Nintendo and Endless Loyalty

By Nick Olsen

I’m not much of a brand loyalist. I go to whichever drug store is nearest; I seek beers and whiskeys I haven’t tried, I buy whatever brand is on sale for food and home goods, I use both Macs and PCs depending on my computing needs, I love McDonald’s and Wendy’s equally. In most instances, I consider myself an equal opportunist, including in my video game choices – I’ve owned just about every major console that’s been released since 1983, and yet, if somebody put a gun to my head and made me choose between PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo, I’d unflinchingly go with the latter, and it wouldn’t even be a tough decision. The question is why, in spite of Nintendo’s routine and public missteps, do I, and a bevy of other gamers, continue to give one of gaming’s most enduring brands our money?

We’ve got history

Nintendo Mario Pitfall!

Super Mario Bros. seemed so much cooler than it’s contemporaries, like Pitfall!

Like many other gamers my age, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was the first console I ever owned, and make no mistake, it blew the competition away. As rudimentary as it may seem today, one quick look at Super Mario Bros. compared to Pitfall! or Pac-Man on the Atari 2600 and it was clear that Nintendo had moved the needle into the next gaming stratosphere. It’s not to say that Pitfall, Pac-Man, Space Invaders or Missile Command weren’t fun games, or that the Atari 2600 and it’s successor the Atari 5200 weren’t good consoles, but both graphically and design-wise Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Hogan’s Alley and other early NES releases blew those games completely out of the water. Hell, even the NES controller was just plain cool when compared to the joysticks of many of its console predecessors and contemporaries.

Incidentally, the company who would emerge as Nintendo’s biggest early competitor, Sega, utilized a similar control design for its Master System. To an impressionable young mind, Nintendo’s cool factor played a critical role in shaping my opinion of the system, but looking back now as an adult and closely examining games from the NES era shows that, while I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, the quality of gameplay and design also played a significant role. In my essay Mario’s Mojo: The Gold Standard of Game Design I discussed the impact Super Mario Bros. would have on the growing game industry:

“Super Mario Bros.’ success spawned a number of sequels, each featuring iterative evolutions of the core gameplay mechanics of the original, creating one of the most successful franchises in video game history. Even when Nintendo moved the Super Mario franchise from 2D to a three dimensional (3D) platform game with Super Mario 64, the innovations established in the original Super Mario Bros. would still remain omnipresent in video game development …

… Even today a number of Super Mario Bros. clones are produced for a variety of systems, from direct copies (Monino, Super World Adventures, Super Daddio, etc.) to derivatives (Super Meat Boy, Limbo, Braid, etc.). But what is it about Super Mario Bros.’ which created a sensation lasting nearly 30 years? The secret to success lies in key elements in the game’s design: instructional level design, intuitive game play controls, and evolving and escalating challenges.”

Subsequent entries in the franchise would carry those design elements forward while building upon them, creating one of the most memorable franchises in gaming history. To this day, Super Mario Bros. 3 remains one of my favorite games. In my essay Super Mario Bros. 3: Taking Flight I wrote how Nintendo incorporated elements from other genres to expand the core mechanics of the game:

“Super Mario Bros. 3 introduces a number of new elements which would ultimately become staples of the franchise, but equally as significant as their adoption is where their inspiration was drawn from …

… Looking to Nintendo’s second most successful franchise, The Legend of Zelda, perhaps provided developer Shigeru Miyamoto (the creator and developer of both Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda games) with the inspiration to incorporate some basic role playing game (RPG) elements into a franchise which to this point had been strictly a platformer.”

It was through this type of thoughtful game design, development and innovation that Nintendo started a lifelong love affair with their flagship franchise. But it was more than just Mario and his pals that resonated so strongly – Nintendo also played a key role in introducing me to many of the third party game developers which I grew to love, including Capcom, Square, Konami and so on, with games like Final Fantasy, Castlevania, Contra and Mega Man. Though these developers would go on to create successful games for a number of consoles, many of my favorite memories with their games stem directly from the NES.

But it’s more than nostalgia

It would be easy to pass my, and many others’ love for Nintendo off as purely a product of nostalgia, but that would  be selling it short. After all, I enjoy many modern day Nintendo games as much or more than their predecessors. The Super Mario Galaxy games were a breath of fresh air; in his essay Seventh Generation Games: The Golden Era of Gaming (Part 1), Josh Snyder wrote:

“Where Super Mario Galaxy 2 sets itself apart from every other visually stunning game this generation is in how the art design was used to communicate to the player, and how well it was integrated into the world without bombarding the player’s senses.

Color was used to subtly guide the player through each level, or to quickly communicate whether a character was an enemy or friendly. And those characters were designed in a way that made them stick out in an already busy world. All of these complex elements were masterfully combined into a single product that never wears out its welcome – there is a joy when starting up each level and experiencing something new and unique, a feat when considering that, just like other three-dimensional Mario games, there are 120 different stars to collect at the end of 120 different levels.”

Nintendo SNES controller

The layout of the SNES controller with four face buttons and shoulder buttons became the industry standard.

You may be sensing a trend here as two aspects of each game discussed so far are inventive yet refined gameplay, and fun. These two traits extend beyond Nintendo games to their hardware. The Wii was the first console to successfully incorporate motion controls as the key aspect of its platform. The WiiU built upon this by being the first console to incorporate a gamepad with a touch screen as a full time input device. The Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) was the first to incorporate four face buttons (A, B, X, Y) and “shoulder” buttons on its controllers, now an industry standard.

More than adding buttons or changing input methods, how Nintendo utilized these advances are what makes them important. In his essay Asymmetrical Gameplay: Gimmick or Revolution, Josh Snyder again highlights Nintendo’s innovative approach:

“No company has embraced the idea quite like Nintendo, and the WiiU console was seemingly built with asymmetrical gameplay in mind. Launch title New Super Mario Bros. U used the gamepad, a controller with a large, tablet-like touch screen in the middle, to offer asymmetrical gameplay. Players using the regular Wii-remote configuration played the game the same way they always have, but in certain modes the player with the gamepad could touch the screen to place blocks to either help or hinder their friends. It may be a crude example, but this illustrates how two people can participate in the same game at the same time as the other player, yet each one can take away different, tailored experiences.”

Josh and I discussed this exact gameplay scenario in Theory of Gaming Podcast Episode 14; a handful of friends gathered at Josh’s place and we wound up playing a five-player game of New Super Mario Bros. WiiU in which I manned the gamepad to place blocks in areas for the other players to utilize. This created an entirely new experience where I was almost playing a completely different game than my friends – they were running, jumping and collecting power-ups in traditional Super Mario fashion (albeit with four of them playing at once, a mode introduced first in New Super Mario Bros. Wii) while I wasn’t dealing with any of that. Instead, my experience revolved around following the fast-paced action, and strategically attempting to place blocks in the world for other players to jump on, or to save them from falling down holes, or to block approaching enemies. Nintendo utilized their own technology in a way that nearly created two separate games out of a single property; another first in my gaming experience.

Nintendo has never been afraid to take a chance

Regardless of whether you believe innovation is born of necessity, or by simply pushing the envelope (there are arguments for both sides), the reality is that these type of innovations and gameplay advancements are increasingly rare in the modern gaming landscape, as developers and publishers often seek to capitalize on safer titles which they know sell well, while console titans Xbox and PlayStation aim more for incremental hardware upgrades with each new console release.

Nintendo N64 Controller

Nintendo took a chance with the design of the N64 controller; it was a disaster.

One look at the Nintendo 64 (N64) controller and it’s clear that Nintendo isn’t afraid to take a big chance. As soon as they had defined the industry standard for a controller (Sony would debut a modified version of the SNES controller with the launch of the PlayStation), Nintendo deviated quickly with a radical new layout featuring three handles and analog thumb stick in the center usable in place of the traditional d-pad for movement. They also upped the button count with the addition of four “C” buttons joining the traditional “A” and “B” buttons on the face, and a “Z” trigger button behind the middle handle; in total, with the shoulder buttons and a start button in the middle, the N64 controller contained a whopping 10 buttons. But not every chance we take in life ends up a winner, and in the case of the N64 controller, it was an unmitigated disaster.

And yet, developers made it work, with Nintendo and third parties delivering some of the most memorable and entertaining games of the generation on the N64. GoldenEye007 from Rare is easily one of the most impactful games in history; it’s nearly impossible to discuss the best video games without sharing fond memories of getting four or more friends together to play split-screen matches. Ask gamers about that era, and they’ll also lovingly reminisce about the hours spent running the obstacle course of Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA, or the first time they wandered into Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as Josh Snyder did in his essay A Developer’s Nightmare: Economical Game Design:

“There are two games which will forever stand out in my mind, for how they introduced their world. The first time I stepped out into Hyrule Field in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I was awestruck. I scanned the horizon, which seemed so vast, and saw Death Mountain off in the distance, and realized that I could actually go there and visit that place.”

Nintendo also took a chance with the Wii, introducing movement-based inputs rather than relying on the traditional controllers for the player interface. The Wii was a financial success, selling more than 100.90 million units worldwide as of December 31, 2013. While first party titles like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess continued to sell well and receive critical acclaim, third party development for a Nintendo console slowed. A quick look at the best selling video games for the Wii, and it’s obvious that Nintendo properties were the primary selling point of the console with only Ubsioft’s Just Dance 2 cracking the top 15.

Taking chances has led to blunders

The success of the Wii may have actually hurt Nintendo as it began development of the WiiU, as it reaffirmed in their minds some core beliefs about gamer preferences which may have been faulty assumptions. A quick look at Nintendo’s handling of online gameplay provides the perfect example.

Nintendo friend code

Nintendo felt the best way to protect user privacy was to make it nearly impossible to connect to your friends online.

To play games online with your friends, Nintendo employed a system which utilized automatically-generated numbers called “friend codes.” Players needed to retrieve their code and share it with whomever they were attempting to play with to create a direct connection. Other than the inconvenience of retrieving and sharing codes, it was rife with problems. If a player played a game in one Wii, then tried to play it in another, they needed a new friend code. If they inserted a different copy of a game into their system, they needed a new friend code. Each time they received a new friend code, they had to re-send it to their friends and their friends had to manually approve it to connect.

As you can imagine, this system didn’t sit well with players, who took to the internet to publicly voice their opinions. The following comment from IGN user reggiefive0 is representative of many of the complaints post:

“The only console I own in this generation is the Wii. It’s got good games, and it’s got good 4 player games. But the online sucks. For one example: Brawl’s online, one of the most hyped and touted features, was a disaster of biblical proportions.

I’m tired of Nintendo’s ‘family friendly’ approach. There are no means of communication over the WiFi, it’s just random people and feels like you are playing against the computer. They need to refine it, like Xbox Live. It’s very crude online compared to the likes of the other two systems. They need leaderboards, they need voice chat, or at the very least typed chat (it has two USB ports). They need to completely revamp the friend code system. I shouldn’t have to go on a message board and ask someone what their code is. They need bigger servers.

If they want to seriously get into the online gaming scene and make decent online, they need to completely renovate the current half-assed system …”

Nintendo claims they implemented the friend code system to prioritize user privacy, and it certainly worked … to an extent where many users abandoned online play entirely on the Wii. Eventually, with few users playing online, and the WiiU now in market, Nintendo ended online play entirely for the Wii (as well as the Nintendo DS and DSi).

Unfortunately, though Nintendo updated their online system with the WiiU, the notion that Nintendo doesn’t care about online gaming continues to dog them. In an interview with IGN, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime discussed the perception that Nintendo doesn’t care about online gaming:

“‘Online play is always important,’ Fils-Aime told IGN. ‘I guess maybe people read into it, when a Nintendo first-party game doesn’t have connected play, that somehow we’re not interested in connected play. The reality is that when our developers are making a game, they think about the type of experience that they want to see happen. And so for Super Mario 3D World the development team wanted people to be in the same space, having that fun enjoyment, that’s the vision that they had in their head. So they created an experience that was multiplayer in the same room. That doesn’t mean that we don’t care about connected gameplay. It’s just that the developers have a vision for what we want to bring to bear. We do exceptionally well in that in-the-same-room multiplayer experience.’”

Funny thing about that quote – it doesn’t really dispel the notion that Nintendo doesn’t care about online play. In fact, it does quite the opposite, emphasizing that Nintendo, or at least those developing games for the WiiU (which incidentally happens to be primarily Nintendo, but we’ll get to that in a moment) simply prefer to develop games focused on the couch co-op experience … something Nintendo has excelled at for years. I’ve been very vocal about my love for couch co-op gaming, including half of a podcast complaining about it’s decline; but in an era of gaming in which online co-op has become the norm, the notion that a major console lacks interest, infrastructure, etc., for online gaming casts a shadow over it for consumers.

Then there’s the lack of games from third party developers for the WiiU, as fewer developers seek to capitalize on Nintendo’s unique hardware and capabilities for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is the difficulty in creating cross-platform releases due to the vastly different specs of the hardware in Nintendo’s console. The issue was explained in-depth in Eurogamer’s The Secret Developers: WiiU – the inside story:

“Can the Wii U compete in this brave new world of next-gen (current-gen?) consoles? In terms of raw performance it sits uncomfortably between the previous generation and the current one. Parts of the hardware run better than the previous generation, but other parts drag it down. If you tried to compare the Wii U against the PS4/XO, it comes off very badly indeed – it just cannot compete with the new consoles.

At a very basic level, look at the power draw taken by the next-gen consoles compared to the Wii U. The PlayStation 4 draws over 100W more from the mains than Nintendo’s console, and it does so using the latest, most power-efficient x86 cores from AMD in concert with a much larger GPU that’s a generation ahead and runs on a much smaller fabrication process – 28nm vs. what I’m reliably informed is the 55nm process from Japanese company Renasas.

There are some fleeting parallels between Wii U and the next-gen consoles – the combination of a low-power CPU with a much more powerful graphics chip – but the notion of next-gen titles being easily portable to the Wii U just doesn’t work. The gulf in power is just too high, while the GPGPU that we’ll see on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 isn’t compatible with the older shader model four hardware found in the Wii U.”

The lack of third party development for the Wii U, combined with lesser hardware and diminished online play has had a financial impact on the onetime-leader of the gaming industry.

Blunders have led to slowing sales

The WiiU had a successful launch as Nintendo sold its entire hardware stock, likely to the extreme loyalists within Nintendo’s fanbase. But excitement for the new console quickly sputtered, as evidenced by Nintendo’s reported sales:

“According to the NPD Group, nearly 890,000 Nintendo Wii U units were sold in the United States after 41 days on the market. [180] From the Wii U’s launch till December 31, 2013, Nintendo reported that 3.06 million consoles and 11.69 million software units had been shipped worldwide.[173]

In January 2013, Nintendo sold 57,000 Wii U units in the US.[181] By comparison, the original Wii sold 435,000 in January 2007, also two months after launch.[182] Initial sales numbers in the US and other territories were lower than expected, resulting in Nintendo cutting sales projections for fiscal year 2013 by 17 percent, from 5.5 million to 4 million;[183] the system actually ended up selling 3.5 million units.[184] During the first quarter of 2013, Nintendo reported that 0.39 million consoles and 1.73 million software units were shipped worldwide.[171] From March to June 2013 the system sold approximately 160,000 units, which was down 51 per cent from the three months prior.[185] During the second quarter of 2013, Nintendo reported that 0.16 million consoles and 1.03 million software units were shipped worldwide.”

This quote from a Bloomberg at the end of 2013 is especially damning:

Nintendo Co. (7974)’s prospects for meeting its profit and sales forecasts for this year are diminishing after Sony Corp. (6758) and Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) each sold more game consoles in 24 hours than the Wii U maker did in nine months.

Nintendo’s family-focused content is losing its appeal as titles were delayed, casual gamers migrate to smartphones and tablets, and hardcore players opt for faster Sony and Microsoft machines.”

As one would expect for a former industry giant facing these sales numbers, people began to questions Nintendo’s strategy.

Does Nintendo need to remain a hardware company?

As soon as Nintendo posted diminishing sales figures, it started facing suggestions it should abandon it’s hardware development and focus solely on game development and publishing, much like its once rival Sega did. A couple of high profile examples from the end of 2013 from Forbes:

“It’s a little worrisome, writing this post. The opinion I’m about to put forth is one that can get you laughed out of game journalism, and one few people in the industry will even entertain. It’s the idea that Nintendo has lost their way when it comes to the home console game, and they should pivot to their obvious strength that has carried them through lackluster systems for more than a decade now, their incredible games. In short, the Wii U should be Nintendo’s last console, and they should start focusing on bringing their beloved stable of characters to as many households as humanly possible, across every competitor system from Microsoft to Sony to PC.”

and Gamespot:

“Nintendo’s irrelevant as a hardware manufacturer in the console business,” Rubin said during the latest episode of Bonus Round on GameTrailers. He said you can look to Nintendo’s own financial data for proof. Nintendo has sold 3.61 million Wii U systems around the world since launch–below internal expectations–and plans to sell 9 million by the end of March 2014. Despite his eagerness to write Nintendo off in the console hardware space, Rubin described Nintendo as a “worldwide treasure” and praised iconic designer Shigeru Miyamoto for his contributions to the industry.”

But it’s not a new argument, and a quick scan through each one brings to the surface an incredible trend: as much as Nintendo may have stumbled in recent years, most gamers and gaming industry professionals still love Nintendo. In just the two quotes above, we have these nuggets of embedded praise:

  • “… The opinion I’m about to put forth is one that can get you laughed out of game journalism, and one few people in the industry will even entertain. It’s the idea that Nintendo has lost their way …
  • “…Rubin described Nintendo as a “worldwide treasure” and praised iconic designer Shigeru Miyamoto for his contributions to the industry.”

And from the article linked in “not a new argument”:

  • “Nintendo outstrips the world in terms of game design …”
  • “I’m a massive Nintendo fan, and they’ve got a big, hardcore fanbase …”

The reality is, that even when the gaming industry predicts doom for Nintendo and suggests it should abandon console development to focus solely on software, we remain intensely loyal to the company; and there’s good reason why.

We love Nintendo’s core characters

Nintendo Super Smash Bros

Nintendo knows how to leverage it’s characters in creative ways to drive sales.

Every gamer has their favorite Nintendo character and franchise. Debates in gaming circles forever swirl about which is better, Mario or Zelda? The best part of debates like these is that there’s no wrong answer. Knowing this, Nintendo has positioned their flagship franchise and characters front and center of everything they do. Mario is the official Nintendo mascot – can you name Sony’s or Microsoft’s mascot? Do they have a mascot? Some would argue Master Chief is Xbox’s unofficial mascot, and Sack Boy Sony’s, but neither have been confirmed and both lack the ubiquity of Mario. But it’s more than that; Nintendo understands the capital they possess and leverage it in creative ways by endlessly creating new and inventive franchises with these characters.

It would have been easy enough to keep Mario in his 2D platforming world, but Nintendo explored what they could achieve with him creating 3D Mario games like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy; a series of sports games like Mario Golf, Mario Super Star Baseball and Super Mario Strikers; role playing games like Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario; racing games like Mario Kart; fighting games like Super Smash Bros.; and party games like Mario Party. The list of games in which Mario appears is staggering. Then think about the games in which Nintendo’s other primary characters appear like Donkey Kong Country, Wario Land and so on.

These games spans consoles and genres, but beyond that, they provide Nintendo an endless playground for innovation. While they haven’t all been critical or commercial successes, games like Donkey Kong Jungle Beat utilize unique input methods (DK Bongos); there aren’t many developers who would dare to create a platforming game which relies on player’s utilizing bongos to control the main character.

Innovation + assets = loyalty

The creativity that lies at Nintendo’s core has provided brilliance and frustration alike, and combined with a core set of recognizable and lovable characters, Nintendo has created some of the most memorable gaming experiences of the last 30 years. Ask most any gamer who has spent any amount of time gaming on a Nintendo system and it’s likely they’ll tell you all about how much fun they had. They might complain about the lack of easy online play, or the lack of third party games for the WiiU; the techiest gamers might talk ruefully about the lack of powerful hardware equal to that of their prefered system; but it’s highly unlikely that if they’ve played Super Mario Bros. WiiU, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, WarioWare or any number of other flagship Nintendo franchises that they can’t find at least one to speak glowingly about.

Oh, and about those rumors of Nintendo’s demise? They just announced their second quarter earnings for 2014, and following the release of Super Smash Bros. 3DS which sold 3.22 million copies, and pushed 3DS sales to 2.09 million units, Nintendo seems to be doing just fine:

Nintendo, which has seen several quarters of disappointing results, managed to pull out a quarterly operating profit of 215 million yen ($2 million) in its second quarter, compared to an 18 billion yen operating loss in the same quarter a year ago. According to Thomson Reuters Starmine, analysts had expected a 3.7 billion yen loss for the quarter.”

Even with their missteps, Nintendo has taught a master class in brand loyalty and the rest of the industry, including developers, would be wise to pay close attention. If developers have memorable characters it could be worthwhile to explore how to use them outside of the franchise they define such as Nintendo did with Mario. Sony has taken initial steps in this direction with Little Big Planet Karting, putting Sack Boy in a Mario Kart-esque kart racing game. Could a Master Chief RPG introduce Microsoft’s most recognizable protagonist to gamers who don’t play first person shooters?

But it’s going to take more than moving characters into new franchises for developers, publishers and hardware manufacturers to equal or surpass Nintendo’s level of loyalty. The industry needs to get out from behind Nintendo’s innovation curve and stop creating knock-offs of Nintendo’s tech (I’m looking at you PlayStation Move); it’s time these companies started taking chances like Nintendo always seems to do, and try to create an experience, either through tech or game design that will leave players with a truly wow experience. That’ not to say that Xbox and PlayStation don’t have their loyalists, a quick look at their sales figures would dispel that notion quickly, but so did Sega at one point, but they failed to capitalize on their assets and ended up abandoning the hardware race as Nintendo left them in the rearview mirror.

Of course, no brand is immune to the shifting winds of consumer preference, but engendering the type of loyalty Nintendo has since 1983 can help them weather missteps and rebound with a strong new offering.