Monday, June 16, 2014

E3 2014 - Amazing

I've spent the last couple of E3s, especially since the weird Wii U reveal in 2011 trying to be positive but always walked away a little disappointed in Nintendo's approach to their E3 show.

Though I was mostly satisfied last year, it was hard to shake the narrative that Nintendo's cancellation of their big E3 press event and putting instead an E3 'Nintendo Direct' was a retreat by the company and admission it had lost the battle for mindshare.

This year, Nintendo turned what seemed like a continuation of their retreat into a clear-cut win. So stunning was the change in perception that no one could have predicted it prior to their June 10th showing. Perhaps the only hint at their confidence was Nintendo dropping several trailers of eshop games a day before, right around Microsoft's Xbox One conference, including surprises like a sequel to the eshop bestseller and success story Gunman Clive.

The change is largely because of a slight adjustment to the same strategy last year. The biggest improvement was the pacing of the announcements. Instead of having a 'sizzle reel' with B-tier games no one is interested in just to pad the number of games shown, they actively focused on around 12 games in the digital event's 47 minute running time and created spaces for other games.

Eshop games got their day and Games that weren't quite ready (Sonic Boom) were relegated to their own publishers to show off, or had dedicated events (Devil's Third / Project STEAM) to give Nintendo more control in explaining how the games might be interesting, rather than letting trailers and unimpressive screens leak out and have the cynical games press spin it.

It was also a good decision to ditch Iwata's slow English and humble 'please understand' Nintendo Direct approach for funny and self-deprecating Robot Chicken claymation segments. Nintendo Direct works for a smaller audiences, for snap quarterly announcements and updates for fans, but not for a major event like this. Reggie's 'Not my problem' attitude and NOA's team works better in selling Nintendo at E3 and probably works better overall at selling Nintendo's message to the western audiences.

You know that the Digital Show worked when thin skinned gaming audiences laughed at a friendly jab made at their expense with Reggie setting fire to a gamer whose one liners were complaints about games he wanted to see, not what Nintendo was showing off – the prototypical hater who has complained about Nintendo for years.

The wealth of content that came after was also amazing. I personally haven't even began to scratch the surface of those feeds. Aside from spreading out some announcements of games outside of their digital event, the Nintendo TreeHouse event that spent tens of hours over the 3 day event going in-depth into various games introduced at E3 helped sell Wii Us to a lot of people.

Using their  Nokia space for a Smash Event was also genius. What was missing were fans filling in those seats in the early morning to watch the digital event. Not having a press conference is certainly not mutually exclusive from having people react to it live and recording those reactions.

So what interested me this E3?

Amiibo

Nintendo's promised 'Near Field Communication' (NFC) version of Skylanders and Disney Infinity looks interesting. While it's currently mainly heavily focused for use for Smash Brothers on Wii U, there is good value in that they will work across multiple games as a kind of ID. Further, I am interested in these figures mainly because the build quality looks good, and Reggie has indicated the prices will be in-line with Skylanders figurine, which means it won't be so premium priced to turn off a casual collector like myself.

Personally, I would really love to own a Samus and Link figurine from their Smash line-up.


Zelda Musou a.k.a. Hyrule Warriors

What a difference half a year has made. Although the new 'look' was teased some weeks in advance of E3, it's great to watch it in motion. It's also interesting to see that the game isn't just Link's romp through Hyrule, but the game allows for several Zelda characters, including Zelda herself to be playable participants alongside Link.

Visually, the game has took a huge leap from the initial reveal. Though the Musou games not known for their visuals as there is always an emphasis of dedicating system resources to pushing as many enemy units as possible on-screen, there has been significant leap in the game's visuals since its reveal.

This game has made it to my 'must buy' list later this year.

Bayonetta 2 + 1

The original PS3/Xbox game has incredible word of mouth, but I haven't played it. Visually it looks great and at 60 FPS no less. The reveal also dropped a little bit of a bombshell by including the original Bayonetta for free, with special Link, Princess Peach and Samus outfits.

This is clearly no lazy port, and no one can claim last gen when both games look and flows better than the PS3 port with no Vsync issues.

I'm leaning heavily towards buying this game just on the good word of mouth and incredible value from Nintendo.

Mario Maker

This will be the only 2015 game I'll discuss today.

The extended treehouse demo sold me on this, but I came away feeling a little worried but intrigued. There's the danger of Nintendo's convoluted sense of what it means to 'share' sabotaging this the same way they sabotaged Wario Ware D.I.Y's online functionality by crippling people's ability to share.

What they showed was a very early proof-of-concept which I think can be a killer-app for them if they let their younger designers handle the execution. This game needs on-line, and not just sharing between on-line friends but uploads to a community hub not dissimilar to an app-store where people can download levels and Nintendo can feature 'approved levels and worlds'

Furthermore, I am hoping the final game offers more variety in terms of tile-sets as well as enemies, power-ups, blocks and the ability to design longer levels (3 screens is not enough) and to connect individual levels together into a coherent 'Worlds'.

Does it all have to be Day 1 features? No. Some of these features can be monetized. I'd pay money for a Super Mario Bros. 3 skin plus the ability to create extra worlds with several levels in each. I'll then pay some more money for the Super Mario World skin plus the ability to add a few more worlds into my game. Imagine premium players who purchased all the DLCs being the top tier guys making entire Mario games, while everyone still can make their own levels and submit them.

Think of the collaborative projects that may arise where a premium player with world builder abilities take level submissions, string them together into a game and then release it into the community. This thing could be Minecraft for Nintendo.

That said, the core game itself should allow players to create at least one entire world spanning 1-1 to 1-4 for a true Mario experience, and allow us to explore our imaginations with hopefully more space per level than what was shown at E3.

There's way too much to talk about here. I'm skipping most 2015 stuff entirely, including Zelda U. But this is such a great E3 for Nintendo that I really want to say you guys did an amazing job. I almost feel a little bad ending in a bit of a downer with my Mario Maker commentary, but its out of a desire for this to not be another missed opportunity by Nintendo.

E3 may not change anything overnight, but it's a golden opportunity. Just as Sony played the long-game with PS3 and eventually dovetailed into increased consumer confidence and preference for their brand as seen in the PS4, Wii U could be the start of the rebuild for Nintendo.


Make it count.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

Miiverse Two Years On

When Miiverse was first revealed in a pre-E3 digital presentation two years ago, I was hopeful that it could be a killer app for the then upcoming Wii U console.

Nearly two years after the Wii U's launch, Nintendo's sales have continued to decline and the Wii U, like the GameCube two generations before it, feels like the odd console out.  Ignored by third parties, defended by a core group of fans.

Dire as the situation might be, Miiverse, like Sony's PlayStation Network or Microsoft's Xbox Live holds the promise of Nintendo's future.  The service has since evolved into the nucleus of Nintendo's nascent unified platform strategy, linking the 3DS with the Wii U and allowing access on other connected devices with browsers, such as PC, phone or tablet.

The Miiverse community itself has been quite successful in terms of where it matters most, user participation.  Every obscure game has a community and the participants appear to be quite varied  in their skill level and time spent  on the service.  It's not difficult to find people who spend considerable amount of time posting and commenting and those who only do so casually.  There are sub-communities within 'open' channels like the YouTube Miiverse community who show off their amazing drawing skills on a quite limited black and white palette.

On that level, the optimism I expressed 2 years ago about the potential of the community has been fullfilled.  But Miiverse hasn't been quite the killer-app that I initially had envisioned.  Though I can certainly be wrong in this regard, I do still firmly believe that Miiverse is, if not in this hardware cycle, an integral part of a larger strategy to bring Nintendo back into competitiveness both in terms of mind-share among consumers as an integral killer-app feature.

What are the things holding it back?

1) Lack of Miiverse App outside Nintendo platforms
It's true that the Miiverse web application (miiverse.nintendo.net) is available on Tablets and PC.s but it's a web-based app and not an app from the appstore.  This in theory puts Miiverse on any machine, including SmartTVs, with a browser. But in practice there is simply no visibility for the web service. It's barely mentioned in Nintendo's own promotional material and it's not immediately obvious that there is even a web URL for people to go to.  

Furthermore, many tech-savvy users simply view web/mobile versions of something as a lower tier service. Just as Twitter has a mobile website, it is meant for lower powered  devices who only has a browser but no app environment.  Casual users who may have heard about accessing the Miiverse would naturally first look to for an app instead of a web address.   Having an app in the app/play stores also work as a kind of advertising billboard, getting eyeballs on passive app searches from low-information users who may be vaguely looking for something like Miiverse.


2) Uneven Miiverse integration
Miiverse works amazingly in games like Mario Kart 8 where almost every feature, from video sharing to Ghost data has a Miiverse component.  It also works in games like Mario 3D World where Miiverse posts are downloaded and integrated into the game world itself and a scroll of posts are shown at the end of each stage showing a selection of comments from players who have played the game.

Miiverse is well-used by first-party games
That is clearly the ideal Nintendo have for how Miiverse is to be used. Moving outside of their marquee titles however, Miiverse usage becomes less clear.  While some games integrate their own in-game achievements system into Miiverse, using it as a kind of twitter feed to advertise a player's progress in the game, many more simply use the bare minimum.  Hit the Home menu to pause the game to make a post with a screenshot.

Whether its the lack of time from the developer, tools from Nintendo or both, these kind of 'bare minimum' application of Miiverse are at best neutral to the service, and at worst giving people a negative impression (see the next point).  There needs to be more encouragement for developers to use Miiverse in a consistent way.  Perhaps make Miiverse integration with in-game achievements mandatory, or give away the technology to allow other developers to do what Nintendo was able to achieve in Mario Kart 8 with video/ghost data and other integration of Miiverse.

3) The Miiverse Application & servers needs streamlining
It simply takes 'too long' for the app to load on both the Wii U and 3DS. It only takes 14  seconds to access twitter mobile, including time tapping on the bookmark and about 10 seconds if twitter was pre-loaded as the last viewed website. This is on the 3DS.  In comparison, it takes 30+ seconds for Miiverse to load on the 3DS on a cold boot (including time for the system to connect to my NNID) and slightly less on subsequent uses once I've connected to the Nintendo Network.

Twitter Mobile Loads faster than Miiverse on 3DS
On the Wii U, It can take  about 15~20 seconds to access Miiverse from the Wii U menu/game on a cold boot and about 10 seconds on subsequent boots. It's worth noting it  only takes less than 5 seconds to access the 'lite' version in games with Miiverse integration.  But even there, Miiverse breaks the experience by pausing the background action. Rather than an application layering on-top of the game as is now common in applications found on multi-core systems where a CPU core could be assigned to handle such fuctions, the halting stops caused by the in-game use of Miiverse gives user  the distinct sense there isn't even enough processing power to handle both the game and Miiverse, and that's probably not a good impression to give even if  the issue may not be entirely hardware related.

Ideally, the load times need to be kept at 10 seconds on the Wii U and under 20 seconds on the Wii U.
 Given that Twitter Mobile on the 3DS browser loads much faster (though it only loads the 20 most recent tweets) it may be a good idea to consider a lite version of Miiverse on the 3DS that has the same access as the Wii U version, but simply loads less information upfront to speed up the process.  On practical day to day uses, most users just want to jump into a game community to post a screenshot/comment.  The ~40seconds-1 minute it takes to enter/exit Miiverse certainly cannot have a positive impact on participation in the community.

Miiverse's potential could be immense and it can be a huge asset for Nintendo going forward in terms of creating an ecosystem of users who can carry over to their other products and encourage network effects in a non-game environment. Put simply, Miiverse could be a selling point if there are people on the service with a stake in it and feel more comfortable migrating to a new product with Miiverse features.

Let's hope the next 18 months sees some of the major weaknesses of the service ironed out.  By that time, the 3DS successor should be well on its way and we may even know about it already and whether Miiverse features centrally in that platform could be telling for the future of this interesting experiment in on-line gaming communities from Nintendo.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Successor

With recent talk of new hardware at E3 (denied by Nintendo), discussions about Nintendo’s successor to the 3DS have, not surprisingly, come to the fore.

Having grown up with the original GameBoy, the concept of portable games machine is quite natural to me. Even though I also own a smartphone, I still prefer to keep a separate games device.  I don’t see that going away, and the handheld space, with a strong base of users in Japan which it can then parley into success overseas, is Nintendo’s strong suit.

The challenge for Nintendo moving forward is to not get distracted by smartphones.  In the span of a little over a decade, the company has moved its mobile games machines from a plug-and-play devices like the  GameBoyAdvance to something very much like a miniature PC with an operating system, applications and services.

It’s a major change, something critics of the company often overlook. It also presents the danger of drift, whereby Nintendo chases after an ideal that may only exist in feedback from focus groups and internet forums rather than reality.  It is easy to say, and I hear this quite often, that Nintendo should release something more like a smartphone,  but executing that vague idea is not easy, and that is the kind of drift the company should avoid.

As such, I'm less interested into making lists of franchises I want to see or even services I expect than to outline what I think should be the core principles of the successor hardware.

1) Plug  & Play
The Game Boy Advance - The epitome of Plug & Play

This may seem obvious but the ease of use and quick boot-up of the device that we take for granted today can be the first thing to disappear in chasing after ‘features’ and OS complexity.  Being able to launch a game in under 5 seconds is a must.

Bought a year after my 3DS, my  Galaxy Nexus has a higher clocked dual processor and nearly eight times the RAM of the 3DS, yet my 3DS still performs  just as well (arguably better) than when I took it out of the box three years ago.  My Nexus, saddled with updates to the operating system designed for much faster machines that launched since, is showing its age. It chugs along, pauses, and sometimes shuts down when I want to scroll down or reboots when I least expects it to.  Both machines are not even 5 years old, my Nexus is only about half that.

Complexity has its costs.  And the simplicity and reliability of the fixed hardware model that has been the mainstay of the home and portable video games business offers the kind of reliability and functionality that consumers who don’t necessarily rant on the internet or say anything at all until they vote with the wallets at the store have come to expect.


2) From Silos to Services
Nintendo’s hardware R&D grew out of its roots as a traditional industrial-era company with multiple research and development divisions under a corporate framework. As such, though branded Nintendo, the portable hardware have, since the days of the GameBoy, very little in common with the home console business.  Many of the franchise killer-app for the GameBoy were developed separately from the home versions.

This was not a problem at the time, in fact, it was and is a strength as the different hardware approaches complemented each other and gave Nintendo the competitive advantage of having a handheld business that is distinct and separate from its home console business.

However, as the company has moved its portable machines from the bare bones devices of our youth  that merely ran games to something like computers with services and system OS, there is an imperative to not reinvent the wheel  again and again.


Many Wii Services have shut down
This, I feel, has been the biggest missed opportunity for Nintendo.  Because both the Wii and the DS were ran as silo-like experiences, the company had difficulty translating the experience to the Wii U and to a lesser extent the 3DS.   While keeping full backwards compatibility is welcome, the services from both the Wii and DS have instead slowly gone away, rather than being transferred and built upon to the new devices.  This stands in contrast to the likes of Apple and Google, who builds their services over many years across multiple platforms.  Successful services are kept and improved.   The Google account I signed up for around the time the Nintendo DS was revealed is still working today.

I strain to remember a service introduced on the Wii/DS era that is still around. All of them seemed like platform specific features that have gone away with time.  Heck, even the ability to play games online is going away for those platforms.  

Trivial as it may be, services like the Forecast Channel, Check Mii Out, Everybody Votes Channel that came to define the expanded experience of the Wii are all gone and no effort was made to keep and upgrade those services to the 3DS or Wii U.  These are kinds of things consumers would find difficult to understand. We would expect there to be a weather app when we upgrade our phones.  For Nintendo, the Wii weather app, a concept that was ahead of the curve in 2006, is now MIA on the Wii U.  This is the kind of regression that underscores the many critiques against the platform and its seemingly confused vision.
More importantly, the way Virtual Console games were handled has been the cause of much aggravation.  Rather than treating it as a platform with games transferring from machine to machine, we’re forced to repurchase games again and again.

Therefore, removing the silo effect such that there is enough interoperability between different tiers and generations of hardware should be a key focus for Nintendo.    Services that show up on a handheld should, if it makes sense, also be operable on other Nintendo devices.  And most importantly services introduced on one platform should be maintained overtime and over new platforms.  Too often, the bean counting mentality seems to prevail.

Perhaps no one really checks the Forecast channel, but I did occasionally, and it was something that made the Wii different.  The fact that it’s missing on the Wii U makes the Wii U just another games console, no matter how much Nintendo wants to say otherwise.

The focus should therefore be maintaining  software platforms that run across hardware generations and hardware type.  Things like Miiverse is a good example of this with both the Wii U and 3DS having access to essentially the same service.  The hope is for Virtual Console games to follow a similar path, along with any other services Nintendo wants to introduce.

3) It’s still about the games
Games are still going to matter no matter what spin futurists would like to put on things.  This is why the 3DS continues to sell, and why the Wii U struggles.

More broadly, the company needs to go back to the idea of anything goes that pervaded through the company in 2004.  This is how we got an entire line of point and click adventure games.  There were also many experimental games like Another Code, Electroplankton, EliteBeatAgents among others that defined a lot of the early buzz for the Nintendo DS. The Touch DS!/Touch Generations slogan was a brilliant line of marketing that betrayed the wealth of truly unique experiences covering games that may not have made Nintendo much money, but built a community that underpinned the platform’s long-term success.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata at E32010 
The tragedy was that after success was reached, Nintendo seemed to have lost interest in the idea of making and marketing those kinds of games. The mood was decidedly different on the 3DS.  While Nintendo President Satoru Iwata stood on stage at E3 2010 with an impressive list of 3rd party developer support, the list of games for launch was sprinkled with ‘portable’ versions of safe bets.  The platform ultimately  struggled out of the gate with boring experiences, downported console experiences and very nearly felt like the relaunch of the PSP.  A powerful machine saddled by an incompatible vision.
With the rise of digital downloads and removal of ‘inventory risk’ it would seem to be an opportune time to go back to just being experimental.  Games that didn’t make sense to publish at retail should be allowed to exist on the eshop.

The hope is that rather than anchoring the hardware launch of the successor to the 3DS with 2-3 major must have Nintendo titles in the ’12 month launch window’  we would have lots more to play.  Small experiences, big experiences and everything in between.

And Nintendo cannot rely on just indies and 3rd parties to fill all of that while they hide away working on another platformer as the variety and quality of those experiences may be narrow.  The company should be actively involved funding projects that may not make a lot of money, but because inventory risks are minimal, should be attempted anyways because it may be worth it.

That’s what is missing in the Nintendo of 2014.  A lot of safe projects are on the horizon, not a lot of variety.