Monday, June 4, 2012

Pre-E3 2012: Wii Need Nintendo

No! No no no! Haven't they stopped this nonsense yet?
Oh hey there, internet. Guess it's about time I showed up this year, isn't it? I've actually been working on an assortment of posts for your consideration and prompt disposal, but as usual, I've been so caught up in all sorts of writing - including the aforementioned posts - that E3 coverage ended up being my first 2012 posts this time. Yes, there's no excuse, but there's plenty of time for me to be charming and witty and horrifically grating about that later.

With E3 2012 beginning today and Nintendo having kicked things off early last night with an impressive second unveiling of the Wii U - their new console successor to the Wii, which they'd been forced to initially unveil last year at E3 2011 when they weren't quite ready due to leaks - it's time to talk video games. And if there's one thing you love to hear talked about, it's video games.

Video games.

Video games, video games, video games.

There's that smooth transition you've always heard about! Isn't it exciting how smoothly this went?

So, the overall state of the industry - where is it these days? If you ask many parts of the internet on gaming subculture message boards, you'll hear that Sony's PS3 and Microsoft's XBox 360 teamed up and 'defeated' the dastardly Wii which dared to advance game controls and appeal to a wider audience than America's future unmanned drone pilots. You'll also hear that Sony's Playstation Vita is just one western shooter away from becoming a major platform and taking off globally. Also, Monster Hunter is totally around the corner even though Monster Hunter Tri G has been selling like gangbusters in Japan since its release last fall and Monster Hunter 4 is confirmed as a 3DS exclusive. Also, Capcom's Vita support has been extremely minimal and hasn't resulted in a single exclusive title.

So, what is the actual overall state of the industry this E3?

Looking at Japan first, let's go platform by platform. The XBox 360 never took off there, so Microsoft isn't even a player there. Given the cynical nature of the peripheral, lack of brand popularity, and frequently cramped living spaces in Japan, Kinect did nothing for the system there either. The Playstation 3, while routinely selling the best of the three consoles in Japan now, is still millions behind the Wii and doesn't move anywhere near as much software on a regular basis. Likewise, now that it's running out of major titles, its hardware sales are gradually beginning to flatline and trending toward the sub-10K weekly sales numbers where most platforms in Japan are now that we're transitioning into a new generation. Only one PS3 game has broken a million copies sold in Japan, and with the console's extremely high cost of development, the average game on the system requires well over a million copies sold to so much as break even. Despite lasting as long as it has, the console can neither be called healthy nor a success this generation. The Wii's hardware numbers have largely been weak and well under 10K selling a week for months now, and in the end, the system never hit PS2 heights in part due to the reliability of the hardware and even more in part due to third parties' decision to commit their support to the PS3 over the Wii from the very beginning of the generation, no matter how badly they were burned for it. Despite a lack of regular major releases as the platform is mostly dead there now, software sales are still steady and healthy, and as software sales rise and dip, it's very common to see Wii games returning to the sales charts time and time again with sales legs no other home console had this generation - over longer periods of time, Wii owners buy new games more than any other console market. The DS, rarely receiving anything of note these days - though Pokemon + Nobunaga's Ambition (Or Pokemon Conquest in the west) and the upcoming Pokemon Black and White 2 are big end-of-life surprises for the system this year - still sells a few thousand units a week. The PS2 has been in a similar position since the end of its generation as well, though it's also seen weeks this generation where it outsold the PS3. The PSP, having seen virtually the last of its major releases, is trending downward right alongside the PS3 to sub-10K weekly sales territory as the platforms both reach the end of their lives. The problems being that the Sony doesn't want and certainly doesn't need the PS3 numbers to collapse like this with the kind of losses they're taking and have been taking for years now - as a whole, Sony corp is publicly circling the drain at this point - and despite its deflating numbers, the PSP continues to outsell its successor, the costly and ironically-named Vita (Formerly NGP), which fell flat on its face right at launch and hasn't taken off in any region. The only platform seeing healthy sales in Japan at the moment is Nintendo's 3DS, which saw some global stumbles in 2011 after its February launch in Japan - Nintendo has since taken drastic measures in a major price cut and ambassador reward program for all the early adopters, and between that and the games the system needed to be successful finally arriving, the 3DS now sits in the position of presently being essentially the only viable dedicated gaming platform to develop for in Japan. Third parties have taken note, and the system now has a strong lineup on the way to incredible territory in Japan - the biggest problem there for those of us in the west is that a huge number of these third party games haven't been announced for western localization yet. Hopefully we'll see a major turning of the tide in that regard beginning at this year's E3. With only one viable platform and one platform selling games in notable numbers in the 3DS - also the least expensive platform to develop for, making it an easily profitable gamble - Japan is still sorely in need of a new viable console. The field is wide open for Nintendo's taking, and they're visibly the one going for it.

Now, let's talk the west. The PS2 doesn't chart here anymore. And between America's NPD and Europe's own charts, gaming numbers have been incredibly depressed this year. Far more money is being lost than made in gaming right now, with no strong console moving games and the 3DS having improved in the west, but not yet having hit the kind of sales level it has in Japan, in large part due to many games people want and expect still being missing and too many third parties playing a game of caution more justifiable on the Vita at this point, which is selling incredibly poorly globally and visibly not turning into a viable platform of any kind. Its small audience isn't responding too well to the likelihood that it will be the first platform we see outright withdrawing from the market due to its failure since Nokia's N-GAGE and Sega's Dreamcast. (Nothing too shocking here, given the PS3's overall catastrophic life on the market and the fact that the PSP failed to become a major platform in the west and saw the majority of its support dry up in its earlier years.) The Wii has more life in it here than Japan, still receiving scattered third party releases (Including the reliably successful LEGO franchise, which sees the majority of its sales on Nintendo platforms and has succeeded at building a huge audience across all age brackets.) and the occasional hit like Nintendo and Monolith Soft's own recent brilliant Xenoblade Chronicles - one of the best games of this generation, easily. Other than that, like in Japan, Wii games continue to have incredibly long sales legs in the west and keep moving years after release. The PS3 and XBox 360 are outselling the Wii on a regular basis in the west, but like in Japan, neither will be anything but a distant second or third to its overall market position this generation, and neither of the consoles is moving in big numbers. Sony's cynical Playstation Move motion controller peripheral that shamelessly knocked off the Wii remote and nunchuk and dropped onto the market with zero enthusiasm has just seen its most hyped title - Sorcery, a fairly simplistic straightforward clone of the Harry Potter console games - dropped onto the global market years after it mostly disappeared, with no marketing and no real consumer interest. And for all the hype around the notion of it turning the XBox 360 into a 'Wii-killer,' Microsoft's Kinect is driving neither hardware nor game sales, and even its recent laughingstock Kinect Star Wars dance title saw lukewarm sales at best despite the major brand. There was neither a meteoric rise in gaming for Kinect, nor a clearly corresponding collapse in Wii sales. With the current generation coming to an end, it's reasonable to say that while the technology involved in Kinect is certainly cool, it's offered a very limited range of gameplay experiences - much akin to Sony's own Eyetoy - and hasn't achieved the kind of success it was expecting. The fact that Microsoft still couches its big yearly XBox division losses in its entertainment division numbers to spin the continued losses positively - after over a decade of the XBox brand now only having yielded billions in losses for the company - pretty much says it all. With the Wii continuing its slow burn and the PS3 and 360 gradually burning out, with even major recent titles underperforming and failing to move hardware - leading to month after month of news stories on the continually poor gaming numbers in the west - and the Wii brand itself powerful, the field is wide open for Nintendo to take the west, too. New Super Mario Bros. 2 arrives on the 3DS in August, intended clearly to get 3DS hardware moving more comparably to Japan, and we're seeing many western third parties surprisingly and impressively jumping on board with the Wii U already after largely disregarding or simply shrugging at the Wii as some kind of anomaly not worth respecting. The western industry needs Nintendo to revitalize things with hot new hardware and get customers buying again, just as badly as Japan does. Word has been that the most profitable game of 2012 so far has been Activision's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure, as well, which saw the bulk of its sales with the Wii console version and exclusive 3DS version - much of its profit coming from all the figurines that drive the game's content - and even the teams that made those games are known to be preparing the upcoming Skylanders Giants for Wii and 3DS, and they've dropped some hints about the Wii U.

What we've seen over the past year is decline - decline everywhere. And the only company on the upswing is Nintendo. Sony and Microsoft's 'the next generation starts when we're ready' attitude will only get them left behind entirely, as they continue to push products that never caught on with the mass market, never actually made money, and aren't suddenly catching fire since the Wii and DS sales declined - it turns out the whole world wasn't waiting for the PS3 and 360 to get cheap and 'upgrade' from the Wii. When Wii third party support largely dried up and Nintendo began focusing on the transition to the Wii U, the whole industry entered a decline. And now they're the only one with a successful new portable when the market was ready for a new platform, and the only one with a new console coming out when it's needed most. Both are blatantly targeting the competition's market share - they're already largely consuming the vital Japanese PSP market, which isn't bothering with the Vita, in turn leading to virtually no third party support for the system and sending it into an effective death spiral. Just as Sony was vulnerable in Japan, Sony and Microsoft are both incredibly vulnerable right now after a generation they're not ready to see end in which they both lost billions of dollars gambling on absurdly overpowered and expensive hardware, and in Microsoft's case not even bothering to make sure they wouldn't break in incredible numbers for a huge part of the XBox 360's lifespan. Third parties shrugged off and often outright sneered at the Wii and its audience, and the game they played this generation didn't push the mass market over to the PS3 and XBox 360 - it got them burned horribly.

What the bottom line is right now is that the industry needs Nintendo to hit this E3 out of the park. It needs for the 3DS to only continue picking up steam and become the sort of powerhouse it has in Japan. It needs for the Wii U to be a smash hit across a broad, mass market like the Wii and DS - the industry needs these things to happen in order to course-correct and avert a crash that would largely reduce the video game industry to a scant few larger companies that could ride out a crash (Nintendo being among them, Sony not so, and in Microsoft's case, it simply isn't in their best longterm financial interests to keep burning money on an industry the company doesn't understand.) and a whole lot of tiny developers primarily working on smartphone and tablet games with a shoestring budget.

The industry needs for Nintendo to come in and revitalize it, after they failed to properly back the Wii and rode the PS3 and 360 into the ground.

This brings us to just how much Nintendo is dominating E3 this year in terms of sheer numbers of events. Before the expo even began, they opened things and stole the competition's thunder with a fantastic Wii U unveiling in the latest of their ongoing Nintendo Direct online conferences they've been holding since last fall to address their customers as directly as possible. We'll get to that in a moment. Today, multiple third parties will be announcing Wii U and 3DS games at their own events, with some already having made pre-E3 announcements last week, and others, like niche publisher Atlus, have gone ahead and begun making early morning announcements - Atlus itself having revealed a localization for Guardian Heroes-like 3DS brawler-RPG Code of Princess, their first niche Nintendo platform localization that isn't an in-house developed title in Japan or broader-appealing puzzle game like last year's Mahjong Cub3d (Originally a Sunsoft title.), a return to form for Atlus that I definitely hope to see continue with more niche 3DS and Wii U localizations in the future.

On Tuesday, Nintendo will be holding their usual noon E3 conference, which they've already confirmed will primarily be dedicated to Wii U games. Late that night, Nintendo's Katsuya Eguchi - creator of the beloved life sim series Animal Crossing and producer of the Wii U itself - will be holding a developers roundtable for even more of an indepth look at the system, third party testimonials, and upcoming games. And on Wednesday, they'll be holding a final event in a broadcast floor show to look at all of the relevant Nintendo platform games at the show this year. They have so much going on between the 3DS, Wii U, and forthcoming Nintendo Network that they're spreading it across four days this year. And considering that I ran out of steam after my indepth analysis of Sony and Microsoft's problematic position last year and never even got to Nintendo in my E3 writeup and commentary then, that's going to make this year's coverage even more of a lion to tame, but I'm looking forward to coming through for all three quarters of you this time.

By the time I finished writing this, Microsoft's E3 presentation already finished. And it was one of their weakest and most redundant yet, fully demonstrating yet again how little they get this business and that their market isn't expanding for good reason. It says something that the Wii U actually began trending on Twitter during their conference.

Sony's shouldn't be any better, with most of the showings having leaked well in advance, like Microsoft's conference. They'll supposedly be unveiling a subscription game streaming service with a partner like OnLive or Gaikai, neither of which have set the world on fire and neither of which will gain much either way by a partnership with Sony. And where Microsoft embarrassed themselves with blatant rips of Wii U controller features and a knockoff of Sony's violence porn series God of War, Sony's already known to have an outright cringeworthy Super Smash Bros. clone on the way and yet another attempt to create their own Mario Kart after numerous failures. And this is the same company that just recently filed for a software patent for a system to allow them to interrupt gameplay in order to force you to watch advertisements. The company is visibly well on its way out, and since he took over, Kaz Hirai rather clearly has no strategy, having essentially announced, "We're going to keep doing everything we've been doing, but better!" shortly after taking the reins. In the grand scheme of things, Sony is where they are because it's where they should be for the things they've done and the things they're doing. The Playstation brand collapsed with the PS3, and the Vita's failure to garner sales or support is reflective of just how far gone Sony really is in gaming now. It's not exactly a loss.

Now, on to last night's pre-E3 Nintendo Direct conference on the Wii U. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata handled the entire conference this time, opening with a bit of discussion of the concept of 'Dokusou,' or creating something unique. He revealed that Tuesday's Wii U conference will be focused on games, so this smaller online conference was to introduce the Wii U to customers in a more conceptual sense. Pop psychology book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other was cited as a lead-in to discussion of the Wii U's focus on doing a better job of connecting people, both in the same room and over great distances - seeking to do what the Wii did, but to only improve on it further.

Iwata then unveiled the final form of the Wii U GamePad, recalling the long history of gamepads prior to the Wii Remote. He confirmed that the controller can be used as a universal television remote, and showed that it has a Near Field Communication reader/writer on which certain physical objects can be placed to interact with games, much like Activision's Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure and its figurines. The asymmetric diversity that can be achieved in gameplay with the Wii U controller was touched on, and will be seen more in Nintendo's main conference on Tuesday. There was some visible hinting at a new Wii Sports as well. Motion controls - potentially Kinect-style camera-based body tracking - were further confirmed in the new GamePad, though all forms of Wii input, from the remote to the balance board, will also still be used on the Wii U. A Wii U Pro Controller - essentially a new Classic Controller - that largely resembled an even more comfortable Dual Shock-esque evolution of the SNES controller and Classic Controller Pro (Nintendo's original SNES controller has served as the basis for basically all modern traditional controllers, including Sony's and Microsoft's.).

The forthcoming Nintendo Network (Nintendo's forthcoming answer to the Playstation Network and XBox Live - not a paid service, either!) and its newly unveiled Facebook and Twitter-like social network, Miiverse, were then unveiled through a goofy, comical video not unlike their Wii and 3DS digest shows Nintendo Week and Nintendo Show 3D, demonstrating a frustrated nerd going on Miiverse to ask for help with a zombie boss in a game. A friend checked his Miiverse activity feed from an app on his smartphone and called the nerd to basically taunt him before the nerd found another gamer willing to help him, who happened to be an octogenarian quite certain that he was his best friend - this exchange was demonstrated through the system's Skype and Face Time-esque impressive video chat functionality.

A universe of Miis. Wii U, 3DS, Nintendo Network.
They followed the goofy video with a closer look at the Miiverse plaza itself, with crowds of Miis made up of your own Mii avatar, others with accounts on your system's Mii avatars, friends' Mii avatars, and those of strangers playing the same games. Plus, the plaza is filled with big icons for all the games and applications you have, plus those you don't. In Japanese, the service is named Mii Wara Wara, 'Wara Wara' describing the noise of such a large gathering. Lots of bubbles appear above each crowd around a game or app with bits of the tweet-like text messaging and hand-drawn Swapnote-style messages through which people can communicate around each game and app. This Mii Universe will be interchangeably usable on the TV screen and Wii U GamePad, and will be available for multitasking while playing a game any time. When posting messages, you'll be able to post screenshots, set facial expressions for your Mii, and even mark your screenshots for spoilers. Player-created content will be able to be transmitted through Miiverse as well. Miiverse will be able to interact with all Wii U games as an apparently quite killer social networking platform - Nintendo has gone from well behind Sony and Microsoft in terms of online functionality to leaping beyond them with the Nintendo Network and Miiverse, and the service is free! On top of which, there's much about Nintendo Network and Miiverse that has yet to be unveiled.

LOL!! indeed.
An example of Miiverse functionality shown displayed the first on-Wii-U gameplay footage we've seen in a new old-school 2D Super Mario Bros. game, in which a player died running into a Koopa Troopa and then saw comments from Miiverse pop up from other players who died at that same point. The Super Mario World style world map also had comments from others on Miiverse, and seemingly the appearance of an achievement system as well.  The Miiverse social network has been confirmed as coming to the 3DS, along with Nintendo Network itself, too, while there will be apps for Miiverse for the PC, smartphones, tablets, and essentially every device that can connect to the internet.

Last, Iwata showed some new web-browsing functionality too, by which you could surf the internet on the Wii U GamePad's screen while covering the television with curtains, and then throw surprise content up onto the screen like YouTube videos. You could also highlight specific text and photos for the TV from the GamePad screen as well, making for very convenient web-browsing and video streaming from the user's own couch.

We learned last that Iwata himself is guest-tweeting on the Nintendo of America Twitter account this week during E3 and will be reading customers' feedback. And on Tuesday, we'll finally begin seeing complete examples of the sorts of video game experiences that never existed before the Wii U. Exciting.

At any rate, at such a pivotal time as this when the industry so badly needs the 3DS and Wii U to bring back customer interest, Nintendo seems set on hitting these platforms out of the park and pushing out their competition entirely. There needs to be the right blend of the kind of support the PS3 and 360 received and more of the broader support the PSX, PS2, and Nintendo's NES and SNES received in the past for the broadest audience possible. Likewise, the more socially driven and mass market appeal oriented the Nintendo Network is, the better. And price is also key - the more affordable the Wii U and its games are to the mass market, the better. Increasingly, I suspect that we're moving toward a one-console, one-portable industry with Nintendo providing both, and competing more indirectly against smartphones, tablets, and PC gaming, as the very industry itself continues to change and gaming continues to transform. There evidently isn't room in today's market for two dedicated portables, and absolutely not for three dedicated gaming consoles. And with how poorly Sony and Microsoft are faring with no evidence of coming change or burgeoning understanding of the customers they want to buy their products, it's very possible we are headed into single-console territory and a gaming industry that looks strikingly different in another 5-10 years from how it does now. Doesn't hurt that Wii U games can be developed at a lower cost than on the PS3 and 360, and Nintendo's been aggressive about getting free middleware to developers to encourage as much support as possible. We've got a very exciting E3 ahead this year. Just probably not so much if you're a diehard Sony or Microsoft fan - there's bitter medicine on the way for that lot.


Eric said...
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Benjamin Fennell said...

Yeah, the whole Nintendo Direct was incredibly exciting.

I watched Nintendo's E3 conference live, and while it's been divisive since Nintendo went even broader than with the Wii - as opposed to unveiling an ultra-narrow 'hardcore-only' platform in the vein of the PS3 and 360 like many were demanding and telling themselves to expect - they really unveiled an excellent starting lineup of titles to appeal to everyone from the most avid traditionalist to the broadest of gamers. Tons of good business sense went into the titles they went with, so the system should easily appeal to a huge range of people right out the door and sell like gangbusters much like the Wii did.

I'm pretty excited for Pikmin 3 - Pikmin 2 was one of the very best Gamecube games, as far as I'm concerned - and Nintendo Land looks really exciting and great too. I'm hoping that it and Miiverse will lead to all sorts of big virtual online Mii environments to socialize in, personal spaces to customize, and more as they launch new Nintendo Network features on the Wii U and 3DS. Their whole new online initiative is easily the most forward-thinking I've seen in a gaming platform. But yeah, I'll be elaborating a lot more in my forthcoming posts - I'll be a little slower with them than I'd like, but I'm working on some very indepth dissections of Sony and Microsoft's awful conferences and just how out of touch they are. And after doing some writing on the state of the 'hardcore' gamer mentality you see leading to raging at Nintendo's conference and the Wii U now over its broad focus, I'm thinking of doing at least one postscript E3 post on the unhealthier side of the gaming subculture today, much like that Sane Gaming series I wrote years back - sort of a more current musing. I've also got an Operation Rainfall post coming, looking at their successes, as well as the messy things the website and leadership have devolved into now that the campaign is over and all focus has been lost. They've gotten complaints and they've deleted them in response, so I feel they're definitely due a proper, indepth criticism for the turns they've taken that they can't just blot out, though I certainly won't take away any credit for the end result of the campaign in our getting Xenoblade and The Last Story, and hopefully Pandora's Tower yet. I've been having a blast with Xenoblade since I got it back in April. :) One of the best games of the gen, no question.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Indeed! I normally don't get heavily into FPSes or that many survival horror games - as those go, I'd much rather see the Deadly Premonition director's cut make it to the Wii U than, say, your cut and dry typical zombie gorefest - but Zombi U has me legitimately intrigued, and Ubisoft had an impressive showing in general. Watch Dogs looks like it'd make a great Wii U title - platforms haven't been announced yet - and more Rayman and the Rabbids are always welcome. I'm really liking the RPG-like focus of the 3DS's Rabbids Rumble, and I'm curious to see what Rabbids Land is like. I'm hoping we'll see some more concentrated single player experiences like Rabbids Go Home yet. An open world city game based on that sort of idea - kind of like LEGO City Undercover - would be fantastic, with all sorts of missions based around various chaos-driven goals and constant humor. And yeah, Project P-100 looks great too - first Platinum game to interest me in quite a while. That, Tank! Tank! Tank!, and Pikmin 3 are satisfying my weird Japanese game tastes so far. Looking forward to when the Japanese developer gates begin to open with a flood of announcements, considering the incredible support the 3DS is seeing now. Keeping my fingers crossed for a lot more localization announcements at tomorrow's 3DS software showcase and over the summer. And I really want to see some gameplay of Yasuhiro Wada's Project Happiness on the 3DS - I'm already really psyched for Harvest Moon: A New Beginning as is. And Animal Crossing 3DS, for that matter.

I can never resist a good bit of Sony snark. I used to be an avid customer of theirs, but after the PS2, they really did everything they could to make themselves as unappealing as possible. They pretty much went from a faceless but bearable enough corporate presence that didn't really belong in this industry but had hardware with irresistible software libraries to something outright reprehensible. They really do deserve every bit of where they've ended up. And yeah, I couldn't resist the God of War jab - the first game came out back when I was in college and I remember distinctly being bored to death when hanging out with a friend who'd just bought the game and thought it was incredible. It felt entirely numbing to me - but I've never been thrilled with more sort of over the top, 'cinematic' action games either. Like Uncharted, for example. I've always been more into the arcade-style brawlers for my action, whether Koei's Musou/Warriors games these days, or games like Streets of Rage, Guardian Heroes, Onechanbara, Sengoku Basara, and so on. So I'm pretty thrilled that Code of Princess is coming west, and I wish someone would localize the Renegade/Kunio remake. I suspect I'd probably like the Yakuza games - and I'd love to see Shenmue make a comeback and get a proper ending on the 3DS or Wii U - and Kenka Bancho too, but those franchises keep locking themselves to platforms where there's no audience for absurd reasons. It's not really a shock that Sega's crumbling right now, and at this point, I wish Nintendo would just buy them. Their fanbase of old has visibly merged with Nintendo's base these days, and as a big Sega fan since childhood - from Master System to Dreamcast! - it breaks my heart seeing them self-destructing over Sony platforms where they've got no audience. And going back to Sony, yeah, those hackings the other year really were hilarious - I enjoyed watching Lulzsec's brand of gleeful hacktivism before they largely dissolved. It's kind of sad that vigilantism is one of our only ways of striking back at abusive corporations - and I'm no fan of vigilantism myself, I'll be weighing in on the whole Trayvon Martin thing in another upcoming post, months after it's really relevant to write up indepth thoughts on that tragic case - but there's always a sense of satisfaction when an awful company gets their just desserts. :)

Eric said...
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Eric said...
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