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Friday, May 27, 2005
Video Games--- I recently wrote an article about Nintendo's unveiling of its next-generation video game system, and how the company still doesn't seem to "get it." There was a time, prior to the start of the most recent generation of the console wars, when Nintendo faced many of the same issues that it faces today.

There are certain steps that Nintendo has to take if it ever wants to be a serious player in the video game industry again, and until it takes those steps, it will always be relegated to the third-place system of any hardware generation.

Looking back into the archives of my video game web site, Master Gamer, I wrote an article in May 2000 called, "How to Turn Around Nintendo." Many of the issues that I wrote about back then still apply to the company today. Please note that the "Dolphin" was the code-name for the system that would eventually come to be known as the Nintendo GameCube.

How to Turn Around Nintendo
Originally Published in May 2000 on Master Gamer

In the past decade, Nintendo has gone from the undisputed leader of the video game industry to a shell of its former self. While it's too late for the N64 to have a chance of catching up with the PlayStation's installed base, Nintendo can still come out on top in the next-generation system race if they play their cards right (and by "cards," I mean their business strategies, not the Pokemon Trading Card Game).

In order for the Dolphin to end up being more successful than the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, and Xbox, Nintendo needs to take at least a few of the following suggestions to heart. Some of these are fairly obvious things that Nintendo might already be thinking about doing, and some of them are bolder ideas that I doubt they have the cahones to do.

Sell the Dolphin for $99
Former Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln already hinted at this in an interview that was conducted last year before he retired. It would surprise me to see the Dolphin launch at anything more than $150, but there's a big difference between $150 and $99 in the eyes of the mainstream consumer.

Nintendo needs to take advantage of the low-cost manufacturing process it has set up with IBM and sell the Dolphin at a mass-market $99, even if it means losing money on the hardware like Sony is doing with the PlayStation 2. Nintendo can afford to do this thanks to billions of dollars in cash reserves. Nintendo's annual net profit fell from $800 million to $500 million last year, but $500 million is still nothing to sneeze at.

Reach out to Third-Party Developers
There are three ways in which Nintendo needs to reach out to third-party publishers and developers. The first is to stop being such a tight-ass with royalties and licensing fees (this one is pretty much self-explanatory). The second is to make it clear to third-party companies that Nintendo's ultimate goal is to end up back on top of the video game industry, and the company is not content to sit back twiddling its thumbs and raking in millions of dollars off the Pokemon franchise.

Finally, Nintendo needs to make the Dolphin extremely easy to develop for. This would seem to be an obvious objective in the development of any video game system, but it seems that some companies have under-estimated the importance of making a system easy for third-party developers to work with. Despite the fact that the N64 is more powerful than the PlayStation, it's a pain in the ass to make an N64 game, so the PlayStation has always had much more third-party support (and third-party support ultimately makes or breaks every video game system).

Now it seems that history is repeating itself with the Xbox being much easier to work with than the PlayStation 2, only this time the system that's easier to work with is actually much more powerful, too. Regardless of anything else that Nintendo does, the Dolphin has no chance of winning the next-generation system war if doesn't have great third-party support, and it's not going to have great third-party support if it's hard to work with. Nintendo should think twice about pulling a Sony and sacrificing ease of development for raw power. Sometime before the N64 was released, Nintendo said to itself, "To hell with third-party developers." I hope Nintendo doesn't make the same mistake twice.

Create a Separate Brand for Kids Products
It's a simple idea, but creating a separate brand called "Nintendo Kids" would increase Nintendo's standing with hardcore gamers considerably. It's one thing if Nintendo wants to continue to pump out kiddie-oriented crap like Mario Party for the sake of profit, but it's slap to the face of hardcore gamers everywhere when games like Mario Party are mixed in with the rest of a system's lineup, indistinguishable from real games like Perfect Dark from a branding standpoint.

Nintendo should encourage retailers to have two sub-sections for Dolphin products: One for games that are in the Nintendo Kids line, and one for games that aren't in the Nintendo Kids line. This would make it easy for hardcore gamers to look in one place for games that are targeted at them rather than hordes of six-year-olds, and it would also make it easier for parents to pick out "appropriate" games when they're shopping for their kids.

Give Shigeru Miyamoto Some Focus
Nintendo's famed designer Shigeru Miyamoto recently told Famistu magazine that the wait for the first Zelda game on the Dolphin will be "only one year and a little bit... recently we came up with a technique to make the game in two years." Of course, this statement doesn't mean any more than any of Miyamoto's previous statements to the same effect over the years. It has been a very long time since Miyamoto developed a game in under three years, and there's no real reason to think that this is going to change anytime soon.

If Miyamoto is to have a chance to develop a game in under three years, he needs to spend more time developing games and less time supervising the development of games. Miyamoto should develop one or maybe two games at a time rather than supervising the development of a dozen. Miyamoto himself said in an interview last year that he wants to cut back on the number of projects in which he has "creative input."

Miyamoto wants to focus on less projects, and it's in the best interests of the company for Miyamoto to focus on less projects. Somehow, these two facts have not passed through the thick skull of Nintendo's principal owner Hiroshi Yamauchi. (If you think it's brash of me to say that Yamauchi has a thick skull, consider this: Yamauchi recently told Famistu that the Game Boy Advance will have performance similar to that of the Sega Dreamcast, despite the fact that the GBA can't even handle basic polygons.)

Never, Ever Delay a Game for Market Reasons
Nintendo and Rare have enough problems with delays for the sole reason that they're two of the slowest-working companies in the world, but it makes me sick to hear about Nintendo delaying games for "market reasons." You know, like when some executive decided, "I don't want Perfect Dark to ship in 1999 because it might cut into Donkey Kong 64 sales," or "I don't want StarCraft 64 to ship in 1999 because it might cut into Command & Conquer 64 sales," or "I don't want the Game Boy Advance to ship in 2000 because it might cut into Game Boy Color sales."

If a product is ready to ship to retailers right now, then for the love of God, ship it! Every company has to draw a line somewhere between maximizing profits and serving the needs of consumers. Nintendo has made it clear that they are more interested in squeezing every last possible dollar out of all their products than they are with pleasing their loyal customers.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that this is going to change anytime soon. Nintendo of America's head honchos Minoru Arakawa and Peter Main recently said in an interview with Games Business that if the Game Boy Color continues to sell well, the Game Boy Advance might not be released until 2002.

"When It's Done"
If Nintendo can't meet their own conservative release deadlines, they should stop announcing release dates all together. Adopt Id Software's strategy and give every Nintendo and Rare game a release date of "when it's done." This would be a bold strategy that would probably face bitter opposition from the marketing department, but it would be worth it.

It would finally put an end to the seemingly never-ending cycle of every single game from Nintendo and Rare being delayed at least once, and usually two-to-four times. Granted, it would be harder for the marketing department to come up with advertising schedules, but Id Software never seems to have a problem selling their games...

Stop Lying to Consumers
This is the most important suggestion of all, and the one that Nintendo is least likely to listen to. If Nintendo isn't willing to adopt a "when it's done" release date strategy, they could at least stop lying to consumers. Whether any Nintendo employee wants to admit it or not, the fact of the matter is that Nintendo has made a habit out of blatantly lying to consumers over the years.

It must have been embarrassing for Nintendo when Rare said that the Game Boy Camera functions in Perfect Dark were "fully operational" and "removed for political reasons" less than one week after Nintendo claimed the features were being taken out of the game because "they weren't working properly." Would you guys like a napkin to wipe the egg off your face?

When Nintendo originally announced that the Nintendo 64 was going to be released in the fall of 1995, do you really think they believed that? Or do you think they wanted to convince as many gullible people as possible to hold off on buying a PlayStation or Saturn because the N64 was "just a few months away"? Do you really think there was ever the slightest chance that the Dolphin would be released in the fall of 2000 in either the US or Japan, or was Nintendo just thinking about cutting into Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 sales?

Even now, the Dolphin is officially scheduled to be released in the spring of 2001, despite the fact that a fall 2001 release date is much more likely. Rare was scheduled to release four games for the Nintendo 64 this fall: Conker's Bad Fur Day, Banjo-Tooie, Dinosaur Planet, and Mickey's Speedway USA (yes, Mickey's Speedway USA). Surprise, surprise! None of these games are going to be released this year! All four games are now scheduled to be released in January or February of 2001, and even these new release dates are very questionable. These games are much more likely to be released in mid-to-late 2001 than January or February, especially the nowhere-near-finished Dinosaur Planet.

I'm not saying that Nintendo should announce a release date for a game and then stick to it no matter what. As much as I am annoyed and angered by Nintendo's constant delays, I still prefer delays over games that are released in unfinished form.

What I am proposing is that if a particular product is, realistically, not going to be released until the fall of 2001, the release date that Nintendo should announce is "the fall of 2001." It's not rocket science. It's simply telling consumers the truth, something that appears to be a foreign concept to Nintendo.