It was not the mocked stage presentation of "Wii Music" that prompted my skepticism about Nintendo last week. It was something else, something less flashy but more pervasive.
Several times throughout the week, I witnessed the company, its most ardent fans and the E3 press fail to communicate with each other. These misunderstandings -- these wrong answers to right questions and right answers to wrong ones -- were not always Nintendo's fault. But the fissures are real and must certainly be a concern to company and fans alike.
First, though, no one should get too hung up on "Wii Music." It's not the problem.
Many a quality creation has debuted at E3 in silly ways. I played "Wii Music" at E3, and I believe it has potential as a platform for amusing performance. It seems certain to delight children the way "Wii Fit" delighted moms. Its biggest threat isn't the disdain of hardcore Nintendo fans but the magnetic pull of competitors "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" that will tug at parents who walk the toy aisles this holiday season with an empty shopping cart.
These are the problems of two parties speaking past each other.
The problem Nintendo and its fans face were evidenced in other ways, away from the Nintendo press conference stage. These are the problems of two parties speaking past each other:
At a Nintendo developer's conference, one reporter asked Nintendo developers if "Animal Crossing City Folk" for the Wii would avoid the programming problem of "Animal Crossing DS" and not disconnect a group of online friends just because one friend lost a connection. Another reporter asked if Wii "Animal Crossing" would reverse its seasons for players whose region-coded Wiis are located in the southern hemisphere.
No and no, the game's producer Katsuya Eguchi said.
And I wondered: Doesn't Nintendo listen to its world of fans? Are these not reasonable requests?
At the same conference, Nintendo's champion game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, replied to a journalist who doubted that "Wii Music" -- a piece of software built without adherence to rules of winning and losing, points and challenge -- deserves the description "video game," rather than "toy."
Said Miyamoto: “Yes, that’s right. And that’s why it’s more interesting than a video game.”
And I wondered: Is this the true sentiment at Nintendo headquarters, a frustration with a fervent fan-base that is so eager to be pleased with the familiar that it can't enjoy the challenge of appreciating the new?
Is this the true sentiment at Nintendo headquarters?
In these events I sensed the themes that underlie much of the growing tension between Nintendo and the hardcore. I saw the apparently distinct and sometimes competing interests of creators and consumers. There is Nintendo, frugal and wealthy, determined to produce machines and games that its own fans might be tempted to describe as cheap and dismissive of some legitimate and vocal gamer feedback. And there are Nintendo's fans -- a distinct subset of a larger group more appropriately called "Nintendo's customers" -- who appear to be frequently hostile and themselves dismissive, certain that they can always determine by sight rather than by trial whether Nintendo's next move is a brilliant breakthrough or a misstep.
Nintendo and its fans -- have been used to being totally right about each other's mistakes in the past.
Who is right and who is wrong? When the sides are this sharply divided it's usually safe to assume that each side's points have their merits. That's not necessarily the conclusion that anyone will draw in this case, though, because both parties -- Nintendo and its fans -- have been used to being totally right about each other's mistakes in the past.
Nintendo was right just a few years ago when facing down the skepticism that its mid-powered, non-DVD-playing Wii wasn't going to be its Dreamcast-ian downfall. The Nintendo fans were right that Nintendo's E3 message a couple of years before that, that connectivity between GameCube and Game Boy Advance was a winning idea, was wrong. Who was right about whether "Grand Theft Auto" was any good? About how "Zelda" should look? About making a game controller shaped like a remote? About highlighting an exercise game as the Next Big Thing? They've each been dead wrong about each other before.
This is the result: the estranged parties sitting at opposite ends of the couch, talking (but not to each other), doubtful the other side has a point.
This is where we are, at a failure to communicate.
Ultimately, at this E3, expectations did not match. The gaming press and Nintendo fans expected Nintendo to treat E3 as Sony and Microsoft did, to announce piles of new games, to comprehensively boast of past success, to run down the checklist of offerings and cue the demo reel. That does not appear to be what Nintendo thought E3 was for. Its approach was more narrowly targeted, its intended audience different. For proof, look not just at Nintendo's slender list of E3 announcements, its press kit empty of game mentions and stuffed with executive bios, its omission from its press conference of show-floor games like "Rhythm Heaven" or its entire WiiWare platform. Look instead at the Nintendo Channel, the online promotional page of videos and information accessible through the Wii, which still bears no mention of E3. Xbox Live and the PlayStation 3's online store are covered with references to the show.
Just booting up an Xbox 360 or PS3 last week notified gamers that E3 was happening. Booting up a Wii merely explained that last week was a week in July.
Just booting up an Xbox 360 or PS3 last week notified gamers that E3 was happening. Booting up a Wii merely explained that last week was a week in July. That's a hint of what E3 means to Nintendo and what Nintendo thinks E3 means to its console user base.
If you're neither Nintendo nor one of its fans, try either side's perspective and say who's right. I interviewed Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime last week and I heard the disbelief in his voice. He thought Nintendo fans were feeling good about Nintendo. If I were him, I'd say: How could you Nintendo fans dare to complain? Nintendo has supplied the new "Mario," "Zelda" and "Metroid" already. The ultimate Nintendo gamer's game -- "Smash Brothers" -- was just released a few months ago during a traditionally slow period. Your complaint should only be that Nintendo pleased your requests too swiftly.
But now put yourself in the shoes of a Nintendo fans and wonder: How could you Nintendo executives be so stingy? Last holiday season produced "Metroid," "Mario" and some second-tier Nintendo-published games, all supplementing the latest crossover attempt, the games of the Wii Zapper. The spring saw "Smash" and "Mario Kart" and some second-tier Nintendo-published games, all supplementing the latest crossover attempt, "Wii Fit." How does that momentum bring us to the end of 2008 with the weaker echo of that pattern to the tune of "Animal Crossing" plus "Mario Super Sluggers" plus "Wii Music" and little backing them up? Are these not, for fans, diminishing returns?
At the conclusion of my half-hour interview with Fils-Aime last week he volunteered this defense, a preemptive one given I hadn’t even articulated the analysis presented in this piece. Prompted to say any closing thoughts to an MTV audience he said, "There's one thing I do want to reinforce. I could almost put myself into the 'geeks and otaku' camp. I grew up playing all those great Nintendo games. And so for me I look at product like "Animal Crossing" and I get tremendously excited. I look at "Wario" and get tremendously excited. I look at "Sluggers" coming out and get tremendously excited. So this mentality that we have somehow lost our soul and [are not] speaking to our fanbase, there is nothing further from the truth. And if you talk to Mr. Miyamoto, you really understand that we really have the interest of our core fanbase right at the top of the list. The recognition is -- and I think this is really the point -- we're not going to tease you over 18 months or 24 months. We're going to show you something that'll make your jaw drop and make it available shortly thereafter."
There's a swarm of confusion about innovation and sequels and value [and] what it means to demand such things, to promise such things, to deliver such things.
Much of this wave of E3 batch of misunderstandings, like even the most breathless E3 hype, will blow away in the summer breeze. Nintendo need only explain its view of E3 better to fans and the press and much of the confusion of last week would be alleviated. And in its passing, the trifles gone, the more significant misunderstandings would be laid bare: Why are fan concerns, like the WiFi in "Animal Crossing," dismissed? From the other side -- why must Nintendo's latest showpiece software be considered and built like just another video game?
It's not the number of games that's the issue. It's not even the games themselves, I don't think. I sense the problem is something else: an unease about the current contract between creators and consumers, a possibility that parties on both sides have grown uncomfortable with the stance of the others, with the expectations, the demands, and the offerings. There's a swarm of confusion about innovation and sequels and value -- what it means to demand such things, to promise such things, to deliver such things -- that this past E3 did little to clarify.
It is on those topics that Nintendo, its fans and the press, all so thrown off by the events of last week and a stage performance of "Wii Music," have barely begun to communicate.