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Comment: Nintendo bets the farm on finding new markets

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata makes no bones about what his company is trying to accomplish. He wants to sell videogames to people who don't want to play videogames. He wants people who turn their noses up at interactive entertainment to stand in line to buy new consoles. He doesn't just want to find new ways to entertain existing gamers - he wants to show the rest of the world how much fun our medium can be as well.

It's a lofty ambition, but it's also an easily misinterpreted message and an incredibly risky venture. Existing gamers don't understand what Nintendo is trying to do, and no matter how many games like Metroid Prime 2, Geist, Resident Evil 4 and Zelda the company brings to its platforms, gamers will still look aghast at titles like Nintendogs and Electroplankton - two games which Iwata chose to demonstrate on stage at GDC last week - and wonder why Nintendo is making things that don't appeal to them any more.

Certainly, they're missing the point. Hardcore gamers, Iwata argues, will buy a Nintendo DS for games like Metroid Prime Hunters; they might not understand or care about Nintendogs, but their sisters might, or their mothers. They might wonder what the hell Electroplankton is even doing on retail shelves, but their dads might think it's the first "game" they've ever wanted to play. Looking at the demonstration of Nintendogs last week, I could think of plenty of friends and relatives who would love it, and I suspect that most of the audience felt likewise. Nintendo is gambling on the ability of such compelling content to break down those people's basic resistance to buying a games console.

It's a huge gamble. The market is certainly there, but to focus so heavily on it with both a handheld and home console - risking alienating the hardcore gamer market in the process - is a strategy which must keep Iwata awake at night. On the other hand, it's certainly the most logical thing for Nintendo to do right now. Mega-corporations like Microsoft and Sony are determined to duke it out for the hardcore gaming segment with budgets and backing that Nintendo can only dream of, so the company has little choice but to find - or rather, create - a new market.

Ironically, it's Sony that has already proved that this market exists, with products like EyeToy and SingStar, both of which have been immensely successful at attracting entirely new people to the gaming pastime. Sony, however, has the kind of market dominance that lets it experiment with this kind of expansion on the fringes of its business. Nintendo has no such thing; tapping the casual gaming market, the female market and the older demographics may not actually be "do or die" for the Kyoto based company, but it's as close as makes no odds.

The reaction of the rest of the industry to Nintendo's venture has been interesting to watch. Admittedly, Nintendo has never really been a company that third parties were comfortable aligning themselves with - and it does retain some of the arrogance of old which suggested that it considered third party developers to be a necessary evil rather than genuine partners - but all the same, you'd expect a slightly more enthusiastic response from an industry which is so ready with the positive soundbites when the question of female and casual gamers is mentioned. Developers love Iwata, because he talks sincerely about creativity and innovation; publishers are less convinced, because the things he talks about don't fit with their neat projections for minimal risk and acceptable reward.

What Iwata is talking about, after all, isn't just growing the industry by ten per cent a year. He's talking about finding whole new markets, building a whole new section of the industry - and certainly, he may be doing it primarily in order to create a third way for Nintendo and avoid being squeezed between the behemoths of Microsoft and Sony, but that doesn't mean he's not right. He may be advocating games that few in the industry want to play, but he talks much sense when he argues that half of our problem is that the industry only makes games for itself. And certainly, Nintendo DS may look like a hellishly risky device and invite Virtual Boy comparisons, but then again, if Nintendo hadn't had the kind of courage that created the Virtual Boy, they wouldn't have created the Game and Watch, the GameBoy or the Famicom either - and the industry as we know it wouldn't exist today.

Nintendo DS sold 87,000 units when it launched in the UK last week, the largest first week for any console ever - home or handheld. It's purely anecdotal evidence, but I know far more women who bought them than men - many of whom haven't owned a handheld console ever before. The hardcore gamers and the industry at large may turn their noses up at Nintendo's decision to make puppy rearing simulators rather than gritty crime action games - but perhaps it's time the rest of the games market started paying more than just lip service to the fact that teenage boys and young men aren't the only people in the world with disposable income.

Rob Fahey is GamesIndustry.biz' editor, and can be reached at [rob@gamesindustry.biz].

This editorial originally appeared in the GamesIndustry.biz News Digest, a free email news bulletin which is distributed to subscribers every day of the week and features a round-up of the key headlines of the day, the latest major share movements from industry companies, and the day's new job postings. Each Thursday afternoon, this digest is presented in a special omnibus form with the week's game charts and an editorial focus piece.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.