Nintendo isn't hitting reset
Nintendo isn't retreating from the “casual” market; the accessible, family-friendly approach is here to stay
Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto doesn't want to make games for "passive" people; the attitude that games ought to be to be a roller-coaster ride, to entertain without challenge, is, to his mind, "pathetic". That was the message from the legendary game designer in an E3 interview with Edge magazine, published in this month's edition; it's been presented by other news outlets as a sign of a Nintendo U-turn, moving away from the casual market it sought with the Wii and the DS in favour of re-engaging core gamers.
That's exactly the sort of message that most of the games media wants to hear, of course. The media, after all, speaks exclusively to core gamers; casual players generally don't bother with specialist media. "Nintendo has seen the error of its ways and realised that the only people worth making games for are you, my dear brethren!" is a crowd-pleaser of a message; but it's also a pretty big leap to make from the comments Miyamoto actually made.
First, the context. Edge had just challenged Miyamoto over the fact that his prototype games at E3 were all somewhat difficult to play. They used the Wii U GamePad in new ways which it took a while to get accustomed to; the question implied in the text of Edge's interview isn't about casual games at all, but about the difficulty level of the prototypes. Miyamoto's response does make clear a mental distinction between different types of game consumer and a preference for those who enjoy some challenge in their entertainment, but to extrapolate that into a U-turn in Nintendo's development priorities is an overreach.
"Nintendo itself has a conception of "casual" and "core" that probably isn't shared by the majority of sites reporting Miyamoto's comments. Miyamoto talks not about themes but about enjoyment of challenge as the distinction between the two groups"
In fact, Miyamoto's comments - equating passivity with "the sort of people who, for example, might want to watch a movie. They might want to go to Disneyland. Their attitude is 'OK, I am the customer; you are supposed to entertain me'" - are punching in a number of directions at once. Certainly, he's frustrated by people who play games without ever really engaging with them as a challenge; I doubt he's a fan of free-to-play systems that allow you to pay money to bypass challenges. Equally, though, those comments are an attack on some approaches to AAA game design; barren technological wonders which serve as little more than on-rails galleries for artwork and pale narrative. Miyamoto isn't saying "casuals have ruined the market"; far from it. He's saying that there are consumers who demand spoon-fed entertainment at all points of the spectrum from core to casual, and that he doesn't want to make games for any of them. (It's also worth noting that he's not really blowing his top over this; "pathetic" doesn't carry the same kind of stinging indictment in Japanese that it does in translation.)
Later in the Edge interview, Miyamoto veers back to similar territory when he talks about the proliferation of mainstream game-capable platforms like iOS and Android devices. While adamant that Nintendo needs to continue to make hardware as well as software, he's delighted that these new platforms exist, because they provide an "on-ramp" for consumers who haven't engaged with games before. Nintendo previously saw itself holding a responsibility to try to open up new demographics for the games industry; now it seems that we've reached a tipping point, technologically and culturally, where that's happening by itself.
Edge speculates that this means Miyamoto (and hence Nintendo) believes that the window has shut on making games for entry-level gamers. Titles like Brain Training, which opened up the DS to a huge audience of people who had rarely if ever played games before, may now be pointless; the consumers they ought to target are all playing games on their phones and tablets, so there isn't an addressable market remaining there for dedicated hardware and more expensive (non-F2P) games. This is fair analysis, and indeed, it probably features in Nintendo's thinking; let iOS serve as the entry level for new gamers and then hope that those who enjoy the experience will ultimately upgrade to the superior offerings available on a dedicated console.
At the same time, though, Nintendo itself has a conception of "casual" and "core" that probably isn't shared by the majority of sites reporting Miyamoto's comments. Miyamoto talks not about themes but about enjoyment of challenge as the distinction between the two groups. To him, a supposedly "adult" game full of blood and ripe language could be utterly casual if it spoon-feeds players with dull, linear gameplay. Meanwhile, a brightly coloured Mushroom Kingdom epic could qualify as "core" if it challenges players in the right way. Consequently, Nintendo's family-friendly IP and the broad appeal of its themes is entirely compatible with a focus on "core games", to Miyamoto's mind. What he's talking about changing is something at the root of design, not the thematic wallpaper of the company's games; he wants to challenge people, not to force Nintendo's artists to remove all the primary colours from their Photoshop palettes.
"Nintendo, for many years to come, will still be a company defined by games that are broadly appealing, generally family-friendly and enormously accessible"
Viewed in this light, Miyamoto's comments are an earnest and down-to-earth appraisal of Nintendo's present situation; still recovering from the heady days of the Wii and figuring out how much of that flash-in-the-pan market is really sustainable, but knuckling down to the challenge of entertaining and delighting (and of course, selling to) those within the audience who really enjoyed games rather than latching onto the platform as a fad. Contrary to the more excitable reportage on his comments, Miyamoto is promising no major changes to Nintendo's approach; rather, he's re-committing himself and the company to the same course of action which delivered games like Mario Kart 8, a title firmly within the family-friendly Nintendo tradition and absolutely celebratory of challenge and good design.
"Core gamer" is a phrase that's picked up a strong whiff of soi-disant elitism and exclusion over the past few years; the phrase "as a core gamer..." in a forum post or comment thread is this odd little corner of society's equivalent of "I'm not a racist, but...", indicating a post that's probably going to brim with self-important awfulness. The bête noire of the core gamer is the "casual", and just as any move by a game creator or publisher to cater to "casuals" is despised and derided, any prodigal son who declares their abandonment of the casual market and return to the core is greeted with an I-told-you-so roar of delight. This is a thin sliver of the market overall, of course, but a noisy one; as such, it's worth reiterating that what Miyamoto absolutely did not say is that Nintendo is resetting its course to please these people. Nintendo, for many years to come, will still be a company defined by games that are broadly appealing, generally family-friendly and enormously accessible. Under Miyamoto's watchful eye, they'll also be challenging and engaging; but anyone taking his comments on "passivity" as near-confirmation that we'll see Grand Theft Mario down the line is utterly misreading the situation.