Roundtable: Is Nintendo making the right call on E3?
By skipping the usual media briefing, is the Mario maker adapting to the times or just admitting defeat?
On Monday, Nintendo revealed that it will not be participating in annual E3-opening media briefing blitz. Instead, it will be holding separate, smaller events: one for its retail and publishing partners, and another at its E3 booth where a small group of journalists will be invited to play their latest games.
While it's still unclear exactly how different the impact of Nintendo's E3 showing will be without the traditional media briefing, the GamesIndustry International staff pondered a different set of unknowns. With the largest E3 headlines expected to go to new consoles from Microsoft and Sony, just how significant is Nintendo's absence from the media briefing arms race? Does this move speak more toward Nintendo's position in the market, or the relevance of the decade-old E3 formula for an industry in upheaval? And perhaps most fundamentally, is this a wise move on Nintendo's part?
Nintendo's decision to skip a big E3 event in favor of smaller events and some Nintendo Direct videos seems puzzling. Sure, putting on a big event at E3 is expensive (both in staff time and money), but it's a cost-effective way to reach mainstream media (the gaming press will cover Nintendo news however they get it). Why would Nintendo bow out?
"Nintendo's got a weak hand, so they're trying to play E3 as cost-effectively as possible."
I can think of several reasons. First, it is expensive, and Nintendo's trying to hit that 100 billion yen profit goal for the year with Iwata's job on the line. Second, Nintendo's event last year didn't generate the wave of enthusiastic press coverage they were hoping for, so why try again when it didn't work last time? Third, Sony and Microsoft will certainly get lots of attention with brand-new hardware; Nintendo's Wii U is not new and thus will suffer in direct comparison.
It's the direct comparison that Nintendo is looking to avoid, since the Wii U doesn't compare to the new consoles from Sony and Microsoft in raw performance. Plus Nintendo won't have anywhere near as many important new games to talk about as the competition, and certainly the Wii U won't have the level of third-party support the other guys will. Nintendo's strategy is to play it lower key, let the other guys have all the hoopla and spend all the money, and look to get some attention for a few important Wii U software titles.
Nintendo's got a weak hand, so they're trying to play E3 as cost-effectively as possible. There's no way Nintendo would win a direct PR battle at E3; better to save the money and spend it on marketing at Christmas, since sales are the ultimate goal. Nintendo will focus on direct connections with retailers and media, hoping to leave a good impression with minimal spending.
Yes, Nintendo bailing on the Big Three press conferences is an admission that the company doesn't have faith in its ability to go toe-to-toe with Sony and Microsoft's new system unveilings. But that's just being realistic at a time when Nintendo can ill-afford to blow money for the sake of keeping up appearances. But I think the more interesting thing this move tells us is not how Nintendo feels about its own efforts, but how it feels about the relevance of the gaming media in general, and E3 in specific.
"Nintendo has realized that its fans want big, eventful news, but they don't actually need a big event to deliver it."
By putting its announcements into a series of Nintendo Direct videos, Nintendo has realized that its fans want big, eventful news, but they don't actually need a big event to deliver it. All they need is a pre-recorded streaming video of announcements and a countdown clock. If Nintendo can provide that, gamers will show up in droves, because it delivers on the things they value (excitement, immediacy, and actual news, in that order) while eliminating things they don't value (an expensive venue, the uncertainty of a live event, and the media's function as a filter of information).
As for E3, it's clear the show doesn't work for everyone; it's just too big, too busy, and too expensive. The industry tried adapting to those realities in 2007 when it had a radically downsized E3 in Santa Monica. The show received a mixed reaction from attendees and publishers alike, and was returned to the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center the following year. But the gaming industry was still growing in 2007, just a year ahead of its all-time peak. If the Santa Monica experiment were held this year, it's hard to picture the same support for moving the show back to essentially the format that everybody complained about in the first place. It's doubly unlikely once you consider the products E3 was designed to promote--packaged retail games--are no longer the focus of the industry. Times are tough, and companies are increasingly pragmatic when it comes to expenses of any kind.
Nintendo's move is simply an acknowledgement of this, and an attempt to optimize its limited resources, putting them where they will do the most good for business, not image. It's an approach you can expect plenty of other companies to follow, which should be more concerning for the gaming media and E3 as a whole than it is for Nintendo.
So Nintendo is backing out of its E3 press conference this year. My colleagues mention cost as a possible reason, but according to IGN Nintendo executive editor Richard George, Nintendo will still be renting out the Nokia Theatre for the behind-closed-doors business presentation. So the money is still being spent on providing a large presentation, it's just not showing the song-and-dance to the public.
"If Nintendo wants to reach out to the blue ocean, Nintendo Directs aren't going to cut it."
Is it because the Nintendo Direct format is so useful and efficient? Nintendo president Satoru Iwata is a personable face for the company and enthusiast fans certainly are taking to the ongoing format. The problem is if Nintendo wants to reach out to the blue ocean, Nintendo Directs aren't going to cut it. Mainstream organizations like CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times don't cover Nintendo Directs. Those outlets' gaming coverage is typically hosted in their already-crowded tech sections. Without a media-focused event at E3, Nintendo will miss out on coverage from those mainstream news sources.
That leaves Nintendo acknowledging that Microsoft and Sony will dominate this year's E3 due to their new console reveals. Even if Sony and Microsoft have revealed their consoles prior to E3 proper, leaving mostly software announcements for the actual conference. It's worrying that Nintendo believes its upcoming software can't stand toe-to-toe with new software for the PlayStation 4 and next Xbox. If it can't stand at E3, can it stand against the new HD twins this holiday season?
Nintendo not having a press conference at E3 is not a strike against the event. Changes at E3 are focused around the fact that a number of other events have risen to prominence in the past few years. E3 isn't the big man on campus anymore; it's just another face in the crowd. E3 is joined by Gamescom, Eurogamer Expo, three PAX events, and San Diego Comic-Con. Publishers and developers now have multiple chances during the entire year to reach out to press and consumers. It's a shift in the industry and E3 needs to adjust accordingly.
As Mike points out there are multiple events on the calendar besides E3. But Nintendo often doesn't show up for those, either. Nintendo's insular world is all toadstools and green pastures, but that's only because it's got its head stuck in a pipe and it refuses to look around at the wider market. Sure, I can understand why it doesn't want to be compared to Microsoft and Sony. But tough, it's going to be measured against them, regardless.
"I can understand why Nintendo doesn't want to be compared to Microsoft and Sony. But tough, it's going to be measured against them, regardless."
Nintendo Directs are preaching to the converted. "Hi Nintendo fans, here's some Nintendo stuff you like." But E3--as crude, clumsy and loud as it is--is a chance for the whole industry to stand up on a world stage and show off, get coverage across mainstream media and have a global impact. Nintendo needs Miyamoto and Iwata on stage wearing silly hats demoing loads of twee games. Just don't roll out the charm-void that is Reggie Fils-Aime and it'll be fine.
After two years of being battered by the rest of the industry, 2013 needs to be the year of the console. Yes, Microsoft and Sony will make a lot of noise and look fresher with their shiny new hardware but that's exactly why Nintendo should turn up. Ride the hype, go along with the circus, toot your horns for a week, make some goddamn noise. The games business isn't quiet, it isn't modest, it isn't humble. Outside of the industry, no one is paying any attention to the Wii U. It's dead at retail and we all know how cutthroat the shops can be. If momentum continues to crawl, retailers will drop it like a stone without waiting for new game releases, not when they can decorate their displays with the PlayStation 4 and new Xbox. Nintendo has to roll out Mario, Zelda and some new home-grown projects to reignite interest, and if it doesn't have the confidence to do it at E3, the Wii U really will become the new GameCube.
Matt got there before me, but the word I keep coming back to is "momentum." In plain terms, right now the Wii U has precious little, and what's left is ebbing away with every disappointing sales update and damp-squib software launch. I can scarcely imagine a less desirable scenario for Nintendo than to leave the devoted few who actually bought a Wii U staring blankly at its plastic casing, but in backing away from the spotlight it has guaranteed that outcome.
"Sony and Microsoft are very much Nintendo's rivals, and it has ceded the floor to them at precisely the wrong moment."
I'm tired of hearing Iwata and Miyamoto complaining that the public just doesn't 'get' the hardware and its myriad wonderful uses, because, frankly, if that's the case then it can only be Nintendo's fault. And if it's not, then all those people actually 'get' the Wii U perfectly well, but have no strong desire to advise their friends to jump on the bandwagon, as so many did with the Wii. Either way, Nintendo is running out of time to act, to build up that momentum again.
Now, I have no doubt that Nintendo has plenty of new Wii U software in store for E3, even if it is likely to be just new dollops of Mario and Zelda. They do nothing for me, but I'm content to be in the minority on the appeal of these hoary industry staples. And I can't help but feel that, if you really must place nostalgia at the bedrock of your company's strategy, you might as well do so on the largest available stage. Nintendo obviously has its reasons for backing away from E3's traditional triple-header. They may be some, all or none of those suggested by my learned colleagues, but I'm not convinced that the reasoning even matters, because we can already see the end result. Nintendo may not be able to win the fight for coverage against new hardware, but backing down in favour of clandestine meetings and Nintendo Direct streams should never have been an option.
A few years ago it seemed that the Wii had removed Nintendo from the traditional console rivalry, but the Wii U's stumbling start has exposed that as a misconception. Sony and Microsoft are very much Nintendo's rivals, and it has ceded the floor to them at precisely the wrong moment: the most anticipated E3 since the last time these three companies all lobbied for our attention with new consoles. The E3 where every eye from every corner of the media will be on that stage, looking for the future.