Japan-skewed game presentations in its Directs is only going to further alienate the wider, vast western audience it desperately needs. Let’s face it, the long-awaited reveal of the Wii U’s (stunning-looking) Zelda should have made the biggest noise at E3 this year. Instead, its quiet, almost apologetic NoJ presentation buried one of the show’s biggest events as just another thing that happened. With a bit of the early presentation’s Technicolor, fan-baiting bombast, it could have been explosive. Just like Nintendo always used to be.

40 comments

  • Shigeruken - July 4, 2014 11:02 p.m.

    Nintendo doesn't know how to handle countries outside of it's core market. In NZ, the rrp of the Wii U is $50 below the Xbox One. The games cost as much as Xbox One/PS4 titles, and 3DS games cost more than PC titles. On top of this, the Wii U and 3DS are both region locked. I speak Japanese, that Japanese marketing persona resonates with people like me, but I cannot play Japanese games. Nintendo may have a few exciting exclusives on the horizon, but they don't know how to conduct business in this modern era. They have no revenue coming in from the smaller regions, and their influence is waning everywhere else.
  • Notanerd - July 3, 2014 7:32 p.m.

    Article is true, it's not nintendist at all. If the ps4 still has 10 games on the shelf 2 years from now, then we'd be in trouble
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 6:40 p.m.

    Only GR would try to downplay the Nintendo hype-wave. Nintendoom is at a low point right now, stop trying to keep it going. I've not seen a single positive article about how MK8 is the most effective next-gen system seller so far, or really anything good from GR about Nintendo in a long time. It's a shame, because it'd my preferred game site, and they keep working on essentially clickbait.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 8:02 p.m.

    Have you got the sales numbers to prove your claims of MK8 being the most effective seller?
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 8:07 p.m.

    There was an article using VGchartz numbers for the first three weeks to show it having the biggest effect on hardware numbers. It's VGchartz, yes, but Nintendo's claims of 2 million copies sold match Titanfall's total sales more or less (and we saw that there wasn't a big jump in hardware when Titanfall did launch). Link: http://www.geekwire.com/2014/mario-kart-8-bigger-system-seller-titanfall-second-son/ Obviously, the PS4 did better overall since it's been selling in six figures since launch, but the actual boost is shown in the chart.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 8:20 p.m.

    Alright, that's definitely a good show for the game, and I can't argue that it's been a better system seller than the other exclusives for the other two consoles. Thanks for proving me wrong ^^ It remains to be seen how much of a boost will this be for the Wii U though. I think I remember hearing last year that SM3D World boosted Wii U sales by 600%... and that still wasn't enough to translate into anything substantial.
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 8:30 p.m.

    To be fair, 3D Mario never actually sold consoles, or all that well at launch for that matter. 64 aside since it was a launch title, natch. I read another article showing comparative launch sakes of all the 3D Mario titles, and they don't perform nearly as well as a Zelda does, even though they tend to sell more overall. It's odd, and I'll try to find the article, but it's been over six months so just roll with my trustworthiness based on the previous link until I do. I did expect 3DW to move more systems though. But I also expected Lost World to be remotely good and help sell systems. Boy was I wrong there; that's the only game I traded in since I've had disposable income! Pre-post edit: Found it: http://wiiudaily.com/2013/11/super-mario-3d-world-low-sales/ Japan only, and from a horribly-biased site, but the link is gaf.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 8:49 p.m.

    ...Yes, because neoGaf isn't filled with Bias pouring out from all sides :P
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 8:52 p.m.

    Hey, gaf's people suck, but it's got most of the leakers and star-crunchers, so I'll take their info lol.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 9:08 p.m.

    Fair enough, I'll still stick to waiting for the official stats and sales numbers, if you don't mind, lol.
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 9:10 p.m.

    Oh, naturally.
  • J-Fid - July 3, 2014 2:59 p.m.

    Was thinking of the Sega story the entire way through. Hopefully, it won't end the same way.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - July 3, 2014 2:33 p.m.

    David i dont think you know what your talking about. You telling me you dont want them to actually tell you shit about the game's details from the devs mouth? Not everything is interesting and of course people don't want to get on the level of the workers but many people have their own tastes on hearing about it or not, you dont just take something and write down as a massive issue. I mean you say as if its been ignored and boring, yet Nintendo E3's has by far been the loudest by the gaming community, i think it pretty much did its job of gaining the attention of people.Zelda wouldve easily been thrown off as usual Nintendo Rehsashing buzzword if they didnt explain what they wanted to do. Also Loli Squid Shooter was reported to be the most popular booth despite game sites being busy with everything else.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 4:39 p.m.

    One has to wonder if such reported "noise" from the gaming community will actually translate into actual sales though. Also, even you can't deny that they did a shit job handling the Star Fox reveal. It almost felt like they either want the game to intentionally be covered poorly, or that they didn't want to show it in the first place. Either way, considering how poor press it has gotten universally, they would have been better off either showing just a CGI trailer, or not showing it at all.
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 6:32 p.m.

    It seemed like Star Fox's planned reveal was absolute last minute, which is why it was so hastily made.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 7:42 p.m.

    Then it shouldn't have been made at all, that was a disaster, and regardless of the end product, the already dismal coverage and previews have done irreparable damage to the game's image.
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 8:10 p.m.

    Really? Most of what I read was hopeful but questioning, nothing irreparable. Of course I haven't read too too much since I don't care about details until it nears launch more (since it's a tech demo). I always put it as a late reveal decision so that they could push the wonderful Treehouse streams post-E3; after all, what better way to get people to watch than Starfox's return?
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 8:26 p.m.

    From what I read, most people agree the game looked graphically unimpressive, and the control scheme just wasn't very good or intuitive. And here's the thing... A new star fox game was something both the press and fans were clamoring for, the hype for it should have been astronomical, and even if the game had merely looked "alright" a lot of sites would have still tried to sell the heck out of it. So when even the more enthusiastic Nintendo sites are "hopeful but questioning" at best... you know the game is in trouble. Again, it's likely the final product might be great, but even then, when you reveal a new game, specially one people have been expecting, the last thing you want is for people to say "eeeh... looks alright... MIGHT PROBABLY MAYBE get better?"
  • Divine Paladin - July 3, 2014 8:33 p.m.

    That's true, the control scheme was the questionable part for me as well. I know they'll make it work with sticks just as they did with the first person items in WWHD, though. I think that was the weakest showing they had at E3 (along with Miyamoto's other projects), and compared to the other stuff, it was definitely lacking. Perhaps it's the subconscious comparison to the other things shown that made people so unsure? Doubtful, but food for thought.
  • BladedFalcon - July 3, 2014 8:51 p.m.

    Well, again, if that was the case, why even show Star Fox? if they didn't feel the game was up to snuff, why not save it, or like Jacknomics below suggested, just mention it? The mere mention of it would have created more hype and goodwill than a botched closed door demo.

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