New versions of classic games helped Nintendo rally in 2014
After several difficult years, Nintendo may be one of the comeback stories of the year. It has managed to reinvigorate itself with new titles featuring classic characters that appeal to now grown-up gamers who can play the games with their families.
Seattle Times technology columnist
Nintendo was life changing for Cody Vigue. He grew up playing Nintendo games and eventually became a professional game designer.
But until recently, he just couldn’t get excited about the company’s Wii U console and was considering Sony’s PlayStation 4 instead.
“They’ve sort of been a punch line the last year or two,” said Vigue, 30, a designer at the Hyper Hippo game studio in Kelowna, B.C.
That all changed this summer when the Wii U began what could become a remarkable turnaround.
Nintendo’s quirky console won’t overtake the more powerful PS4 or Microsoft’s Xbox One anytime soon, if ever. But it’s being pulled back from the brink by new versions of classic Nintendo franchises like “Super Smash Bros.,” games that have enduring appeal and can only be played on the Wii U.
It took way too long — so long that pundits were wondering if it was time for Nintendo to start over with a new console.
Game consoles are no longer the province of teen boys. About half of U.S. households now have consoles, many have more than one, and the average game player is now 31 years old, according to the Entertainment Software Association. About 48 percent of players are female.
The Wii U, which has a distinctive tablet-like GamePad controller, started the latest generation of console gaming when it went on sale in late 2012. But it remains widely ignored and overshadowed by the more powerful Xbox One and PS4.
While the industry has been on a roll, overtaking the music and movie industries and approaching $100 billion in yearly sales, major game publishers stopped building Wii U versions of their biggest games.
Earlier this year Nintendo blamed the Wii U for its third consecutive annual loss, after having been profitable since it first began making consoles 30 years ago.
The company’s health is of particular concern in the Seattle area, where Nintendo is majority owner of the Mariners and has 1,200 employees at its North America headquarters in Redmond and distribution center in North Bend.
Nintendo was able to keep employment stable amid losses because it uses a lot of contract labor that can be dialed up or down, said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America president.
Asked if the company is now on a rebound, Fils-Aime said it’s “doing better this year than we did last year” but it’s still working to expand its user base.
“The way I would frame it: Our goal is to drive an ongoing positive trajectory,” he said in an interview at the Redmond headquarters.
“Certainly with the momentum we’re seeing with our hardware, the momentum we’re seeing with our key software titles, that gives us a lot of confidence,” he said.
Nintendo’s isn’t out of the woods just yet, but it did report a quarterly profit in October and it expects to show a profit for its fiscal year ending in March, assuming the holiday sales go well.
To stay in the black, Nintendo has avoided the sort of price cuts that Microsoft has done recently to accelerate Xbox One sales. Instead, Nintendo has kept the Wii U priced at $299, but added games to the bundle. This increases the value offered to consumers, according to Fils-Aime, without sacrificing the hardware profit margin.
If this works and the Wii U is back on its feet in 2015, it may be seen as a Christmas miracle. High-profile gadget failures don’t often get a second chance. Fils-Aime, though, said it’s by plan.
What took so long?
“Developing high-quality games like this takes time,” Fils-Aime said. “It takes time, it takes an investment of people resources and our focus on quality is really significant.”
Fils-Aime said the Wii U business “is up and up strongly throughout this entire calendar year.” Software sales have almost doubled and hardware sales are up about 40 percent over last year.
If it’s a make-or-break holiday for the Wii U, Fils-Aime isn’t saying. Asked how important this year is for the platform, he said “The reality ... is that every holiday is important for us” because that’s when it may see 60 percent or more of its annual sales.
But he admitted that the recent launches of games crucial to the Wii U’s success make this holiday season “that much more important.”
Vigue, the Kelowna game developer, was pulled back by “Smash Bros.,” an expansive toy box of a game that Nintendo first released in 1999. The company had been promising a Wii U version since 2011 and finally released it in late November. (A version for the successful 3DS handheld game player was released in October.)
“Smash Bros.” lets players choose from a library of Nintendo characters and have them battle in various settings. Up to eight people can play at once on the console, using new or old controllers, or the game can be played online with others or solo against virtual opponents.
The game is also the first to use a new line of $12.99 figurines that Nintendo calls Amiibo. They’re synced with the console by holding them against the console’s GamePad controller, making the first use of a built-in NFC radio. The characters then become part of the video game and can be customized with outfits, capabilities and other features.
Nintendo took a cue from the wildly successful “Skylanders” and “Disney Infinity” games supplemented by figurines. But it underestimated the popularity of Amiibo characters, some of which are now listed for more than $100 on eBay.
Fils-Aime said it’s a new business for Nintendo and it’s still trying to balance supply and demand.
With high-demand Amiibos “We’re looking hard at addressing that opportunity,” he said, without committing to making more of those most sought-after and collectible models.
“We don’t want to leave any opportunity uncovered with these figures,” he said.
I was surprised to discover that you can’t play as the Amiibo characters you purchase, at least not in “Smash Bros.” Instead they become a sort of virtual wingman that play alongside your character.
“Smash Bros.” will be on during family gatherings, but the Wii U game I want to spend the most time with is “Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker.” It’s a three-dimensional puzzle and exploration game with settings that you manipulate and rotate by turning and tapping the GamePad controller.
“Captain Toad” has a terrific “scrapbook” interface. To get to different sections, you flip through pages of a virtual scrapbook, on which your rewards are stamped.
The game also showcases Nintendo’s ability to refresh and extend its content franchises, using them over and over to create and sell new games and hardware. “Captain Toad” began as a section of last year’s “Super Mario 3D World,” which in turn was the 15th title in the “Super Mario” series, according to the MarioWiki fan site.
“Smash Bros” epitomizes this approach. It’s a kitchen soup of characters ranging from “Mario” to the “Wii Fit” yoga instructor; they brawl in settings drawn from past Nintendo games. It’s balanced enough that the demure Princess Peach will hold her own against the “Donkey Kong” gorilla and the armored superhero Samus from the “Metroid” sci-fi game.
Vigue tried the game at last summer’s E3 game conference in Los Angeles, where he spent hours playing the game in Nintendo’s booth.
“I’ve been huge into ‘Smash’ since early high school,” he said. “It was definitely the killer software that the platform needed.”
Game developers and players in general are rooting for Nintendo to succeed, he said, because it’s like the Disney of the industry, making experiences that introduce kids and families to the joy of gaming.
Earlier this month Vigue bought a Wii U, “Smash Bros.,” “Mario Kart 8” and several other titles. Since then he’s been playing after work with his son, who is now 5, the same age as Vigue was when he first started playing Nintendo games.
“That was the thing that put it over the top,” he said. “I can actually play these things with my kids.”
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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