The Hubris of Nintendo

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Nintendo utilized DLC to great effect in Mario Kart 8.

I still remember the day I turned on my Wii U and began downloading new courses and characters for Mario Kart 8. The actual DLC itself is fun, nothing earth shattering, but the price, the way it was delivered and how it integrated into the core game left me amazed. Nintendo, one of the oldest video game companies, the one who is credited with saving the industry in the early-80s, seemed to be puzzled with this new-fangled online thing, and suddenly out of nowhere they laid down the blueprint for how to do DLC and how to do it right. It was so shocking that I wrote an entire article about it, and I am pleased to see that the post-release support for Mario Kart 8 was not a one-off stroke of luck for Nintendo. Their support for Super Smash Bros. for the 3DS and Wii U, Splatoon, and Super Mario Maker has been fantastic, and should be the envy of many developers and publishers.

However, this is Nintendo we’re talking about. No matter how much we love them, no matter how loyal gamers are, Nintendo will still find a way to leave fans and consumers scratching their head, puzzled and confused, wondering how the same people who added Ryu and Cloud Strife to Super Smash Bros. can also be the same people who never release patch notes and delete player-created content seemingly at random. For everything correct Nintendo has done with DLC, they have taken gigantic steps backwards in how they communicate with their fans, and the result is confusion, frustration and anger. At a time when Nintendo is releasing new apps on smartphones and allegedly beginning production on a new console, the last thing the company needs is to anger their most loyal supporters, something they seem keen on accomplishing.

Trouble In Paradise

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Nintendo’s history with internet gaming has been troubling at best.

When reading through Nintendo’s history of implementing an online strategy, the list of miscues and blunders is, frankly, staggering. Everyone unfortunately remembers friend codes, the first indicator that Nintendo didn’t understand how gamers communicate and interact online, but the problems didn’t stop there. The rise of online gaming has allowed developers to fix bugs found in their games after launch, and Nintendo was hesitant to adopt any policy on this. This lack of direction was most noticeable when a game-breaking bug was found in Metroid: Other M. Instead of releasing a patch to solve the issue, Nintendo asked gamers to mail them a SD card with the save file on it, so they could restore it themselves. Never mind that the Wii had the ability to send and receive data over the internet – fans had to use physical mail to get help with this glitch. When a similar scenario happened in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo sort of learned their lesson, but they still made players jump through hoops by downloading a channel that would fix the game.

With the Wii U, any forward direction as it relates to the ability to patch games should be seen as a positive. Fortunately, Nintendo now has a system in place that allows them to patch a game, much in the same way developers such as Bungie, Inc. were able to do since Halo 2 on the original Xbox. But it’s progress – Nintendo is finally catching up to the industry standard, and that should be rewarded. Patches regularly come out for Super Smash Bros., Splatoon and Super Mario Maker, three of Nintendo’s biggest online titles.

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The lack of patch notes for Super Smash Bros. is inexcusable.

That said, Nintendo renders all of this progress moot with one simple action, or rather, inaction. They regularly do not release patch notes, which detail what changed in the patch, leaving gamers to figure out that information on their own. Patch notes are, again, an industry standard, yet when it comes to the hyper-competitive Super Smash Bros., Nintendo assumes that they do not need to share this information with gamers. It’s a puzzling decision, one that has no clear benefits. To make matters worse, Nintendo is aware that this is not the standard, and has promised to start releasing patch notes alongside patches. But those promises came back in 2014, and today it is still common to find fans complaining about this issue. It’s difficult to understand Nintendo’s logic here, and it does have a real impact on the community. With every patch, fans have to come together and create what is known as community patch notes, which takes an amount of time and energy that shouldn’t be tossed onto fans – it’s the responsibility of the developer to explain their changes, not for fans to learn them on their own and then communicate them out to the rest of the community. It also prevents competitive players from adapting to the new changes immediately. If my favorite character has been significantly altered, I need to know that immediately, as it could change the way I play the game.

This is bad enough, but there is also the matter of perception – if Nintendo is going to make changes to their game and not explain them, it can give gamers the impression that Nintendo isn’t listening to them. This could be one hundred percent false – Nintendo could very well be monitoring message boards and implementing player feedback, but as long as they are not communicating these changes it creates the perception that they do not listen to fans. At the end of the day this is Nintendo’s game, but without that conversation with fans, how will they know what to change? What motivation do fans have to come back and support the franchise if it will be changed without explanation?

This lack of communication isn’t the only instance of Nintendo regressing this generation with their online strategy, yet sadly it’s the least problematic. When a developer refuses to communicate with the fans, and then starts to remove player-created content from a game based on player-created content, the mood goes from annoyed to angry very fast.

Super Mario And The Mystery Of The Disappearing Levels

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Super Mario Maker is at its best when players create levels for others to experience.

In my article Making Mario, I commended Nintendo for the release of Super Mario Maker, and applauded their efforts to teach everyone basic game design, and how that would lead to a more educated, appreciative gaming public:

“Nintendo aimed high with the release of Super Mario Maker, their latest and, in some ways, most ambitious Mario game to date. The goal is simple – allow anyone to create their own 2-D Mario levels, to upload and share with the rest of the community. In return, players have access to an untold number of Mario levels to play, so many in fact that Nintendo has to regularly purge their servers to make room for new content. The result is more Mario levels than any one person could possibly play, and Nintendo hopes that, along the way, the gaming populace becomes a bit more educated on how to create inspired, engaging and fun video games.”

This is the real strength of Super Mario Maker – the user-created levels, both the good and the bad, have a tremendous value. They teach players what works and what doesn’t work, and in turn gamers are better able to appreciate good design when they see it, which in turn leads to greater appreciation (and perhaps financial support) for developers who use good game design. The more levels players create, the better educated the gaming public becomes.

So why has Nintendo started deleting levels, seemingly at random?

To their credit, Nintendo originally announced that they would be deleting levels with low popularity, and this practice was known back when I originally wrote about Super Mario Maker. However, their reasoning for deleting levels was vague at best. Their official statement read:

“Please be aware that after a fixed period of time, courses with low popularity will be automatically deleted from the server. Nintendo reserves the right to use uploaded courses and related data, either as-is or with alterations, for either commercial or noncommercial purposes without compensation to the uploader.”

This information raised more questions than answers. What is the fixed period of time? What qualifies as low popularity? Will levels be altered without permission from the creator? Will Nintendo monetize popular levels?

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No matter how unfair player-created content is, it should remain accessible, or else a game relying on said content will lose its appeal.

Instead of answering those questions, Nintendo began deleting levels at a rapid rate with no explanation, and sometimes they would delete levels within an hour of them being uploaded. When a level is deleted, it cannot be re-uploaded, which means that hours of work can be erased with no justification. But what alarmed the community even more was that anyone, including prominent members of the Super Mario Maker community, were not immune to random deletion. It’s one thing for a child’s levels to be deleted (as was the case in the level that was deleted within an hour), but when speedrunners who help support the community and keep others engaged are losing their creations, it’s cause for concern. And through all of this, Nintendo has remained silent.

As of this writing, I checked to see if any of my levels met this unfortunate fate. Of the four courses I uploaded, three had been deleted, with no reason given. Only one remains, but there’s not enough information or feedback for me to understand why one level survived while the other three were wiped from Nintendo’s servers. This is unfortunate – if I knew why my other levels were deleted, I could learn from that and make better levels that wouldn’t need to be deleted. Instead, all I have learned is that enough people enjoyed one of my levels to save it, despite it being very similar to the deleted three.

The amount of anger and frustrating this has caused is, not surprisingly, hurting Nintendo’s image among their most loyal fans. Because Nintendo refuses to communicate their reasons as to why they are deleting levels, it forces fans to fill in the blanks, and shockingly fans aren’t acting too sympathetic towards Nintendo. What’s even more frustrating is that these deletions betray what makes Super Mario Maker great in the first place – this is an opportunity for gamers to learn game design, to see video games through the eyes of a developer. Part of that learning process is to receive feedback, which is impossible to do when a silent corporation actively prevents that feedback from occurring. This is not how a developer or publisher fosters a community, and it’s shocking that it comes from one of the biggest developers and publishers in the industry. What that gigantic video game developer should do is listen to a small developer, located in Poland, that seems to be taking over the gaming world.

The Worst Thing Is Silence

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The Witcher 3 is proof that communication between developer and fans will lead to success.

For those who have never played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it cannot be overstated how huge of an accomplishment this game is. It’s more detailed and immersive than the overwhelming amount of video games ever made, which in itself is a success, but the fact that it was done on a relatively small budget and with a relatively small staff is incredible, and runs contrary to the long-held assumption that AAA titles needs large teams and budgets to make a reality.

Recently, after winning yet another game of the year award, developer CD Projekt RED shed some light on how they accomplished a level of success once thought to be impossible for a developer of their size. Of course, releasing sixteen pieces of free DLC after the game’s release helped, but CD Projekt RED credited their success with their focus on communication. In a speech delivered at the 2016 Game Developer’s Conference titled Theory and Practice of Gamer-Centric Brand Development, CD Projekt RED co-founder Marcin Iwinski said that the team focused on three pillars which they believe leads to success. From the Polygon article:

Iwinski said he feels The Witcher 3 had three pillars that made it a success. First, being a good game. Second, having a ‘gamer-centric value proposition.’ And third, the team talking about the game directly to fans, something Iwinski thinks many large publisher teams fail at.

Although all three pillars are important, Iwinski noted that the third pillar is the one developers often overlook, and the one that can lead to the strongest negative fan reaction. He summed up his thoughts on the lack of communication between the developer and fans succinctly – “The worst thing is silence.”

CD Projekt RED credits their success to this focus on communication, and this isn’t a recent development in their philosophy. They have a history of dodging perilous situations by explaining their thinking to the community – they avoided a controversy over downgraded visuals between the first trailer for the Witcher 3 and the final version, and they even made their games DRM-free in response to a conversation with fans during the development of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. In short, CD Projekt RED has done the unthinkable – made a AAA title that is sweeping up awards left and right on a relatively small budget, and this success can be attributed in part to communication.

Learning To Talk

If Nintendo wants to continue to see success with both their old and new ventures, they need to start communicating. It’s important to deliver great content, but that’s only part of the developer’s responsibility. When developers begin to make changes and deletions without communicating to their fans, it hurts their overall product.

Despite their litany of internet and community-related struggles, Nintendo is capable of improving  by emulating CD Projekt RED’s approach to community engagement. A Nintendo that listens and communicates with fans is a Nintendo that could once again take over the gaming world and continue to innovate and push the industry forward. But without that communication, their influence could disappear, as could many of their most loyal fans.