Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nintendo needs a Touchstone

About eighty percent of (the five of) you reading this are probably saying "What's a 'Touchstone'?" So first, a little history lesson: In the late '70s, early '80s, Walt Disney Pictures released a few movies that earned a PG rating from the MPAA. This was unheard of for the typically kid-friendly company. Some of these movies were released under the Disney label, while others were farmed out to other studios for release. In 1984, Disney CEO Ron Miller created Touchstone Pictures, a rebadge of sorts for adult oriented Disney movies. Under the Touchstone label, Disney released hits like Splash, Ernest Goes to Camp, Good Morning, Vietnam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Nightmare Before Christmas (later rereleased under Walt Disney Pictures), and several of Jerry Bruckheimer's films.

(Disney also founded Hollywood Pictures, and purchased Miramax Films and Dimension Films for similar reasons.)

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, Nintendo has a similar image in the video game industry to Disney's in the film industry: colorful, cartoony, family-friendly, and innovative; and, like Disney, this image has occasionally had a detrimental effect on how they are perceived by "mature" audiences. "Hardcore" gamers don't want to play a game with a doe-eyed boy in a green tunic any more than they want to watch a 90 minute long cartoon about a singing, dancing frog; no matter how good it may be.

While Nintendo has tried in the past decade-and-a-half or so to shed this kiddy image with more mature games, unusual partnerships, and grittier versions of classic stories, their attempts thus far have had meager results. The designs for their systems have not done much to help this, by opting more for simple and functional, rather than stylish and powerful, their systems look and perform less like a Sony PlayStation, and more like a My First Sony Walkman.

This is fine with me. I believe that there is a place in the gaming industry for the simple fun of "casual" games alongside the complex challenges of "hardcore" games. Unfortunately, while Nintendo's systems offer a wide assortment of experiences, it is this casual style that permeates everything they do. No matter how many "hardcore" games like Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, MadWorld, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Reflex we may see on a Nintendo platform, they never seem to sell as well as games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Gears of War, or Modern Warfare 2 on Sony and Microsoft platforms; or even as well as Nintendo's own "casual" offerings like Wii Sports, Wii Play, or Brain Age.

The problem here is that Nintendo is so ingrained with its own family-friendly image that even third party developers can't break through its connotation. What is needed is a brand that is disassociated with, but still controlled by, Nintendo. Imagine going into a game store, and you see on display the Nintendo Wii, a tall white box with a Remote controller and a cartoony sports package, and the Sora Revolution*, a flat black box with a Classic Controller and a dark fantasy adventure about a young man who gets turned into a wolf (we'll pretend for the sake of this example that you can play Twilight Princess with a Classic Controller). Which of these do you think would appeal to the "hardcore" gamer? How about the Nintendo DS versus the Sora Nitro*?

My point is, a game like Grand Theft Auto might sell better on a system called the Nitro, while a game like Nintendogs is better suited for the DS. The two systems can be identical in hardware and interface, but the Nitro have a more "hardcore" name and design. While the Wii has targeted casual gamers with its simple, unique controller design, the Revolution can attract the hardcore with a more conventional one. Both SKUs would be fully compatible with each other's games and accessories, but cater, at least aesthetically, to different audiences.

Admittedly, this does pose some problems, like what do you put on the game cases? Wii, Revolution, or both? Maybe they could make a decision based on the target demographic. For example, they could have the key buyers' system name on the front, and "also compatible with [other system name]" on back, or in smaller print on the front. Who knows?

These are all my own personal musings, of course.  It will never happen. Nintendo are proud of themselves; and they should be, as they are currently dominating both the console and portable gaming markets. However, their success has come at a price. They have lost many potential sales and licenses due to the perception of their audience. Perhaps a rebrand may be what Nintendo needs to recapture the "hardcore" gamers, many of whom have moved on to the PlayStation 3 and/or Xbox 360.  It worked for Disney. Con Air, Clerks, the Scream trilogy,... These are all Disney movies. Maybe the next answer to Halo or Grand Theft Auto could be a Nintendo game, under a different name.

*"Sora" is taken from Sora Ltd., a Nintendo second party developer founded by Super Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai.  "Revolution" and "Nitro" were Nintendo's project names for the Wii and DS prototypes, respectively.


  1. This sounds like a good idea.

    On a side note, Would you like to contribute to a PC-vs-Console debate?


  2. hey fear, check this out: ;)

  3. Chris: Are you calling me a slacker? LOL! Just kidding. I try to get at least one major article out a month, with maybe a small one here and there to keep things active, or to get a quick thought out. I'm really more interested in getting my craft perfected, and simply putting my ideas out there for people to read and discuss, than posting a lot without much thought. If I really devoted the time and effort to it, I'm sure I could churn out one or more a week, but then it wouldn't be as much fun to me, and I would be using what little free time I have to do more work. (And some of these articles really are work!) As I've said before, when it's feasible to write more, without sacrificing income, I will. Until then, I apologize to you and all of my readers for the sparsity of my updates, and encourage everyone to continue reading and commenting.