Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 4

[Note: This is the fourth and final part of a multi-part post.  In the first part I looked at the ways the Wii ultimately was a failure, and in the second part I looked at the ways Nintendo failed to capitalize on the Wii, helping to create the situation they find themselves in now with the Wii U.  In the third part I looked at some of the mistakes Nintendo has made with the Wii U.]

Nintendo is not in a great spot.  Their current home console, the Wii U, is an unqualified failure, and the 3DS, while selling reasonably well, is so far Nintendo’s worst selling handheld system, serving perhaps as a harbinger of handheld gaming’s inexorable decline.  Obviously, Nintendo needs their upcoming console, codenamed NX, to be a hit.  If the NX puts up Wii U or GameCube numbers, the company may have to seriously consider getting out of the hardware business.  So what should Nintendo do with the NX?

With history as our guide, we can safely assume that Nintendo is going to try to do something big, bold, innovative, and unusual with the NX, leaving us all simultaneously scratching our heads in confusion and fantasizing about the new types of games Nintendo’s system will (perhaps) make possible.  That’s what’s so exciting about Nintendo, their willingness to take unfathomable risks in an industry built around predictable iteration.  As I write this, the gaming world is mourning the unexpected and untimely death of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, perhaps the biggest champion of risk-taking in Nintendo’s history.  Under Iwata’s leadership, Nintendo introduced the idea of a touch-enabled, dual-screen handheld – a concept that has sold more than 200 million units across its various incarnations – and the Wii, that runaway success that even your grandparents played.  Sure, Nintendo has also had their flops – that’s the “risk” part – but they’ve had tremendous successes and have shaped the modern gaming industry more than any other company.

So what should they do going forward?  What should their NX strategy be?  The path back to success isn’t clear for Nintendo.  Having lost both the traditional, core audience and the Wii’s massive casual audience, Nintendo will have an uphill climb trying to sell the NX to anyone outside the dwindling base of Nintendo loyalists.  It might already be too late for Nintendo to reverse their decline.  But there are some things they can do that will give them a fighting chance, and at least help them avoid some of the problems they’ve had in the recent past.

Focus on a single concept.

One of the main problems with the Wii U is that it lacks a clear identity.  At first blush, the Wii U would seem to be centered on its iconic gamepad.  But you can only use one gamepad per system, few games make much use of the second screen and touch controls, and many games not only support but necessitate the use of different controllers; as a result, the Wii U is actually a pretty confusing system.  It is simultaneously an update of the Wii and a brand new way to play games, but it feels like a half-baked version of each of these things.

Because the NX will be a “brand new concept,” clear messaging will be especially critical for Nintendo.  Everyone can tell what a PS4 is just by looking at the name – it’s like the PS3, but better – because that’s how consumer technology pretty much always works.  Nintendo, in contrast, will have to explain what their “new concept” is to people, and they’ll have to do so quickly and clearly.  They can’t try to sell consumers a console that crams fifteen weird ideas under its hood.

Nintendo was still explaining the Wii U to people – that it’s a new console and not a Wii peripheral – a year after it was released.  Every day that your customers spend not understanding your product is a day they definitely don’t spend wanting to buy it.  People need to understand what the system is and what it does at the end of a thirty-second commercial.  Or, even better, at the end of the five seconds of the commercial you watch on YouTube before the “skip” button pops up.  The new console needs a clear, simple identity built around a single, cohesive idea.

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Commit to the New Controller

For all the convention-defying innovations they’ve introduced to the gaming world over the last decade or so, Nintendo’s first-party games have looked remarkably traditional, for the most part.  Iconic, lucrative franchises like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Smash Bros. haven’t made much use of Nintendo’s various new control schemes.  Outside of a few minigame collections, Nintendo hasn’t really put the weight of their flagship IP behind their bold hardware innovations.  This reinforces the idea that Nintendo’s various control schemes are little more than gimmicks.

When the NX inevitably launches with a radical new control scheme, Nintendo needs to convince everyone that this new way to play games really is better than the old way to play games.  And that will take Mario and Zelda games that force us to use the new features.  If Nintendo really believes their new controller is a better way to play games, they should stand behind it with their flagship IP and require us to use it.  If, on the other hand, the new controller isn’t appropriate for most types of videogame, then maybe they shouldn’t be releasing it at all.  In other words…

Maybe Don’t Reinvent the Wheel This Time

Nintendo has tried for a decade now to change the way people play videogames, and has largely failed.  Sure, they sold a lot of Wiis, but today most games – even Nintendo’s first-party games – are controlled with a pair of analog sticks, a D-pad, four face buttons, and four shoulder buttons.  In other words, the control scheme that’s been industry standard since before the PS2.  Maybe Nintendo didn’t do a good enough job convincing us to use their innovative controls, or maybe people just prefer a standard controller.  Maybe Nintendo should listen to the market for once and release a more-or-less standard controller.

A number of successful games have made use of unconventional controls over the years, but the success stories tend to involve games that come bundled with their controller, such as Guitar Hero and Wii Fit.  You could probably file Wii Sports in this category, too.  Meanwhile, attempts to impose a new control scheme across an entire platform have largely failed, at least in the long term.  Along with Nintendo’s various products, we’ve also had the Kinect and PlayStation Move, and these technologies haven’t supplanted the standard controller one bit.  Maybe unconventional control schemes should only be released as peripherals tied to a specific game or genre.

Nintendo has released controllers over the last two generations that make new types of gameplay possible, but that aren’t necessarily preferable to standard controllers for most types of games.  Maybe they would have been better served if they’d treated those controllers as alternatives rather than as the default.  Similarly, no one can argue that guitar-shaped controllers don’t open up new possibilities for game design, but it doesn’t logically follow that a guitar is a better controller than your standard gamepad.  The occasional YouTuber notwithstanding, no one wants to play Skyrim on a guitar.  If Nintendo doesn’t have a new control scheme that really is preferable to a gamepad for just about every type of game, then they should probably make their default controller a standard gamepad.  If they have a really great idea for a fishing pole-shaped controller, they should bundle it with Mario Fishing and let us play the rest of our games with a regular gamepad.

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Nintendo is in a tight spot with the NX.  Because of their low market share, they really need to do something to make a splash with their new console.  That splash is probably not going to come in the form of profoundly more powerful hardware than the Xbox One and PS4, so the safe bet seems to be yet another innovative, unconventional control scheme.  Releasing a standard videogame box just wouldn’t be Nintendo’s style, and probably wouldn’t be a good strategy.

But maybe Nintendo’s “brand new concept” doesn’t have anything to do with the control scheme.  Another radically unconventional controller will probably just seem like another gimmick.  A lot of potential customers will say, “This again?” and move on.  I would love for Nintendo to release a truly revolutionary, transformative controller that forever changes – and improves – the way we play videogames.  If anyone can do it, it’s Nintendo.  But I’ve gotten my hopes up too many times for the long-awaited Future of Gaming.  At this point, it would almost be refreshing to see Nintendo do what they did for years before the Wii: iterate on and slightly improve the standard controller.

Ditch Backwards Compatibility

I know, I know.  Microsoft’s recent announcement that backwards compatibility is coming to the Xbox One was probably the biggest story at this year’s E3.  People were ecstatic to hear this news.  Xbox fans have been craving backwards compatibility.  So why should Nintendo ditch it with the NX?  Well, the situation Microsoft is in with the Xbox One is different from Nintendo’s in a couple of ways.

For one thing, Microsoft is trying to convince people to ditch their Xbox 360s for an Xbox One.  They sold 85 million Xbox 360s, and most of those people haven’t upgraded to the new generation yet.  That’s a really big customer base, many of whom are probably on the fence between Microsoft and Sony for their next console.  For most of these people, the choice between these two very similar consoles is going to come down to one or two small features: an exclusive title here, a better controller there.  Backwards compatibility could be the deciding factor.

Nintendo’s situation with the NX is radically different.  They’ve only sold ten million Wii Us, and probably aren’t going to sell many more between now and the NX’s release.  Even if you stipulate that every single PS4 and Xbox One owner had an Xbox 360, that would still leave almost 50 million people with Xbox 360s who haven’t upgraded yet; in other words, 50 million people with a library of Xbox 360 games that are now (potentially) playable on Xbox One, and for whom backwards compatibility is an attractive feature.  That’s a lot of potential customers.  Backwards compatibility on the NX, meanwhile, would make the new console more appealing to the ten million people with a (probably pretty small) library of Wii U games.  And, let’s be honest, those ten million people probably represent the dwindling cadre of Nintendo loyalists.  They’re not going to be on the fence between an NX and an Xbox One; they’re going to buy an NX for the inevitable Mario and Zelda games, or they’re going to give up on Nintendo.  Backwards compatibility would be the deciding factor for so few potential NX customers that it’s simply not worth including.  The time, money, and horsepower would be better spent elsewhere.

Which brings me to the second point: backwards compatibility on the NX would be too complicated.  Backwards compatibility works on the Xbox One because they use the same controller; as long as you can emulate the 360 hardware, you can play the games, and the Xbox One is powerful enough to run that emulation.  Wii U games, on the other hand, use the Wii U gamepad, Wii remotes, Wii U pro controllers, Wii pro controllers, the 3DS, and whatever else I’m forgetting.  The Mario Paint mouse?  R.O.B.?  Backwards compatibility would make the NX beholden to all these controllers.  It would require Nintendo to build the NX around some version of the Wii U’s failed control scheme, or to make it work with the whole lineup of old controllers along with whatever the new controller is, just like the Wii U did.  Not only would this be confusing to consumers, it would also probably impose technical limitations on the hardware.  Getting the NX to work with all these controllers – especially the Wii U gamepad – would add significantly to the system’s production cost, and therefore its price.  That’s money that would be better spent simply making the NX better.  Also, the fewer ways the NX can be described as “like the Wii U,” the better.

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Sure, there are some really great games that came out on the Wii U and have been criminally underplayed because of the system’s paltry install base.  It would be great if more people got to play these games, and backwards compatibility would allow that.  Maybe.  But it’s just not worth it.  Nintendo is coming off of their biggest failure to date; they need to be looking forwards, not back.

Appeal to Gamers

This does not mean that Nintendo has to go after the hardcore FPS or RPG crowds, or try to make the NX the go-to console for EA sports games or Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto.  But it means giving up on the idea that they can sell a piece of dedicated gaming hardware and a library of $60 games to casual gamers.  That’s no longer a viable business plan, now that smartphones and tablets are so ubiquitous.  Gamers, though, are willing to spend a fair amount of money on hardware and games, and can be relied on to come back to the game store year after year, generation after generation.  As the Wii-to-Wii-U transition has demonstrated, building a reliable customer base is as important as selling a lot of any one console.  And if you’re trying to build a reliable customer base for dedicated gaming hardware, you need gamers.

How exactly Nintendo targets gamers is another question altogether, and one with no easy answer.  Should they try to carve out a slice of the pie that Sony and Microsoft share?  Should they try to convert non-gamers and lapsed gamers into active gamers?  Should they focus on winning younger gamers and then try harder to retain those gamers as they age?  Should they try to win back the 90 million or so people who had a Wii but not a Wii U?  Some combination of these things?  Who knows.  I don’t envy the people who have to make that decision.  None of these options seem like very safe or lucrative bets, and it will take a mix of creativity, tenacity, risk, and luck to turn the NX into a success.  There is one thing Nintendo could do that might help them carve out a niche in the crowded videogame marketplace, though…

Embrace the Second Console Role

In my house, the Wii U is just one of several consoles currently hooked up to a TV and played on a regular basis.  I’d imagine this is the case for a lot of Wii U owners.  The sales charts for the Wii U seem a lot lighter on the kind of shovelware minigame collections that did so well on the Wii, and a little more top-loaded with games that appeal to “core” gamers.  But the charts also reveal a console that just doesn’t have a very big library of games.  That mediocre launch title ZombiU is still the 14th best-selling Wii U game, for example, probably says more about the Wii U’s software lineup than it does about that game’s quality.  In other words, fans of gritty shooters play the Wii U, but it can’t be all they’re playing; after they finished (or abandoned) that game, many of them probably switched over to an Xbox or a PlayStation.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, okay, it’s not great.  But there’s a silver lining here: the Wii U could have been – and now the NX could be – the second console of choice.  Because, let’s face it, Nintendo is not going to dethrone Sony for home console supremacy, and they’re probably not going to be able to succeed if they market solely to non-gamers.  They’re probably going to need to cobble together a customer base from a variety of the aforementioned sources, and they need a lot of those people to be gamers.  But instead of trying to steal those customers from Sony and Microsoft – likely a losing proposition – they could try to co-opt them.

Nintendo’s greatest asset is its stable of beloved IP.  One of the biggest reasons people are always rooting for Nintendo to succeed is that the company not only owns some of our favorite game franchises, but also releases games unlike anything else out there.  Every console has its share of exclusives, but there are few PlayStation or Xbox games for which there isn’t a reasonable analog on the other console.  Xbox One owners can’t play Uncharted, but they have Tomb Raider.  PlayStation owners can’t play Halo, but they have Destiny, and dozens of other shooters.  Meanwhile, try finding the PlayStation or Xbox equivalent of Smash Bros. or Mario Kart or Splatoon.  These are games that gamers enjoy, and that are only available on Nintendo platforms.  Plenty of Xbox and PlayStation gamers enjoy these games, or would if they had a Nintendo console.  But, forced to choose, they end up opting for the more powerful platform with the bigger library.

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If the NX makes its rumored 2016 release date, it will fall in a sweet spot between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4’s releases three years prior, and their follow ups’ likely releases another three or more years later.  If Nintendo releases the NX – and any other future consoles – in these off years, it will help them sidestep the problem of direct competition with more powerful consoles.  Fans of Mario and Zelda games who bought an Xbox One or PS4 two or three years earlier might now be ready to drop a few hundred bucks on a second console.  Nintendo needs to actively pursue these customers.

This strategy plays to both Nintendo’s strengths and its weaknesses.  Nintendo’s consoles have typically had a lower price point than their competitors’, which will make the NX more attractive to people who already own a $400 console.  That Nintendo platforms have lately been short on third-party support and lack a lot of the biggest cross-platform games won’t be a big deal for these customers, either.  And while the uniqueness of Nintendo’s hardware and games has always been an asset, it’s also been a bit of a liability: customers feel like they have to choose between Nintendo’s offbeat, colorful games and the other consoles’ gritty, complex games.  Nintendo shouldn’t be presenting this as a choice customers have to make.  Instead, they should be saying, “Get an Xbox or PlayStation for that, and a Nintendo for this.”

If Nintendo can sell consoles to a decent chunk of both Sony and Microsoft’s customer bases, and then sell a few million more consoles to Nintendo loyalists and new or lapsed gamers, they can end up with a pretty successful console.

Decide Whether or Not You Need Third Parties

For years, Nintendo has struggled to attract third-party developers to its consoles.  Aside from a few games that are hits with Nintendo’s typically younger audience – Skylanders and Lego games, for example – very few cross-platform games make their way to Nintendo consoles.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be a huge problem, though.  Nintendo platforms are never going to be the preferred place to play Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto games.  The biggest hits on Nintendo platforms are always first-party games – in part because those are basically the only games on Nintendo platforms, but also because Nintendo simply makes great games that embody the company’s personality.  Having a ton of third-party support would obviously be a big help for Nintendo, but they could probably make it work without that support, too, if they put their mind to it.  What they can’t do, though, is have another splashy launch with a bunch of platitudes about their awesome third-party lineup, only to see that support evaporate within the first 6 or 12 months after launch.  In other words, they need to make a decision about third-party support, and then commit to it.

If Nintendo decides that third-party support is critical to their success, then they need to really go out and get it.  This means locking down games not just for the launch window, but for years.  This means making a piece of hardware that can run third-party developers’ engines of choice.  This means putting Nintendo’s marketing muscle behind these third-party titles.  This means ponying up for some third-party exclusives.  This means partnering with developers on some new IP, sharing some of that Nintendo magic.  This means working harder than Sony and Microsoft do to get third-party support.  This means asking developers what it would take to get them to make games for the NX, and then doing it, whatever it is.

If, on the other hand, Nintendo decides that it’s not worth the effort to lure third-party developers to their console, then they need to realize from the get-go that those games are never coming.  They need to devise a strategy, whatever that entails, for supporting the NX without the help of third-party developers.  They can’t simply release a handful of first-party games and wait for other developers to fill in the cracks.

Make the NX Powerful

Especially if Nintendo wants third-party support, they need more powerful hardware.  This doesn’t mean having the meanest box on the market, but the NX has to at least be in the same ballpark as its competition.  With the Wii U, Nintendo released a console about as powerful as an Xbox 360 during the last year of the 360’s generation; this was clearly a mistake (though obviously the Wii U failed for a variety of reasons).  Releasing a console roughly as powerful as an Xbox One smack in the middle of that hardware generation would probably be fine.  Nintendo will still have a window of three or four years before their hardware starts to look dated, at which point it will be significantly less expensive than the PS5 and Xbox… Prime?… and appeal to a different market sector.

What Nintendo can’t do is make the NX dramatically less powerful than the Xbox One and PS4.  For one, the NX needs to be able to run the engines with which developers build games for those other consoles.  This not only makes it easier to port cross-platform games over to NX, but also removes a major roadblock to third-party development.  Once developers determine that their engine of choice won’t run on the NX, they’re likely to forever write that console off as a potential platform for their games, regardless of how well it’s selling.

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If the NX is reasonably powerful, it will also be easier to market.  I agree with every Nintendo spokesperson/fanboy/apologist who says that graphics don’t matter nearly as much as creativity, gameplay, design, mechanics, etc.  This is absolutely true.  However, what gets people interested in your game is video: YouTube clips and Twitch streams and Let’s Plays and trailers.  That’s what people share on Facebook and Twitter.  That’s how people find out about games.  That’s what gets people excited for an upcoming game.  Yes, there are a few games that you can try at the kiosk in GameStop, on the off chance that it’s actually working, and every once in a blue moon a publisher releases an actual demo of a new game.  But for the most part, video clips sell games.  And if your $60 AAA game looks outdated, it’s going to be a lot harder to sell.

Make More First-Party Games

On the other hand, if Nintendo doesn’t get a lot of third-party support – a likely scenario – then they need to do more to fill out the NX’s software library.  For a Wii U owner who loves all or most of Nintendo’s franchises, the Wii U has a healthy lineup of software.  For a Wii U owner who likes only a few of these franchises, though, there’s not a lot to play.  Fans of 3D platforming, for example, have one Mario game to play, and that’s pretty much it.  This isn’t to say that Nintendo should be releasing a new Mario Galaxy every three months, but if you’re going to pursue fans of a certain genre, you’ve got to give them more than one or two games to play.  If third-party developers aren’t going to pick up that slack, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

At this point, I buy Nintendo hardware for the inevitable Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Mario Kart games, with hope for a Metroid game and maybe one or two other surprises, and I’d imagine a lot of other people are in the same boat.  (Sales charts suggest as much.)  Beyond these games, there’s not a lot I want to play on my Wii U.  It’s not a big problem for me, because I have an Xbox One, and a big library of Xbox 360 games I’m still working through.  (This is one reason Nintendo should position the NX as the Other Console in your living room; the software lineup’s lack of depth doesn’t look as bad in this light.)  But still, once Nintendo gets an NX into your living room, they’re going to want you to play it.  If you buy an NX and only one or two games, obviously Nintendo is not making a lot of money from you.  And if you look back in five years and realize you only played a couple of NX games compared to twenty Xbox or PlayStation games, you might not bother with Nintendo consoles in the future.  Nintendo needs to not just get an NX into customers’ living rooms (as they did so well with the Wii), but into their hearts, so they can retain those customers from one generation to the next (as they basically didn’t do it all with the Wii).  To do this, they need a stronger lineup of games.

Now, this might not be possible.  Nintendo might not be able to scale up their software division without compromising quality.  Nobody wants more first-party shovelware.  Which brings us back to the question of third-party support.  If Nintendo can’t put out more high-quality first-party games, then they need to get third-party support.  But if they can’t get that third-party support, they need to step up in a major way and build their own software library.  They need to be facing this challenge, one way or another, from the outset.

Embrace Indie

One of my favorite parts of this year’s E3 was watching Microsoft highlight a whole bunch of indie games headed to the Xbox One.  One of my favorite things to do as a gamer is browse through all the cool-looking indie games available for download on my various consoles – something that’s easier to do on Xbox One than Wii U, because the Nintendo eShop is painfully slow.  I’d love to see Nintendo become a stronger supporter of indie games, and doing so could serve them well.

I don’t mean to imply that Nintendo is ignoring indie games; there are a lot of great indie games on the Wii U, as on other platforms.  It’s a great time to be an indie-loving console gamer.  But it would be great to see Nintendo go above and beyond, and embrace indie in a bigger and bolder way than anyone else is.  And this could also help Nintendo fill out their software library.

Indie games are, unsurprisingly, rarely built with the latest and greatest engines and cutting-edge graphics.  Indie developers don’t have the budget to rebuild original Star Wars props with photogrammetry, for example.  So if the NX surprises no one by having sub-standard graphical capabilities, it should still be able to run just about anything a five-person indie studio can cook up.  Indie games also usually try to focus on a unique concept and aesthetic rather than on one-upping Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty.  The result is a whole lot of indie games with quirky, silly characters who would feel right at home on a Nintendo console.

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Look at a game like Ori and the Blind Forest.  Microsoft acquired this indie early in its development, and it became both a huge hit and critical darling, and is sure to end up on a lot of “Best Games of 2015” lists.  Now, no one’s buying an Xbox One just to play Ori, but if one console seems like it is far and away the exclusive home to a lot of these buzzed-about indie games, that could drive some sales.  For all their recent financial woes, Nintendo has a lot of money in the bank.  They should take big bets on indie studios and fill their library with Nintendo-exclusive indie games.  The NX probably isn’t going to get the kind of exclusivity deals that Sony has with Call of Duty or Microsoft has with Rise of the Tomb Raider.  But they can afford to make a lot of top-tier Kickstarter pledges.  Indie studios might be the third-party partners Nintendo has been looking for.

Create More New IP

As I said, I buy Nintendo consoles mainly for a handful of franchises that have been around for decades.  And that’s unlikely to change.  I don’t roll my eyes when Nintendo announces a new Mario game; I want more Mario games, in part because they’re often among the best platformers available, and in part because I grew up with and love the character.  But as a business model, nostalgia will only take you so far.  Eventually, people who grew up playing games in the 80s and 90s will age out of the key demographic – if we haven’t already – and be replaced by people whose gaming memories only go back as far as GTA III or Halo or Minecraft.  Mario may be a cultural icon who transcends a particular generation, but so was Betty Boop.  Just because Mario survived a direct assault from Sonic the Hedgehog – (and assimilated him into the Nintendo family; take that, Sega!) – doesn’t mean that he’ll be relevant forever.  If the Mario-Zelda money train runs out of track, Nintendo needs a plan B.

Relying too heavily on the same old cast of characters also handcuffs Nintendo a bit.  No matter how much we all love Mario, and no matter how much Nintendo continues to put out quality Mario games, we all know that Nintendo’s going back to the well whenever they release a new Mario game.  There’s a limit to how often you can do that.  If Nintendo released a new Mario game every two weeks, it would make even most fervent Nintendo apologist get a bit cynical.  Maybe Nintendo doesn’t release more games not because they don’t have the ability to develop more, but because the big window between the seventeenth and eighteenth installments in a franchises is necessary to make the game marketable.  Annualized Zelda games just wouldn’t feel as special, for example.  If they had more IP, and were as committed to developing new IP as they are to rehashing 80s IP, then they would have more games to release in between the Mario and Zelda games.

And Nintendo makes great IP.  They’re responsible for more of gaming’s biggest, most recognizable characters than maybe all other publishers combined.  So of course we want more!  Splatoon, Nintendo’s first big new IP in quite a while, has been a huge hit, working its way into the Wii U’s top ten in just a few months and continuing to hold critics’ attention.  My fear is that there’s a conference room at Nintendo with a Steel Diver poster on the wall that someone hung there to remind everyone that people don’t want new IP.  My hope is that Splatoon’s success convinces Nintendo that we do want more new IP, so long as they’re good, and that a few duds won’t scare us away from trying something new in the future.

That said, I’m already looking forward to Splatoon 2 on the NX.  Spla-two-nSpla2oon?

Rearrange the Buttons

This is more of a personal pipe dream than a legitimate suggestion, but I’m going to try to make a case for it anyway.  I play games primarily on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Wii U – pretty much in that order.  All three of these consoles feature a controller with four face buttons – A, B, X, and Y – arranged in a diamond pattern.  Only, on the Xboxes, X and A are where Y and B are on the Wii U, and vice versa.  It’s confusing.  Whenever I get to a QTE in a Nintendo game, I either have to stop for a second to look at the controller to see what button to press, or I die, because I’ve instinctively hit the wrong button.

Now, I know Nintendo has been putting A, B, X, and Y on their controllers for a lot longer than Microsoft has.  The Wii U uses the same layout that the SNES introduced in 1990; the original Xbox appeared eleven years later.  (Let’s for now ignore the PlayStation and its ridiculous square and triangle buttons, which will never make sense to anyone.)  But a few things have happened in the meantime.  For one, Microsoft has surpassed Nintendo in hardware sales, the Wii notwithstanding.  Also, Nintendo has been inconsistent.  They may have introduced their current layout in 1990 on the SNES, but they abandoned it on the N64, which had the A button where the B button is today, the B button where the Y button is, and four C buttons instead of an X and Y.  Then the GameCube made things weirder with a giant A button in the center and uniquely shaped B, X, and Y buttons orbiting around it.  Then the Wii came along with an A button on the face, the B button converted into a trigger, no more X and Y (or L and R), a single C button, now on the left side, a d-pad on the right, and buttons for plus, minus, 1, and 2.

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So no, Nintendo hasn’t actually been using this button layout all along.  The Super Nintendo was the first – and last – Nintendo home console to adopt this particular button layout on its primary controller until the Wii U.  If Nintendo takes my advice – and why wouldn’t they? – and embraces the NX’s potential role as the second console in a multi-console home, they should also acknowledge the reality that, for most gamers, A, B, X, and Y belong where Microsoft decides they belong, not where Nintendo decided they belong in 1990.  This will make switching back and forth a lot easier for homes like mine, with both Nintendo and Microsoft consoles.  As for PlayStation gamers, I don’t know what to say.  Your buttons are weird.

Double Down on Amiibo

Obviously, Nintendo’s not going to put an end to the great Amiibo experiment once the NX launches.  Besides Splatoon, Amiibo seem like the only Nintendo products people are buying these days.  So of course Nintendo will continue to make these impossible-to-find collectibles for years to come.  But they shouldn’t just continue making Amiibo.  They should tie the figures to the NX launch in a big way, and go above and beyond anything they’ve done with Amiibo before.

No doubt, there will be a new batch of Amiibo that launches alongside the NX, or at least alongside a major launch-window game.  Along with this, Nintendo should refresh the stock for existing Amiibo.  It’s inexcusable that so many Amiibo are next to impossible to find.  It’s frustrating to find such a paltry selection every time I’m in the store, especially considering the abundance of Skylanders and Disney Infinity characters that can usually be found a few feet down the aisle.

Nintendo should also try to get their hypothetical third-party partners involved with Amiibo.  Plenty of people would love to buy Amiibo of Shovel Knight, Aurora from Child of Light, or Juan from Guacamelee!  If Nintendo had a habit of getting Amiibo support into indie games, that could go a long way to making the NX the go-to platform for indie fans.  And this approach could also make their system more appealing for AAA games, as well.  Nintendo’s already formed a partnership with Activision to put Nintendo characters in Skylanders.  They should try to add Amiibo functionality wherever possible, embedding the figurines in NX’s DNA.  If, somehow, Nintendo ever regains a significant portion of the core audience for major cross-platform games, Amiibo functionality would be a nice incentive to help their version of a game stand out.  Even something as simple as unlocking a Nintendo-themed weapon skin and reticle in a Call of Duty game would be a nice touch.  And who wouldn’t want to put Lara Croft in a pair of Mario overalls or give Geralt a Toadstool hat?  I know I would!

Nintendo should also take this opportunity to release an Amiibo killer app.  They, of course, could do this on the Wii U, but it makes more sense to hold a title like this back for the NX, especially if it’s coming out in 2016.  Amiibo are selling so well, and the Wii U so poorly, that I have to assume there are a bunch of people out there with Amiibo but no Wii U.  Maybe a great Amiibo game on NX could be the thing to bring them back to the Nintendo home console family.  Heck, some avid Amiibo collectors would probably buy an NX just to get the Amiibo it comes bundled with.

Launch with a Bundled Game and Two Controllers

Another pipe dream, but one that makes at least a little sense.  The argument against it, of course, is that packing a game and two controllers in with the console would raise its price, and Nintendo always tries to keep the price low.  And this of course depends a lot on what the new controller is like.  If it’s anything like the Wii U gamepad, then obviously this would be impossible.

But there are a few reasons it makes sense.  For one, Nintendo always positions itself as being family friendly, often using the trope of mother, father, sister, and brother all sitting on the couch together playing a game in their commercials.  Local multiplayer is on its last legs across the industry, but it is probably more deeply encoded in Nintendo’s DNA than anyone else’s.  Nintendo tried to market the Wii U in part around local, asymmetrical multiplayer, but playing these games requires that you go out and buy a second (and different) controller.  (It also requires that such games actually exist, which, for the most part, they don’t.)  Selling a console with two controllers would help them get families to actually buy and play these local multiplayer games.

SMW-box-web-001

Also, nostalgia is obviously a huge part of Nintendo’s strategy.  What’s more nostalgic than a console that comes bundled with a game and two controllers?  So many of Nintendo’s products seem to be saying, “Hey, remember 1992?” or something along those lines.  Well, to that end, Nintendo should make a magazine ad featuring a kid with a spiky semi-mullet and acid-washed jeans rocking out on a keytar, and use it to sell a console that comes bundled with a game and two controllers.  The gaming audience is a lot more diverse than it was when Nintendo packed Super Mario World in with the SNES, but Nintendo could bundle the NX with demos for a half dozen games and allow you to pick which one you want to download.  Heck, all of these games could be pre-installed on the system’s hard drive, and you could be allowed a few hours with each of them before you have to make your decision.

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Of course, if the NX really is going into production in the next few months, then most of these decisions have already been made.  If Nintendo has been watching my blog, looking for ideas, then they’re out of luck.  Sorry, guys!  So this is less of a list of things Nintendo should be doing, and more a list of things I hope they’ve been doing.  I have no doubt that Nintendo will release a fun piece of hardware that probably won’t be called the NX, and follow it up with a batch of really great first-party games.  But if this console doesn’t turn a profit and carve out a sizeable niche in the market, Nintendo might have to get out of the hardware business.  And I don’t want that.  I want Nintendo to be around for a long time, trying crazy new idea after crazy new idea.  If I ran Nintendo – (call me, I’m available!) – this is what I’d do.  Sometime in 2016, we’ll find out if Nintendo agrees with me.

Read all about What I Play When I Play.

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