With E3 coming up on June 15th I thought I’d take the time to look back at Nintendo’s last two Press Briefings. They are considered to be opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to gamer’s opinions of the event. E3 2008 was considered by many to be one of the worst in Nintendo’s history and the date that marked Nintendo’s departure from the hardcore gamer. While this is a completely garbage way of thinking it is helpful to take a look back at the event and see what Nintendo learned.
The first thing we’re introduced to is Nintendo’s new Vice President of Marketing, Cammie Dunaway. She took over for Reggie Fils-Aime in 2007 after he was promoted to President and CEO of Nintendo of America. Before her time with Nintendo she was the chief marketing officer for Yahoo! It would be her first E3 as Nintendo’s VP of Marketing. She came onto the stage with a huge smile on her face and told a story about breaking a bone on a skiing trip. I don’t know about you, but I like Cammie Dunaway. She’s sorta cute and quite a bit of a different personality than the much more direct Reggie. This first press conference felt a bit forced, but she would improve with time.
One thing Nintendo was really pushing in 2008 was their expanded user base. Nintendo had made huge inroads with people who didn’t traditionally play games; woman and elderly people. This Press Briefing, especially when Mr. Iwata was on the stage was all about that expanded audience. There were montages shown talking about how Nintendo had “shifted the paradigm”. It was these portions of the show and the one big reveal at the end that really turned off the “hardcore” Nintendo fan and made them feel like Nintendo had abandoned them. We would learn that was absolutely not the case and that these people were jumping the gun, just a bit. It’s really hard to balance keeping the long term fans happy while building games for people who haven’t played games before.
There were quite a few games on display during the Press Briefing. It started with Shaun White Snowboarding. This was on display at the very beginning of the show with Cammie and Shaun White talking the game up. It was touted as being a Wii exclusive that used the Balance Board to give you the ultimate snowboarding experience. When it released it ended up being on all three major platforms, but the game was considered best on the Wii because of the Balance Board and the fact that the game was built from the ground up for the system and it worked best on Wii.
Animal Crossing: City Folk was the second game shown during the show. This was also the first game to be shown using Nintendo’s new Wii Speak peripheral that would allow players to finally be able to talk to each other online with a Nintendo system. The biggest new feature was going to be the ability to go into town to do a lot of different things and to be able to get together with four friends and have competitions and other activities in each others towns. It was received fairly lukewarmly with many people saying it was just the DS game all over again.
Three games were shown together in a montage. Star Wars – The Clone Wars: Lightsaber Duels, Rayman Raving Rabbids: TV Party and Call of Duty: World at War. People were hoping that maybe Lightsaber Duels would finally be the true lightsaber game that people were wanting. Nintendo would be showing off the Motion Plus peripheral later in the show, so hopes were high. That ended up not being the case and the game was mediocre at best. World at War showed that Treyarch was serious about developing first person shooters for Wii, even though it had a terrible co-op mode and wasn’t as fully featured as the HD console versions of the game. The would go on to port another Call of Duty game to Wii the next year.
The DS then had it’s time to shine with a number of titles being shown off. Guitar Hero – On Tour: Decades would allow people with either version of the handheld game to share songs with each other. Spore Creatures was supposed to show that the game would be successful outside of the PC market and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars would show that the DS could handle mature content. None of these games would live up to their potential. The Spore franchise has not taken off like the Sims did before it. Guitar Hero is awkward to control on the handheld and GTA has now been ported to multiple platforms because it sold poorly on the DS.
The then showed off some features for the DS outside of gaming. Things like the ability to look up information at the airport like nearby restaurants, weather conditions and boarding times. They also showed off some features that would be useful at places like Seattle Mariners games with the ability to sync the DS up at the stadium and get news and box scores from other games as well as information on the game you were attending. They also showed off a cookbook application that would help people in the kitchen. The DS is a perfect platform for something like this, but it’s not been used as widely as it could and these features haven’t caught mainstream attention in any sizeable way.
Probably the biggest part of the show was the introduction of Motion Plus. This was the attachment for the Wii Remote that would finally allow for 1-1 motion control and added sensitivity in the Wii Remote. It would cost $20 by itself. They showed off the flagship title for the game, Wii Sports Resort. The game was designed, much like the original Wii Sports to show off what the controller and the peripheral could do. It ended up being a huge success, as far as Wii Sports Resort would go. It’s been a greatly popular game and one that people still play two years later. Wii Motion Plus itself has had a bit of a mixed reaction. It hasn’t been widely supported despite the fact that the games that have taken advantage of it have greatly benefited from the device. Games like Tiger Woods PGA Tour, Wii Sports Resort and Red Steel 2 have been showcase titles for the device.
Then the moment that seemingly alienated a large portion of Nintendo audience. Wii Music was shown off to end the show. It began with an insane drum demonstration by Ravi Drums who was banging away at an invisible drum kit while using the balance board as a bass drum pedal. The game was designed to be a more accessible version of games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. It proved to be a disaster, even with some schools in Japan using it in their music programs. No one wanted to play invisible, midi instruments. It was good for a while to create funny little videos of old Nintendo songs or classic children’s tunes, but ultimately wasn’t a very deep or entertaining gaming experience. Many members of the press and internet goers touted this as the moment that Nintendo lost their mind and they had abandoned them with their approach to the expanded market.
What did we learn from E3 2008? Well that’s a good question. The games shown off were a bit of a mixed bag. Solid titles like GTA: Chinatown Wars didn’t hit the target audience they were looking for. Many of the games shown off during the show ended up being mediocre sellers. There were some exceptions that show Nintendo still has a large number of fans in different markets. Sports gamers got their fix with Shaun White Snowboarding, which to date has sold more than 3 million units and spawned two sequels. Call of Duty: World at War, despite being a less than fully featured experience has sold more than a million units to a market that people continue to say doesn’t exist. Wii Sports Resort showed off the power of Motion Plus and even though it hasn’t been fully supported has been the beginning of the motion control era. All three platforms will very soon have some form of motion controller, so Nintendo must be doing something right.
Nintendo was accused of abandoning a large portion of their market. They didn’t. They might have mis-stepped a bit and had some titles they thought would be huge fall flat of their face. No company is going to be right all the time. Nintendo has proven that they know what people want, even if they don’t know it. Motion controls have taken off. Some people might not feel that they want them, but when titles get it right they prove that having something more than a button is a fun, immersive experience. Nintendo would rebound in a big way at E3 in 2009, but you’ll have to wait until next week to find out why and how.