Continuing brands while developing a new kind of game

If there’s one thing of which Nintendo has been the master, and continues to be so, it’s the art of fleshing out franchises and producing big-selling hit after hit. Colin Anderson spoke about the challenge of producing consistently profitable games: he provided the statistic that more than 90% of video game revenues are generated by less than 10% of releases. Nintendo has spent over 25 years nourishing franchises that epitomise pop culture in gaming: Mario stands tall, but Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid can’t be dismissed, while there are countless others that are less frequent such as Pikmin, Animal Crossing, Kid Icarus, Star Fox and Donkey Kong. There are others too, some that haven’t appeared for a while, but there are groups of fans eager to pounce on new releases or the chance to play as their favourite mascots: just look at the popularity of Super Smash Bros.

This is an area where Nintendo, simply through its extra years and experience, has developed an advantage over its rivals. Even those that feel Nintendo’s strength is weakening, such as mobile developer Ngmoco’s CEO Neil Young, acknowledge that the power of these brands gives Nintendo important assets, even if he ultimately believes that the company’s handheld ecosystem may fall apart.

… in that regard maybe we're competitive, but man, they've got some killer franchises. You wouldn't want to go up against Zelda and Mario and Pokémon and Kirby every day of the week.

Nintendo's challenge isn’t just to maintain this success, but in addition to produce franchises and game experiences that move beyond the perception that these are just fun distractions as video games, with nothing more substantial to offer than escapist fantasy. Much of the event we attended, and this feature, has been talking about ways that Nintendo can make its systems more than simple entertainment systems, the concept that defined NES in its branding. Rob Fahey, a video game writer for over a decade and with substantial experience, shared a view that video games need to evolve and grow up, along with its first generation of gamers that picked up a NES controller all those years ago.

Nintendo's challenge isn’t just to maintain this success, but in addition to produce franchises and game experiences that move beyond the perception that these are just fun distractions as video games.

Fahey shared the fact that after a year living in Japan he returned to the UK and played catch-up, playing as many games as possible to see what he missed. He cited examples of titles that he felt showed artistic creativity and a mature approach, showing that gaming can be about more than stomping koopas or, for many gamers with other systems, shooting bad guys in the face. Some of the games he listed ultimately pointed to Sony as a leader in terms of supporting, developing and publishing games that challenge the gamer with new ideas; these included Heavy Rain, Catherine and Journey. Titles of this ilk are rare or perhaps invisible on Nintendo platforms, with its systems often associated with variations on 20 year old themes.

There’s nothing wrong with giving Nintendo gamers more of what they love, of course, but Nintendo should make a conscious effort to give us different experiences that aren’t mature in the sense of aiming for headshots, but in the way the game asks us to interact, behave and think. It’s not all bad, the JRPG trilogy of Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower on Wii may have been evolutions of established game-types, but they were Nintendo-backed projects that dared to try new things and engage the gamer with extensive, varied storylines, some of which genuinely posed moral and emotional dilemmas.

More than rescuing a princess

Producing video games that push new ideas in narrative and story-telling doesn’t necessarily match up to a shareholder or accountant’s dream, but Nintendo is developing high quality digital platforms that can support smaller projects. Both the 3DS and Wii U eShop services can be testing grounds for ambitious new ideas, giving Nintendo’s audience yet another source of variety in their gaming habits. Sony is currently the master of this particular type of mature experience, but the game isn’t lost for Nintendo.

It's in Nintendo's hands

We’ve tackled some ideas and issues highlighted by five experienced industry figures over a three hour session, and it may seem a lot to ask Nintendo to address and develop them all. It is a lot, but that’s the industry as it is today. Consumers have the internet, smartphones, tablets, increasingly interactive televisions and rival gaming systems all screaming for their attention. Nintendo can take these on because it’s established, has a base of loyal supporters and franchises that consistently sell in big numbers. That safety net needs to be strengthened, however, if Nintendo is to be more than a game company that’s always a little behind the times, but adorably idealistic. Wii U and 3DS may not be graphical powerhouses, but they are innovative and can be utilised brilliantly by imaginative minds. Nintendo has some of the most creative staff in the business, and with enough boldness can set the agenda for the next generation of gaming.