“I’m gonna be up on stage presenting, something that [Nintendo] fans ought to love” – Cammie Dunaway, Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Nintendo of America
Nintendo’s in trouble.
Its press conferences from the past two years have been high on (well deserved) self-congratulatory victory but low on actual content. (Having a system sell out for some twenty-four months consecutively – a first for the North American videogame market – is, indeed, reason to celebrate, especially for a company that has been all-but-doomed to extinction for the past several years.) Games like Wii Sports Resort, Animal Crossing: City Folk, and Wii Music, each overwhelmingly skewed to the burgeoning casual gaming audience, were highlighted at E3 ’08 at the exclusion of literally everything else. It was fortuitous that Super Smash Bros. Brawl was released just a few months before the big show – it was Nintendo’s only acknowledgement to the other major demographic that slavishly supports its systems: the diehard Nintendo fans, the ones who have been playing the likes of Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda continuously since 1985.
In this way, last year’s media briefing ended up being part emblematic and part prophetic. While Wii Music and the latest iteration of Animal Crossing bowed to critical chagrin and less-than-Wii Sports fanfare (but still robust sales) among the general audience, Brawl ended up being the only Nintendo-published title devoted to the hardcore gamer for the entire calendar year. Microsoft and Sony, meanwhile, had a slew of high-caliber titles, among them Dead Space, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, and, most intriguing of all, LittleBigPlanet. Compounding the problem: the past two months have not only seen the PlayStation 3 outselling the Wii in Japan – a mostly symbolic but also highly trend-setting market – but it has been outselling it by a wide margin.
It’s ironic and very illustrative of the big N’s current status. The console manufacturer that single-handedly resurrected the North American videogame industry while simultaneously ushering in the modern age of gaming was, not to step on Leo DiCaprio’s toes, the king of the world for one long decade. It dominated every territorial market across the globe, selling millions of units and amassing a fortune of billions, making the likes of Mario and Link and Pokemon household names the world over. It all came crashing to a close, however, when impetuous upstart Sony threw its hat in the ring, instantly becoming the market leader and helping to usher the industry towards an older, more multimedia-hungry audience. For the next ten years, the so-called Reign of Sony, Nintendo became an ever-more-distant second- and third-place (once Microsoft entered the console race) contender. By the fall of 2004, on the eve of the PlayStation Portable’s launch and just one short year from the Xbox 360’s, Nintendo looked to be the latest casualty in the console wars.
Then the DS released, making the hardcore gamers who had moved on to Sony and Microsoft’s consoles give the industry stalwart a second look and causing the all-important – and all-lucrative – casual gamers to come out in droves to pick up the unique handheld. That momentum, of course, only increased two years later, once the Wii shipped, and the rest, as they say, is history: a phenomenal comeback worthy of the third act of a Rocky movie, casting Sony aside, thwarting Microsoft in its tireless efforts at taking the top spot, and reclaiming its place as world leader. In an entirely unexpected turn of events, Nintendo has not only found popularity once again, it’s also found relevance.
But relevance to whom? As the casual and non-gaming audience continues to constitute a bigger and bigger slice of the big N’s pie, the publisher has devoted more and more of its resources to the quickly expanding segment. Even the hallowed ground that was E3, gamers’ version of moksha, Jerusalem, and Eden all rolled into one, was invaded by the presence of the infidel casual gamers, transforming 2007’s press conference into a mainstream-friendly shrine to Wii Fit. There is absolutely no question that the conversion paid off – and paid off handsomely; Wii Fit, released in May of ’08, became the best-selling game that month and one of the top ten best-selling titles overall from last year. Much more impressively, it managed to outsell the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, an industry legend and one of the most hardcore of hardcore experiences to be had in this generation (or any other, for that matter). Not bad, considering that the game sells at $90 a pop.
But it does beg a question, one incessantly nagging the specialized press and the gaming faithful since the advent of the Wii: which of its two demographics is Nintendo going to continue to court at the expense of the other? It’s clear that the company, despite all of its talk of a multi-segment market, is incapable of supporting both simultaneously and equally – as evidenced by its last two E3 showings. And while it has publicly apologized for its lackluster showing last year (despite the unequivocal success it found in both mainstream media and amongst the mainstream populace) and has promised a better, more “about the games” outing for next month, whether this truly indicates a shift in focus to a multi-polar world or is simply a temporary valentine to its dedicated fans is unknown. Another unknown quandary lies in just how much Sony and, much more likely, Microsoft will continue to ape Nintendo’s strategies for courting, cultivating, and exploiting the casual consumer – and just how badly they want to steal the already-harvested ones away from the protective umbrella of the Wii.
There is, of course, a corollary question, one that doesn’t seem to be even formulated by the highly isolated gaming press, let alone dwelt upon much: what if the “dilution” of the hardcore gaming market is actually its expansion? Any new market originates as a pocket phenomenon and develops into an insular ghetto that feeds only a specialized (and typically self-serving) few before blossoming into a true movement, servicing and finding relevance among the masses. It is an evolutionary pattern seen in cultural elements as diverse as the science fiction genre and the worldwide web, and it just may be sprouting – finally – in the neophyte art form known as videogames. Although such moments of massive and fundamental transition are always treated by the “hardcore” faithful like how mourners view a funeral dirge, they are the only alternative to a far more dismal outcome: extinction (something which seems to slowly be choking out the comic book industry).
Whether the evolution of the market or a fluke, and whether hardcore gamers will continue to be the holders of their chosen art form’s keys or are merely rendered a minority in an ever-expanding chorus of voices, gamers – traditional and casual, hardcore and non-gamer alike – will have to contend with a far more pressing and depressing prospect: Cammie Dunaway’s return as the emcee of Nintendo’s 2009 Media and Press Briefing.
No matter which way one slices it, Nintendo’s in trouble.