Nintendo is hurting. The Wii U isn’t selling, it’s lacking mainstream publisher acceptance, and the core Nintendo titles don’t seem to be energizing the company’s base of fans. Product lines are being bifurcated in uncomfortable ways; the latest Smash Bros. is coming to the 3DS line of consoles first, and will then hit the Wii U console later.
The business has turned stagnant, even if the company’s new releases remain highly-polished and fun. Sadly, that just isn't enough when you're fighting more powerful systems with better developer support, better outreach to press and fans and of course the mobile market chipping away at your market share.
There are hints of some good ideas here and there; the ability to show high level Smash Bros. play at this year’s E3 is a good idea, and it shows that Nintendo learned from its previously botched attempt to limit the reach of competitive Smash Bros. play. Best Buy will once again allow players to try unreleased games in its retail locations, on the assumption that people still buy physical games at Best Buy.
These are relatively new ideas, but they're also conservative attempts that seem aimed at an industry that has begun to move past retail and has long embraced competitive play.
This isn't working
Nintendo will keep releasing pre-recorded videos directly to the fans, in an attempt to side-step the press and deliver a carefully-controlled message about what’s coming next. The company apparently sees no reason to stop.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach, as E3 press conferences have always been about sitting the press down in a large theater to dictate exactly what is shown and displayed. The live blogs and big announcements certain pull in the traffic and excitement, but the effective reporting is not very different from re-writing a press release. In previous years Nintendo ushered select press into small, plain rooms where they could play some of the games on display and write up their impressions.
It’s a measured, careful approach that allows Nintendo to control exactly what it says and shows. The company has always valued control and propriety over excitement and access. Gamasutra recently ran an article about Nintendo’s inability to deal with the press on the same level as Microsoft and Sony, with a focus on Nintendo’s Dan Adelman.
"I've received word from a reliable source that Adelman is no longer allowed access to Twitter. You'll notice his last post was in October of last year. Apparently he wrote something along the lines of 'I travel a lot, so I feel your pain,' in response to someone saying they didn't like the region locking of the 3DS," the article stated.
"This was viewed as unacceptable in Nintendo's eyes, so there you go. All they had was that Twitter account, to talk to indie devs. There are no blogs, no casual podcasts, only corporate-created messaging from Nintendo Direct. No more public voice for indie development from within Nintendo. That's it. It's gone."
I’m never going to argue that a Twitter presence or interviews will win a console war, but Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida keeps an active and often playful presence on social media, much to the delight of Sony fans. Sony’s ability to have fun with its fan base, take a few jabs at Microsoft here and there, and be approachable to both fans and the press shows just how much it has learned from last generation. The company isn't just doing well in hardware sales, it seems to be having fun doing so, and that feeling is contagious.
Sony and Microsoft at least attempt to tell their own story, even if they sometimes stumble, but Nintendo is drawing inward in a way that will only hurt it moving forward. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One emphasis downloading games, sharing your accomplishments, streaming your video, keeping your favorite moments and interacting with your friends in interesting ways.
Nintendo seems to have ditched any attempt to do novel things with the Wii U’s tablet-style controller
Microsoft is making a large bet on video, while Sony focused on power and price. The two companies are competing on multiple fronts, and players have already seen the rewards of that competitive space. Nintendo simply isn’t part of the discussion.
Which is the problem; Nintendo gives us nothing to talk about. It says nothing. Nintendo releases a video every now and again that announces some aspect of a game that will likely be fun, but will also look very much like the last game in the series. Nintendo seems to have ditched any attempt to do novel things with the Wii U’s tablet-style controller, and is instead hoping that high definition graphics are going to be enough for its latest games.
It watches us from behind their veil of carefully constructed silence as savvier companies like Sony pile on social media wins, including developers speaking up in the company’s defense. Nintendo is changing its strategy to deal with its downward trajectory, but the result is a company that’s even more guarded and impenetrable. We're asking each other if Microsoft is going to kill the cable box, while the conversation around Nintendo is whether it's going to kill itself.
Nintendo has the cash reserves and IP needed to stay alive for a very long time, even if it continues to drown. We shouldn’t be worried about the company’s possible death, we should be worried that the closer it gets to that possibility the quieter it becomes.