For Nintendo, slow and steady makes sense
Software delays on Wii U may frustrate - but Nintendo knows that its long-term success is built on game quality, not "winning" sales wars
Of the many and varied approaches to PR which have been attempted by game publishers and platform holders in recent years, few have been quite so successful as Nintendo's now semi-regular "Nintendo Direct" broadcasts. Not only has the content being announced generally been of a very high standard - and particularly pleasing to the Nintendo faithful, of course - the presentation style has helped to humanise Nintendo's executives, making likeable personalities out of people in rules traditionally dismissed as "suits" at other companies. Nintendo now enjoys the unique privilege of a devoted following and guaranteed coverage for its broadcasts, along with a halo effect of likeability around the company as a whole - a superb pay-off for a clever but reasonably straightforward approach to PR.
"The presentation style has helped to humanise Nintendo's executives, making likeable personalities out of suits
This week's Nintendo Direct was no exception. It was light-hearted and likeable, but included plenty of impressive, crowd-pleasing news about 3DS software - most notably the announcement of a sequel to 1991's much-loved Zelda game, Link To The Past. Arriving on top of what's already an extremely impressive pile of software in the 3DS pipeline, it's hard to see how 2013 could be anything but a success for Nintendo's handheld; October's Pokemon titles alone should guarantee a Christmas bonanza for the platform, with the rest of the line-up being the icing on the cake.
Even as the 3DS builds and builds towards a market size which many considered impossible only a couple of years ago (my own take was that 3DS would do well but wouldn't rival the ultimate success of its predecessor, the DS; I stand by that, but it looks increasingly possible that I'll be proved happily wrong), rumblings of discontent abound. Nintendo made clear in advance of this week's broadcast that it was going to be about 3DS software, yet the announcement of new titles for 3DS seemed only to deepen dissatisfaction with the slow pace of launches on the Wii U.
This is a merry-go-round with which we're probably all familiar by now - Nintendo launches a new console, there are several months of slow software launches and title slippages, then finally things seem to get into gear and software starts to pour out of the creative floodgates in Kyoto. Apologies are profuse; next time will be better. Next time, of course, is exactly the same. Recently, Satoru Iwata has been criticised - not unfairly - on the grounds of this pattern. "We'll do better next time!" sounds a lot less credible the fourth or fifth time. For new Wii U owners wondering where Pikmin or The Wonderful 101 are, these pledges certainly sound hollow.
While criticism of any company on the grounds of failing to live up to its promises is completely valid - and it is absolutely not the place of consumers to come up with excuses for multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths - I'm not sure that this specific criticism has legs when it comes to Nintendo, at least from a business perspective. It seems to me that it misses the point of what exactly Nintendo is; what exactly the company does, and where its value lies.
"Nintendo would survive the failure of a console platform. It will not survive a sufficiently serious sullying of the Mario brand"
Certainly, if you look at the Wii U right now, it's not doing well. It's probably overpriced, it's certainly lacking in seriously compelling software and it's not building its installed base at the rate it needs to in order to be a sustainable platform for developers. While the 3DS is going great guns (slower in the west than in Japan, but still by no means doing badly), the Wii U is a dark spot for Nintendo - a product which shows all the hallmarks of potential market failure.
That would be bad. Yet there's something that would be worse - much worse, in fact. Imagine a scenario in which Nintendo, shaken by slow sales of the Wii U, reacted by doing what many commentators seem to demand of them - speeding up the release schedule for Wii U software. I have no doubt that, given sufficiently aggressive management and a sufficiently devil-may-care attitude to bugs and balance issues, Nintendo could pump out a number of really big-name titles on the Wii U before the end of the year - possibly even getting all of its biggest franchises represented on the console. This is hardly blue-sky thinking; nearly every developer has experience of seeing a game they worked on being pushed out unfinished to meet a schedule.
The reason Nintendo, thankfully, doesn't do this is because Nintendo's management understands where the value of its company lies. The "Wii U" brand, or even the "Wii" brand, has only been around for half a decade and probably won't be around for much more than another half-decade, at best. This console generation will only last five years, if things go well. The company's character and franchise IP, though, is an extraordinary long-term treasure trove. Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Metroid and the huge range of smaller but much beloved IPs (witness the delighted reaction to Earthbound, a game most people have probably never heard of, or the critical fawning and solid sales of Fire Emblem) are things of exceptional value - but their value lies not in the character art or the trademarks or any of the tangible assets associated with those IPs. Their value lies in goodwill and adoration from consumers, all of which is predicated on the fundamental assumption that when Nintendo puts one of these names on a game box, the game inside is, almost without exception, going to be excellent.
If we work from that basis, understanding that fundamental principle, then we run into a conclusion which is logical, inevitable and yet completely different from any conclusion that we might ever reach about the Xbox or PlayStation businesses. The conclusion is this - it would be better for Nintendo to let the Wii U founder than for it to rush out or otherwise compromise on the quality of its games. Not just "better" in a creative sense - better in a cold, unfeeling, commercial sense. Games and franchises are the core of Nintendo's business; it will, with some effort, survive the failure of a console platform. It will not survive a sufficiently serious sullying of the Mario brand.
"Sony and Microsoft are effectively consumer electronics firms, while Nintendo is a toy company"
Nintendo understands this. I interviewed Satoru Iwata many years ago, just after he had announced the Wiimote controller at TGS, and asked him what he would do if the company's brave and unusual experiment didn't grab consumers' imaginations. His answer was blunt - Nintendo has a lot of money in the bank (it still does, the scale of its financial assets being something of a bugbear among investors), and if the Wii had failed, it would just come up with a new idea and make a new console. The unspoken but implicit subtext was this; "even if the Wii fails, we'll still have Mario, Zelda, Pokemon and all the other things that make us 'Nintendo'". That remains every bit as true today as it was six years ago.
This aspect of Nintendo's thinking can be difficult for those of us more familiar with the traditional console businesses operated by Sony and Microsoft to wrap our heads around - yet it makes perfect sense if you consider Sony and Microsoft to be effectively consumer electronics firms, while Nintendo is a toy company. A consumer electronics firm, pushing a format that it desperately needs to be adopted by third-party content creators (think of the Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD battle), simply must "win" the battle with that format. If it starts losing, it will throw every resource at its disposal behind a push for victory; the single most important thing to that company is the platform, so everything else falls below the singular priority of making the platform into a success. A toy company, however, launches a new toy before Christmas - if it's a huge hit with children, it'll make sure to ship more of them next year, perhaps adding bells, whistles and accessories to the mix, but if it's not a hit? The toy company doesn't go bust, or hope that by launching a new helmet for the space marine, the toy will start to jump off shelves; rather, it devotes itself to inventing a new toy for next Christmas, and the cycle continues.
It's an imperfect analogy, of course, and none of this is to say that Nintendo isn't committed to making the Wii U into a success. Accepting defeat and trying something new is on the menu (whereas it's unthinkable for Sony or Microsoft), but it's far from being the preferred option; Wii U won't go down without a fight. However, in light of so many comments essentially asking, "What on earth are Nintendo thinking, not having X, Y and Z title out on the Wii U already?" - well, this is what they're thinking. They're thinking that the games are more important than the console, in the long term. Despite any frustration this may cause, I think gamers ought to be happy that on this rare occasion, the best commercial interests of a company align so perfectly and neatly with the doctrine of spending as much time as necessary to make the best game possible.