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It’s All About The Games

In the recent geek discussions about Nintendo’s predicament, many have cited the theory that Lukas Mathis details in Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology:

The basic idea is to use existing, cheap, well-established technology, and use it in new ways, thus allowing Nintendo to introduce new, innovative concepts at affordable prices. … Whenever Nintendo produced videogame systems that used established technology in surprising ways, it did well. When it tried to compete on specs, it did poorly.

I don’t think this is a reliable indicator:

The Game Boy won against better-specced competitors, because it used cheaply available parts in an innovative package. The better-specced Game Gear and Atari Lynx could not compete.

The Game Gear and Lynx were huge and heavy, and slaughtered batteries to power smeary, dim, horrible color LCD screens before screen or battery technology could pull that off acceptably. They failed because they sucked as products and never had any must-have games.

The Game Boy was just barely good enough hardware to be usable, and it came with a must-have, killer, once-in-a-generation hit game that worked well despite its hardware limitations and appealed to almost everybody: Tetris.

That’s why it succeeded.

It’s even more plain with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Both used cheaply available components (the low-end ARM chips in the DS, or the cheap accelerometers and infrared camera in the Wii Remote) in interesting new ways, and were able to outsell technologically superior competitors.

These are the two best examples of Mathis’ theory. The DS nailed cheap, portable gaming especially for kids, and the Wii was cheap and surprising. But the DS’ success had a lot to do with the incredible popularity of its Pokemon games, and the Wii was successful almost entirely because of Wii Sports, which is almost as compelling of a mass-market, must-have game as Tetris.

The Gamecube’s specs were easily superior to the PS2’s, and roughly on par with the Xbox’s, but the console failed. It was just a better version of Sony’s console, with fewer games. The Wii U’s controller sports a huge screen and increases the price of the Wii U, but fails to turn the console into something unique.

Here’s where I think the theory falls apart.

Nintendo’s core audience, like most core audiences in tech, will buy almost any system they release. But that core audience is aging and shrinking, and there aren’t a lot of kids being added to it.

Game-system successes are made by specific, exclusive, new, mass-market, category-defining hit games. That’s it.

Like “killer apps” in computer parlance, game systems become hits from specific games that are so good that people see or play them somewhere (often at a friend’s house) and want them so badly that they buy the entire system.

Nostalgia isn’t enough. New editions of old franchises aren’t enough. System-defining games need to appeal to people who don’t know or care about long-standing franchises.

Tetris sold a ton of Game Boys. Super Mario Brothers sold a ton of Nintendos. Street Fighter II sold a ton of Super Nintendos. Goldeneye, Mario Kart 64, and Super Smash Brothers sold a ton of Nintendo 64s. Pokemon sold a ton of DSes. Wii Sports sold a ton of Wiis. These games were all so good, and so compelling to the mass market, that people who didn’t care about any other Nintendo games would buy the systems just for them.

The Gamecube never had one of those games, and the Wii U doesn’t have one yet. It has nothing to do with their hardware.

There were great Gamecube games that Nintendo’s core fanbase loved, but none of them made a bunch of other people rush out and buy Gamecubes. We’ll see if the Wii U has better luck, but it’s not looking great so far: Nintendo can produce new editions of old games, but what will they do to bring new people in?