Category Archives: Business

Hail Mario 2: Electrodrome Boogaloo

In 2014, I wrote Hail Mario, a post about Nintendo’s aggressive strategy to bolster Wii U sales with the release of Mario Kart 8:

Nintendo gambled for positive reviews two weeks before launch, is now chalking up at least $40 in games to every US and Canadian Mario Kart owning household, and prays that their Trojan horse will be the spark to move units. Since release, the game has received stunning accolades, Club Nintendo has been brought down by what can only be assumed as immense traffic for free games, and at least one Wii U newcomer is being tugged at by curiosity.

When people think of video games, a large majority picture a mustachioed plumber in a red hat, but Master Chief and the Minecraft universe are only 3 points down. There are still many plays to be made but a well-timed, well-calculated marketing play this big could be enough to save the game. Mario Kart 8 may give Nintendo the lead they need to send a message to the HD Twins: Nintendo’s race is not over.

The post was picked up on Daring Fireball and is far and away the most popular Zero Counts post. (Thanks, Mr. Gruber!)

Mario Kart 8‘s early review embargo showed confidence in the game and got media outlets openly singing the game’s praises well ahead of release. In addition to building hype, Mario Kart 8 came bundled with a free download for one of four AAA games.

For the Switch, Nintendo has released Mario Kart 8 Deluxe — a slightly enhanced version with a revived and much beloved battle mode and all cups, courses, characters, and DLC unlocked. To add, what I had already considered the best Mario Kart entry to date, can now be taken on the go and played in a myriad of situations — TV or portable; solo, local split screen, or online; out of the box 2-player with Joy-Cons, 8 paired Switches, or 12 player wired LAN. (Mic has a great breakdown.)

Until this point, the Switch has been a Zelda machine; a single player experience. There were a handful of multiplayer games, but nothing close to a must-have or system seller. With Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has released the true test of the Switch’s promise — console-level gaming with anyone anywhere. How would new Switch players react? Would previous Wii U owners (and likely Mario Kart 8 owners) care? How does portable multiplayer hold up?

On Mario Kart 8 Deluxe‘s release day, I brought my Switch to work. It was the perfect venue to test the Switch’s out-of-the-box local multi-player experience. In fact, it was the first time I’d attempted any multi-player on the device in any of its various forms. As far as I know, I’m the only one in the office with a Switch. Gasps filled the room when I removed the Joy-Con from the display. I handed one over to a colleague, showed him around the tiny controller, and away we went.

While the 6.2-inch display is fantastic for a single player experience, split-screen is a bit uncomfortable, but not impossible. The fun had over bouts of office Mario Kart eclipsed the discomfort, but it was never completely put it out of our minds. Likewise, a few gripes and cramps were had from the ergonomics when using a single Joy-Con as a primary controller. The situation is tight, but for an experience like Mario Kart 8, the pain seemed to be worth the pleasure.

At home, as my wife and I settled into bed, we decided to have a go at one race. I tried to place the Switch on the bed between us — an impossible feat due to the unforgiving kickstand. So, a book was used as the foundation. We peeled away the Joy-Con and we’re off to the races. Together we squinted at the tiny screen. I proved to be too uncomfortable for extended periods of play, but we agreed that it would serve well on flights.

The main annoyance came from the placement of the L and R buttons. For her, they felt too close together. To be fair, fitting such a functional controller in the palm a hand is a feat. In fact, there were multiple instances throughout the day when players were shocked to find that the Joy-Con rumbled too.

Breaking out Mario Kart 8 Deluxe on the Switch is all fun and good, but there’s not much for players of the original Mario Kart 8. Mario Kart has always been about the party atmosphere, and this version is the ultimate. And I can see myself jumping into a quick pick up game here and there, but otherwise, I’ve been there done that. There’s nothing to unlock. No new cups, courses, or characters. The portability of the Switch paired with Mario Kart plugs a some gaming holes some may never been the wiser, but nothing more than a quick casual experience romp.

I wish I could speak from the newbie to Mario Kart 8 experience. For that, see Jeremy Parish’s Retronauts review of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. It’s a fantastic game, but even for newcomers, what does Mario Kart feel like without triumphing for new cups or characters? Does the high polish of Mario Kart 8 hold its luster without striving for something other than victory? Does the out-of-the-box portable multiplayer feel as novel when you haven’t played MK8 on a TV for the past few years?

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe shows off all the Switch has to offer, but other than pure competition, there’s no hook. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a must-have for party moments and quick pick up game, but not a system seller. At least not at $60.

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Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

GameStop Announces Midnight Switch Launch

GameStop press release:

This just in: GameStop, a family of specialty retail brands that makes the most popular technologies affordable and simple, announced stores will have a limited supply of Nintendo Switch systems available for walk-in customers on the March 3 launch day. Customers who were not able to pre-order the system are encouraged to attend GameStop’s midnight launch events held at stores across the nation for an opportunity to purchase Nintendo’s revolutionary new home gaming system.

A few thoughts:

  1. I’m screwed. Fat chance I’ll make a midnight launch. Fatter chance there’ll be any Switch(es) left around noon in Tahoe. Fattest chance there’ll be Switch(es) days/weeks later.
  2. Five out of the six sites I found reporting this news did not source GameStop’s press release. Not Polygon. Not GameStop. Not USA TODAY. Not BGR. Not SlashGear. However, Tom’s Hardware did. Pitiful.
  3. “Simple” is the last word I would use to describe GameStop.
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‘Metacritic’ Still Matters, But For How Long?

Chris Baker, Glixel:

The hue and cry around that score is the best evidence that Metacritic deeply matters to many people. And not just fans – the bonus payments that game makers receive from their publishing companies is often tied to the Metascore and those same publishers spend a great deal of time and effort trying to predict the number as it could affect everything from retail orders to returns.

But the games business, and games themselves, are changing. In many ways, a snapshot of what the critical consensus is at the time of launch does not reflect the ultimate nature of a game. Is Metacritic still relevant in this new climate?

A great insight to the inner workings of Metacritic. Must read.

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Takahashi: ‘reach that broader smart device audience and entice them to move towards Nintendo Switch’

Nintendo’s Yoshiaki Koizumi and Shinya Takahashi were interviewed by The Telegraph. There’s not much new in here, other than confirmation of developing for 3DS through 2018, which also plays into a now confirmed mobile strategy:

Is it more to drive that smartphone audience into buying a Switch? 

Takahashi: Certainly one of our goals in releasing software for smart devices that features Nintendo IP is to reach that broader smart device audience and entice them to move towards Nintendo Switch.

By 2018, assuming the Switch can hold its own, I believe price drops will squeeze out a new Nintendo handheld console. (Maybe a mini-Switch is a possibility?)

On possible supply constraints:

Finally as we head toward launch there has been some reports of stock shortages. Are you confident that anyone that wants a Switch will be able to buy one?

Takahashi: Maybe within the first few days! It does sound like there might be a few shortages here and there, but once you get past that I think we’ll have a very steady flow. Some of our employees are worried about getting one… but we are making a lot!

I’m really hoping this is true.

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The Second Console

Polygon’s newly relaunched Besties podcast, January 2017 episode:

Chris Plante: If indie game developers care and the make “the switch” from Vita to this hardware, I’ll care. Obviously, that wasn’t enough to save the Vita, so I don’t see that as a big thing for other people.

Griffin McElroy: I think that’s a wack comparison.

CP: The Wii U had some of the best Nintendo games and that wasn’t even close to enough to get people interested.

Russ Frushtick: Consider that the Vita died primarily because Sony was dividing their time and energy between the PS4 and the Vita and they eventually gave up. Indies filled in a lot of the blanks, but the most part they just gave up and third-parties gave up, etc. Here Nintendo’s obviously not going to give up because it’s their primary console now.

CP: They won’t give up unless nobody buys it, which is a very real possibility if there are no games from Nintendo or third-party studios.

RF: There are certainly two to three years of Nintendo games pretty much guaranteed.

CP: But like I said, that’s not enough. That just doesn’t work at all for Nintendo. When it doesn’t have third-party developers and it doesn’t have a mainstream gimmick—something that’s going to make people who watch the TODAY Show be like, “Well, I’ve never bought a video game console, but I’ll try this,” then it doesn’t have it.

GM: It’s not going to be the Wii. It’ll never be the Wii. They’ll never do the Wii ever again.

RF: The Wii was an aberration.

CP: That’s a for real problem for them. The thing that they have to [face] right now is, “We are the second console.” If they truly don’t get third-party support and they only have a new game every five or six months—let’s be super generous and say three—then that is a second console for people, which is big money. And unlike the Wii U, which only had to be competing as a second console against people who maybe already owned an Xbox and instead of a PS4 they might buy a Wii U. Now they have to compete with the fact that Microsoft and Sony are going to be releasing new hardware, what, every year? Every other year?

Leave it to Chris Plante to shake me from my Switch hype hypnosis. And I’m glad he did.

I am very much looking forward to the Switch, but Nintendo certainly does not have an easy road ahead of them.

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Nicalis: Switch development is ‘light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U’

Tyrone Rodriguez, the president of Nicalis, speaking to Polygon about developing for Nintendo platforms:

“The Switch is, by far the easiest and most programmer friendly so far,” he said. “I know this sounds like lip service to Nintendo, but it’s actually not. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t be able to get these games up and running as quickly as we have, and we wouldn’t be able to have a launch title. It’s light years ahead of what we were doing with Wii U.”

Nicalis has developed 18 games, eight of which shipped to Nintendo platforms—all eight to 3DS, two of which hit Wii U.

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Nintendo 3DS and NES Classic Still Out of Stock

Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge:

To put it plainly, with the Nintendo Switch launch right around the corner, the current inability to purchase the 3DS should seriously worry anyone without a preorder in place. Because if the Switch turns out to be as successful as the NES Classic or 3DS have been, fans could be facing yet another tough choice between a long wait or a grey market gouging for a Nintendo console.

Looking on Target.com, there’s not a single 3DS within 100 miles of Palo Alto. 250 miles on BesyBuy.com. Prime availability through Amazon is limited to Pikachu Yellow and Pokémon 20th Anniversary XL editions for $300+ through forth-parties. A new 3DS XL retails for $199. The Switch retails for $299.

I’ve shared Gartenberg’s concern since missing the Switch’s pre-order allotment. Not to mention the continued unavailability of the NES Classic. And being the dummy I am, I already traded my Wii U in at GameStop in anticipation of the Switch’s March 3 release date—$200 burning a hole in my pocket. This is crazy. At the very least, take my order and send when ready.

I’ve got a feeling I’ll be staring at my copy of Breath of the Wild longingly for a while.

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Nintendo’s ‘Conductor’

Matt Peckham, writing for TIME, with a great profile of Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi:

“If all of Nintendo’s content creators were to be seen as a symphony, then Mr. Takahashi is our conductor,” says Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé, when asked to contrast Takahashi’s role with Iwata’s. “What I mean by that is, it’s his decision to bring the different players in our orchestra onto a particular game or a particular initiative. He’s the ultimate decision maker in what gets played by the symphony or what gets created by Nintendo as a company.”

And to follow the metaphor through, audiences rarely get to see the conductor’s face. “He’s been creating this big show, but because you only see his back, you really don’t know him all that well,” adds Fils-Aimé. “But he drives the orchestra and he sets the pace and the bar for the performance.”

Fils-Aimé pushes back on positional comparisons between the preeminent role Takahashi now plays with the myriad ones performed by Iwata, Nintendo’s former “ultimate decision maker,” calling them “different roles, different times, different needs of the organization.” What’s changed, he says, is that after Iwata’s passing, the company decided it was time to ask its less visible luminaries to step up. It’s a a philosophy others in the company, like Miyamoto, have espoused in passing for years.

“The people that came out in the presentation, when you look at it from the perspective of Nintendo, they’re actually not new at all,” says Miyamoto of the varied group chosen to rep Nintendo’s Switch during the system’s January feting. Miyamoto, whose hands have touched virtually all of Nintendo’s storied IP, will be 65 this year, while the company’s new president, Tatsumi Kimishima, turns 67 in April.

Takahashi has a storied career with the company. I especially love his history with Wave Race 64 and 1080° Snowboarding, two of my favorite Nintendo 64 titles. His views on management are similarly inspiring.

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100 Nintendo Switch Titles in Development

Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima during the Q3 FY2016 financial briefing:

Next I will provide a follow-up report about our software publisher partners. After the presentation on January 13, we have continued to receive requests from more and more software publishers who want to develop games for the system. At the presentation, we announced that there were over 80 titles in development from more than 50 software publishers, but that number has now climbed to over 100 titles from more than 70 publishers. Please look forward to more announcements about the software lineup in the future.

Only 165 Wii U titles were ever released in the US—the least amount of titles for any Nintendo console—followed by the Nintendo 64’s 297.

This third-party interest seems promising.

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