Consumer perception has historically protected Nintendo from the reality of its competition
Despite some severe criticism of the Switch’s online features, Nintendo remains a highly prolific and often revered presence in the world of games. One thing the company has repeatedly claimed itself, however, is that it does not compete with other console manufacturers because the experiences Nintendo provides are so unique. This is reminiscent of Apple employing marketing that claims a distinction between Macs and PCs, i.e. the PCs designed by their competitors.
Macs are of course PCs, but purely by positioning themselves as having a certain image in the public consciousness has arguably afforded Apple a high degree of insulation from the negative effects of their practices. Nintendo has similarly gotten away with shielding themselves from the consequences of their capitalistic temerity because we have allowed them to. Developers at Nintendo neglected to even look at the online account or friend systems of the PSN or Xbox Live when implementing the equivalent features on the Wii U. Nintendo’s refusal to compete with their competition in ways like this has repelled third-party game development, but a large segment of the market’s consumers retains a loyalty to Nintendo.
One potential justification for consumers’ lenience on Nintendo is the high quality of their game design. They are polished and often have timeless appeal. However, accompanying Nintendo’s games I see a recurring theme of commentators arguing that the market “owes it” to Nintendo to buy their products before criticising them. Some have made the somewhat baffling claim that Nintendo was right about the Wii U and that it was the market that was wrong. There seems to be a notion that since Nintendo is responsible for some of the treasured memories of our childhoods, we as critics are to employ a more forgiving approach to the company’s flaws. This shows that the company has succeeded in marketing themselves as special and thus not subject to certain industry standards. This effect is harmful not only because of the lack of professional neutrality that it generates, but because it personifies a corporation. Nintendo may have been somewhat of a family business in its earlier decades, but today it is a publicly traded company. Affection for Nintendo equates to affection for the fluctuating interests of its stockholders. This is an absurd concept. Consumers are under no obligation to these individuals to exercise generosity with their wallets, or worse, their criticism, but this habit has unfortunately played a part in discourse surrounding the company.
Cumbersome control schemes as a substitute for originality
To Nintendo, games are not strictly a digital experience distinct from the player’s own body. The company has always toyed with ways to integrate the physicality of the real world into into its control schemes. An insight to Nintendo’s design philosophies might be gained by examining their origins. Nintendo began as a toy company in the late 19th century. Some of the company’s most famous games were conceived by Shigeru Miyamoto, a toy maker. Miyamoto, in fact, was first given a job at Nintendo by Hiroshi Yamauchi through showcasing toys he had invented.
Much later, Miyamoto directed Ocarina of Time, and decided the way levers would work within the game. He insisted that instead of being operated with a button, the player would push or pull the control stick to move the lever, the idea being that the aspect of physical immersion would be increased. The Wii was a further example of Nintendo’s philosophy of eschewing standardised controls for a scheme that involved more emphasis on the physical engagement with the controller. A side effect of the Wii Remote, however, was the fact that the console lacked a controller matching the quantity of inputs as the competing consoles. Functions could be mapped to motions, but this was often awkward. More recently, Star Fox Zero was designed with a detrimental control scheme in which digital functions are mapped to the right analogue stick, even though using the controls for the original Star Fox as a basis would have worked. That’s right; eliminate motion controls and Star Fox Zero could have been played with the SNES controller. The core of the game is not that original.
The consumer base has continually shown willingness to pay distinctly higher prices for Nintendo games than their counterparts on other systems. The SNES version of Chrono Trigger is priced at the “Wii points” equivalent of $8 USD on the Wii, while the PSOne Classic version for PS3 and PSP with added full motion video sequences (and a scan of the manual on PSP) could be purchased for as little as $3 USD during one sale. Wii Shop Channel games, of course, have never gone on sale. Here we again see the product of the permissiveness consumers extend to Nintendo’s approaches.
The way that Nintendo manages customers’ purchases between its platforms is also avaricious. Services such as iTunes and Xbox Live offer distribution platforms that require one purchase to use the content on future devices. In contrast, buying Super Mario Bros. from the Wii Shop Channel does not grant the user to freely redeem it on 3DS or Wii U, despite it being the same software on connected networks under the same company. Each purchase must be made separately. Further, multiplayer modes on Virtual Console titles are absent on handhelds, but the games are still listed at full price.
Another example of Nintendo’s bold pricing models is the late Satoru Iwata’s claim that lowering the price of digital releases in comparison to their physical counterparts would “devalue” them: “This is because we want consumers to value software as highly as possible and because we have been trying to heighten the value of our software whenever we produce it. Prospective consumers can easily anticipate that games from established franchises such as Super Mario and Pokémon are worth the price, even before they start playing them.” This implies that consumers wouldn’t treasure their games as much if they didn’t have to pay as much for them. Would the other console manufacturers get away with egregious pricing overtly based on abstract notions of reputation?
What can be done
Suggesting that anyone should refrain from buying a product at a price that is personally acceptable to them is presumptuous. However, I would invite the consideration of how the image that Nintendo has propagated has influenced the way the public perceives the worth of the company’s products. The convergence of formerly separate hardware has led to a burgeoning Nintendo smart device presence. It is possible that being placed in the same digital ecosystem as some of their competitors’ products will lead to more comparisons being made that could force the company to drop some of its more anti-consumer business models. Until then, we can only provoke others to question whether they are paying for the content itself, or the narrative Nintendo surrounds it with.