How Nintendo Can Reinvent Itself

Is it time for a big change at Nintendo?

Nintendo

Not too long ago, the gaming community was buzzing about comments made by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata while he was announcing Nintendo’s less than stellar financial forecast.

Much ado was made about the fact that Iwata mentioned “mergers and acquisitions” as a possible viable option for the struggling company. In the weeks since, it’s obvious that what Iwata really meant was lost in translation. Iwata was most likely talking about expanding character licenses, not a major merger with another video game company.

Still, the idea of Nintendo hooking up with another company is intriguing. For a while now, some doomsayers have been saying that Nintendo is going the way of the dodo, and while I’ve always been among the first to defend the Big N’s honor, I have to admit things haven’t looked good for a while. The Wii U isn’t even considered to be in the next-gen conversation by some, and iPad and mobile apps continue to eat into the company’s handheld market share.

Nintendo Wii U

But even if the company were to cease to exist as we know it today, it wouldn’t have to be the end for Nintendo. Sega, a former Nintendo competitor, has proven it’s possible to be profitable even if your console business fails.

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While neither Blizzard or Activision share Nintendo’s problems, the two companies surprised the industry by merging in 2008, enabling both companies to benefit from each other’s resources, so it’s not like the idea of a big company merging with another is unheard of.

Yes, there are at least a few scenarios we can think of that would allow gamers to continue playing new Mario and Zelda games for years to come, even if Nintendo’s turn around plan doesn’t pan out.

I’m not saying this is going to happen tomorrow, but humor me for a moment and consider the following scenarios for what a re-imagined Nintendo could look like one day.

Sega

Nintensega

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this article, the Sonic/Zelda crossover DLC for Sonic Lost World was released. Yes, that is Sonic inside of a world themed after Hyrule. They’ve finally done it, everyone. Nintendo and Sega have gotten together and developed a game based on that Zelda/Sonic crossover fan fiction you wrote when you were 10 years old in 1992. For their next trick, Ecco the Dolphin will be a rideable character in the next Super Mario game, just like an underwater Yoshi!

Obviously kidding. But damn if that new DLC for Sonic Lost World doesn’t get the imagination going, amirite?

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The idea of Sega and Nintendo partnering up to take on the rest of the industry has been discussed numerous times over the years, but I can’t help but feel like the sight of Sonic running around in a green hat is an omen for… well, something.

One of the biggest criticisms of Nintendo over the years is that they recycle their characters game after game. Don’t get me wrong, any first-party Nintendo game is almost always amazing, but there are certainly some fans that have been turned off by the various iterations of Mario playing baseball, soccer and who knows, maybe cricket next.

Conversely, Sega has a large backlog of properties that they haven’t touched in years. Toejam and Earl anyone? But Sega’s problem is that while they do have well-known characters, a good deal of their games over the past decade just haven’t been very good… or at least not on par with most Nintendo first-party games.

I’m not going to use the word “merger” but if Sega and Nintendo were to get together and agree to share their intellectual properties and development process with each other, I really think the sky would be the limit. One of the Wii U’s problems is that truly awesome first-party games have been few and far between. If Nintendo and Sega were to get hitched, I really think Sega’s backlog of IPs coupled with Nintendo’s creative process could really give both companies a shot in the arm.

Such a marriage might also make Sonic games exclusive to Nintendo platforms, where they’ve always sold best anyway. Nintendo needs as many new reasons as it can get for people to consider picking up its hardware.

ios gaming

Mobile mayhem

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When Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone, he made a big deal about the idea that it was an iPod, a phone, and an “internet communications device” all in one. But I think it’s safe to say looking back that he could have added another category: video game handheld.

Nintendo still technically has the most market share within the video game industry when it comes to handhelds, but let’s not kid ourselves. The only reason the Nintendo 3DS is considered the market leader is because the NPD isn’t counting the millions of iOS and Android devices in everyone’s pockets.

Nintendo has said it will always be a hardware company. I have no problem with that. But to continue to ignore the mobile app market in 2014 while you watch your company’s stock continue to plummet is nothing short of irresponsible, and if I’m a stock holder, unforgiveable. If Iwata and friends want to keep their jobs, they’re going to have to take a serious look at expanding their IPs to other platforms. Half of Nintendo’s problem these days is that their internal studios are still pumping out quality games, but there just isn’t the installed hardware base that there used to be. The market and industry have changed.

Batman Wii U

Stop being stubborn

There is of course one thing that Nintendo could do to get itself mentioned in the same conversation with Microsoft and Sony again that wouldn’t be nearly as drastic as the above scenarios. And yet, given the company’s past, the following scenario might be the most far-fetched of the three.

When the original Wii came out, its motion control was so unique that it created an entirely new way of playing video games. Sony and Microsoft scrambled to copy Nintendo’s idea with the Kinect and PlayStation Move respectively. Developers made games specifically for the Wii in the early years because for a while, it was the market leader. It had changed the game world. The Wii was able to stand against the better graphics of the PS3 and Xbox 360 because it was a truly different experience.

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Now, look at the Wii U. It’s essentially the same control scheme as the Wii, it even uses Wii controllers for a lot of games. The only new addition is the tablet controller. But anyone with an iPad knows that the idea of a tablet that plays video games is not a new concept. It comes off feeling like Nintendo was trying to be Apple. Without anything truly revolutionary about the Wii U, the market moved on.

No third-party developer making a game for PS4 or Xbox One is going to put the extra work into making their game compatible with the tablet controller when the system’s numbers are so low. It’s probably far easier to port their PS4 game over to Xbox One or vice versa, than to deal with an entirely new concept.

If Nintendo was smart, they would accept the fact that the tablet controller is simply not the success that the Wii’s motion controls were last decade. I’m not saying get rid of the thing. Nintendo still use the tablet for first-party games if they desire, but as long as the tablet is a requirement for third-party games, that controller is going to serve as the anvil that keeps the system down.

Nintendo has a “pro controller” for certain games. Start bundling it with every system. Yes, that’s going to eat into margins even more, but at this point, they don’t have a choice.

They have to make their system welcoming to third parties again. If I’m a developer and I can get my game onto the Wii U without having to optimize for the tablet, maybe I’ll consider giving the Wii U a chance. Yes, I’d still have to knock the graphics down a notch, but the game itself would be essentially the same as the PS4 and Xbox One versions. Some of the executives might not like that but at this point, I think they need to just suck it up and stop trying to be so unique. Last generation, it paid off. This generation, it’s killing them.

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