Talking Point: Nintendo's Revised Approach to E3

It’s not all about the LA expo

Nintendo has often been one of the most secretive companies in the world, and while that prevents any unwanted information being leaked ahead of schedule, it means that at times it’s infuriating to follow as a fan. Up until a few years ago, the only chance we got to look inside the hallowed grounds of Nintendo HQ was at E3, where its hour-long show would present the biggest news for the coming months and beyond; for the rest of the year, the most we saw was a new trailer or a handful of screenshots. It was secrecy of the highest order.

And there’s certainly a lot to be said for keeping things under wraps, especially with competitor companies ready to mimic the next big innovation, but recently Nintendo’s approach to E3 has changed, making this mindset untenable. E3 2012 is a good example of Nintendo’s revised approach to the year’s biggest gaming showcase, with the games on offer appealing to a wider range of gamers, and narrowly focused on the current year ahead. It’s indicative of how broad the audience of E3 has become, but it also means that announcements that would once have brought the room to its knees are little more than interesting side-notes to another instalment of the Just Dance franchise. So in an effort to combat this, Nintendo has opened its doors.

Begun in October 2011, Nintendo Direct has become a valuable global marketing tool for Nintendo, providing inside access to the company throughout the year to the legion of loyal fans who are eagerly awaiting the next big story from Kyoto. Nintendo Direct has become a big event in a short space of time, providing us with hours of brilliant new footage, breaking news stories, and perhaps most importantly of all, bananas.

Since its inception, the show has largely been focussed on providing updates on previously announced titles, and showcasing new trailers as release dates approach. But this year, Nintendo’s strategy changed, and with the recent Wii U and 3DS Nintendo Direct broadcasts, the target wasn’t just to show off previously announced games, but also to unveil all new games.

Pre-2011, big announcements outside of E3 would have almost been unheard of, and aside from third-party titles, any announcement at all from Nintendo would be unlikely. Yet here we are, just three months into 2013, and we already have new announcements for big titles such as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team and Pokémon X & Y, to name just a few, and that’s before we even consider the updates on titles such as Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and Bayonetta 2 that have been showcased. Not bad for less than a quarter of the year!

If you were handed that list of games out of context and asked to name when they were announced, the obvious answer would be E3, but instead Nintendo chose not to announce them in its own time, and that shows the company’s new mindset to E3, driven largely by the way the industry is changing.

You only need to look at E3 as a spectacle to see how the event has changed. Typically the gamer’s New Year, E3 has become a huge commercial event for publishers, allowing them to sell their latest games to the broadest audience possible. Whereas the show was previously streamed online on dedicated gaming websites, the big conferences are now broadcast on TV, bringing the event quite literally into the living room. And as Nintendo has shown us with Wii U, it’s not just gamers who want to use the living room.

This broader audience that is now accessible thanks to TV awareness, along with Wii’s development of the family market, means that E3 has had to change its target to a far broader audience. Nintendo’s E3 show now features titles like Nintendo Land as figure-head pieces, whereas in the past it would have perhaps closed with Pikmin 3.

Perhaps the most important thing about Nintendo Direct, against this backdrop, is that it’s broadcast to an attentive and regular audience, an audience that while curious about Wii Fit U, is far more interested in the next big Mario game, or a niche title like Fire Emblem. It allows Nintendo to be unashamedly itself, giving us the quirky humour that we’ve all grown to love, rather than the auto-cue led back-and-forth that are so awkwardly placed during E3 conferences.

And most important of all, it allows the games that the core Nintendo fanbase is clamouring for to be announced and to take centre stage. Take, for instance, the reveal of Wind Waker HD. It’s an utterly charming and brilliant re-imagining of one of Nintendo’s finest ever creations, but throw it into the E3 show and it will easily be forgotten about. In an era where the next big thing is the talking point, a remake of a decade old game, while good news for fans, is unlikely to cause much of a stir. So instead, Nintendo reveals it to an audience that’s taking time out of it day and which clearly cares immensely about Nintendo games – everyone wins.

That’s not to say E3 isn’t important to Nintendo any more, and in fact, Nintendo Direct is becoming an important outlet for pre-E3 news too. While last year we saw Non-Specific Action Figure in his Oscar worthy performance alongside OctoG123 previewing Miiverse, this year Nintendo has taken the initiative and begun to place tentative hooks for their big E3 reveals.

One of the biggest talking points from Wii U Direct was the trio of E3 confirmations, Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart and Mario 3D, all of which are confirmed to be appearing at the show in some form. Add this to the already huge list of Nintendo published titles coming this year, which will almost certainly appear in playable form, and it’s clear that some early groundwork has already been done. You want Smash Bros? Yes, it’ll be there, so why not tune in to see the rest?

These early announcements also act as a constant counter-point to the barrage of next-gen announcements that are coming from the Sony and Microsoft camps. While PS4 has just been announced, and the new Xbox announcement rumoured to be imminent, E3 will be the big staging ground for these platforms; thanks to that, it will be easy for Nintendo to be forgotten about. After all, this year is all about software for Nintendo and selling Wii U to the masses.

But with these announcements out early, attendees now have a very real reason to be organising a trip to Nintendo’s booth, and not being surprised to discover that Smash Bros is tucked away in a corner somewhere. While the surprise factor is still important — something Retro Studios will undoubtedly be making use of this year — there’s good reason for making reference to games that will be there in advance of the show. A new 3D Mario and Super Smash Bros are huge talking points, and have given Wii U interest a considerable momentum boost since their announcement – just imagine the reaction when they are properly unveiled in June.

So while E3 remains the figure-head of the gaming year, it has evolved into a new form. With a broader audience than ever, the impetus is now on the console manufacturers to present reasons to buy their latest console to more than just the core audience, and that means that some titles have to fall by the wayside. Instead, it falls to Nintendo Direct to announce these games, and while E3 may not be the event we once remembered it to be, its legacy lives on in these broadcasts. Nintendo will continue to be at E3, and the megaton announcements of Mario and Smash Bros will continue to rock venues like the Nokia Theatre, but it is Nintendo Direct where the real details will be, and presented in a way that only Nintendo can do.