Sunday, June 21, 2015

Electronic Entertainment Expo: Nintendo's losing.

You know a company has had a particularly miserable E3 when, before the show is even over, one senior executive finds himself having to officially deny that another senior executive has apologised for the state of their E3 offerings. That's exactly the situation Reggie Fils-Aime found himself in earlier this week, as the disappointment at Nintendo's extremely weak showing crystallised around a single tweet sent by company president Satoru Iwata. The tweet was in Japanese; various translations floated around, some more accurate than others, and the media gleefully seized on an interpretation which had Iwata promising to "do better" at E3 in future. It was the perfect stick with which to beat Nintendo for failing to live up to the standards accomplished by Microsoft and, even more spectacularly, by Sony on the previous day; look, even the company's own president thinks it was rubbish!
As it happens, Fils-Aime is quite right; Iwata did not apologise for Nintendo's conference. He said that the company was listening closely to feedback and would work hard, in future, to meet the expectations of even more people. This was prefaced with a comment related to the extremely late hour at which the show was broadcast in Japan (it didn't start until 1am JST; the Sony conference the previous day was at a rather more comfortable 10am JST, and nobody in Japan really cares about the Microsoft conference). In context (and context is king in the Japanese language), Iwata's comment is clearly a generic "thanks for your feedback, we'll work hard in future too", coupled with a tacit promise to try not to mess up the scheduling for Japanese viewers in future.
"Nintendo said 'we're not playing the E3 game' and attempted to dodge the inevitably negative contrasts with Sony and Microsoft... It didn't work"
Iwata didn't apologise. Of course he bloody didn't; the Nintendo boss is often frank and refreshingly direct in his manner, but the content of his statements is always, always on-message. The idea that he was going to take to Twitter to say "sorry, that was a load of old bollocks wasn't it?" after his company's event is ludicrous. Yet, at the same time, the fact that it seemed plausible to so many people is a reflection of something troubling; Nintendo's event was genuinely bad enough to make an apology from Iwata himself seem, if not realistic, then at least not ridiculous.
Nintendo, or at least a part of Nintendo - perhaps the Japanese part - didn't want to be at E3. That's partially related to NX; the company is the only platform holder which has acknowledged that it's working on future hardware, but isn't going to say anything further about it until 2016. It's also too early to talk about its mobile titles (and E3 probably isn't the venue for that anyway), and Iwata confirmed prior to the event that it wouldn't talk about its health, lifestyle and education related projects at a purely gaming event like E3. Nonetheless, there's plenty that Nintendo could have talked about but didn't. The choice to reveal only games that are locked in for release within the next 10 months or so isn't confirmation of a time-of-death being decided for Wii U (they did the same thing for 3DS, which has an installed base twice the size of the PS4 and isn't going anywhere any time soon), it's a decision which was taken, along with the decision to do an online broadcast rather than a live event - cutting out the whooping crowds and the spectacle that usually defines an E3 conference.
These are decisions which say, "we're not playing your game" - the game in question being E3 itself. Nintendo doesn't feel like it fits well with E3 right now. It's not just troubled by the dismal sales of the Wii U, it's also deeply uncomfortable with being the only major company in the industry that's still seriously committed to family entertainment. It knows that no matter how wonderful its software and franchises are - and I maintain that Nintendo is in a genuine golden age regarding the quality of its games - they make problematic bedfellows for the mainstream of distinctly adult-focused games and the monetisation of violent nostalgia for thirty-somethings. I think it's genuinely wonderful that the games industry's wings are spread so wide, even in the AAA space, that it can accommodate both the charming, gentle fun of Yoshi's Wooly World and the gut-wrenching, visceral violence of the Doom reboot; at the same time, I can understand why the creators of the former don't see much value in investing heavily in promoting it alongside the latter. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong audience. It's no accident that one of the very few third-party games to appear in the Nintendo event was Skylanders, a hugely successful franchise that's equally uncomfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed.
By going digital rather than having a staged event, by replacing its executives with loveable puppets, by giving developers lengthy, meandering videos to chat about their creative process after showing off their new trailers, by refusing to talk about anything but the immediate future of its software line-up - by all these decisions and more, Nintendo said "we're not playing the E3 game" and attempted to dodge the inevitably negative contrasts with Sony and Microsoft.
It didn't work. It didn't work because it's an intrinsically dishonest approach, one which not only failed to establish a "Nintendo difference" that denied negative contrasts, but which also robbed the company of the chance to make a decent fist out of its showing. Nintendo hobbled its own event, making it even more disappointing than it needed to be, and all it achieved was to make itself look even weaker, even more troubled, next to the might of Sony and Microsoft.
Here's what Nintendo should have done - should have had the courage to do - nothing. They should have held no digital event. Some of Nintendo of America's activities, like the entertaining and light-hearted Nintendo World Championships, fit nicely with the week, but the digital event shouldn't have happened at all. The company is absolutely correct to think that its approach and its products don't fit E3 as it stands, but absolutely wrong to think that it can avoid the resulting negativity by just downscaling its involvement. Pick a lane and stick with it; given the choice to go big or go home, Nintendo's decision ought to have been "go home", not "can't we just go a bit small and hope for the best?"
"It failed so miserably that the Internet spent a few hours genuinely believing that Iwata had apologised for the whole sorry affair"
This would not be unprecedented. Faced with a similar disconnect between their games and much of the rest of the industry's direction, Nintendo - by far the largest games company in Japan - has spurned involvement in the Tokyo Game Show for many, many years. Being at TGS makes no sense for the company. It can achieve better exposure for its games in a more positive environment by holding its own event, digital or otherwise, at a different time; a month or two before the show, or after the show. This decision has never hurt Nintendo one jot - not in the way that a rubbish, half-hearted TGS conference every year would have.
Precisely the same logic applies to E3. Imagine if Nintendo had skipped E3 entirely; sure, there would have been a bit of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching in the media over it, but it would have been over soon, and a few people writing "Nintendo were conspicuous by their absence" in their show reports is hardly the end of the world. Then this week's digital event could have been held as an ordinary digital event a month or six weeks later; call it "Nintendo's preview of the next six months", or whatever. In that context, it would actually have been a pretty great show. Tack on a few seconds of new footage from the upcoming open-world Zelda game and one of Miyamoto's work-in-progress Gamepad titles, and you'd have a digital event that everyone would consider pretty strong, instead of an E3 show that everyone considered awful and weak.
To make this work, though, Nintendo needs to commit to the strategy. This year, it tried to have its cake and eat it; to participate in E3 without committing to it, without making a big deal of it. It failed so miserably that the Internet spent a few hours genuinely believing that Iwata had apologised for the whole sorry affair. Skipping E3 entirely - or at the very least, dropping all pretence of holding a conference during E3 week - would have been preferable, and ought to be the company's strategy for the future.

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