Tuesday, June 16, 2015

E3 2015 Digital Presentation Review

Let's call a dog a dog. This year's E3 presentation from Nintendo was disappointing. I stop short of hyperbole here as they did show games -- most of which will release within six months, almost all within the next year, and several of which I will buy. However, I also won't go along with the historical revisionism and comparisons. One person I heard compared this reveal to the reaction Wind Waker being Cel-Shaded. I mean come on! This is nothing like that. Nintendo dropped the ball.

It is inevitable that they have an off year:
Reggie presenting the  E3 2015 Nintendo Digital Event

To accuse Nintendo of not listening would be dishonest. Nintendo knew they did well last year, they also knew people didn't care for non-games and would be hostile to mobile games so they thankfully left those for other events.

Nintendo's problem this year as the simple logic of how games are made. They rode the last couple of E3s with games far into the horizon that the chickens, so to speak, have come home to roost. They have to showcase the same games they announced one or two E3s ago because they are almost ready, but they can't show games further out because the Wii U's future is without a doubt tied up with their NX platform, which they already confirmed would be absent this year.

Nintendo's problem here was not entirely about content. It was context. As someone put it best, Nintendo went from weakness to weakness. In the Sony presser, a 'filler' Final Fantasy game was followed up by Final Fantasy VII remake. Nintendo simply didn't have anything to show.

Content Management:

Given the hand it was dealt (no Zelda), Nintendo then managed the content it had poorly.

Yoshi's Wooly World did not need another long-winded expositional 'developer' insight this year. They had one last year and the company heavily promoted this game at the Nintendo World Championships and in their half hour slots with Twitch.tv and Youtube E3 channel just a day before their Digital Event.

Star Fox Zero: No on-line Multiplayer (again) ; Mediocre Visuals
Star Fox Zero could have used interviews outside of Miyamoto to put at ease the the initial lukewarm reaction many people had that save for a few locales, the game looked more like a Star Fox 64 remaster than a true sequel running on 'new' gen hardware. 

Then again, given the game will not have on-line multi-player (again!) and had mediocre visuals in part due to the need for the game to render a separate scene on the game pad, it almost feels like Nintendo is sending out Star Fox to fail yet again.

The other game that could have used an extended preview was Metroid Prime Federation Force. The game admittedly looks rough and early. But some of those rough edges could be smoothed over with the developers explaining the concept of the game. It would also help break the monotony of Japanese only developers talking about their games. Metroid Prime Federation Force is made right here in my hometown of Vancouver and it's too bad the game got shuffled away like an uncle after Thanksgiving.

Further more, Nintendo sent their 'mature' games out to pasture once again by not showing off the games in their presentation, choosing instead to show them off immediately after their digital event. The one fall game I am really interested in, Fatal Frame Maiden of Black Water was one of those titles they didn't show. Nor did they build hype on Itakagi's multi-player Devil's Third as a kind of 'change of pace' for people who maybe got into the multi-player 3rd person shooter scene with Splatoon and now wants something different but along the same lines (hint: people can play more than one game at a time).

The most egregious of these content issue however is Animal Crossing Amiibo Festival. I don't begrudge Nintendo learning from their City Folk experience by wisely choosing to skip out on Animal Crossing on consoles so soon after New Leaf on 3DS to let their team recharge and dodge accusations they merely 'up-ported' their handheld game and did nothing more. However, I do take issue with the blatant attempt to get Nintendo fans, and more specifically Animal Crossing fans, to put money down on what appears to be a C-tier board game simply because it works with some really nice Animal Crossing amiibos. I can see the $79 boxed set now with an amiibo or two packed in the box. The game and the amiibo functionality is a blatant attempt at gouging us.

Animal Crossing Amiibo Festival (the most hated game this E3?)
I would have much preferred they cut this from the digital event and showed this game off at a Treehouse event and not bother playing with people's emotions at a digital presentation. People were expecting Animal Crossing for Wii U, and I nodded when I saw Isabelle in HD thinking "well there's Animal Crossing Wii U, right on schedule", only to be first confused and then let down by the game that was finally revealed to us. This has got to be the worst way to show off a game as it annoyed a lot of fans, and these are the people Nintendo needed to buy this thing. Heck, for all I know it might be a good game for what it is, but I certainly have no interest in playing it now.

Here's the kicker. Amiibo is doing very well for Nintendo right now and they badly needed Disney Infinity style game to tie together all their Amiibos  in a fun open-world game that would leverage the existing owners of Amiibos. 

I would be remiss to not mention Super Mario Maker, which fans know well enough, as well as Hyrule Warriors Legends, the 3DS port of Hyrule Warriors that was accidentally leaked early by Koei-Tecmo last week.  The game looks interesting and may have helped had it not been revealed early, but Hyrule Warriors Legends, along with the heavily multi-player centric Zelda: Triforce Heroes are filler games designed to push software that really didn't help or hurt their presentation. Super Mario Maker had just the right amount of exposure but it didn't really help here as the expectations were already baked in after this past sunday's insanely amazing preview at the Nintendo World Championships.


Despite a steady stream of warnings, including Reggie's direct disclaimer at the beginning of the Digital Event  advising fans they would only be showing games coming soon, Nintendo simply didn't manage the presentation and expectations properly and maybe they really couldn't.

Nintendo knew what they had to show wasn't going to blow people away and gave plenty of warnings. Iwata hinted heavily on Sunday there will be no major reveals as he was not going to be in attendance at E3 because there would be no new hardware, re-iterating a statement weeks before E3 that the NX platform and their mobile games would not be showing at E3.   But the fans failed to heed the warnings.  Perhaps encouraged by Nintendo Directs weeks before E3, as well as informational reveals on the Sunday before E3 of new Smash content (Ryu and Roy) and the surprise release of Earthbound Beginnings on Virtual Console in a rapturous Nintendo World Championships event on Sunday, many fans whipped themselves up into a fervour, believing that if Nintendo willingly let these mini-reveals go ahead, they must have amazing stuff for the Digital Event.

When Sony dropped their triple threat of Shenmue III, Final Fantasy VII remake and The Last Guardian plus several other very interesting original IPs in their presentation on Monday, fans doubled down on 'major announcements' because this is E3 and Nintendo wouldn't let themselves get beaten like that.

Well, Nintendo did, and part of the blame needs to rest squarely on the fanbase.

Apology Accepted:

Soon after the Digital Event, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata went on twitter to make his mea culpa, admitting, circuitously that the event had not met people's expectations and promising to do better.

Translation of Tweet by @Cheesemeister3k

To the team at Nintendo and Mr. Iwata, apology accepted. Your fans had themselves to blame too, though that doesn't excuse the poor structure and content selection in your digital event.

I do want to close with a bit of concern with the apology. The cycle of fan disappointment and Iwata apology appears to be a constant lately. I think this reflects positively on Iwata's personal style of taking ownership and being transparent, but I fear that it is in one-ear out-another form of apology where we're told they will do better but other pressures eventually take precedence and we will be back in this position in a few year's time . And let's not kid ourselves here, Nintendo has had disappointing E3 shows in recent memory, like E3 2012 with the over-long Nintendo Land 'surprise' or even arguably 2011 with the botched reveal of the Wii U. Each time, we are told Nintendo seemingly learned from their mistake but inevitably they make new ones, like today's presentation. Perhaps they should hire a panel of their own fans to focus test their presentations in the future. Most fans would gladly do it for free. I work cheap (free). My payment will be in the satisfaction of helping shape an important event for Nintendo.

NX and beyond

E3 2016 is almost certainly going to be a better show for Nintendo, just because of the cards they have dealt themselves. They bit the bullet this year to give themselves plenty of bombs to drop in 2016 with the NX, not to mention a hardware reveal is always exciting. Part of me want this half-decade long struggle of my favourite video game company to end in 2016. Perhaps it will be like their E3 2006 Wii reveal, or the one in 2004 when they kicked ass and took names. Let's hope this is the last 'bad' E3 for Nintendo in a long while. We've had way too many of them lately.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Nintendo World Championship 2015 – Shoestrings and Remixes

I wasn't planning on writing anything about the Nintendo World Championship 2015 qualifiers this past weekend as none of the events were near where I lived, but spotting Patrick Scott Patterson's epic story at his event led me down the rabbit hole and I sound found several other stories detailing what seemed like a lukewarm event across a couple of other locations.  

Several stories here and here, complained of low attendance, hours spent waiting outside Best Buy, and generally 'unfun' event management, with one participant questioning the use of NES remix as the game for the qualifiers. Nintendo apparently was expecting and allotted time for over 700 to participate in some of their locations, at least two reports indicate less than 200 showed up to their events.   This led to a rule-change mid-day that generated some controversy related to Patrick Scott Patterson's San Francisco event where only 150 showed up for the qualifiers and Nintendo allowed participants to retry their attempts, while other locations (presumably busier) may not have allowed it.  

Though to be fair, at least one report I found, from the Tacoma Washington event appeared to have gone off smoothly.  The Torrance California event (video below) also appears to have gone well.

Stepping back, this all seemed like something Nintendo of America's marketing department pulled together on a shoestring in early May with no time to properly organize. Nintendo have the Nokia theatre at E3 to fill (it's already rented and sunk) and Smash tournament last year did well for them so this is the next best thing. But announcing the whole thing about a month before E3 and jamming in qualifiers in just 8 locations weeks before the supposed 'championships' and on the same weekend on of their bigger releases (Splatoon) hit was probably not the best idea.

If Nintendo still have Nokia theatre for 2016 and want to continue with the World Championships format, I would hope they roll it out over many more months with qualifiers stretching across both the US, Canada (bonus points if they manage to set up events for Japan and Europe) with events happening across malls and Best Buys in the post Christmas late winter/early spring months, where space is cheaper to rent, and foot traffic wanted. This would lead to semi-final event held at PAX or some other major fan convention to build hype, with the event ending at E3 in June.

Nintendo is not the swaggering company that could do no wrong it was in the 90s, granted. But it's still a multi-billion dollar a year operation and a major player in video games. A very rich one at that. It is a bit disrespectful to its fans to organize such a bare bones event in so few locations on a what appears to be shoe-string budget.  The apparently low turn out and the resulting rule changes have already generated some controversy  that may have tainted the final outcome. Speaking as a fan, this past weekend's qualifiers is disappointing, and I feel for those who lined up outside Best Buys to participate. 

All that said, Patrick Scott Patterson's first hand account of his time at the qualifiers is a great read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The NX, Amiibos, and the Future

I must apologize for I have been remiss in updating this blog. The last time I made an update was in the glow of last year's highly successful post-E3 glow.

A year on, Mario Maker is still on the way so jury is still out (although I'm excited), Zelda has been delayed, and Amiibos as it turned out, was a huge success, selling well over 10 million units in less than seven months on the market, and it didn't even hit all the markets at the same time.

There has been a lot of other announcements in the interceding months. The biggest of which is Nintendo's partnership with mobile developer DeNA to create a platform for mobile games.

With E3 2015 around the corner, excitement is once again in the air. So let's discuss the two things that definitely won't be discussed at E3

The NX Platform

Announced at the same time of the partnership with DeNA to enter the mobile market, this is, as company president Iwata explained a reveal in name only to confirm Nintendo remains comitted to the dedicated games market.

As such not much is known about this platform and there is considerable debate whether it will be a console to replace the Wii U (which isn't doing well) or a portable to replace the rapidly aging Nintendo 3DS, which is likely the company's core profit center, or alternatively, it has been suggested that the NX is a hybrid platform that bridges consoles/handheld and mobile gaming.

Whatever it is, the NX, when revealed next year will likely give us our first understanding of Nintendo's unified platform strategy. My personal view on this is that the hardware and the software needs to be highly scalable such that they can release the platform at a reasonable price in 2016, but produce higher tier versions in the future without creating a segmented market. This would likely require Nintendo to be more upfront with their development partners in terms of supply specification differences to each NX tier as to allow them to program scalability into their games and Nintendo's secretic (need to know) way of operating historically is what worries me to most. But let's hope for the best here.

Imagine being able to play NX-portable games on NX-home console seamlessly, with the additional power of the console version allowing for games to be rendered at a higher resolution and or added effects. It could be as simple as the portable version being rendered at a lower resolution than the home version. Or texture quality being higher on home consoles. While each platform may and probably will have exclusives taking full advantage of each platform, this sort of home-mobile interoperability could prove helpful to skittish 3rd parties looking to maximize sales on the largest market possible. If they can access a unified home/portable market it would help the economics of their games

Furthermore, this scaleability would allow NX-2, 3, 4 and future iterations to take software from previous NX versions and not only run them, but run them with all the new features of the new NX platforms enabled.

The biggest roadblock to Nintendo's otherwise well-planned backwards compatability is that the platforms are largely not the same and backwards compatability is only achieved by including the previous generation's chipset inside the console (think Wii mode in Wii U or DS mode in 3DS); This means that the newer platforms reconfigures itself to become a Wii or a DS when running legacy titles, losing all its other functionality. I would love to post screenshots of DS games or share them on Miiverse, but nope, DS mode in 3DS shuts all those features down. Ditto for the Wii U in Wii mode.

Nintendo + DeNA

There isn't much to say here but Nintendo has confirmed no mobile related news will be revealed at E3, at the event is meant to be for core gaming announcements. With at least one mobile game under the DeNA/Nintendo partnership due out this year, one would expect a safe title, likely free-to-start with microtransactions. This is the least interesting bit (for me) of what Nintendo is doing but I could be converted if they can marry their need to mobile revenues with their current business in videogames and leverage both in a way that allows me to spend extra money on their mobile apps without feeling like I sold my soul.

Nintendo @ E3

Leveraging last year's highly successful 'Digital Event', Nintendo is back again with another Digital Event. Eschewing the stage managed and often dull/embarrassing live conferences, the company is looking to recapture the excitement from last E3 with a Nintendo World Championship in place of last year's Smash tournament.

Will it work? It remains to be seen, but early indications are good insofar as they have a much bigger slice of the public looking at them this time around. A quick point of comparison. Last year's Mega64 produced trailer announcing their digital event has 1.13 million views and 25k likes in the 12 months it has been on-line on Nintendo's own Youtube channel (this is not including mirrors, and views in other services, such as the eshop). In comparison, the trailer released less than a month ago announcing their Digital Event in June already has 1.5 million views on Youtube (in under 3 weeks) and 37k likes.

Their job will be straightforward, although not easy. Show lots of games, announce a few surprise games, throw in a few fan favourite Virtual Console releases (Mother 3 anyone?) and don't take their consumers for granted.

This won't alter Wii U's trajectory very much as the 3rd place platform, but it could mean entering their next hardware cycle as a relevant well-liked 'dark horse' instead of being a disliked 'has been'. And their continued support for the Wii U will most certainly mean a difference in sales that cumulatively could mean a much more profitable company going into a hardware refresh regardless of their placement in the console-warz epeen contest.

Before I go, a small note on Amiibos.

I understand the difficulty of manufacturing so many distinctly different character types and alloting enough units for each on a global basis. This makes shortages of popular Amiibo types inevitable. As much as the Amiibo craze has lifted the company's profile (at the very least among resellers) it is increasingly leading to frustration from consumers.

If proper supply allotment for each Amiibo type is a problem, Nintendo should at the very least institute a 're-order' program with Amazon and their retail partners allowing consumers to place an order for an out of stock Amiibo that Nintendo will then manufacture and ship out to consumers, thus reducing the risk of over supply of reprints.  Similarly, their pre-order programs should be expanded as a market-test to see which of their Amiibos would be relatively more popular.

As it stands, Amiibos are released in 'waves' and snatched up so fast that casual consumers who blinked would have missed out and there is then no way to guarantee a reprint down the line. Pre-orders are merely ways for Gamestop and Amazon to pre-sell their already alloted shipments, rather than polling consumer interest and adjusting supply as needed, further limiting Day 1 availability.

I want several legacy Amiibos but I don't want to pay scalpers with their 200-500% markup for one and frankly, after the relative ease of pre-ordering the Wave 1 and Wave 2 Amiibos last year (prior to the reseller market taking notice) it has been nigh impossible for me to easily get the Wave 3 and Wave 4 rare Amiibos. Fix this Nintendo and you'll have more of my money.