Why Nintendo Needs to Start Growing Up with Its Fans
The company's kid-friendly policies actually risk pushing its younger demographic away.
In an interview with US Gamer in September 2015, Chibi Robo! Zip Lash assistant producer Risa Tabata talked about the decision to turn the game into 2D side-scroller (for the 3DS, of all systems) rather than a 3D platformer, like the preceding titles in the series:
"A 3D landscape would allow you to do more, but would also make controls and aiming more complex and the game harder overall. Chibi-Robo is a character who's beloved by a lot of small children as well, so I wanted this game to be accessible to that audience too."
The problem here is that said audience of small children have probably never played the previous Chibi-Robo games, and quite possibly haven't heard of the titular character at all. The first game in the series, Plug into Adventure, came out for the GameCube in 2005, before many of them were born. No domo arigato, Mr Chibi-Robo.
Tabata's statement sounds an awful lot like Nintendo cutting off its nose to spite its face. It published a game aimed directly at an audience the company isn't the master of anymore, while simultaneously alienating Chibi-Robo's original and older fans. And as Nintendo moves into 2016, with the launch of its new smartphone titles, and probably a new home-and-handheld hybrid console in the form of the NX, it needs to realize the contemporary needs of younger fans. If it doesn't, it risks losing them further, no matter how many cute games with Mario dressed up as a cat it lines up. Sometimes, pandering to a market backfires.
According to the NPD Group and Consumer Tracking Service, for the 12-month period ending December 2011, 63 percent of Nintendo DS users were in the 2–17 age range, and 19 percent were 18–34. In the 12 months ending September 2015, the same age ranges for the 3DS were 51 percent and 39 percent, respectively. Wii U demographics have remained pretty constant—but you could argue that Wii U sales are so small that breaking them down into age brackets doesn't provide much in the way of useful data, anyway. (Nintendo's own eShop data shows a much more drastic cutoff, with only 6 percent of Wii U eShop consumers in the 0–17 range, but the average age skews higher due to the digital distribution method more accessible to credit card-owning adults.)
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Nintendo is slowly starting to lose the young audience it once dominated, and while it hasn't lost it as fast as conventional wisdom might suggest—it's not just selling games to a bunch of retro-heads in their 30s and 40s, despite the protestations from frothing fanboys of other console manufacturers—it still needs to appreciate a coming shift in its market share, and change the way it approaches appealing to kids.
Chibi-Robo! Zip Lash is just one example of where Nintendo has undercooked its products by naively assuming "kids" don't want fuller games. Splatoon lacked voice chat to combat "online negativity," but having the option to better communicate with teammates would have provided it with an additional level of appeal; even The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, a game built specifically for online, co-op play, only allowed players to communicate with emojis because its developers were afraid better players would boss other, less-experienced partners around. But if you look at Minecraft, a game that revolves around online interactions, you see voice chat fully supported—and that's a game that has under-15 as its largest demographic. Clearly, today's younger generation isn't afraid of the online experience, but actively craves it.
Nintendo is being too protective of the kids that use its systems, and as a result risks losing them completely. Such policies run against the very grain of the demographic Nintendo is trying to attract, while also alienating the graying crowd that's still buying its systems. The company needs to better understand the technology and culture that kids today are a part of. We live in an always-connected world, and Nintendo needs to embrace that, not thwomp it.
These policies are for the same generation that is used to not only watching YouTube videos about the games they play, but also recording and posting those very videos themselves. Instead of trying to protect and coddle kids, Nintendo needs to tap into the very things that younger gamers are active in. They've grown up with iPads in their hands and Minecraft in their hearts, and they are more connected and tech savvy than the generation before them. It's time for the Baby Mario gloves to come off, and Nintendo to treat their customers—even its youngest ones—with greater respect for their digital maturity.
Going where the kids already play is a good first step. But the delay of Nintendo's Miitomo smartphone game—developed in partnership with DeNA—isn't an assuring sign. And the nature of the game—it's a super weird-looking social networking app—doesn't seem to be the sure-fire mobile hit Nintendo should be leading with, relying on the faded popularity of the Wii-era Mii branding.
The launch of the NX, most likely later this year, is going to be an even bigger tell for the future of the company. Nintendo needs to court fresh blood, young blood. It needs to do what it did for me: bring kids into gaming young and convert them into lifelong fans.
Splatoon was a start, an inky tide of freshness for its makers. Nintendo needs more new IPs like it as early in the NX's lifespan as possible, and new characters that kids can connect with and take ownership of, not just new titles for characters older than the audience they're aimed at. I think it's a safe wager that it's older fans camping out for Captain Falcon amiibo figures, not the under-17 crowd.
Bringing the role-playing game Yo-Kai Watch to the States in late 2015 (it's out in Europe later in 2016), albeit over two years after its Japanese release, was a good move—the Level 5-developed adventure was well reviewed in the East, and more importantly it's a big seller, too. Porting Minecraft onto the Wii U in December 2015 was a big step, but one that came way, way too late. Super Mario Maker, riding on the craze of user-generated content, was also late to the party—its launch in 2015 came years after other titles, like LittleBigPlanet, had been offering the same thing. Nintendo should have bet huge on collaborations with games like Skylanders—where the Wii was once the console of choice for players—or Disney Infinity, and done everything it could to attract the younger demographic. Nintendo isn't used to seeing other companies outperform it, historically, but partnerships are one way to stop some of its waning relevance, even if it requires a little swallowing of its pride. Its mobile venture with DeNA can certainly be viewed as a mellowing of previously held values of doing things entirely their own way, the rest of the industry be damned.
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If Nintendo wants to be successful in the future—both within the dedicated console gaming space and mobile—it needs to embrace the way today's kids play, communicate, and game, and create software that actually appeals to this generation of young gamers, with new characters, not those from decades ago. Give today's younger players some credit and don't limit online interactions. Don't make games easier, and then sell that as a positive. Impress with new ideas and IPs that that nascent gamers can call their own by reaching out to them, not bowing down to them without appreciating their actual demands.
Mario and Link get my attention; I grew up with them. But there's a generation of kids growing up with Steve from Minecraft on their T-shirts and Skylanders book bags, the new Marios and Links. Nintendo needs to react to that, get creative with its own original brands and treat all players with the same respect, or else its growing pains could well do for it completely in the next console generation.
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