Five Things Nintendo Did Right in 2006

A games post by matt, posted on February 27, 2007 at 11:20 pm




The early results are in, and they’re looking pretty damn good for Nintendo: their Wii console sold some 436,000 units in the U.S. in January, compared to 294,000 for Microsoft’s XBox 360 and 244,000 for the Playstation 3. Wii Software did well too, with both Wario Ware Smooth Moves and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess charting in the Top 10 titles for the month.

Even more telling than all that data, however, is that it’s three months past launch and it is still impossible to find a Wii. People still line up in front of Best Buys when new shipments are announced, and for the impatient (like me) the only way to get your hands on one is through craigslist scalpers (like I did). I’d compare it to similar sold-out-everywhere phenomena like Tickle-Me-Elmos or that robot pet that blinked and plotted your demise, except for one thing: it’s January.

Consumer chaos, huge line-ups and shipment sell-outs are something that happen over Christmas, not in January. We expect them in December. It’s that wonderful time of year where everyone goes nuts and decides that what their bachelor apartment really needs in a 50″ Plasma Television and so much IKEA furniture that the excess multitools can be melted down into a cube and exhibited in a museum as some sort of post-modern critique of consumerism and giant cubes. Everyone loses their shit in December, and so sales from that month are largely irrelevant. What’s hot in December is in the bargain bin in January, as generally kids wake up and realize that the thing they wanted — whether it was that version of Battleship that actually talked to you or some sort of voice-activated water pistol that attached to your finger — actually really sucks.

But that didn’t happen with the Wii. Their sales in January 2007 were the highest January sales for any console ever.

So how did Nintendo do it? I certainly didn’t think they would. My expectations with the Wii started low, and only got lower as Nintendo seemingly made moves that were, not to put too fine a point on it, really stupid. It’s only twice as powerful as the Gamecube! It can’t output to High Definition! It has a controller that looks like a television remote! They named it “Wii”!

They looked doomed.

And now here we are, with Nintendo for the first time in a decade looking like they might actually have a chance of winning the worldwide ‘war’ for console userbase supremacy. How they did it exactly is anyone’s guess, but here are five moves Nintendo made in 2006 that, in retrospect, seem really brilliant.

1. They Stopped Thinking of Themselves as Market Leader

For a lot of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube eras, it felt like Nintendo — and particularly Nintendo Co Ltd in Japan — had blinders on. It was as if they felt that Nintendo was destined to be top dog in the video game marketplace, and that any sales report to the contrary were just the delusional rantings of market analysts and sales tracking firms. And it wasn’t entirely unjustified, really. At the end of the SNES era “Nintendo” had become synonymous with “gaming.” We didn’t play video games, we played Nintendo.

The Gamecube announcement made it clear that Nintendo believed the customers were just standing around waiting for them to release new hardware. It was hardware that addressed none of the criticisms of the previous platform, and offered nothing in the way of innovation or even marked differences over its competitors. It wasn’t a failure, but it was just sort of boring. And boring is something a company with an already dwindling userbase can’t afford to be.

It wasn’t until Nintendo stopped acting like they were a phenomenally successful company and started acting like a company in need of phenomenal success that they were able to make the moves that lead to the Wii.

2. They Took Direction from Apple

All of that lead them here. And while I can’t say for certain that Nintendo used Apple as a basis for their public image makeover, I will say that Nintendo and Apple’s similarities go beyond a mutual love of shiny white electronics and awesome keynote presences. Apple’s rising market share in recent years was spurred by their corporate admittance that hey, sure, we’re not the market leader, but we do offer a really nice alternative.

Nintendo’s being doing the alternative thing, too, taking a sort of “That’s great guys, but check out what I can do” approach to the competitive video game space. And nice industrial design is part of that — the Wii and Nintendo DS are unlike any Nintendo-designed hardware ever sold in that they actually look really nice — because it’s part of that alternative approach. Just like Apple offers PCs that don’t look like PCs, Nintendo’s latest console carries few of the hallmarks of the console. There are no tangled wires, there’s no flashy colour schemes — it’s different, like Nintendo is.

3. They Refocused on the Japanese Market

This is something that, like many of the reasons behind the Wii’s success, actually began with the Nintendo DS. In Japan, Nintendo saw a market in crisis. Everyone else did too. While things were still booming for Sony in other parts of the world, the Japanese seemed really kind of bored with the whole gaming thing. Sales were good, but not spectacular. The big Japanese developers, like Capcom, started focusing on the American market with titles featuring the only thing Americans really enjoy — zombies and bald space marines — leaving the Japanese to enjoy scraps which mostly consisted of games with “Tales” in the title.

I’m not sure there’s any way Nintendo could have known that virtual dogs and a game where an old Asian man tells you that you are dumb for writing your Bs like 3s would cause record sales, but these are franchises — Nintendogs and Brain Training, respectively — that were clearly geared towards a Japanese audience in the planning stages.

That the American audience would follow the same trends as the Japanese audience, however, was far less of a question mark. Nintendo’s been banking on that since 1985. Huge franchise successes in Japan almost always become huge worldwide franchise successes. It just seems that Nintendo’s the only one that remembers that.

4. They Took Major Risks

Big Brain Academy Wii
It seems kind of odd to consider now, but the Wii’s success was hardly assured. Hell, back in the summer conventional wisdom was that Nintendo’s best hope was a niche third place finish. What drove the Wii past all this doubt, however, was the enigmatic quality. Because the Wii was so different, historical trends didn’t apply and it became impossible to really guess at Nintendo’s level of success with the Wii.

The best anyone could really do was call it an unknown, and that was precisely because it was such a risk. Either its play-style, with wand-waggle controls and diving-behind-the-couch-gameplay, would feel gimmicky, incomplete and ultimately unsatisfying next to its competitors, or it would be really fun and new and make the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 feel old and uninspiring in comparison.

We can’t say for sure that the latter has or will happen, but we can definitely say at this point that the former will not happen. Which has to stand as a big win for Nintendo.

5. They Ignored High Definition

Again, this connects with the above, because not going HD was definitely a big risk, but I’m folding it into its own point because it was a good move beyond the reasons given above. At the time the Wii was announced, High Definition was, and still is, the future. The corollary to that is, of course, that high definition was, and still is, really expensive. There’s not a part of the whole HD scheme that isn’t expensive: the consoles are expensive, the games are more expensive, and the TVs are really expensive.

High definition gaming is the future now in the same way 32-bit gaming was the future in 1994 with the launch of the 32X. Power and brand names only go as far as affordability takes you.

Nintendo was the only one who really got this. Which is especially odd considering Sony has made a killing the past two console generations delivering products that were, comparatively, underpowered and lacking in whiz-bag features.

There are people who will argue that the lack of HD will hurt the Wii in a few years, but I think those people overestimate the consumer’s rate of adoption for new technology. Hell, there are still people out there running their DVD players through RF switches on wood paneled TV. And these aren’t a tiny minority of people, either — these are your normal people who don’t follow tech blogs daily, don’t know the difference between HDMI and Component and have no idea what 1080p means outside of, maybe, some sort of move you could pull off on a skateboard.

The make-or-break time for high definition will be 2010 which just happens to be right around the time Nintendo would be gearing up to release a new console anyway. Until then, coming to market with a console priced at $250 has proved to be one of the keys behind Nintendo’s early success.

To Be Continued

The nerdery doesn’t stop here. In my quest to reveal on this site that I am more than just a rabid watcher of television, I’m going to follow this article up in a week’s time with Five More Things Nintendo Did Right in 2006 which will itself be followed up by Five Things Nintendo Did Wrong in 2006. It’s a series, you see?