Should Nintendo Focus on the Casual Market?

At E3 2010, Nintendo seemed to make all the right moves. Short of making a Mario-Toad sex tape, they couldn’t have gotten more raucous geek applause. They announced the 3DS, Skyward Sword (and Ocarina for 3DS, shortly afterwards), Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, GoldenEye, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kid Icarus Uprising, and much, much more. In the space of about two hours, Nintendo went from being a sly reference on internet message boards to being, in no uncertain terms, the heroes of gaming.

The fact that, for years leading up to that moment, core gamers had accused Nintendo of just rehashing their old IPs, then found all new respect for them because they were rehashing old IPs is something I’m not going to touch on in this article, but it needed to be said and it felt good to get it out there.

Nintendo was quite obviously trying to capture the core market, made up of people who came home from school every evening with no intention of doing anything but playing their SNES constantly, the same people who arguably put them into the position they are in today. But was the decision to make a more conscious effort towards attracting the core a mistake?

If you look at the last few months, you’d be forgiven for answering "yes".

Let’s set the pre-E3 2010 scene: Nintendo have an undisputable hit on their hands and watching people buy their products is usually like watching a scene out of Jingle All The Wayonly with entertainment value. Other than the vast minority of frequent gamers, nobody complains about the Wii “gathering dust” or “not having any games”, because most people keep it on for a few hours a week and love every second of it.

Sure, software sales aren’t fantastic for the most part. When something comes along that captures the imagination of the users, however, it’s a gold mine.

And then, when things are going so well, Nintendo announces their next big product, the piece of electronics that’s going to combine the super-hot DS with the rapidly increasing popularity of 3D. And the reaction to the 3DS was amazing; people could only imagine the possibilities, especially when people like Hideo Kojima said they would be keenly participating in the future of the console.

Flash forward to release date and things weren’t quite as expected. The 3DS sold fairly well, as far as I know, but it was a Nintendo product and was expected to be unavailable for months and months. Several people had convinced grandparents and small children to be sold into slavery in order to guarantee a console on release day, and they hadn’t needed to. Why?

Well, for starters people complained about the release line-up. Despite having Super Street Fighter 3D, Samurai Warriors, The Sims 3, Super Monkey Ball, Pilotwings, a couple of Tom Clancy games, and Lego Star Wars, it wasn’t enough. Despite all of those games beings hugely loved on consoles (or PC), the core crowd didn’t support the 3DS from the get go. The high price of the console itself and the fact that most of those games have console equivalents worked against Nintendo at launch. But there is also a decided lack of casual launch titles as well. Pilotwings and maybe, just maybe, Super Monkey Ball would have been all a family of non-gamers would have had any interest in.

And that’s the second mistake Nintendo made when they released the 3DS. They didn’t let anybody know that the 3DS wasn’t technically a DS. People are citing an over-reliance on 3D as the downfall of the 3DS, I disagree. The biggest problem with the 3DS is that people thought it was what they already had, but with the occasional piece of eye candy-based trickery.

The added graphical power, the 3D camera, and social featuresnone of that mattered because it looked like a DS, and Nintendo, in my mind, did very little to differentiate the release of the 3DS from, say, the release of the DS XL.

But that wasn’t where the mistakes stopped. In 2011, Nintendo announced the Wii U, a name that I still believe is some sort of in-joke that we’re not privy to. Now, let me ask you frankly here (replies on a post card, don’t forget to include the stamp), who thinks the Wii U is for the core gamer? When you look at the Wii U, do you suddenly imagine yourself mid-session, eating junk food and kicking ass in Battlefield 3?

The more I think about the Wii U, the less I am able to understand it. It has some neat features and a HD console from Nintendo is bound to have a lot of worthwhile titles attached to it, but who the hell is it aimed at? Will Mom and Pop trade in Billy’s Wii for this thing?

At first glimpse, the touch screen controller seems like the biggest gimmick since, well, motion control. We all know how impressive a combination of gimmick, market forces, and peer pressure can be. But a quick look at the titles announced so far show that the casual crowd are being all but ignored.

So who exactly are they trying to pull in with this thing?

I think this all boils down to a simple problem. Nintendo are forever linked with video games, they are responsible for millions of happy Christmas mornings and billions of hours of adult daydream nostalgia. And I think at some point, somebody high up at Nintendo realized that some of the people who used to love their company had grown up to become cynical, fat, and pretty brave behind a computer screen.

And that somebody decided that they needed to prove that Nintendo was still the company that brought you the original GoldenEye and Ocarina of Time. But in doing that, they’ve become confused. The core crowd can get their gaming elsewhere, at cheaper prices and without the gimmick – they’re happy. While the casual crowd are at least mildly impressed by the new offerings but don’t have the time or money to spend investing in a console that will offer only a marginally improved experience.

Nintendo need to pick exactly which market they want to conquer and then they need to run with it. If they want to take on Sony and Microsoft head-on, they need to up their online presence and drop the gimmicks. If they want to remain above comparison to the other major players, they need to remember that the Wii has sold 90 million odd consoles because casuals loved how easy it was to play.

With news of how rough the Wii U development may be going, and continued mistakes with the 3DS, let’s hope Nintendo make the right decision sooner rather than later.