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E3: Wii Will Prevail

Solid showing, but Nintendo still has questions to answer.

For a company whose stated goal is to win over the hearts and minds - and, crucially, wallets - of people who are currently not consumers of videogames, Nintendo is rather good at playing up to a hardcore audience of gamers.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the hyperactive creator of Mario and Zelda along with a host of Nintendo's other famous properties, is the key draw for the firm's legions of devoted fans at E3 every year. Whether it's inviting young ladies backstage to play with his puppy (it's a Nintendogs thing - we think) or leaping around holding replicas of Link's Master Sword and Shield, his appearances at the company's traditional pre-E3 show in the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood always grab the headlines, and have occasionally helped to paper over the cracks when the firm's line-up of products and announcements had little to recommend it to the world.

This year, Nintendo brought out the entertainment up front - with Miyamoto taking the stage right at the outset of the conference to conduct a virtual orchestra using the motion-sensing controller of the Wii console, in a crowd-pleasing exercise which was a welcome change of tone from the lengthy and often rudely arrogant display put on by SCEA boss Kaz Hirai at Sony's conference the previous evening.

However, Miyamoto had few cracks to paper over this year. The company's strategy with the Wii continues to look just as solid as it's seemed ever since the moment that Satoru Iwata brandished a motion-sensitive, spatially aware controller on a stage at the Tokyo Game Show last year, and the DS is performing far beyond the wildest expectations of analysts and industry insiders alike. Despite the rapid decline of the GameCube, Nintendo is perceived as a company on an upswing - and looking back at the firm's performance in Los Angeles last week, that's a perception which has only been reinforced.

The company made the wise decision to focus entirely on software at the show, demoting all discussion of specifications, functionality and the likes to a single comment in Iwata's speech - probably the low point of its conference, which is a shame given Iwata's normal fluent humour in public speaking - about the always-on network functions of the console. It's interesting to note that even now, six months form launch, Nintendo hasn't yet actually told the world what's inside the Wii box in terms of components; it's even more interesting to note that nobody actually cares enough to even ask the question. The firm's side-step of the next-generation arms race being fought between Microsoft and Sony has been more successful than even very positive commentators believed possible, in this respect.

It wasn't all plain sailing for Nintendo, however. While the Wii continues to be an industry darling, even to the point where both Sony and Microsoft are openly acknowledging that many if not most of their consumers will want to have a Wii as well as a more traditional next-gen console next to their televisions, there were a few small mis-steps in Nintendo's E3 strategy - and not just in terms of allowing the effusive Reggie Fils-Aime to dominate the stage with his "unique" style of cheerleading patter, which has descended from being refreshing and funny two years ago to being on the verge of self-parody in his star turn at the conference last week.

Soundbite-laden nonsense aside, Nintendo's conference raised eyebrows in a few places - choosing to give Ubisoft's unconvincing Red Steel significantly more time in centre stage than the excellent Super Mario Galaxy, for instance - but the one area in which Nintendo appeared to be broadsided a little by the competition was on price and date. The firm had no information to impart on these crucial points, which would be been accepted as fair enough most years - but Sony moved the goalposts by giving exactly details of its PS3 launch date and pricing, leaving Nintendo out on its own as the only unknown factor in the equation this Christmas.

This is unlikely to hurt the company's performance in any significant way - the pricing will probably be announced around TGS in September, or perhaps even at the Game Convention in Leipzig in August, and as long as it's below $200 as expected, and the worldwide launch does happen in 2006, opinion will still fall in Nintendo's favour. However, the firm had no doubt planned that its announcement would fall close to Sony's announcement, casting it into an even more positive light; as it is, Sony has in some respects buried its bad news by announcing pricing this far from launch, and Nintendo has missed a chance to look even more like a knight in shining armour to its customers and prospective customers.

It's hard to find fault with the meat of Nintendo's conference, though, which was the software on display. Even if we didn't get to see as much of Mario Galaxy as you might have expected - which is surprising given how polished the build of the game on the E3 show floor was - the company is certainly moving well in terms of rolling out its big guns close to launch. Metroid, Zelda and Mario all look well-progressed - with Zelda confirmed to be a launch title - and later in the week, a second (and admittedly slightly pointless) conference revealed that work on Super Smash Bros is also well underway. Iwata alluded to an Animal Crossing title for the system, and other mass-market titles are undoubtedly in development, even if the only ones showcased at the conference and show were the unquestionably excellent, if somewhat basic, Wii Sports range.

The big, gaping hole, as always, was third party support - and while Red Steel wasn't as awful as some early reports had suggested, it certainly didn't deserve the kind of prominence it got either at the conference or on the show floor. Then again, Nintendo has never cared much for the contributions of third parties to its consoles, outside of a close circle of collaborators such as Capcom and Sega, but it feels compelled to pay lip service to the idea of the third party publishing model every time it makes a major announcement.

On the GameCube, it can be argued that the lack of third party support turned the machine from a contender in the battle against Sony and Microsoft into an also-ran - a very profitable also-ran for Nintendo, but an also-ran nonetheless. On the Wii, there's a school of thought which says that it doesn't matter quite as much, since nobody will buy this machine for cross-platform titles or for big third-party franchises. If the Wii needs Grand Theft Auto to survive, then Nintendo's plan for the system has already failed, frankly.

At the show itself, Nintendo was a clear winner among the 60,000 bodies who thronged into the Los Angeles Convention Centre. Queues for the Wii section of the stand extended to five hours at some points, and wrapped around three sides of the firm's enormous stand; within the closed off section, the situation was no less crowded, with further queues of up to half an hour to play on the more popular games. Despite the delays, people were prepared to queue to play - a clear sign of the level of interest in the system, and probably something of a kick in the teeth for Microsoft and Sony, both of whom had booths where a wait of a few minutes would get you playing any game you wanted.

Part of that is down to the much higher level of interest in Wii than in the other next-gen consoles; but on the other hand, both Microsoft and Sony did have better-designed booths than Nintendo. While the queues to play Wii may have grabbed headlines in the short term, on a more important level they indicate Nintendo's own internal struggle to come to terms with what it means to be a company that wants to address the mass market. While the architects of the Wiii and its software may embrace that concept, the creators of the firm's booth clearly think we're still in the early nineties, and set out to appeal to the hardest of the hardcore, those who are prepared to brave hours of queuing to play the latest Mario game.

This essential dichotomy has done Nintendo some damage already. What the firm needed from E3 was not a select few hardcore nerds who queued up over and over to play games on the Wii; it needed an absolute horde of ambassadors who had walked up to a stand, picked up a controller and enjoyed a game, and who then went home to their jobs, families and friends and talked positively about the new gaming experiences they had tried out. Short-term headlines about queuing for five hours leave Nintendo's new console already sounding hardcore and offputting to casual gamers, which is exactly what the company didn't want to do at this point in time.

Of course, this is only the first stage of the marathon, and a stumble this early on doesn't necessarily prevent a runner from winning gold five years down the line - but while Nintendo's message, its hardware and its software are excellent, its choice of how to execute at E3 this year was questionable. From Reggie's fanboy cheerleading through to the exclusive, hardcore nature of the firm's booth, it's clear that Nintendo of America, at least, is still struggling to work out how on earth to appeal to anyone who doesn't own a T-shirt with Mario on it. They don't have very many months left to work out the answers.

Author
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.