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Nintendo and Smart Devices

March 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Four years after CEO Satoru Iwata urged develpers to ignore smartphones, Nicholas Lovell’s blog on Gamasutra covers Nintendo’s change of attitude toward smart devices and explores some of the challenges they will face. The article is a good read, and although it’s not possible yet to determine exactly how Nintendo will affect the app market over the next few years, it’s certain that their effect will be significant.

I’m especially gratified to see this move taking place, since I raised the possibility myself four years ago in one of this blog’s first posts. I wonder if Iwata-san read it? I know, it’s far more likely that he studied the developing app market and tracked the increasing pressure it’s been placing on the market for dedicated gaming devices, and came to the same conclusion that I did. But still: Iwata-san, if you’re reading this, thanks for all the games, and good luck!

E3 2012: Triple-A Dinosaurs and Indie Mammals

June 9, 2012 4 comments

I didn’t go to E3, but I’ve been reading a lot of the recaps on Gamasutra and elsewhere, and they paint an interesting picture.

More than one commentator thinks that the show is out of touch with reality. AAA games are being marketed, according to one writer, through “unabashed pandering to the lowest common denominator” – which is to say, killshots and boobs. Regardless of the gameplay in this years triple-A offerings, detailed killshots and bountiful cleavage are the marketing bullet points. This shows very clearly how the AAA studios see their core market. More tellingly, perhaps, it also reflects their opinion of their customers, which seems anything but complimentary.

A lot of the real creativity right now seems to be coming from the indie developers, with small budgets and big ideas. It seems to be a law of nature that when a certain budget threshold is crossed, fear overcomes everything else and a deep creative conservatism kicks in. The result is me-too products (“We need to mitigate risk by sticking to tried and true formulae”) whose only innovations are brighter colors, more detailed kill animations – and more boobs.

Does this reflect the true state of the industry? I doubt it. Heck, I sincerely hope not. E3 is out of touch with reality, says at least one industry figure. At best, the blood-and-boobs obsession reflects what the marketing folks are thinking, rather than what the developers are dreaming. Given the recession, sales are shaky, and I guess a lot of marketers are fighting over the safe, reliable core market: a market that, according to Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, marketers see as “Bloodthirsty, sex-starved teen males who’ll high-five at a headshot and a free T-shirt.”

Thanks a lot, AAA developers. It’s nice to know that you hold gamers in such high regard.

But while the dinosaurs are roaring and stomping, I think the real story is down among the mammals: the indie developers whose low budgets give them more creative freedom. Arkedo co-founder Camille Guermonprez likes the analogy as much as I do: he said “When you’re small you move faster, so when the situation is changing, you better be some kind of high-running little lemur than a big dinosaur, because you’re going to get a tree on your head, otherwise.”

E3 is big and expensive, and no indie developer has anything like the cash needed to get noticed in that bright, noisy jungle. But that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Angry Birds has made ridiculous amounts of money, and there’s a huge scramble for the mobile and handheld market right now.

At last year’s GDC, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. I wrote about it in one of the earliest entries on this blog. This year, Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida said that small games and indie developers are vital. He didn’t rush to embrace smartphones, though, because Sony is pushing the Playstation Vita. Sony is still trying to be in the device business and the games business at the same time, facing itself with the same dilemma that prompted Iwata-san to rail against smartphones.

We’ll see how that works out for Sony: meanwhile Nintendo’s Eshop is averaging a mighty 4.7 lifetime (so far) sales per customer in the 3DS games category. I’d love to see how that stacks up against iOS and Android apps, but I haven’t been able to find any corresponding figures. Let’s just say it seems on the low side to me. But then, if you ring-fence your apps and your device together, you’re denying youself any additional app sales that might come from ports to other devices. With device sales, it’s trickier to judge: do people really buy a device because it’s the only way to play a certain game? That used to be the case in the days of the Console Wars, but today I’m less certain.

So there we have it. E3: full of sound and fury as always, but apparently signifying little more than a depressing race to the bottom as far as marketing is concerned. Meanwhile, the mammals are busily harvesting nuts and berries from the iOS and Android bushes, and not worrying about comets. A couple of dinosaurs have gotten smart enough to harvest nuts and berries, but they insist on designing, building, and marketing their own bushes that grow nuts and berries only they can eat.

Okay, enough. I know when I’m straining a metaphor. But you get the idea.

As snapshots of the industry go, the above may not be that accurate. It’s just what I gleaned from reading various articles that themselves were condensed through the lenses of the reports who wrote them. But it’s a picture, of sorts, and if anyone out there has a different view, then hey – write a comment and set me straight.

Video Killed the Radio Star

March 23, 2011 3 comments

TV is killing the movies.

Home taping is killing music. Filesharing is killing music. MP3s are killing music.

E-commerce is killing retail. E-books are killing publishing.

Everything new is killing something old. It’s the way we’re conditioned to think. Darwinism. Nature, red in tooth and claw. Predatory executives quoting Sun Tzu, gladiators in suits. When they’re up, they’re lions, roaring and magnificent. When they’re down, they’re gazelles, swift or dead. Or whiny.

“It’s not fair!” they wail, although they couch the whine in terms like “killing the industry,” “economically unsustainable,” and “force for instability.” But what they’re really saying is “It’s not fair!” just like anyone else aged three through sixteen who suddenly realizes that life doesn’t always have to go their way.

At the Game Developers’ Conference earlier this month, Nintento chief Satoru Iwata urged game developers to ignore smartphones. Smartphone games are killing the game industry. They’re too cheap to be economically sustainable. They’re too cheap to be any good. People are buying too many of them with money they should be spending on Nintendo products. It’s not fair.

It’s the old story. Whenever something new comes up to challenge a large and established industry, we hear the same howls of anguish.  But the howlers are not in fear of their lives – or the lives of their industries – they’re in fear of change. Change is hard, as any therapist will tell you, and it’s impossible without will. How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? It doesn’t matter unless the light bulb really wants to change.

The music industry has survived home taping, filesharing, and e-commerce. The Day The Music Died was never. But it was shaken up all the way through, from the label execs to the record stores. Musicians can now reach their audience directly without going through middlemen – although the middlemen still come in handy for their expertise in promoting artists, bankrolling tours, and the like.

The publishing industry is confronting the same dilemma right now. The author Barry Eisler explains on his blog why he walked away from a half-million dollar advance on a book – because he reckons he can do better through self-publishing. I’ve read his argument, and I have to admit it kind of makes sense. Enough sense for me to walk away from a half-mil advance? Offer me one and we’ll find out.

In giving his take on the shifts coming up from POD, e-readers, and the like, Eisler quoted the example of the railroads in the USA when the Interstate highway system was established. They thought they were in the railroad business, and they thought they were safe because they were the railroad business. No one could offer a better railroad service. But actually, they were in the transportation business, and other modes of transportation – first the Interstates and then the growing postwar airlines – offered passengers a better transportation service.

But let’s get back to Nintendo and The Great Smartphone Scare.

The market and a little time will sort out those games that are truly low quality and economically unsustainable (though “economically unsustainable” is often big-company code for “won’t make nearly enough money to sustain our company in the manner to which it has been accustomed”). But there will be survivors, and the paradigm will shift. Companies who are too invested in the prior paradigm to be able to shift along with it are in for a rough time.
Nintendo has been around long enough to have become a little set in its ways commercially, despite the technical innovation that drives it. It happens. Years and decades of refining your business technique to become the perfect shark in your area of your industry, and it can be tough to maintain the split-focus you need when something shakes it up. Smartphones have done just that. They could kill the DS stone dead, and although you hear more about the Wii (perhaps because smartphones have already begun to drag attention away from game-only handhelds – when’s the last time the PSP made any headlines?) the DS is one of Nintendo’s two core platforms. That’s got to hurt.

Nintendo needs to make a decision about the handheld/mobile market. Up till now, it’s been in the device business as well as the game business, selling the platform, making games, and exercising absolute control over third-party developers. If it wants to keep doing what it’s doing with the DS, then the DS needs to compete head to head with the smartphones – which means, Nintendo needs to get into the smartphone business. I’m no industry expert, but to me that looks like several billion dollars’ worth of scary. Could Nintendo turn the next-generation DS into an iPhone killer? An Android killer? Could it go toe to toe with Nokia, Motorola, and Apple to get its new smartphone out there in sufficient numbers to create a viable market for its games and apps? Imagine if Nokia or Motorola suddenly announced a new game console and gleefully predicted it would kill the Xbox, the PS3, and the Wii. Very long odds. Would a DS phone be a Wind from Heaven or a kamikaze? There’s only one way to find out.

After the Dreamcast failed, Sega got out of the console business and focused on the game business.  They’re still around a decade later, and doing very nicely, thank you. Discontinuing the DS would be painful, there’s no doubt of that, but letting it stagger on until smartphones finally kill it off would probably be worse. And with the installed base offered by the iPhone and Android platforms alone, Mario and friends would have new lands to conquer.

I know what I would do, although I’m realistic about the chances of finding Iwata-san on Line One asking my advice.