Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Road to E3: Rising Actions and Uphill Battles

“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.


smurfthumper said...

What differentiates the "casual" gamer from the "hardcore" gamer? I need more clearly defined terms. Is it that the hardcore gamer is simply a gamer who was playing the kinds of games available before the Wii? Can a gamer new to games not be a hardcore gamer?

Is it that the hardcore gamer is a gamer is a longterm gamer? You connect the hardcore gamer to longterm Nintendo devoteeism, citing two "old school" titles (which titles are Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda). These two games' apparent commonalities (for me) are 1.) the existence of a narrative, and 2.) a series of related games that have managed an entry on most of (if not every one of) the Nintendo consoles released since the NES.

Is there a certain kind of game a hardcore gamer plays that a casual gamer does not? You mention the Wii's addition to the Smash Bros. series as being the only Wii game released in the last year to be intended for the hardcore gamer. (Again, we see a game featuring established players in the Nintendoverse.) Would a casual gamer shy away from a title such as this? Do casual gamers only come out of the woodworks to play newer, "novelty" games such as the Wii might be said to offer? Do hardcore gamers not play games casual gamers play?

You contrast Nintendo's output with that of Microsoft and Sony, and mention that both these companies have released "a slew of high-caliber titles, among them Dead Space, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, and, most intriguing of all, LittleBigPlanet." You make no direct claim that these games are meant for hardcore gamers, but I have decided to infer it. (I invite correction.) To make such an inference forces me to rethink what you must mean when you talk about hardcore gaming, because I do not know to what degree these games follow a narrative, nor do I know to what degree they have established console-to-console "history" for both Microsoft and Sony. (The suggestion with Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3 is that there is at least some history, as I take the numbers to indicate that the games are sequels.) What makes these games high-caliber games? Are the (non hardcore?) games typically offered by the Wii not high-caliber games?

Could it be that the uniqueness of the Wii is morphing the face of the hardcore gamer into something unrecognizable to the longterm gamer? Could it be that it has created a new breed of hardcore gamer to exist alongside the "traditional" hardcore gamer? I do not mean these questions to be rhetorical questions. I ask because I do not know, and because I suspect you would be better able to tell me than anyone. What are some of the common features of the Wii's games for casual gamers? Are they games that rely heavily on the Wii Remote's being fairly dissimilar to other remotes?

It is my understanding that the Wii offers a wide range of classic games on the Virtual Console. Are some of these games not games intended for the hardcore gamer? If so, is your issue with the Wii that the majority of the hardcore gaming content it offers is not new?

smurfthumper said...

I was chatting with someone while trying to read and respond to this. I finally got around to going back and reading it more thoroughly. Some of what I was asking to be elaborated on was elaborated on, already (and need not be further elaborated on; you're a smart kid, and will be able to figure out what was and wasn't without my having to point you toward it), and just escaped my attention. I see that you held up Grand Theft Auto IV as one of the hardest of the hardcore. I know a little something about the game's features, but I am unsure what makes it hardcore. (Again, aside from narrative and an established presence on previous platforms.) There's the violence aspect, but I doubt you mean to say that violence must feature in a game for it to be considered hardcore. Must there be elements of complexity and innovation added for it to be considered hardcore? If a new game is a run-of-the-mill, first-person shooter, does it still qualify as hardcore, or would it be considered to be a game for a casual gamer (since the genre is well-established, and since nothing new could be said to be brought to the table). Would a game such as Okami (already a few years old, now) be considered a hardcore game? How about Braid? (I realize this is an Xbox game, and not a Wii game. I just want to know if you would consider it a game for a hardcore gamer.)

Also, returning to the "high-caliber" designation you give to games such as Fallout 3: do you mean "high-caliber" and "hardcore" to be synonymous designations? If not, how do they differ?

You say Wii only gave us Brawl last year. (Does Mega Man 9 for the WiiWare not count?) If I am to assume that one element that makes this a game for the hardcore gamer is its being a flagship title, what other hardcore games and/or flagships have been put out in years past for the Wii? I know there have been entries into the Mario and Zelda canons, but how about Metroid, Donkey Kong, F-Zero, et cetera? Has Sega graced the Wii with a new entry in the Sonic series? (Would Sonic series games be considered hardcore games?)

I began to wonder what sort of gamer designation I would receive, were my gaming tendencies to be classified. It occurred to me that you may (and, assuming that your designation is a borrowed one, the gaming community, itself, may) consider the hardcore gamer to be someone who stays abreast of gaming at large--to have her/his finger on the pulse of gaming, so to speak. If that is the case, I have no hope of ever considering myself a hardcore gamer. I'd call myself a "classic" gamer if that didn't sound so damned pretentious. I like the old games and the games that look and play like the old games. I like Dino Run. I like The Fancy Pants Adventure.

Is there a chance that these casual games (these would be, I guess, the novelty/party games that are the rage) are test runs for future hardcore games that might incorporate features that are currently only found in casual games? Maybe Nintendo is seeking to perfect them for the low graphics, party-themed games before they put the features to real work.

msunyata said...

You know, it's funny -- I intentionally and specifically set out to write these "Road to E3" articles for the more (forgive the term) casual gamer, the one who's familiar with the likes of Microsoft and Nintendo and Sony but who doesn't necessarily have his head choke full of videogame history, trivia, and other forms of minutia. And yet, despite all this, I still forgot to stop and define the most basic of terminology common to all of these posts. I guess it just goes to show the blindness that familiarity can produce.

To answer your question: a hardcore gamer is one who is capable of (a) manipulating a standard controller (believe it or not, many a first-time gamer is completely and totally baffled by dual analog control -- so much so, in fact, that she cannot control her character in the slightest and throws her controller down in frustration) and (b) plays, for lack of a better term, standard titles -- the ones that have evolved with him over the years and that have accrued increasingly numerous and complicated game play mechanics (i.e., a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, which requires the juggling of third- and first-person perspectives/controls, stealth and shooting mechanics, multiple objectives, and, yes, a rather involved narrative).

This last point is rather interesting, and one that I had not noticed before: most casual games -- Nintendogs on the DS, Wii Sports or Wii Play on the Wii -- do not include a story, per se. This is more happenstance than actual ontology; both WarioWare and Rayman Raving Rabbids feature a narrative of some sort, no matter how nonsensical or surreal.

Nintendo essentially defines casual games as those that are not played for a specific challenge or an ascertaining of a story, but, instead, are played for pure and simple enjoyment. There is much focus put on the "simple" element of that equation: Wii Fit does not require a degree of mastery, at least in the traditional sense, to beat it. Of course, there is no real way to "beat" it at all -- another hallmark of casual gaming.

Perhaps the two best examples of Nintendo's new wave would be Animal Crossing (a game -- literally -- without an ending) and Endless Ocean. One does not feel any stress or pressure while playing these games; he only feels relaxation and contentment.

I should make unequivocally clear -- something I didn't do in the article proper, a mistake I (tragically) didn't notice until after publication -- that I do not disapprove of casual gaming. Indeed, I count Animal Crossing and WarioWare: Smooth Moves as two of my favorite games, and the Mario Kart series and Wii Sports are among the most fun to be had on any console. I also believe, however, that a healthy system cannot singularly or solely focus on just one demographic.

What say you?


smurfthumper said...

I think a system could get away with it as long as its fans kept it in the financial pink. The system might come under the gaming community's fire for lack of diversity, but as long as it is turning a profit, its game developers might not feel compelled to answer the call for more diversity.

Do Sony and Microsoft have a healthy number of games for the casual gamer, or are they as focused on hardcore games as Nintendo is on casual games? If they do not (beyond the band-based games, which do not appeal to everyone), it may be the case that Nintendo is one of the few places a person can go for such games.

If the company's previous consoles all appealed to hardcore gamers, then I could understand how a shift to predominately casual gaming might be frustrating for/to the company's fans. The likelihood of Wii building up a library of games for the hardcore gamer might be a matter of how powerful the machine is--id est, how much longer it stands to compete with rival systems. Does the Wii have a few years left, or does Nintendo already have designs on replacing it with a newer model?

msunyata said...

First, allow me to correct myself: upon due reflection, I realized that hardcore gaming and Nintendo's new motion-sensitive controller are *not* antithetical after all; The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Mario Galaxy are both good examples of this. It's amazing how slippery the slope can become when attempting to analyze it -- or the words used to describe it.

To answer your questions: no, Sony and Microsoft most certainly do *not* have a healthy helping of casual titles. While the latter has been attempting to carve out a stake in the more casual-friendly arena for nearly its entire presence in the console wars -- MS made a conscious decision to market the Xbox brand as *the* go-to place for diehard gamers (hence Xbox Live, a broadband-only online gaming service that was an audacious proposition back in 2002) and has never had the ability to expand upon that basic proposition ever since -- Sony has made itself content with a more and more specialized market: the tech-savvy, multimedia-demanding enthusiast, the kind of guy who would stand in line buying a Blu-ray DVD player right on day one and who would instantly and infinitely prefer the PSP for his handheld needs since it features the ability to transport his movies and music over to it. Neither company truly saw the potential in catering to a far broader audience until Nintendo started with the DS and then, of course, with the Wii.

As for the Wii's lifespan, do not expect to see a new console from Nintendo until 2012 -- at the earliest. While some will scoff at this supposition, breaking Nintendo's five-year cycle as it does, the Wii is simply too successful a system and the Xbox 360 and the PS3 too expensive a system for anyone to move towards the big plunge anytime soon (not to mention the stinky economy, of course). With the advent of Wii Motion Plus in the next two months and the promise of the next installments of key Nintendo franchises coming just over the horizon -- both Mario and Zelda are expected to make an appearance at E3, along with, quite possibly, the next Pikmin and Star Fox games -- there'll be plenty for Wii owners to do.

Especially considering that the vast majority of them only play two games on any kind of a regular basis: Wii Sports and Wii Play.