Understanding Nintendo Pt. 1: Culture

Usually in business, if a company can provide a good enough product, they get good enough demand and get good enough profits. Of course the magnitude of any one of these factors determining success vary between industries and markets, but usually this is the case within the realm of fair business practice.

Apple is probably the perfect example of this - they invest time, money, effort, and care into their products and people line up to pay. Other consumer tech companies, as I blogged about before, probably don’t put as much of their resources into making products the best they could possibly be at the time. As a result, they aren’t as financially successful as Apple, as much as that sounds like a gross simplification.

Now, in the gaming industry, three names stick out from the rest - Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo. These are the three brands to rule them all, but in recent years only two have managed to come out as huge successes: Xbox and PlayStation. Nintendo, on the other hand, has started to suffer drastic losses - and I mean drastic - in comparison to the wave of success they’d had with their previous generation consoles, like the Wii and DS lines. So surely they must have been lazing about with their current Wii U and 3DS lines, and churning out half-baked games that people aren’t stimulated to buy, right?

If you ask even the least enthusiastic of Nintendo fans, they’d say that this clearly is not the case. Nintendo is firing on all cylinders with game development. It’s like as often as the sun rises from the east, Nintendo has something to announce related to their games. And it’s not just a lot of stuff either, it’s a lot of amazing, highly anticipated stuff. Whether it’s the announcement of more playable characters for Super Smash Bros. (*drools*) or packed DLC’s for Mario Kart 8, Nintendo is getting the crowd on their toes, and on a constant basis too.

So where do their problems lie? Being a relative outsider to the gaming industry (especially since I know so little about Xbox, much less PlayStation), it seems that the problem lies on two main factors: internal culture and their marketing strategy.

Nintendo’s Culture

Believe it or not, even in this shrunken, interconnected world of broken borders, cultures can still clash. Now, Nintendo is not afraid to let the culture of their company show, and we see that through how they make their games and consoles. We also see it through how they market their products to American consumers. Here’s a commercial of the Wii made for their market in the US:

There’s barely anything American about this commercial, besides the Americans themselves. Most notable are the two Japanese dudes bringing in the Wii experience to American doorsteps. What’s the first thing they do? They bow out of respect. That one gesture probably epitomises Japanese culture, and even Asian culture as a whole. That being said, you might think I’d use this as an example of cross-cultural inaccessibility that Nintendo presents itself with because of its nature, but as we know the Wii did insanely well. Why? Because it was that good of a product - in fact, I think the success of the Wii is up there with how much of an innovation the iPhone was when it came out in 2007.

The interface was just so accessible and so - in the literal sense of the word - awesome to so many people, anything inherently Japanese about it was either overlooked or embraced as a result of how good this thing was. Even the trashy graphics were overlooked, and the childish games. I think the Wii was a success not necessarily because of the simplification of it’s games and consoles (and the specs on those consoles), but it was a success in spite of that.

Fast forward to 2014, almost a decade after the launch of the Wii. What’s changed? Skimming over the details, here’s what I seem to get from gamers in terms of what they want out of their games: 

  • Constant violence and action;
  • Some sort of continuum, or over-arching theme - a storyline possibly spanning multiple titles over time;
  • A sense of maturity;
  • Thought-provoking plot lines and characterisation - almost like a movie (e.g. the upcoming Silent Hills game);
  • And the general atmospheric, encompassing “heaviness” - maybe “potency” or “fullness” is the right word - that comes with hardcore games.

This is especially true among American gamers. Not only does this seem to be what they want nowadays, but this has been solidified only in recent times. Back then, the general consensus might have not been on a completely determined or certain genre of games, but now the games that reap the most benefits often involve one or more of the things I’ve listed above.

Xbox and PlayStation, alongside the major game developers making games on those platforms, capitalise on these trends and present exactly what these gamers want. In fact, they pretty much thrive on this. I mean, it’s almost comical how much violence is in games these days. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good shooter every now and then, but the number of Call of Duty games at this point is just nonsensical to me. Yet they still manage to sell thousands, if not millions of copies. After all, that’s why they do it. (Sidenote: Remember when CoD was just about World War II? Yeah, me neither…)

So, gaming culture is predominantly based on these kinds of games now, and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. On the other side of the spectrum, Nintendo, this comparatively happy-go-lucky, cutesy gaming company, doesn’t seem to stand a chance against the guys in the big league who’ve all grown up. While it’s apparently a straightforward supply-and-demand problem, there’s also Nintendo’s unswerving attitude. Putting it simply, you won’t expect them to stop making traditional Super Mario Bros. games in turn for giving Mario a gun to shoot down Goombas rather than to stomp on them. Well, of course that’ll degrade the legacy that is Mario in an instant, but it's also clearly not Nintendo at all to weaponise their games. That's just not what they do. For the sake of example, even if they know that changing the branding around Mario might provide them a net gain in the far future, they’re simply too headstrong and committed to preserving the company culture.

Because of this, they don't branch out into developing games for other platforms - even iOS, a relatively secure and successful gaming platform, operated with an arguably likeminded company in Apple.

Because of this, they don't compete on tech specs, or even make them on par with the latest and greatest gaming consoles.

Because of this, they keep churning out these amazing games that they and their existing fan base really like, really enjoy playing, and are really proud of.

I think the main issue is that they'll keep doing these things and they'll keep being what makes them Nintendo. Even at the expense of making losses.

In the next post, Nintendo’s marketing strategy.