Thursday, May 31, 2012

Nintendoom - Part 3 - All we want is Mario in every box

In a 2003 piece for CNN Money’s Business 2.0, Geoff Keighley asked “Is Nintendo playing the wrong game?”  Citing falling sales (down 37% from 2002), Keighley wondered out loud how Nintendo had managed this in the midst of an explosion in videogames, with revenues doubling to “27 billion worldwide” and with  half of American households owning a home console.  The answer, he noted, is the competition.  Sony controlled 60% , Microsoft 25% with Nintendo fighting for the scraps.

That same year, analysts called on Nintendo to abandon its console strategy to build a leading position as a software developer.  Noting that it stood to lose very little while gaining access to a usebase manifold larger than the GameCube.  Leading publishers quoted by Keighley, both of which produced games for Nintendo, also questioned Nintendo’s console exclusivity.

Brian Farrell of THQ noted "I'm not sure there's room for a stand-alone game machine,” (referring to the entertainment hubs that were the PS2 and Xbox); Jeff Lapin, the CEO of Take-Two Interactive at the time agreed.  "I think Nintendo is going to have to redefine its hardware if it wants to compete," he says. "The simple fact is that people are looking for extra features."

Citing industry sources, industry publication Computer&Videogames concluded that Nintendo was facing the shock of a hardware-less future. "The way things are shaping up, this is Nintendo's last hardware," said one source quoted by CVG in reference to the GameCube. "Nintendo's all about the games. You have to ask whether or not they actually need an under-the-TV console for the next hardware generation."

Nine years later and the sentiment is much the same.   Writing for Forbes in 2011, Erik Kain laments  “Right now we’re at the edge of the frontier of mobile gaming, but that’s not going to last forever. As more developers churn out more high-quality games, and phone manufacturers like LG and HTC start producing 3D phones, it’s only a matter of time before buying both a Nintendo and a smart phone doesn’t make sense, even for gamers,” adding “iMario would be sweet.”

#3) Why does this view persist?

Commenting on the question that inspired my three part commentary, a member sums up the existing narrative in three points.

1) Nintendo has been around for a while. Eventually all our childhood things get old and die, or so we're told.
2) Nintendo designs games how they want, and refuses to abide by industry trends. Companies adapt or die, or so we're told.
3) Everyone's closing or folding into something. Nintendo is independent and not part of some other huge company, so it follows Nintendo must need help.

There are many more variants presented to the themes outlined above. One could point to Nintendo’s ‘weak’ hardware in the last generation, HD graphics,  it’s on-line features or lack thereof, its recently casual focus  or cite a preference for a ‘one console’ future as other real reasons, but  they tend to be jaded excuses to dislike a company or to justify a purchase.  Discussions on why there is a preference by those who wish for Nintendo games to be published their latest subsidized phone (previously on their favourite non-Nintendo home console) often come back to the idea of the need to grow out of their childhood.

The irony is that the meme persists because so many loved and still love Nintendo games and wish to see it on their latest gadget, without having to incur the costs of owning a Nintendo platform.   Yet Nintendo hardware often defined their software – Think back to Super Mario Galaxy and the use of the Wii remote controller, or how everything, including making music on the ocarina,  just ‘clicked’ in the genre defining Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64.

For those who are more critical of Nintendo, growing up and out of Nintendo also means identifying against Nintendo’s go it alone style, refusal to follow trends, and it’s focus as a games only company or rather its lack of scale compared to its gargantuan competitors.

We close this series with  Keighley’s account of E3 2003 and the non-gaming convergence extravaganza that was about to doom Nintendo.

“If you want to see the future of videogames, there's no place like the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. Each May the industry's heavyweights roll out their latest marvels, displaying their visions for the next year and beyond... J. Allard, vice president for Xbox, took the wraps off Xbox Music Mixer, a karaoke system for Microsoft's game console. In another corner, Sony entertained the crowd with its new EyeToy, a camera that will add videoconferencing to the PlayStation 2... Sony will take on Nintendo's mighty Game Boy with a new handheld. Finally, with anticipation at a crescendo, Nintendo CEO and president Satoru Iwata faced the crowd to meet his rivals' news with some of his own: Nintendo would soon release a four-way version of the arcade classic Pac-Man. 
You could almost hear the air being sucked out of the room. This was a moment for vision and drama, a chance for Nintendo to dazzle the industry with its genius. Instead, Iwata served up four-way Pac-Man. The idea struck everyone as breathtakingly backward."

Keighley summed up his views of Nintendo’s long-term business prospects with the following:
“Nintendo isn't likely to take any genuine risks that could jeopardize its existing business  ... its main business will likely be videogames--still profitable, but shrinking in relation to competitors. A humbling fate, indeed, for a company that once conquered the world.”
A final twist of irony perhaps, but no one really could have predicted what came after.Memes and narratives aside, the essential lesson here is that it is wrong to say Nintendo is incapable of adapting.  To the contrary, it has proven to be quite agile, turning their own business paradigm of chasing after the quintessential video gamer on its head in the span of one console generation.

Nintendo’s leaders have managed to navigate through a myriad of seemingly insurmountable obstacles by taking risks, and implementing good ideas from competitors, all the while maintaining the distinctly Nintendo whimsy in their design and software philosophies by leveraging hardware and software together.  Nintendo the software company is really Nintendo the entertainment company.  The hardware comes with the software.

Excerpt from  Nintendo's 2003 Annual Report


Part I  - Has Nintendo has Failed?

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nintendoom - Part 2 - Should Nintendo Go Third Party?

Last time, we discussed the general ‘doomed’ meme as an outgrowth of the belief that Nintendo's hardware markets are in decline.  A close corollary to that meme is  the pivot from asserting Nintendo is doomed to giving them some free advice  –  that the company should become a software only publisher.

#2) Should Nintendo, in light of its imminent decline, cut their losses and put software on someone else’s platform.

The advice of going third-party is not new.   During the GameCube era,  analysts and gamers alike looked to Sega as a precedent and advised a third party approach to Nintendo’s business strategy.

The thinking goes something like this.

  1. Nintendo’s decline is not a probability but a reality
  2. In the wake of weakening and objectively weak hardware sales, Nintendo must seek new revenue sources from its core competency (software)
  3. This revenue source  must therefore logically be placing their software on the widest audience possible  (at the time this was the PlayStation 2).

More recently, the discussion has hinged on the imepending ‘attack’ on Nintendo’s golden goose, the portable market, by tablet and smartphone devices and how the superior form factor and technology of these subsidized devices as well as the very low pricing of the ‘apps’ available post a mortal threat to Nintendo.

There is no shortage of insightful and sometimes flippant remark on why Nintendo shouldn’t go third party.  The same topic was covered at length by many people across multiple discussions on-line.  The financial argument is well covered, as is evidenced by a recent opinion piece that summed up the dynamics of opinion and the realities quite succinctly.

“Last year Angry Birds developer Rovio estimated that they brought in around $100 million in revenue for 2011. That’s all their products, including all the Angry Birds games combined. Zynga, with all their social and mobile titles, swung to a loss a little smaller than Nintendo’s, with around $1 billion in revenue. Furthermore, the entire Apple App Store in its whole lifespan has brought in around $4 billion in revenue. That’s all apps combined since 2008. (Apple doesn’t have individual profit data on all those app makers.) Nintendo brought in around $12 billion in revenue in 2011 alone 
The reason social and mobile gaming are getting so much press is because of how fast they are growing compared to conventional console gaming. Rovio’s $100 million 2011 revenue estimate is a tenfold increase from 2010. “

Thus the underlying issue is laid bare.  It is ‘growth’.   Investors like growth. Therefore we must ask the question: Why can’t Nintendo make 12 billion dollars selling  0.99cent and advertiser funded ‘free’ apps?

The problem with a Nintendo pivot to a high growth third party strategy is simply an issue of ‘scope’. Nintendo has often been lambasted for their hardware as being ‘inferior’ , from the cartridges and mini-DVDs of the N64 and GameCube to the unfavourable matchup between the DS and the PSP and to the genuinely surprising decision not to upgrade the processing technology behind the Wii over the GameCube, outside of overclocking the processors in the GameCube and adding a tertiary ARM CPU for wireless.

The criticisms however have tended to miss the point of Nintendo's hardware strategy. The company has often succeeded in marrying its hardware with its software.  The analysis that software is their only strength ignores the fact that they were often able to innovate on software by first laying the groundwork on hardware.  The Wii motion control technology, and touch screen of the DS allowed an entire class of Nintendo software to flourish where they could not find a home elsewhere at the time of their release.

Nintendo benefits from economies of scope in the sense that not only is it able to deploy their internal resources  (software engineers, hardware engineers, their capital reserves, R&D  etc) across a broad range of software, but those resources can be deployed in a way that enhance hardware development such that they support software.  This is an immeasurable competitive advantage for Nintendo that has allowed it to dominate the platforms it produces and yield higher than normal returns as a software developer on those platforms.

This philosophy is underlined by Nintendo’s assignment of software designers Katsuya Eguchi credited with the design of games as varied as Super Mario Bros. 3,  Star Fox, Wii Sports, and the Animal Crossing franchise with the position of overseeing the Wii U hardware.  Similarly, Hideki Konno of Nintendogs and Mario Kart fame was assigned to oversee development of the 3DS.   These are software people assigned to manage hardware design such that the resulting software will take full benefit of the hardware.

While the 3DS has had its share of perceived problems – high introductory price, excessive concern over 3D from Nintendo turning off some customers, lack of games during launch – It is hard to argue against Konno’s assignment.  The most interesting innovations of the 3DS in its StreetPass mode is undeniable. Streetpass has morphed into a community, an active social network of sorts that connect local players into a gaming community.

Until such time that their hardware sales are so untenably low or software prices on appstores rise high enough, there is little reason for Nintendo to pursue a wholesale third party strategy.

Final Analysis:
There is a wrinkle to this story.  What if, some argue, Nintendo were to continue with business as usual but  approach the smartphone/tablet mobile market incrementally, by first putting their legacy software on the platform.

Assuming Nintendo is to become a third party publisher, this approach is what I believe is the most likely ‘third party’ scenario for Nintendo.  It does not deny that Nintendo earns above average profits from its own hardware from the economies of scope enjoyed, but it also allows an avenue for the company to tap into a high growth market by selling older games, likely at a premium compared to similar games on the market, on the appstore environment.

The argument goes further by nothing that Nintendo can effectively price discriminate across various consumer groups, by selling older titles (such as their Virtual Console library) digitally as app-store prices to consumers who will gladly pay $4.99 for an old Nintendo game, while keeping their premium titles on their own hardware at premium prices.

There are however some problems as well. A problem with this approach is that it risks fragmentation of Nintendo’s own markets.  The Virtual Console (VC)  titles, specifically Nintendo VC  games, are also one of their aces in terms of drawing consumer attention to Nintendo hardware. The effect of making these games non-exclusive to Nintendo could weaken the proposition of Nintendo branded hardware.

Further, until the time Nintendo can articulate a more coherent Virtual Console strategy – treating VC as a platform and making it something more in-line with Apple’s itunes where bought games are tied to user accounts and is transferable between hardware and does not require repurchasing a game on a new platform –  the dream of a Nintendo titles on appstores seem to be strategically risky at best.

Part I  - Has Nintendo has Failed?
Part 3 - All we want is Mario in every box

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Nintendoom - Part I - Has Nintendo has Failed?

Recently, a member on a popular videogame forums asked:  (condensed with parts bolded for effect)

“As long as I've been a gamer and paying some attention to the industry ... analysts, supposed experts and self-declared informed forum posters have never failed to assert [that] Nintendo's days are numbered.
Equally, the opinion that the company must transition to a third-party model has never faded.  
Are there some common misconception(s) that lead to these doomed/third party ideas, that if nipped in the bud, would reduce the persistence of the assertions?”

From the above, there are 3 essential questions worth considering.

  1. Does Nintendo's market exposure doom it to failure?
  2. A corollary to the first is  - Should Nintendo, in light of its imminent decline, cut their losses and put software on someone else’s platform?
  3. Most interesting of all - If 1 and 2 are false, or mostly false, why do this view continue to persist?

#1) Does Nintendo's market exposure doom it to failure?

For those looking, there are plenty to point to in terms of Nintendo failing.  This is unrelated to hardware/design/planning failures which will be a future topic of discussion, but rather the failure of the company as a whole to ‘adapt to change’.

The declining stock price is often cited as one reason, with no context.   In this case, the Nintendo share price is driven by the company’s first reported loss in decades, extreme uncertainty in the Wii U’s performance and overall global economic uncertainty and how it may affect Nintendo’s best customers, Europe and North America, where the company earns most of its sales.

Stock prices however is used only to set-up the next point, that there is a tremendous growth uptake in alternative mobile devices like smartphones and tablets that overlap the traditional territory of home consoles and dedicated portable game machines and as a result Nintendo has lost its ‘market’ to smartphones and tablets and can never recover from this.  The first assertion is increasingly difficult to refute. There’s no question tablet and smartphone penetration has ballooned in North America and Europe in the past several years.  There is no question people use them to play games.  There is even less argument that free, free-to-play titles with in-app purchases and cheap $0.99~1.99 games on the app stores  of Apple and Google are popular downloads.

There is however some question as to the severity of its impact on the long-term viability to the portable hardware market and the console market.  You’ll note that I’ve left our Japan when citing the territories where smartphone penetration has ballooned.

Japan has had a fairly mature cellphone gaming industry for at least a decade.  In fact, some of the Nintendo DS’ early titles were straight ports of cellphone games.  That fact that Nintendo has carved out a stabled portable market in Japan since the GameBoyAdvance era seems to indicate that there is a third way other than ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ against phones.

That is however not to say that Nintendo shouldn’t change.  They absolutely must change to adapt to changing market conditions.  Yet this would seem be anachronistic to the underlying assumptions of those claiming Nintendo has lost its sense of the market.  How can a company doomed to fail adapt?

It can’t, but assuming Nintendo can't adapt is a leap of logic made by those convinced by the company's imminent failure.  People like winners.  And the growth sector are on devices not traditionally produced by Nintendo.  The failure in logic is to assume that the winning will go on forever, or that there is no chance for a stable equilibrium , a third way.

It’s often too easy to draw straight lines into the future.  Like all things the exponential adoption of tablets and smartphones will slow, even if overall shipments continue to grow over time.    The discussion brings us to one interesting parallel.

From the mid 1990s, with the release of Windows 95 to the early ‘00s when Microsoft’s valuation peaked at 583 billion dollars in December 1999 , PC ownership nearly quadrupled in the developed economies.  This period saw the rise of Blizzard as a major force in gaming on the PC, the rise of on-line games, Microsoft’s positioning of Windows as a key gaming platform, and the use of the web and ‘flash games’ as alternatives to games with the most aggressive move into monetizing the PC based free to play gaming coming from Yahoo when they first established Yahoo Games in 1997.   The service would prove increasingly popular well in the 2000's as broadband connection became the norm and more and non-tech savvy users gained access to the internet.

Despite the exponential growth of PC ownership, and free games played on browsers, video games continued to thrive on dedicated services.   The early 00’s was also Nintendo’s low point as a company,  with the third place finish of the GameCube,  and the attack of the maturing Keitai (portable phone)  gaming in Japan on Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance market, the company looked destined to fail.  At the time, there were no shortage of prognostications then of their imminent demise and or conversion to a software only company. Yet Nintendo emerged  from their lows to produce the Nintendo DS and the Wii and earn billions in profits.  The lesson to be drawn here isn't that the past will repeat again as is often implied with historical comparisons such as this.   Perhaps Nintendo will not have a DS or Wii success this time around, but that is not to say an equilibrium cannot be reached. There's good reason to believe the dedicated game platforms will survive and thrive by adapting instead of going away. And as long as that market exists, Nintendo will not be doomed to failure.

Part 2 -  Should Nintendo go third party?
Part 3 - All we want is Mario in every box

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Club Nintendo: 3DS Card Case 18

I've been waiting for months for these to go back in-stock at ClubNintendo, and they finally restocked them recently.

Due to a technical glitch (the ClubNintendo coin tracker being slow to revise my points) I thought my first order didn't go through so I accidentally ordered 2 cases.  Not that it's a problem as I don't mind having 2.  The second remains in mint condition... for now.

Looks great on the shelf!  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Flipnote Studio

I just spent a couple of hours playing around with Flipnote Studio.  The program is surprisingly rich in terms of drawing options.  There is an accompanying Youtube-like service called Flipnote Hatena, hosted by Hatena, a Japanese internet service company;  The flipnotes can be accessed from the DSi through the Flipnote client or via the web through   Users can draw and make their own flipbooks on their DSi or DSiXL, however posting flipnotes, commenting on notes, liking/favoriting notes require an account which works on both the website and on the DSi.

Note also that the website is meant to funnel viewers to the flipnote creations. The creation of the notes (drawing, coloring, animating) is exclusively done via the DSi.  The integration of Flipnote as a full featured service for DS users is quite impressive indeed and it's all FREE!

For me screen size and comfy pen sized stylus of the DSiXL makes all the difference here.  I've had flipnote on the DSi for a few years but always found it too difficult to draw and never got into it.  Anyways, here is my first attempt at doing a flipbook animation. (and yes, anyone can view your DSi flipbooks on the web and they can be shared and embedded in blogs as well!)

Super neat.

Monday, May 21, 2012

DSi XL at Last!

Left: 3DS Right: DSiXL

As of May 20th the DSiXL had a price cut to $129.99, after a period of nearly a year when it was at price parity with a much more feature rich 3DS;  a platform that can play games not compatible with the DS/DSLite/DSi line. 

I’ve always wanted a DSiXL, the large bright screen, comfy pen sized stylus and long hour battery life lasting up to 17 hours had been well received by gamers and the unit did not disappoint.

Released in 2010 and positioned as a large DSi for adult and older 'casuals' to use, the DSiXL also has a fairly good following among gamers looking for a larger screen DS to play at home, where portability is less of an issue.

The unit feels great on my hands and it combines features of the DSi and DSLite into one unit. It has the matte finish of the DSi, although the finish on the XL is much more textures, while retaining the glossy finger print magnet of the DSLite on the unit’s top side.

The first thing you’ll notice is that navigating touch games with the pen sized stylus feels amazing, and things like writing my name in the pack-in Brain Age  DSiWare titles feels much better as the much larger surface area of the touch screen allows for much more nuance in writing.

The next thing I did was to fire up The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, and the game looks absolutely fantastic on the DSiXL. It is incredibly vibrant and bright.  The first thing I notice moving from the 3DS, at maximum brightness with power-save turned off to the DSiXL screen is that the 3DS screen looks much dimmer by comparison. It looks likethe DSiXL will be my DS unit to finish up some of the many games on my DS that I never got around to playing or completing.

P.S. It’s interesting to note that the ClubNintendo questionnaire I filled out had 2 extra questions.  It asked consumers why the picked the DSiXL over the 3DS and if they ever considered the 3DS at all.  This was likely added when both the DSiXL and the 3DS were at price parity.

Not surprising that Nintendo would be interested to know considering the DS (well most models sold in the past year had been the DSi and DSiXL)  continue to do well inspite  of the newer model 3DS whereas DS sales have all but collapsed in Japan as consumers have bought the 3DS instead.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Three Reasons for Multiple Wii U Tablet Support

With just under a month to go before E3,  Nintendo’s plans for the Wii U and its tablet controller is very much set in stone.

It is however still helpful to explore the reasons why supporting more than 1 Wii U Tablet henceforth referred to as the uPad is critical to the company’s future and the future success of the Wii U.

Before we launch into the discussion it is worth pointing out the speculated specifications of the uPad.  The screen is widely believed be 854x480  6.2 inch touchscreen with a  16:9 (widescreen)  orientation with a fairly decent 158 dpi, putting it in range of the old pre-retina iPhone and ahead of the iPad 2.

Most people are speculating the uPad itself will be a fairly barebones device with a screen, gyro sensor, IR, near field communications (NFC), accelerometer, a screen. li-ion batteries, and some basic computing to receive and output the video stream.  It is NOT expected to be a stand-alone tablet. 

Gameplay  Options
One of the most requested features at E3 last year when the Wii U was unveiled was for multi Wii uPad support.  Nintendo did not provide a firm answer on multiple uPad support - hemming and hawing between the uPad being a pack-in peripheral not sold in stores and the possibility that a 2nd uPad could be procured from retailers or the Nintendo web store.

Since then, web chatter and rumours have indicated that Nintendo did hear strong feedback for at minimum 2 uPad support and they were seriously considering making it happen.  Doing so would be critical for them.  Allowing multiple uPad  would immediately open up the doors to at minimum 2 player games where both players have access to screens showing difference angles of action, say in a co-op mode where one had the HUD for a vehicle while the other is using the uPad as the sniper scope.

There is understandably a major technical limitation to multiple uPad support.  Bandwidth issues aside, the raw processing power required to draw the game as 720p or 1080p HD resolutions and  then diverting power to draw at  854×480 resolutions on each uPad would tax the Wii U beyond its intended use.

That said, there are multiple alternatives to this, not the least of which is a letterboxed or windowed split screen solution within the uPad stream to support multiple pads (think N64 split screen with the resolution being cut into fractions but displayed on each uPad rather than on the TV).  The feed can then blown up on the uPad to compensate for the reduction in output feed - the loss of crispness of the feed would be a small price to pay for multiple uPad support.  The video feed itself could then be surrounded by simple HUD controls/picture frame to fill in the rest of the screen.

Simpler titles like party and board games may still benefit from multiple uPad support at full 480p resolution as they are not expected to output taxing content.

Lifestyle / Expanded Audience
Here’s a scenario for you.  Sister is hogging the Wii U playing Animal Crossing,  but brother still needs to access the console.   The usual outcome is a fight and parents interceding to suggest a compromise.  The Wii U offers a third option.

As most if not all titles will require 1st player to likely use the uPad, there is immediate market for a 2nd uPad support for people in the family to access the WiiU to pull files, browse the web, stream Netflix videos, send the user currently hogging the Wii U a message reminder that someone is waiting to use the console, check the Nintendo friendlists, and potentially even play simple apps while they wait.

Parents may also potentially have the option of accessing parental controls to send their children messages that playtime is almost over, or remotely shut off the console or block content.  Similarly, web browsing, video streaming, ebooks, strategy guides, magazines, all content Nintendo has been rumoured to be exploring for the WiiU , could all benefit from a 2nd or 3rd uPad support. The content would be infinitely more appealing if accessible on a 2nd controller rather than through the main controller which will be in constant use by the gamer.

The WiiU’s asymmetrical control scheme would be wasted, especially in terms of services, if only one person can access the rumoured strategy guides, Nintendo Power back issues and other tablet content through only one uPad.  This rules out other people using the WiiU for these services when the console is in use by someone else in the family.

Wii U Tablet 2.0 and beyond
This is the riskiest reason but also one with the most possible payoff.  Allowing multiple uPad support necessitates retailing them at stores.   With retailers under pressure from digital sales, increasing accessory sales would be lucrative win-win for all parties, and Nintendo could use its historically good relations with major retailers to leverage uPad sales for more favourable terms on Wii U promotions and per unit margins.

More importantly, retailing uPad means that in the future Nintendo could theoretically release new and improved versions of the uPad with better a screen, better ergonomics, improved battery and last but not least, better internals.  This future proofing could be critical if the rumoured PS4 does have dual graphics processors, with one dedicated for streaming content to a Sony tablet controller.  A Wii U tablet with its own processor could provide a crucial second wind the Wii lacked.

Improving internals also bring the prospect of uPads coming fully equipped as semi-portable devices, with a System on Chip (SoC) that allows access to all of the DSi and 3DS eshop content allowing legacy support for a vast library of games without draining processing time from the Wii U.  One area Nintendo has done poorly is its inability to leverage Virtual Console across all its properties.  The Wii virtual console service remains a closed garden and walled-off from the 3DS service.  This has proven to be a frustrating pain point for fans.

A Wii uPad with the internals to run at minimum  NES, SNES, Genesis, TG-16 Virtual console games plus DSi and eshop titles without drawing processing resources from the Wii U itself could be a great boon to revive sales of older content and extend the reach of 3DS eshop titles.  This could also plug into Nintendo's announced goals to retail full games digitally by providing an additional avenue for those old DS and soon to be older 3DS games to be played.   

The final angle to consider is that this puts Nintendo in the enviable position of providing a low cost tablet solution for millions of users who have thus far stayed out of the tablet market.  There is undoubtedly a market for sub $100 tablets out there, but  few people could make much money off this market because there’s simply not enough room to pack in reasonable processing power for under $99 while providing features people want  and still provide a healthy retailer and manufacturer margin.
As miniaturization improves, Future uPad revisions could be a potential goldmine for Nintendo. They can manufacture uPads with improving processors at low cost and provide a full suite of services beyond what a sub $100 tablet could offer by augmenting uPads with Wii U’s core services and processing muscle.  Wii U would act as a storage device for the uPad to access and download apps, negating the need to have a large internal storage within the tablet itself.  Similarly, services like account data, purchases, video streaming could be managed through Wii U while the improved uPads share the processing load for expanded services provided.  The possibilities are limitless.

A potential scenario is  a uPad  3.0 or 4.0 with the 3DS System on Chip 4 years from now.  The 3DS SoC would be fairly inexpensive at that point, while the chipset itself still packs enough of a punch to do a lot of things 'good enough' while opening a new market for digital sales of retail 3DS games and 3D eshop games.

The Most Likely Outcome
When it is all said it done, it is still possible and quite likely that we  will end up with one Wii U tablet per console with no plans of multiple uPad support, no plans for retail sales, and only limited availability of replacement tablets sold through Nintendo.   If that is what we get at E3 next month, the console reveal will still be worth it, and even if only half of what Nintendo is rumoured to be pushing for comes true --expanded apps/services orientation for Wii U ; cloud storage; digital magazines; Nintendo Network accounts-- the Wii U will still be a console to watch with a yearlong headstart over its competitors.

But I can't help but feel a little disappointed if they ultimately fail to support more than 1 uPad per console, and fail to see that retailing uPads will be an increasingly profitable prospect for them given the profitability of the videogame accessory market.  The potential for futureproofing the Wii U with future tablet revisions is just a bonus.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

This review was first published online in 2005. On

Spielberg's  (A.I.Artificial Intelligence (2001)  is one of the most interesting movies to have been made in recent memory. Based on a short story Super Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss the story is a futuristic fairy tale about a mechanical boy, made to satisfy the need of childless couples, and his quest for his humanity.

A collaboration between the late Stanley Kubrick and Spielberg, the film starts off as a family drama about the Swinton's and the bonding that takes place between David (Haley Joel Osment), the child robot, and the Monica Swinton. It ends with a dream-like Spielbergian epilogue that satisfies our curiosity for David's ultimate fate. Sandwiched in-between is an adventure story.

Unfortunately, the film didn't quite gel with the public and critics. The highbrow viewers expecting Kubrick’s cold clinical style complained that Spielberg ruined the film with his populist sentimentality. Spielberg's core audience most likely left the theatre perplexed with a depressing tale and an ending that was neither happy nor satisfying, especially when compared to Spielberg's hallmark kid flick, E.T. .

Its achievement should not be diminished by the lukewarm reviews and box-office take. There is dramatic depth in Spielberg’s direction and from Haley Joel Osment's performance that is missing in his other films. Where Elliot in E.T. and Jamie in Empire of the Sun both expressed their hopes and dreams in a superficial manner, the single-minded driving motivation behind Osment's David and indeed the film's narrative is David's one hope of being truly loved for what he is, a real boy. Many viewers have taken the dialogue literally and interpreted the motivations of the film an allegory to Pinocchio where an object, in this case a robot, wishes to become a real boy. What is missed is that becoming real is merely a means to an end, and ultimately what David wanted and craved was to be loved like a human mother would love her child. Whether he had a computer chip or an organic brain inside his skull is irrelevant.

The question posed by the movie is quite clear. What obligations do we have to a computer program that can think, feel, and love? Kubrick's vision of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is not mutually exclusive to the mechas in A.I., in fact, HAL fits into the dichotomy Kubric and Spielberg explored in A.I. and we can still ask the same question. It is not the impressive robots and synthetic flesh in the film which creates the moral dilemma, but rather the programs inside these machines. David could be a program contained in a computer just like HAL, and the questions would not change. That is not to say the mechas serve no purpose. Interacting with a robot child that has all the mannerisms of a real boy drives the point home in a way a program cannot, even if its capacity to feel, think, dream and love far exceeds that of David's programming.

The question and issues in A.I. are relevant in contemporary life. We already have millions of programs running around inside our computers, in networks such as the Internet doing the work for us. Everything from search 'spider' bots that fetch websites for search engines to creatures and Sims in 'life simulators' game that attempt to create what game programmers term artificial life. If, in the very near future there is a game, or a program residing inside the hard-drives of our PCs that can think for itself, that craves attention, that begs for its life when it is about to be deleted, would we still treat them as mere programs? Should we be allowed to? Can we destroy these creations, these lines of code, at will? What if these programs turn the tables and harm their masters?

The ending deserves some mention. Universally criticized for being too Spielbergian in its sentimentality, it was again grossly misread. The fact that David can only have his mother back for one day only makes it even sadder and more bittersweet. There is closure for David, but the ending isn’t a happy one. It might infact be more cruel by letting David live his dream for a day rather than spend an eternity beneath the sea, where at least, he still has an eternal companion, hope.

The Long View:  In the seven years since I wrote this review, the view of the film has marked a dramatic shift from initial disappointment in the immediate aftermath of its release to one of appreciation and respect.   A.I. along with Minority Report (2002) are now widely considered as two hallmark films, a dual view of the future, by Spielberg at the turn of the 21st century. 
As computers continue to evolve and the power of desktops are shrunk down into mobile devices that I couldn’t even fathom just seven years ago, the questions posed to us by Spielberg and Kubrick in A.I. is more relevant today than ever.  Can we truly love aritificial intelligence?  Can you love a Sim?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Last Window

After bursting to the scene in 2005 with Another Code/Trace Memory,  CiNG’s adventure games on the DS promised a new era of adventure games on a major game platform.  By 2010 however, CiNG ran into financial difficulties and filed for bankruptcy just as their last game, The Nintendo published The Last Window: Secret of the Cape West saw release in EU markets after a release in Japan.

Either due to CiNG’s bankruptcy or Nintendo of America’s conservative release schedule, CiNG’s swan song would not see a North American release, much to the dismay of adventure fans stateside. Regardless of the reasoning, the circumstances around the game’s release is worthy of CiNG’s pedigree of coincidental storytelling.    The Last Window is an aptly named title for it marked the end of the Touch! Generations period for Nintendo and the burst of energy that emerged from the company during the first few years of the Nintendo DS.  It was our last window into that period.

Despite these hurdles, North American fans can still enjoy the game by importing the European release of the game, localized in English, thanks to the decision not to saddle the Nintendo DS with any region locking at the time it was designed.

The Last Window continues the story of Kyle Hyde, the protagonist from Hotel Dusk Room 215.   Like Hotel Dusk, the game opens around Christmas.  It is 1980 and it has been a year since the events at Hotel Dusk.  Kyle Hyde wakes up from an afternoon of napping only to be chewed out and fired by his boss, Ed Vincent, an ex-LAPD cop and owner of Red Crown, a company specializing in finding things for clients while using a door-to-door sales business as a front.
The unemployed Kyle returns home at the Cape West apartments only to find the landlord sent out notices a week prior about an imminent eviction by the end of the month as the building has been sold.   Kyle is then confronted with a rogue order sent to his door directly by an unknown client asking him to recover the mysterious diamond the Scarlet Star which disappeared from Cape West 25 years ago.  His interest piqued, he slowly unravels the secrets hidden in the apartment complex he has lived in for four years.  A story that would ultimately span 25 years, involve 2 murders and a notorious crime syndicate.

The game’s scale is ambitious, spanning more than week there is a lot more to do and examine and the mystery is far more layered and complex.  Scenario designer Rika Suzuki maintains the hard-boiled noir feel of Hotel Dusk throughout this adventure. Compared to Hotel Dusk,  The Last Window does suffer due to its scope and the game feels a little less focused in the middle part of the adventure.  This may be in part due to the game structure which spanned multiple days and lacking in end of chapter interrogations like in Hotel Dusk which is structurally similar to ‘boss battles’ found in traditional games.  The Last Window eschews from this formula and as a result the pacing didn’t feel as tight.  I was certainly much more enthused to power through several chapters at a time in Hotel Dusk in 2007.

The game’s core mechanics remain in-tact from Hotel Dusk.  It is divided into a free mode where players explore their environs, interact with objects and solve puzzles and a conversation mode where the story is revealed, players ask questions and the game’s equivalent of ‘boss battles’ occurs in interrogation sections though as noted, these don’t necessarily occur at the end of each chapter but are rather placed where the story requires it.   In Chapter I, there is some hand holding features added explaining how the interface works, which is a nice addition.   Furthermore, players can more easily avoid a red wave during questioning by asking the right questions simply by keeping the overall narrative arc in mind and using common sense.   Avoiding a red wave was crucial to earning a ‘good ending’ in Hotel Dusk, but avoiding them  in that game often required memorization of the right questions to ask as they  often weren’t obvious in the context of the story but were native to the individual quirks of each character as written by the scenario writer.

The Last Window reuses the same engine from Hotel Dusk, and the interior environs are rendered with the same pleasing watercolour motif.   Characters are animated in a sketch-book style reminiscent of A-HA music video.  To enhance the authenticity of the visuals, CiNG used models as references and rotoscoped the hand drawn animations overtop of them.  This explains the personalities of each of the game’s characters.  The way they hang their head, their smirks, the frown lines on their faces and way they smile give away the personalities of each individual. Each is unique and distinct and there is an authenticity their expressions that lend weight to the story.  The game also improves on Hotel DuskThe Last Window features animated title sequence with watercolor studies of a fictional downtown LA  in the 1950s, 60s and 1980 with Hotel Cape West.   There are also animated sequences bridging between chapters.  Improving on the  cramped pancake architecture of Hotel Dusk,  the architecture of the Cape West apartments feature a roof top sequence set in the middle of downtown LA, and an expansive lobby with a four-story tall glass window, providing a sense of scale as Kyle Hyde traverses the four floors of the Hotel..

The soundtrack by Satoshi Okubo is solid, if perhaps less charming than in Hotel Dusk.   It lacks the recognizable leitmotif’s of Hotel Dusk , instead the game ties themes to different parts of the  apartment building.  Even then there isn’t the immediately recognizable and catchy ‘Hangover Blues’, Dunning Smith’s theme, from Hotel Dusk.  That is not to say there aren’t good music in the game.  The universe Rika Suzuki and the team at CiNG created includes fictional background characters like jewellers, politicians and artists that add depth to the story.  In The Last Window, music is part of the story.  Whereas the fictional artist Osterzone in Hotel Dusk and his painting ‘Angel Opening a Door’ drove me to Google Osterzone when the game was new (something I would not recommend for neophytes who want to avoid spoilers),  The Last Window’s equivalent to ‘Angel Opening a Door’,  a theme called ‘ Promise’ was very clearly something made just for the game due to the MIDI treatment. 

The Last Window is a fitting end to something that started out with so much promise.  Along with Hotel Dusk  and Trace Memory, the CiNG trilogy on the Nintendo DS are stylistically unique titles.  They offer engrossing stories with interesting twists and turns, even if some of the coincidences prove a little too coincidental.  (d)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reviving an old Blog

Is blogging still relevant?

I'd certainly like to keep trying.  It's been many years since I last blogged so let's try this again!