Nintendo's Revolutionary Man
Nintendo is different; it always has been and probably always will be. Whether it's hardware design, controller/input design, online gaming or anything else, the company's core philosophy that governs its primary decisions is instantly distinguishable from that of its competitors. Comments from Sony and Microsoft may seem interchangeable at times -- not so with Nintendo.
The "Nintendo difference" was evident once again in a recent interview with Jim Merrick, head of European marketing. The folks at website ComputerAndVideoGames.com (CVG) spoke with Merrick at the Tokyo Game Show about all things Nintendo.
Expanding the market
In what could be considered a slight jab at Microsoft's "We're going to reach a billion consumers" mantra, Merrick said, "Everybody's talking about market expansion and attracting new users now, but we're the first company that's really deliberating on new ways to reach those consumers. Nintendo has a long history of innovation -- we spent the last week trashing traditional controller design, saying 'Oh, we're going to change the world with these new controllers!' But as someone pointed out to us last week in Tokyo, we're responsible for most of those elements that make up today's controller designs so we probably shouldn't trash it so much! However, it's a recognition that we have to change the way we play games and the way we do business and we want to continue to grow the market."
He continued, "If we follow what Iwata-san calls 'the past success formula', if we keep refining the existing model - more power, more pixels, more polygons, more levels, more enemies, better AI - we're actually making the games for a narrower audience playing those kind of intense games. We need to take a step back and refocus on a broad audience where we reach to everybody otherwise we're going to see the market start shrinking - as we're already seeing in Japan."
It's this philosophy, of course, that led to the design of the Revolution controller. By creating a free-hand controller that looks and feels like a TV remote, Nintendo believes it will make playing video games far more accessible to a much wider audience. "...we wanted the Revolution controller to be something relevant to every single person in the household, that is not intimidating, that looks like something you would pick up and use and your mother would pick up and use without looking at it and saying 'That's not for me - that's not what I'm about.' We very much wanted the Revolution controller living on the coffee table just like a TV remote does - part of your lifestyle, not something that has to be hidden away every time you've finished playing games," Merrick explained.
Merrick realizes that Nintendo risks alienating itself from current gamers with such a radical change in video game input, but he believes it's a necessary risk in order to innovate—one that could actually offer greater control than traditional input methods: "...any time you say 'I'm creating something for new users,' there is a subliminal message that says for the existing users, 'I'm forgetting about you, I'm ignoring you.' [But] I think that's one of the elegant things about this controller - it offers so much for an existing gamer. The capabilities to directly, precisely target things, pointing in a much more natural way than using analogue control."
"People say 'You don't have enough buttons to support the games,' but actually, I've got way more input than you're getting out of a standard controller and I haven't even pressed a button yet," he said.
Dealing with marketing budgets
Merrick also addressed what, at times, seems like a lack of marketing from Nintendo: "...there is very high awareness on Sony title[s] or Microsoft titles that don't necessarily translate into sales and so we try to very practical about measuring our marketing effectiveness and making sure we are really targeting the people who're going to buy our products and that they're taking away our key messages from our advertising. We'd love to do more and more marketing, but on the other side, we are a for-profit enterprise - we're actually in this business to make money, as opposed to some of our competitors so we have to practical."
In terms of marketing the Revolution itself, it would appear that Nintendo has learned from the GameCube "purple lunchbox" criticisms. "I mean there's four colours that we're showing right now - and none of them are purple. There are things in design that help us to associate and this is not a lunchbox - you have an elegant, simple design that should be a bit more timeless and ageless. Anyone of any age should be proud to say 'This is my Revolution,'" said Merrick.
Nintendo goes online (finally)
When it comes to online gaming, Nintendo has not shown consumers that it's serious about this sector of the market, but that's clearly changing with the Wi-Fi network for the DS and Revolution. "...we've never done the big commercial online service because - and I spent years working on this project myself - the value proposition for the consumer just isn't there, the consumer doesn't perceive the benefit. I think the industry went about online in a bit of a backward order, trying to monetize it first and deliver the value second and I think we've got to go the other way. I think mass market consumers need to understand the value on the online brand first and then maybe we can monetize it," explained Merrick.
"You know, we see online and we think it really should be an extension of the game - you don't even necessarily perceive that you're online. I came to play Mario Kart, I didn't come to play Xbox Live and spend twenty minutes trying to match make somebody - I want to get into Mario Kart and find somebody to play against as quickly and as painlessly as I can," he continued.