This year is vitally important for Nintendo, just like 2013 and 2012, admittedly. 2013 was a strange year in that notable successes and triumphs were overshadowed by missed targets and Nintendo's own disappointment. It was a year of contradictions — 3DS was the top-selling system in multiple major territories, yet fell below the company's projections, while the Wii U hosted some exceptional gaming experiences while failing to capture the public's imagination. Success and failure went through the year hand in hand, swapping places frequently just to confuse us all.
The final picture was clear, though, and that was one of Nintendo struggling and reacting as it often does, with more ideas to shake up the market and grab attention. The 3DS will be business as usual, the core profit driver, while during 2014 Nintendo will lift the lid on its Quality of Life platform, stepping into a health market that seems to be on the rise: see the Samsung S5's features as an example. So the Wii U steps to centre stage again, seeking the spotlight and a return to strong sales only truly seen in its launch month and, to a lesser degree, briefly over the 2013 Holiday period.
Games will be vital, of course. 2013 brought some fantastic games, but even the sublime Super Mario 3D World couldn't bring the sort of viral retail buzz that Nintendo craved. Attention will shift to Mario Kart 8, following the ludicrously successful Wii entry and no doubt hoping to attract the gaze of those that flocked to stores to grab that chunky box with racing goodness and a Wii Wheel inside. Super Smash Bros. is another, which will also be important for the 3DS, as it's a franchise that also shifts notable numbers and, perhaps most vitally, can tap into the psyche and yearnings of gamers that may typically swerve more to the Sony and Microsoft end of the market. Prominent YouTube channels that often focus on FPS games and GTA can be seen citing the new Smash as an anticipated game, for example.
Those games, and various others, will be significant, but Nintendo's drive to push the Wii U as something different and unique will likely move to other ground. In his January investor's presentation Satoru Iwata made clear that the GamePad and NFC (near field communication) functionality would be important parts of Nintendo's messaging, and we were told to expect more at E3. The LA extravaganza is important not so much for preaching to the converted, but by the press inches it wins, so it's faintly surprising that NFC will be considered important. It's been largely ignored to date, tentatively utilised in Pokémon Rumble U; that game, while decent, failed to do anything particularly interesting with the technology or its GamePad interface. For either feature to truly matter at E3 Nintendo may need to go against its better instincts and give players more control over their in-game destinies.
There are clear trends showing that the family and young gamer market that Nintendo continues to target is developing a taste for games that gradually remove typical boundaries. Two of the largest selling games in the U.S. last year were Minecraft as a retail release on the Xbox 360 (it's a phenomenon in the download space, of course), and newcomer in the collectible toy / NFC scene Disney Infinity. The success of the former can be attributed to multiple factors, of course, but it's the inherent freedom and customisation that many highlight as its golden idea; it's an experience as accessible and deep as gamers of any age want it to be. Minecraft is sometimes seen in classrooms, a tool to help those that normally have difficulty expressing themselves, and in the right hands can focus on teamwork and creativity rather than aggressive individual play. Teamwork and creativity are, in some ways, calling cards of Nintendo software.
As for Disney Infinity, while it hasn't comprehensively seen off the Activision behemoth of Skylanders it's certainly competing rather well. As Activision's series has followed fairly linear level design with additional areas and new swappable toy combinations, Infinity's Toy Box mode has allowed gamers to utilise the tools available — admittedly enhanced by those 'purchased' through relevant figurines and items — to create their own worlds and challenges. Players can spend time building an enormous tower, creating elaborate race tracks or far more; on the Wii U it was easier with the GamePad, using the touch screen to make the process that little bit more intuitive.
These are the kind of ideas we're likely to see more in the coming years, as consumers become increasingly accustomed to calling the shots in how they spend their time. With more people being heavy internet users and owning more devices, there are examples and products where gamers increasingly want to run free and do as they please; it's not just with games targeting young audiences, as GTA Online and the often-encouraged and vibrant PC modding scene demonstrates.
While Pokémon Rumble U was a necessary first step and seemed to be relatively popular — a local retailer we asked said the NFC toys had sold well — it was also cautious and unambitious. It was pleasing that toys could be levelled up, in game, and used in any copy of the game with advantages not included with the virtual toys collected via the software. While neat and capturing the "collect 'em all" mentality these toys can promote, it was far from integral to the game — perhaps understandable as an early experiment for Nintendo, but in truth that's all it was.
But now NFC will apparently be a focus, and it's easy to see why. Both Disney and Activision are not only making a lot of money through NFC figurines but are gaining something else that's also significant — mind share. Kids know all about the Disney and Skylanders characters; shelves in supermarkets, game stores and toy stores continue to groan under the weight of the various toys on offer. With Nintendo acknowledging that it has to do more in licensing, partnerships and brand awareness, too, toys linked to games serve a valuable dual purpose.
The ambition shouldn't just be retail space, but in the software that accompanies them. Nintendo, as masters of the game design craft, instinctively gives us courses to run that are impeccably structured — it's the traditional design philosophy. Yet the examples outlined above show that it's chaos that some desire. A world doesn't have to be perfect if it's one you created yourself, it just has to be yours. As a company that seeks to control every aspect of our gaming experiences — often as a positive to help us have as much fun as possible — this kind of concession would be bold for Nintendo.
With NFC the potential for a Nintendo 'World', in which characters from various IPs do as they please in user-generated levels, is hugely exciting. With the principles of Infinity and Minecraft wrapped in Nintendo packaging it could be a huge selling point. The benefit for the Wii U is that the capabilities for an engrossing, intuitive creative experience are all right there in the box thanks to the GamePad. It can read the figurines, while the touch screen and dual-screen setup with the TV put the control into the player's hands; games like Infinity and even Coaster Crazy Deluxe show how easily a touchscreen facilitates an individual's creativity. A recent — though unfortunately withdrawn and lacking credibility — retail listing referencing course creation tools in Mario Kart 8 naturally led to whimsical thinking; it was one of those rumours we wanted to be true, and we still hold a faint but unrealistic hope that it's a major surprise around the corner.
These ideas aren't unprecedented for Nintendo, as F-Zero customisation on the Japan-only Nintendo 64DD showed — even the NES days had course creation tools in some games — but it would be a diversion from the principles largely followed in recent years. We suspect Nintendo's masters of design would rather provide wonderfully structured levels in a prospective game where NFC figurines simply drop characters into the world, but that would be to miss the potential of the platform. Some may be critical of the GamePad and its assorted but largely unused features, but it can be a significant force in this area; out of the box the Wii U can provide an integrated setup perfect for NFC and touch-based creation tools, with physical inputs when needed.
With the GamePad to be promoted with DS games and a "quick-boot" mode, along with games designed to showcase its abilities, the Wii U controller is being shown some commitment ahead of a vital year. The talk of "detailed propositions" for NFC at E3 should also set the agenda for major, ambitious projects. Basic uses, meanwhile, may include instant payments through NFC-enabled cards for eShop funds or individual games, and that'll be a feature welcomed by retailers and consumers alike. As Satoru Iwata acknowledged when outlining plans to boost the GamePad's role, however, Nintendo has so-far failed to "fully communicate the value of the GamePad". With ambitious software, these goals can be collaborated with a desire to improve merchandising and licensing.
Minecraft, Skylanders and Disney Infinity have shown that consumers flock to creative freedom and collectibles, with Infinity perhaps fusing the two most effectively so far. We don't want Nintendo to stop using its expertise to bring us brilliantly crafted games, but it should also use the multi-functional GamePad for other means — give players a Nintendo world they can call their own.
What do you think? Can NFC and the GamePad contribute to a both new Nintendo project on Wii U that takes the best of experiences such as Minecraft and Disney Infinity? Are there other uses of NFC you'd like to see, or do you dislike it as a whole? Let us know in the comments below.