Kyle Mercury was involved in major marketing and events decisions at Nintendo of America between 2001 and 2007, undertaking various key roles throughout that period. He was particularly active in the region's efforts to promote the GameCube in these years, a system that saw Nintendo struggle in the home console market — by its own high standards — and come third-best in that generation of hardware.
It's a system with its fans, of course, and as we look back now its possible to consider the design as iconic and memorable. At the time, however, it failed to keep up with Sony's PlayStation 2 in a spectacular way, with Nintendo falling under pressure as the system failed to take off — it sold over 20 million units, but still holds the dubious honour of being the company's worst performing major home console.
Many factors can be attributed to these issues, and Mercury was one member of the team that attempted to promote the system to as wide an audience as possible. The difficulties in convincing consumers to buy a GameCube are, some may argue, recurring with the Wii U. It's far too early to suggest that the Wii U will finish with GameCube-level sales — though some industry analysts have made predictions along those lines — but Mercury feels there are parallels in terms of the system's place in the market. Here's what he said in an interview with notenoughshaders.com.
There are certainly parallels. The Wii performed what was, at the time, a remarkable feat: It drastically lowered the barrier to entry to video games. Price, ease of use, novel and broadly appealing content, innovative technologies without the fear of complexity that usually comes from them, disregard for traditional demographics… It was a perfect recipe and something the video game industry sorely needed. The GameCube had elements of those things, but it’s not what the market was looking for in the time of the PS2. Nintendo’s mobile division (especially backed by the Pokémon money machine) saved the day and there was only gain to be had with the Wii.
The Wii U also has elements of that whole, but once again it’s not what the market is looking for. It has sacrificed the simplicity of the Wii, but hasn’t caught the sheer hardware or media power of Microsoft or Sony. Casual gamers have moved to phones and tablets which are unsurpassed in convenience of play and cost. Title offerings aren’t exactly bold and with more and more 3rd party developers, studios that defined the last generation of games, reducing or removing support for the Wii U and a sadly lacking indie development scene… what’s the value proposition? The Wii thrived because it changed gamers expectations. The GameCube and Wii U suffered because gamers expectations have changed.
The GameCube at least benefitted from 3rd party developers still looking to push boundaries and create a-typical experiences. Games that could take chances because we hadn’t quite reached the almost “AAA or Indie” only state we’re in now. The middle class of gaming has slowly been whittled away this past generation, though I would argue there is an exception to be made for the still Nintendo dominated handheld market.
Another interesting perspective that Mercury has given is around the recent controversy over the appearance of Smash Bros. at EVO. Nintendo's initial decision to halt a Melee event brought plenty of criticism online, with the company then back-tracking to allow the tournament to go ahead as planned. Although Mercury was a judge at EVO, he explained that not many had considered the issue from Nintendo's angle, stating that it can be a troublesome brand for Nintendo.
From a Promotional perspective the game is almost always a guaranteed victory, it’s easy mode. People love Smash, period. In this respect, it tends to swallow nearly all other titles it’s placed alongside. Even during the Wii launch, Smash Melee would still draw huge crowds at events if it was fired up, pulling eyes and critical impressions away from newer Wii and DS titles. As that relates to EVO, the decision doesn’t really seem to make much sense and from what I’ve heard it was more a miscommunication between the parties involved. On the other hand, highlighting a 12 year old game from a console two full generations ago isn’t exactly going to lead to improved sales numbers. People always say “It’s free promotion!”, but that’s like using a Gameboy Advance SP to promote the 3DS. It was great at the time, but it’s not doing you any favors in 2013.
From a Marketing perspective, Smash is dangerous because of the content/playstyle of the game. Iconic Nintendo mascots beating the hell out of each other is an awesome gameplay experience, no one will challenge that fact, but from an overall Marketing view it’s, well, dangerous. The popular image of Mario, the widely publicly recognized one, can never be of him beating the hell out of Princess Peach or, say, of Link tossing Zelda into the fires of Brinstar, Pikachu hitting Jigglypuff with a baseball bat, so on, so forth. Unlike most other fighting game characters, the Nintendo mascots have far-reaching brands and franchises unto themselves that have to be considered and protected in a bigger picture view. EVO would have taken the character representations out of the hands of Nintendo’s control, boiled them down to pure violence, and broadcast it directly to 125,000 people. It’s not hard to see why Nintendo would be a little gun-shy.
Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to see Super Smash Bros Melee at EVO2013 (full disclosure, I was a Judge at EVO this year), but the outcry against Nintendo at the initial decision was so one-sided, so inconsiderate of what the company has to deal with to protect their brands, and just generally uninformed. Gamers want what they want, but there is always more at stake than we know.
Let us know what you think of these perspectives, but if you want plenty of detail on marketing and management pressures at Nintendo of America during the GameCube era, check out the full original article.