5.21.2006

Untapped: Nintendo, Non-Games, and Next-Gen

Untapped: Nintendo, Non-Games, and Next-Gen
By Karl Castaneda

After the video game crash of the mid 1980s, Nintendo arrived to pick up the pieces and revive the industry with the Famicom (NES in the States) and Super Mario Bros., instantly pulling in former gamers and new customers alike with its fun and easy-to-manage gameplay. The premise was simple: press one button to go forward and another jump. It took only a minute to explain and even less to master, and because of this, everyone from your best friend to your grandmother could play without too much trouble. Heralded as a classic to this day, when people look back at old-school gaming, there’s no bigger icon than Mario.

Over the years Mario’s gotten more complex as the industry’s become bigger and (supposedly) better. The drawback to this is that, while thousands upon thousands of polygons might be devoted, try giving your mom your GameCube controller and Super Mario Sunshine. The end result isn’t pretty. “But so what,” the hardcore say, “It’s my experience that matters.” This is true, but when you’ve got enough cash to sustain an entire company, look me up. I’m sure Infinium Labs would like to meet you. In business, you expand your wealth by expanding your market, and that’s just what Nintendo’s been trying to do with its Blue Ocean strategy where, instead of catering specifically to the hardcore, they’re dividing their efforts into the classic face that we’re used to and a new outreach to people who’ve never picked up a controller before. Yes, we’re talking about non-gamers.

Problems in Paradise

When Nintendo lost their first-place title to Sony in the 32/64-Bit Wars, they were forced to think outside the box to bring back the audience that had deserted them. They couldn’t afford to rest on their laurels anymore. For a long time, this simply resulted in top-form traditional games like Super Mario 64 and Ocarina of Time.

But if you’re just copying your own success, you aren’t pushing the boundaries anymore, and Nintendo learned this the hard way with the GameCube. Traditional in every sense of the word, they found that while games like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes were left on store shelves, quirky games like Animal Crossing were flying out of Wal-Marts and Targets.

Nintendo can’t compete with Sony and Microsoft on that level. If they’re just following the casual gamer formula, they’ll fail, and they know this. The only way they’ll be able to take back what was once theirs is to tap into people who don’t know about their past mistakes; people who can be entranced by a simplified interface and committed to a company with a few exemplary titles. But how can you bring them in? They won’t buy GameCubes or GBAs, so how can you trap them? You release software that’s completed different from modern games. “Non-games” for “non-gamers.”


What’s a Non-Gamer?

The fact of the matter is, while not everyone is a “gamer,” everyone plays video games. Even my father, who claims that Smash Bros. has rotted my brains, plays Solitaire. What about your girlfriend playing Bejeweled on her cell phone? The term “video games” can be stretched infinitely, and Nintendo knows this. They also know that these people who play these digital distractions aren’t the same people who buy Game Informer and read 1Up.

A non-gamer, put simply, is someone who isn’t interested in video games due to some predisposition, be it intimidation of its complex nature or just a lack of motivation to try it out. The only way to appeal to these kinds of people is to lure them in with something easy and accessible, and once you’ve got them baited, you keep them there with more software of the same ilk. Once this begins, it doesn’t take long before you’ve got a dedicated fan. What’s more is, they’re a Nintendo fan, and Microsoft and Sony still look like indecipherable giants.

Most gamers are befuddled by this strategy, though, and claim that they just don’t see the market that Nintendo’s aiming for. To those people, I’ll pose a question. How many people do you who’re gamers? Chances are, you know quite a few. But how many people do you know who aren’t gamers? Probably a whole lot more. And I’m willing to bet that they play some sort of interactive entertainment, from Minesweeper to video pinball. All they need is an incentive to try something new, and who better to provide that than an old and familiar name like Nintendo, which has been in the gaming scene for more than twenty years? My English teacher doesn’t know what a PSP is, but she’s heard of Nintendo’s Game Boy before.

What’s the Bait?

So now that you’ve seen the game plan, you’re wondering how they’re actually going to do it, right? “Where’s the proof in the pudding,” you’re probably wondering. The truth is, Nintendo’s been making “non-games” for longer than you think. While it wasn’t exactly clear until the Nintendo DS came out during the last quarter of 2004, you can easily spot its roots years earlier, such as Animal Crossing in 2001 and even Mario Paint, way back in 1992. Both games snubbed traditional game design for a simpler, easier-to-understand concept. In Mario Paint, you had fun by creating art, and in Animal Crossing, there was no hit count or health meter. You just lived.

With the DS, though, Nintendo’s gone public with their intentions, and the fruits of their labor are apparent with software like Brain Age, collaborated on with world-renown neurologist Ryuta Kawashima, and Nintedogs, the cute dog-simulator where you raise your own puppy.

So does it work? According to recent sales reports, Animal Crossing’s latest iteration on the DS just reached three million copies sold, and Nintendogs is the new Pokemon in retail chains. As for Brain Age, over a year after its release in Japan, it’s still on the Top 5 Sales list, usually right below its sequel, with each selling just over two million copies. Now, that says one of two things. Either gamers are adopting the simpler-is-better mantra, or industry outsiders are falling head-over-heels in love with Nintendo’s bait. Either way, it’s good news for the Big N, but I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

In the U.S., the movement isn’t quite as strong, but Animal Crossing’s still a big hit, and Brain Age still sells DS units, just on a smaller scale. In the West, it’s going to take a little longer to take effect, which brings us to our next topic…

Will it Work in America?

The reason America hasn’t flocked to the non-gamer phenomenon is likely due to the still-remaining stigma concerning video games. They’re a lot more socially acceptable now than they were ten years ago, but how many of us list gaming as a hobby on job applications? Unless you’re shooting for a GameStop gig, you probably keep it to yourself.

And unlike Japan, where even veteran gamers have waved the white flag and bought themselves a copy of Nintendogs, enthusiasts in the U.S. are more concerned with how they’re going to save up enough money for a PS3 to think about buying Bob Ross Painting on their DS. They see “simple” as “dumbed-down,” when really, these games are just more accessible. Hardcore gamers want hardcore themes, though, so Nintendo’s stuck between a rock and a hard place overseas.

Luckily, they may be moving out of it sooner than we think. Brain Age infomercials are all over the Discovery Channel, and with Sudoku’s chokehold over the country, the upcoming digital version on our new favorite handheld will likely be a big hit with non-traditional players. Americans are a fickle bunch, but they love to follow fads, and non-games look like the next big thing.

Nintendo Wii: Alienating Fans?

The biggest complaint from the gaming crowd concerning Nintendo’s new outlook is that they’ll be left behind, and they won’t be able to count on great new iterations of their favorite franchises. Well, anyone who followed E3 knows that this concern is largely unfounded. Games like Red Steel, Super Mario Galaxy, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl promise to appease the industry while non-games like Wii Sports expand the market and create a brand new fanbase for Nintendo.

Unfortunately, the new interface will hamper development for the first year or so of third party software, much like 3D and the analog stick brought out some quick cash-in titles in the wake of the N64 and Playstation’s Dual Shock controller. While the Wiimote is perfectly suited for non-games, it’s going to take some time for developers to learn how to re-fit fundamental game design on the console. It’s definitely doable, though, and the results are very promising. Madden Wii, for example, looks to be the most refreshing iteration of the franchise in years, and it wouldn’t be possible on any other console due to its simplified control mechanism.

Much like the DS, we’re going to see a two-pronged Nintendo in the next generation. Some games will be there to appease hardcore fans, and every other title will be a “non-game,” there to bolster Nintendo’s mindshare. And if the Wii vs. PS3/Xbox 360 battle echoes its handheld counterpart, the next few years may belong to the company that was deemed “dead” a couple of years into the GameCube.

Conclusion… or Not

It’s an exciting time for industry analysts; Nintendo’s trying something that’ll either bring them back onto the throne or pull them down into the gutter. It’s a big gamble, but there’s a rule about gambling smart. You put your cards on the table when, and only when, the outcome outweighs the risk. And when it comes to you and your parents’ next-gen dollar, Nintendo’s very much committed to taking that risk.

Who knows; maybe in five years we’ll be talking about how much we’re anticipating the new Brain Age or, of all things, whizzing our pants in waiting for an Electroplankton sequel. Wouldn’t that be funny…

--End

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