The delivery was stilted and a third of the global audience was confused by whether it was a peripheral or a brand new console. And yet, as they are wont to do, Nintendo appeared on the E3 stage in order to change the gaming world. However not to announce a key invention, as is their usual pitch.
This time it was to launch one platform to rule them all. Using a controller with an in-built touch screen that looks for all the world like a Nintendo PSP, their idea is to create an ultimate platform. Depth as well as breadth was the message. With this Wii U, you could play potentially any kind of possible game, anywhere in the house (via remote broadcasting). This in addition to compatibility with the Wii Mote, Wii Fit and all the other inventions that defined the Wii.
It’s an incredible idea, the sum of many single inventions rolled into one elegant ubiquitous device. Nintendo, it seems, have concluded that the time is nigh to unite the fragmented game markets under one banner: Its.
The Ultimate Machine
Ultimate means two things: The best example of something, and also the final example of something. It means an end point, where there will be no better version to follow. In game console terms, it means a platform that can comfortably host any kind of game.
To date there has never been a platform that could do that. Consoles are commonly bad at strategy games, for example, while mobile phones like the iPhone lack enough digital input for action games. The PC has never had a good relationship with beat em up games, while gesture-based gaming lacks enough precision to make anything other than waggle gameplay.
This is largely why the games industry has always been a balkanised market: Every platform creator works hard to create a new story that attracts players with a special promise to move things forward in one direction. Whether it’s online play, analogue controllers, portability or 3D graphics, all the successful platforms in history have essentially made a big promise and then followed through on it.
However they usually do so within a set of conventions.
The handheld game system is one convention, for example. The console under the television with a couple of joypads is another. Some conventions have fallen away (like the British microcomputer) whereas others have evolved gradually (like the PC). And more recently we have some newly minted ones like the tablet and smartphone.
Conventions create limits, both physically and in terms of market expectations. Although the PC can support joypads it has never been a major home of console-style actions games, and vice versa, because the market expectations and publisher strategic decisions always play to whatever hardware the majority of the platform already has. This is why a peripheral maker might create a joypad bumper for the iPhone but it wouldn’t catch on, or why flight simulator joysticks fell out of use.
Balkanisation implies that the platform maker and the publishers who support it think in terms of sub-groups of the market. They seek to carve out their niche and then own it, with the result that the games section in your local media store has many small catalogues of games for individual formats rather than a deep catalogue for a universal format. (Like DVD or books are).
Nobody has seriously considered ‘yugoslaving’ the market in a long time. The last platform to achieve some measure of that was arguably the PS2, and it did so more by default and a lack of serious competition than intent. The more common strategy these days is for traditional platform makers to try and define their corner of the market and then maybe make an additional play for more customers from that basis.
That’s what Kinect is, for example. It feels more like establishing two separate markets with very little crossover (and the Kinect demos at E3 showing deep games adding very token amounts of camera interaction reinforce that). Sony’s strategy is even more token, and Apple’s iOS devices are very popular but as game platforms they have some unique constraints.
So Nintendo think they see an opportunity. By creating what initially might seem to be an elaborate controller – but which on closer inspection is elegant rather than complicated – for a console that will also work with existing Wii peripherals, their pitch is simple: Through one format they want to address all of the game market, not just one part or another. They want to be the gaming equivalent of DVD.
But why? Having made such a huge move into the muggle market with the Wii, why turn around and make a play for smaller markets now? The answer is to do with margins.
Muggle games are cheaper to make, have less customer expectations and are more widely available than gamer games. As a result they are devalued. Where ten years ago a company like Nintendo could charge $40 for what was essentially a casual game, these days apps, Facebook and web games have killed any chance of high prices in the casual market.
Console platforms are unable to make a $1 (or free) business model work bar totally reinventing themselves from the ground up, so this leaves them with two options: Exploit novelty, or find another market.
Wii essentially did the first. A novel game unavailable anywhere else has a great deal of value – but only for a limited time because novelty wears off. Microsoft are currently seeing the same effect with the Kinect, but will also see the Kinect-is-boring effect settle in possibly as early as Spring 2012 for the same reason that the Wii slumped last year. Inventions of interface are often relatively short lived unless they prove to have substantial depth.
Finding other markets means finding enthusiasts rather than muggles, and this is something that Nintendo have realised before anyone else. Back in February Satoru Iwata gave a speech about the devalued nature of games and the need for depth in the modern world, and now the intent of that speech was clear: Nintendo were softening up the ground to get people used to the idea that depth was coming to the Wii. Now we see why.
The fact is that the muggle market is no longer appealing. Its franchises are established and stable, but there is little opportunity for further growth within it. Meanwhile the enthusiast markets are arguably moribund with the same sets of franchises rotating year on year. So Nintendo thinks that those players are new ground in which to innovate and find better profit margins. And that means talking to the people who will spend $40 on a game (or more) and delivering something amazing to them while keeping their newfound muggle base happy.
But there is a potential hitch in that plan.
Some grand unifications simply don’t work because the divisions are too deep. The Balkans went back to being Balkans, and in a very bloody fashion, because Yugoslavia was a bad fit held together by will rather than a natural development. However some do work, like the unifications of Germany and Italy. The difference seems to be whether the various constituent parts of the alliance were already amicable, or whether they had deep divisions.
They may not like to admit it, but core gamers are often conservative. They like the old more than the new, and only a smaller minority of them actually get into and play brand new games like indie games with any relish. In many cases they are set in their ways and, like any muggle, only interested in games that confirm their existing ideas of what games should be. First person shooter players, for example, are really only interested in first person shooters as they currently understand them, while sports gamers rarely stray beyond football or racing.
This is where I think Nintendo may run into trouble: Rightly or wrongly, gamers have long shown themselves to be tribal, with deep divisions and long loyalties to one brand or another. The initial confusion displayed by the E3 audience might be the first sign of that resistance breaking down, however it might not. It might simply be that the divided market actually prefers its balkanised state and doesn’t want what it views as a compromise (or just plain weird) solution to a problem it doesn’t think exists.
If it transpires that gamers are simply too set in their conventions and don’t want them to change (as many already are about gesture and camera interfaces) then the Wii U will become another Gamecube: A format that Nintendo fans love to their dying day but which the rest of the world cares about not at all.
If It Does Work…
It probably will work though, and it will be amazing if it does because Nintendo will have defined a new convention. The idea of portable streaming, dual screen content and a tablet interface has huge potential.
It will mean that there is at last a format that can play every kind of game in a coherent fashion. All action, strategy, creative, social, casual, hardcore, massive multiplayer, online, offline, and whatever other games you can think of will have a natural home.
It also means that Nintendo’s competitors will also rush to strategy meetings to begin figuring out how to copy it, so there will still be choice. Sony will go back into the lab and start figuring out how to use the newly minted Vita and the PS3 together to do something, and Microsoft will take a hard look at what they are doing with Windows Phone 7 for something similar. Apple may even decide that it’s time to stop hobby-ing around with the Apple TV and turn it into the apps platform that it wants to be.
Those meetings are possibly even happening right now. Starting yesterday, there is a 9-15 month window before Nintendo launches the Wii U, and if the key lesson of Wii and DS needs to be learned anew then it is this: Giving Nintendo the space to innovate and then release while carrying on as you did before usually means playing second fiddle later on.
Smart execs from other platforms really should realise that they’ve been gazumped a couple of times by waiting to see if Nintendo were right. Scared execs wait and see, and lose all over again. And those of you still considering it.. well you know where to find me.