Friday, June 22, 2012

3DSXL and Nintendo's Direct (Appeal) to Fans

Announced a day before, last night’s Nintendo Direct was typical of the new Nintendo.  No teasing, just a lot of doing.  In this edition, Nintendo bosses in Europe, America and Japan stepped up to the plate yet again to serve their fans another round of tidbits on its plan for the 3DS over the next few months.

After an abysmal E3, it’s nice to see a company is willing to at least try to rectify the situation. While the news was all 3DS, the fact that Nintendo knowingly sat on significant 3DS news at E3 begs the question of what else they could be sitting on for the Wii U.

This Nintendo Direct is just what I need to feel a little bit better about Nintendo’s direction.  There was plenty of software news last night.  Speaking to the North American market Reggie Fils-Aime finally confirmed 3DS fan requests Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask and Fire Emblem Awakening are indeed coming stateside. Parts of the presentation seems aimed directly at fans who criticized Nintendo for dragging its feet on localization of these games and feared the worse.  Fils-Aime also confirmed there will be DLC coin rush stages will be made for New Super Mario Bros. 2 and they will be all new levels made by the developers after the game is finished. Not content locked in the cartridge or content held back at launch.

There were other news revealed in the Japanese telecast as well. Apparently NamcoBandai is helping create Nintendo’s dual platform Smash Brothers WiiU/3DS crossover game and Wii still have a few games limping out for it, most notably Kirby Anniversary Collection  (sounds like an awesome deal) – Think Sonic Jam for Kirby fans.  Japanese viewers were treated to an awesome trailer of Square-Enix’s Bravely Default  a Final Fantasy-esque RPG for modern Japanese tastes, where the heroine saves the world in a skimpy gown.

For me personally the most interesting part of the software presentation was the 8-bit Summer initiative.  I consider it a small personal victory as bringing more Virtual Console titles and bringing them out in force had been my singular message when filling up my eshop ClubNintendo surveys.  Not only are more Virtual Console games coming, Nintendo has seen the light and is doing a summer sale by reducing the price by 20% for a limited time for Super Mario Land, Links Awakening, Let's Golf 3D and other eshop titles (a first for Nintendo's digital services).

While it is clear some of the games for the 8-bit summer promotion will be official releases of NES Virtual Console games I already received as a 3DS ambassador, and titles such as Sonic Labyrinth will have questionable playability, it is still nice to see Nintendo realize their greatest asset is tapping into the back catalog of 8-bit titles to keep people coming back into the eshop.  These are cheap ready made titles.

Finally there is the 3DS XL.  We knew it was coming.  Having recently bought a DSi XL, I absolutely adore the large form factor.  I know it will make writing swapnotes and drawing in Colors 3D! easier with higher precision and quality .  The large screen is also a draw and the price is reasonable. 

Conceptually, 3DS XL is less of an oddball than some in the armchair analysis gaming community would indicate.  Its form factor is reminiscent of a large tablet phone folded in half.  Clearly there is a market for large screen mobile devices that isn’t a tablet, and with the DSi XL being fairly well received for its wide viewing angles, comfortable grip and large screen, I see 3DS XL doing quite well especially as a stay-at-home 3DS.

A nice thing Nintendo can do for early adopters who bought the 3DS as a mobile games machine is to release an application that would allow a 3DS to transfer streetpass and pedometer data daily, allowing users with the more compact launch 3DS to continue using it outside the home (the size is perfect for my pockets without having to use a man purse) and transferring the pedometer and streetpass data to the XL when we come home.  Both will essentially be under the same user.

Given all this, Day 1 purchase for me  right?

I’m not so sure.  The colors for North America are positively head scratching.  After the GameCube purple debacle, Nintendo had meticulously picked more neutral colors to launch their hardware with especially in North America.  DS had platinum as a launch color.  Wii and DSLite were clinical white, representing the Apple-inspired Nintendo.  DSi and XL all had earthy hues of darks, browns, deep reds and copper which complemented the visual aesthetic of those later generation DS hardware.  3DS had black and a stylish Aqua blue and plenty of colors to choose from after the console launched.   For 3DS XL, I’m faced with the choice of buying red on black or blue on black.  That is indeed disappointing.

Nintendo, I would like a silver or white 3DS XL for launch please.
Yours truly,

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gods & Kings

It's early in the morning and I've just sat through my first several hours of Civilization V: Gods & Kings.

Many things were improved, balance issues addressed, exploits closed or minimized, and  on the flip side I'm sure new bugs were introduced.  I'll have first impressions this weekend.  But before I go to nap, I want to highlight the celebration of culture and civilization that is the introduction to Gods & Kings.

This is what I enjoy about the Civilization games. The  celebration of what is great and good about humanity.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A meditation on Civilization V

In the opening to his book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), historian Niall Ferguson recounts his son playing Age of Empires.  “For several months my own ten-year-old son was all but addicted to it.  It’s organizing principle is that the history of the world is the history of imperial conflict.”  More recently, Ferguson described  the shifting world order and the evolving relationship between the United States and China as “two great tectonic plates ... on the move” and in his book The Ascent of Money (2008) described the easy  marriage and alignment/merger of the geopolitical tectonic plates of China and America as a strange geopolitical continent called Chimerica.  A spendthrift West Chimerica spending the money saved in East Chimerica, west and east interdependent just as a national economy relies on the population centers to consume the products of its industrial base.

Ferguson’s concept of nations as empires and history as that of Imperial history is thus in sync with the Civilization games.  The Civilization franchise have operated on similar concepts in its unabashed view of history through the prism of empire and the sweep of history as the rise and fall of empires.

While the last three Civilization games have improved the franchise and introduced concepts such as cultural borders, scarcity of resources, religion, complex trade deals and factions in the games were all called 'Empires', Civilization V (Civ5) is the first in the franchise to begin to attempt to capture the essence of empires as tectonic plates moving apart, past, against and directly toward each other, complete with fault lines building stressors that lead to earthquakes which inevitably reshape entire world orders.

In viewing empires as geopolitical tectonic plates, with a mass and direction of movement, Civ5 attempts to integrate the concept of national interest in terms the game can understand.  Whereas previous entries created a standard playbook followed by all AI civilizations where all the civilizations essentially played similarly and  valued expansion above all else for no other reason than size, with a vague goal towards getting as large as possible, Civ5 steers AI civilizations into various distinct flavours consistent with each civilization’s strengths and the historical actions of their leaders.  Some, like Hiawatha, or Ramses II might be peaceable and friendly if their territory and right to exist is respected. These are builders who more often than not will sit peacefully in their starting location for millennia happily building up major monuments and infrastructure in and around their capital cities.  Others like Alexander the Great and Montezuma are bloodthirsty conquerors eager for war and expansion at the earliest possible date.

Each leader thus have a set of interests and priorities that have to be put into consideration when forming alliances.  A faraway warmonger like Alexander or Bismarck might be useful ally as they are unlikely to immediately covet your lands. Similarly, it is also viable for like minded civilizations to form coalitions denouncing the aggressive expansion of a warmonger, with each common denunciation reinforcing the common bonds of friendship and the recognition that each state in the grouping shares a common national interest in their dislike or fear of ‘the enemy’ civilization(s).  Finally, each Civilization will develop and interact with city states they meet.  These leaders may forge alliances and pledges of protection with these city states and trying to attack, conquer or wrest control of these city states from them through alliances of your own could impact your diplomatic relations with the AI leaders.

As such, the tectonic plates of empires are formed.  Each leader brings to the table a grand strategy on how they want to optimally play the game.   Where empires meet and become rivals due to a common strategy, the empires inevitably clash. Wars in Civ5 thus have the narrative underpinning of clashing national interests.  Whereas wars in previous games often came down to an AI being bribed by someone else, or an AI rolling a dice on who to attack next, the narrative in Civ5 is much more grounded in terms of geopolitical conflicts with a basis that is consistent and related to the realities of the game being played.

There are other changes of as well.  In the previous iteration of the game, skilfully maximizing the production of science, hammers and gold were an implied premise. Players can achieve pareto efficiency, through fiddling with citizens working tiles and the tax slider and extract extra hammers, gold or science that would have otherwise been lost in the void of the game maths through rounding or culling of surplus values.  Civ5 omits the tax slider in favour of cities performing at peak efficiency given a specific focus (food,wealth,production) with the maximization shifted towards the management of international relations by maximizing diplomacy and a player's 'influence' in the word to exercise soft-power.

The last significant change is the 1 Unit Per Tile (1UPT) system where in previous games players can simply put all their units into a single stack and move them around.  Though controversial, 1UPT  is widely popular in the community as adding depth and freshness to the game.  There is now a reason in placing rifles infront of cannons. Strategic placement of troops and use of terrain matter in Civ5. Gameplay elements aside, there’s also a point for vanity as one reviews their grand armee before an invasion.

Civilization V is not without its detractors.  The initial release was rushed and buggy with an incomplete AI and diplomatic systems, to the point where none of the things I’ve described today was possible at release.  But after a year of patching and with the upcoming Gods & Kings expansion, the stage is set for Civ5 to live up to its potential.

In Civ5, the games designers, Ed Beach et al, have shifted the complexity of the game from managing small details like stacks, sliders and tiles being worked to the grand strategy of positioning a civilization in the cut throat geopolitical world.  

“The nuanced approach to history and complicated demands appealed to Beach's sensibilities,”  noted a profile on Civ5 AI programmer and Gods & Kings lead designer Ed Beach.  “A self-professed strategy game enthusiast from the age of 10, Beach likes games where the action is not always straight forward combat, and the players are free to form secret alliances and negotiate their way to victory. Where the sides are uneven, and a player's ability to rise above the challenges can lead him to victory.”

Whereas surviving against a diplomatically delicate world was the preserve of elite challenge-players playing in the highest difficulty levels in past iterations of Civilization, and often it only meant finding ways to fight multiple wars at the same time,  Civ5 brings the challenge of managing a delicate diplomatic game, both war and peace and all of the intrigue in-between, to players of a broader range of skill levels.  Any player playing a difficulty level matched to their ability should be able to experience the feel of steering one’s own tectonic empire in the messy and sometimes hostile geopoloticial world where balance of power and realpolitik rules.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

After a disappointing E3, better communication needed from Nintendo

This may sound counter-intuitive as we've just had a 'Nintendo Direct' less than a week ago but after a second lacklustre E3 showing for Wii U, Nintendo needs to set out a strategy to talk to their fans, the press and their investors before it is too late.

Case in point -  Six years ago, Sony was on top of the world.  Then at E3 2006 president of Sony Computer Entertainment America Kazuo Hirai stepped on stage and announced the PS3 would retail later that year for $599.99.  In the few seconds it took him to articulate the price, the narrative was framed in terms of an overconfident hardware incumbent selling a high priced console.

Regardless of what Sony did or said afterwards, the narrative stuck.   Sony’s public relations nightmare that year was a gift to Nintendo for the company had also unveiled its next-generation console, the Wii.   $599.99 has transcended the issues of the time in to a shorthand to describe what has ailed Sony since.  So enduring is the narrative that six years later, a search of the price $599 brings up Sony’s E3 2006 performance in the top search results (your results may vary).

While Nintendo did not have a $599 moment this E3, there is a risk that the negative reactions bubbling among the fans and general public at large could have the same effect on the company .  The only saving grace for Nintendo this E3 was that neither of their competitors were ready to wow the public and all three put in sub-par showings.

However, only Nintendo is launching a major hardware this year and the onus is on the company to put on a good show and it is apparent viewing reactions and interactions online that the wind has been taken out of the sails of Wii U.

That said, when a Sony spokesperson engaged in a bit of chest thumping and spoke of their competitors “losing the plot”, referring in part to Nintendo’s disappointing E3 showing, it was surprising to see a significant number of gamers who do not normally associate just with Nintendo come to Nintendo’s defence, pointing out the irony of the statement and noting never to count the company out and that Nintendo’s core business being only about games gives them confidence in continued quality of their games.

Communication is Key

Despite all the negativity this week, there’s tremendous good will remaining for Nintendo.  The narrative has not yet coalesced around Nintendo ‘losing the plot’ but the window to rectify this E3’s mistakes will not be open forever.  The company needs re-energize fans with timely information leaks and or reveals on the Wii U on parts of the console that could be expected to play well with gamers.

There should be monthly and then weekly presentations leading up to launch day showing bits of the Wii U and familiarizing people with the various features of the platform as even developers of Wii U titles appear to be mostly in the dark about Wii U’s OS and features.

Key to their communication is to present a roadmap for gamers. Third party projects should be noted, major first party software should be confirmed and shown if possible.  More importantly, each presentation should touch on key features  that remain nebulous in most people’s mind.  Features such as the Nintendo Network, the Wii U accounts system and how it will work with the 3DS and Wii,  transferring of Wii digital downloads, on-line play and possible restrictions, the Miiverse in general, and finally the pricing and SKU.  This will generate interest and keep the attention on Wii U and change the narrative from ‘What an awful E3 show’ to buzz around what Nintendo just announced.

non-specific action figure 
If there were last minute omissions before E3 from whatever political or strategic reasons, be it Retro Studio’s project, a cloud storage system linking the 3DS, Wii U and future Nintendo platforms or the rumoured ‘Gamer Card’  peripheral that works like a mix between a Dreamcast VMU and a 3DS to allow players to streetpass  their Wii U and exchange data with local Wii U owners, revealing them as soon as possible would be ideal.  These were rumours prior to E3 that the public reacted well to and were sorely disappointed when none of the details were confirmed.

Communication will also help clear up and clarify a growing cloud of confusion around parts of the Wii U infrastructure.  The Miiverse and online systems remain vague, leading to plenty of conflicting reports  about pain points like the existence of friend codes rather than a real accounts system, and journalists noting that Nintendo would censor Miiverse posts with a 30 minute wait-time, which if true, would render the ‘Non-specific action figure’ concept video where the gamer was able to get immediate real-time help an unrealistic scenario for most people.

There’s no need to overreact to the fan uproar.  Fans will always be unhappy about certain things, and if there’s even a consideration to launch the system at a sweetheart price with subsidies to make the ‘value proposition’ more enticing in light of negative E3 reaction, those subsidy dollars would be better spent on third parties to ensure parity of Wii U with the 360/PS3 by the spring of 2013.  The fans will likely still show up on Day 1 at $299.99.

Finally, it should be emphasized that what has caused the negative reaction and the continued malaise in the company's stock price isn't the lack of major Nintendo IPs specifically, or the lack of major announcements generally.  But the lack of vision and direction with the Wii U.  Nintendo needs to set the record straight on where they see the Wii U in 1 year, 2 year 3 year's time  both in terms of features (online, Miiverse), first party games and finally third party offerings (It is no longer enough to simply build a console and hope they come.  Third parties should be actively courted, fans need to hear more than just platitudes about Nintendo's software 'partners')  Until then, fans and observers in the financial industry cannot be faulted for being sceptical.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Wii U E3 2012 Reveal: Lessons for Nintendo

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP

Yersterday’s hour long Wii U software rollout did not go as planned for Nintendo.  While the media in attendance may have walked away with some inlking that Nintendo has a vision that if executed well will result in another success, the gaming press and gamers were left bemused, uninterested and evenly outwardly hostile.  There were certainly more than a few posts on Nintendo’s facebook wall expressing disappointment with the presentation.

Coming off last year’s confusing reveal of the Wii U, expectations were high that Nintendo would correct their mistakes, namely, the failure to emphasize the Wii U as a ‘new’ platform and not an add-on peripheral to the Wii.   While Nintendo has made that clear this year, last year’s Wii U reveal had at least a concept reel showing how the tablet controller might be used in casual and hardcore gaming situations.

This year, there were plenty of examples on how they could be used for specific games and applications, but little in terms of the soaring rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from Nintendo with their DS and Wii.  Perhaps Iwata’s Pre-E3 presentation on Sunday of the Miiverse might have ‘saved’ this E3 presentation had it been included into the main event.

What was equally problematic was the lack of software to enthuse gamers.  Nintendo of America’s President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime had promised 23 games at the start of the hour-long presentation.  It started off well enough, with Pikmin 3, Scribblenauts Unlimited and New Super Mario Bros U and confirmation that up to two GamePad tablets is now supported.  However, the software presentation fell into the trap Nintendo had fallen into in E3’s past.  Too much emphasis on things gamers didn’t care about.  We were treated to a meandering list of games, a few were already known from Ubisoft’s presentation a day earlier, and many of which were months old ports mixed with extended trailers and previews of casual games like SiNG and Wii Fit U.  In this year’s presentation, there wasn’t the gut pull the Wii reveal had six years ago when Miyamoto walked on-stage to conduct a symphony, to many gamers and Nintendo fans it felt like a current-generation Xbox 360 with a screen controller.

All that could be forgiven perhaps if there were something for the fans to look forward to. Perhaps a teaser of a major IP from Nintendo tacked on at the end similar to how Twilight Princess was revealed in E3 2005. Instead, the denouement to a whirlwind year of speculation was NintendoLand,  a Nintendo theme park/mini-game hub that Nintendo hopes will do to Wii U what WiiSports did to Wii.  Wii U software planner Katsuya Eguchi overstayed his welcome demoing a Luigi’s Mansion-themed multiplayer mini-game in NintendoLand, which was essentially a riff on  Pac-Man.   Ironic in that it echoed of Nintendo’s E3 2004 presser when Nintendo’s response to Sony’s announcement of the PSP was a 4-player Pac-man for the GameCube,  positioned as a flagship bonus game using GameBoyAdvance connectivity.

Hardcore gamers are notoriously fickle and high maintenance bunch.  Their reactions to the Wii name reveal indicates that a company need not fold at the slightest hint of an uproar. That said, it would be wise to dig through the hyperbole and understand where their fans are coming from. 

While gamers eventually got over the Wii naming and became great ambassadors for Nintendo when they showed-off Wii sports to family members after the platform launched, creating something of a viral trend, the Wii U may not be afforded the same luxury.

The British industry publication Edge Magazine had ripped into Microsoft’s press conference as contemptuous and declared console gaming doomed earlier in the week and was somewhat kinder to Nintendo, but only because of their complete ambivalence to the conference.

“It looks like Nintendo’s going to try to pull another Wii on the world,”  noted the Edge op-ed, “hoping that a controller with a screen will be enough to win it attention in the flare of flashier other platforms. Can we stand to see this happen again? How will thirdparties feel about having to craft cut-down versions of their games, which also incorporate second-screen functionality, to also release on Wii U?”

“The challenge is on for Nintendo to convince that it’s the tool of tomorrow, rather than simply the tool of today.”

The message from the Edge Staffers was that all the stuff looked neat but it’s not really for us (gamers).    And that is ultimately what Nintendo needs to answer for this E3 which they have failed to do. 

There is still hope to amend this year’s E3 presentation.  In a twitter reply in Japanese, company president Satoru Iwata promised more games from Japanese developers will be revealed at a later date, likely at the Tokyo Game Show or at  Nintendo’s own re-run of their E3 press conference in Japan for a Japanese audience later this month.

There will also be another Wii U press conference in a few months to reveal pricing and launch details.  This is an opportunity for Nintendo reveal more games, more details to the launch package including their cloud service, accounts system, apps environments, and on-line features, and or to confirm more games coming from the conspicuous absence of certain major third party franchises such as Call of Duty and Resident Evil.

This is Nintendo’s market to lose.  Releasing into an open field of aging consoles with fresh ideas on how to integrate social media into hardcore gaming, Nintendo has a vision that it needs to execute and execute well.  It also needs to be mindful of the people who have been with them for decades, buying their games because their games are still some of the best in the world.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Miiverse and the Future of Nintendo

While plenty of things were discussed in today's Pre-E3 Nintendo Direct presentation, and plenty of bytes will be spilled discussing the Wii U Controller Pro (a copy of the Xbox360 controller), the Niiter (Nintendo Twitter) feature previewed in Iwata’s Nintendo direct presentation,  I want to focus on just one passing reference 25 minutes into Mr. Iwata’s presentation.

“We expect several generations of Nintendo hardware will be linked by the Nintendo network.  In a similar way, the social element of Miiverse are also designed for Wii U,  Nintendo 3DS and future Nintendo devices.”

These seems like the usual grandiose sweep of a chief-executive laying out his plan. However, as Iwata spoke, he pans out to a graphical representation of his concept, a solar-system hub with the Nintendo Network in the middle orbited by the Wii U, 3DS and four unnamed planets.

While it could be interesting to headline this as “Four unannounced Nintendo hardware in the works”, what's more interesting to me from a speculation standpoint is that  Iwata’s reference to the Nintendo Network and Wiiverse together all but confirms unified account systems, a cloud storage capabity (at the very least to host profiles, twitter-like posts, and other Miiverse features shown in the Nintendo Direct preview) connecting gamers from across space, time and most likely from across Nintendo platforms.


The feature as demonstrated shows players gathering around icons of popular games being played by the wider Wii U community when they boot-up the Wii U. The Miiverse also displays real-time messages from players playing those games in speech bubbles - confirming the ability to multi-task with the Wii U.  It also integrates twiiter-like commentary in parts of games (even single player only games) where players can see comments left by other players in a similar situation.  Noting points of interest or griping about the difficulty of a particular boss battle.   Mr. Iwata  promises that there will be attempts to mitigate game spoilers through the Miiverse (I assume by a staff of Nintendo representatives and software that filter and edit out inappropriate content)

The Future

What this means for the future is quite exciting and is conceptually a breath of freshness in the same vein as Virtual Console concept revealed in 2005 (a year prior to the Wii’s launch).  It is clear that Nintendo had been working on the Miiverse for a considerable amount of time but chose not to reveal it last E3, likely to avoid/delay their competitors copying it, as they had copied Nintendo’s Virtual Console service.

What I’m most excited about with the future is the idea of a Nintendo Network compatible hardware in the form factor of a Game Boy Micro, with nothing more than a CPU/GPU/RAM, buttons and a flash memory for storage plugging in to the Nintendo Network to access  social content, on-line interactions , commentary and games that were previously purchased for other Nintendo platforms.

The idea of a unified Virtual Console strategy where VC games could well live in the Miiverse is one step closer to reality, although we should be cautious with this leap as Mr. Iwata and Nintendo has as of yet, not hinted as such a service.

With the core of a centralized network built around social interactions and the ability to connect to multiple Nintendo platforms, Nintendo has finally taken the leap to catch up to rivals Sony and Microsoft with the PSN and Xbox Live respectively, but in typical Nintendo fashion, added a spin to on-line gaming by turning the unpalatable prospect of being cursed at by a pimpled teenager in Call of Duty  into a social network of like-minded individuals leaving comments for each other and jumping in to help on a difficult mission.  This is crowdsourcing  meets  videogaming in real-time.

Mr. Iwata also leaves one last hint to where Miiverse could take Nintendo. 

“Miiverse can connect your living room with those of others, regardless of space and time.  Because the key components of Miiverse are browser based, these social interactions will be available from your Nintendo 3DS, PC or any web-enabled mobile device.”

And with that, the idea of a iPhone App, Android app or a Chrome app linking players to the Nintendo Network and the Miiverse is a certainty. 

Nintendo has gone third party, by outsourcing their social network to all platform holders, leveraging the ubiquity of PC, smartphones and web browsers to make accessing the Miiverse the same as checking one’s facebook profile or twitter account.

This is a further blurring of games and everything else. What we used to think of a games only platform with on-line interactions is being positioned as a persistent world of gamers interacting in real-time everywhere all the time, regardless of what platform they may be on.  This is the Nintendo Difference at its finest.

Click Here. For the full Nintendo-Direct pre-E3 Wii U hardware reveal.