Nintendo’s strategy for 2015 might be summed up as: Play it again, Sam.
While the release of big games like Mario Kart 8 and the impending Super Smash Bros. have boosted the dangerously low sales of Nintendo’s Wii U console, Nintendo still has a long-term content problem. Software makers aren’t making many Wii U games (if any at all), and there’s no way Nintendo could hold the line all on its own. In a Nintendo Direct live-streaming presentation yesterday, Nintendo of America seemed to indicate that the sum total of its Wii U lineup for the first half of 2015 consisted of two games.
Perhaps to make up for this, Nintendo is attempting to keep selling the games that are currently available for Wii U, and to keep current Wii U owners occupied with the games already in their libraries. Much of the Nintendo Direct was given over to explaining how Nintendo will continue to add new content for games like Mario Kart, Hyrule Warriors and even 2013′s Pikmin 3 in an effort to sell more of what’s already out there.
It remains to be seen if this will be enough for Wii U owners.
Nintendo’s recent financial reports, which it released at the end of October, were a tiny bright spot in this series of anni horribiles that the Kyoto gamemaker, which celebrated its 125th anniversary in September, has endured of late. Although its sales were down versus the same period last year, profits were higher, indicating that Nintendo is adjusting its expenses to turn a profit even if it’s not selling as many videogames.
The company also released some sales numbers. It sold 1.1 million Wii U consoles over the last six months, a big jump from the same time period last year in which it sold only 460,000 units of its home gaming machine. The release of Mario Kart 8 in May has apparently had a colossal impact all on its own—its attach rate, the percentage of Wii U hardware owners who bought the game, is 47 percent.
That’s astonishingly high in the console game business. Nintendo, it seems, wants it higher—or at least wants more money from the people who already bought it. “Season passes” in which players pay up front for a year-long stream of releases of new downloadable add-on content are nothing new in the games biz, but they’re new to Nintendo, a company that only recently came around to the idea of selling extra levels in a Mario game.
Mario Kart 8‘s downloadable content plan is the most robust we’ve ever seen from Nintendo. On November 13, it will release a package containing three new racers, four new vehicles and eight new courses. In May 2015—that’s one year after the game’s original launch—it will release another similarly-sized content delivery. These are pulled not only from the Mario universe but from The Legend of Zelda and others as well.
Additionally, Nintendo is using Mario Kart to sell Amiibos, the Skylanders-style interactive figurines that it will launch at retail stores later this month. Placing certain Amiibo figures on the Wii U’s GamePad controller, which has near-field communication functionality that connects it to the figures, will unlock special racing suits themed to those characters. Want all 10 of the suits? Well, then you’d better buy all 10 figurines at $13 a pop.
Mario Kart isn’t the only game getting a retroactive Amiibo boost. Buy the Link Amiibo and you can unlock a special weapon in Nintendo’s recently-released Hyrule Warriors . Placing any Amiibo other than the series’ main character will give you a random reward, too. Hyrule Warriors also has an extensive DLC plan that stretches at least into February 2015.
And Nintendo is stretching even further back into the Wii U’s past. It’s releasing a free demo version of its 2013 game Pikmin 3, in an attempt to get new Wii U owners to pick that up as well.
There is reason to believe that Nintendo can continue to sell these games. It has always enjoyed remarkable sales of its back-catalog games. Nintendo games have legs that other publishers would kill for. To name just one example: The 14th best-selling game of March 2009 was Mario Kart DS… a game that was released in November of 2005.
The difference between now and Nintendo’s glory years is that it now it must sell the heck out of these games. Sales of four-year-old games were a nice bonus for Nintendo in 2009, but it was also enjoying robust sales of new games as well as tons of money from third-party licensees that were publishing game after game on Wii and DS.
Today, the “Coming Soon” section for Wii U on Gamestop’s website is almost empty. At E3, Nintendo itself promised a great many first-party titles for Wii U in 2015, but in its Nintendo Direct presentation this week it only named two of them as becoming available in America in the first half of the year: Kirby and the Rainbow Curse in February and Splatoon during the second quarter.
Both of these games look great (I’m especially looking forward to Rainbow Curse, a long-overdue sequel to one of the best early Nintendo DS games). But by omitting everything else, does Nintendo truly mean to say that this is the extent of the games that will be making it out in the first six months of 2015?
If so, then it’s got a lot riding on its plan to keep its previous releases relevant.
Don’t just take my word for it—ask Nintendo’s president Satoru Iwata, who said this at a Q&A session with investors a few days ago:
On the other hand, what our consumers are looking forward to is not merely a great number of games. What is critical to us is that each consumer feels that the content of the games he/she plays is sufficient, and when the player has completed one game, the next one is offered at the right time. We don’t believe that simply increasing the number of games or just containing the development costs per game are necessarily good for our company, because if we try to simply decrease the per-software development costs just for the sake of minimizing overall costs, the final product will become less-appealing and it will not sell over a long period after its release. On the other hand, when there is software that sells for a long period of time, or is talked about for a long time, this can increase consumers’ motivation to continue playing these games and invite new purchasers. Even if we increase the total number of games, it does not make sense if each one of them becomes less compelling for the consumer. Nintendo offers new downloadable content to increase the number of karts, courses and characters in “Mario Kart 8.” Our primary objective is to have “Mario Kart 8” played continually by consumers. Since many players have already played “Mario Kart 8” with energy and enthusiasm, we realized that we would need a certain level of reinforcement to make people want to play it again. Technologically speaking, this is now possible. When we compare making a new “Mario Kart” game and digitally distributing new courses and characters as add-on content, the required number of developers, development costs and development terms are very different. We believe it is important to create triggers for our consumers to frequently play their favorite games while minimizing development costs on our side. We can now include amiibo to our arsenal, which can also be a trigger to excite people to once again play games they might have already finished. All of these additions are crafted to extend the life of key software, which is very important to us.
This seems to be a combination of truth, spin, and wishful thinking. It is true that Nintendo can create a virtuous cycle by keeping players engaged with Mario Kart and Hyrule Warriors, which will result in those players spending more money and then attracting new players to buy the base game. On the other hand, it doesn’t sound coincidental that Nintendo would discover that its players don’t really want new games just at the moment that Nintendo needs to reduce its development costs.
Nintendo’s first-party lineup, especially this year, is almost unquestionably the best of the three big console hardware makers’. But Sony and Microsoft have big third-party games that are carrying their platforms for them. Nintendo’s missing out on that, and must create all its own tentpole releases.
If you’re the sort of person who will play Mario Kart for ever and ever, you’re the sort of player that Nintendo looks more likely to appease over the next few years. If you’re the sort of person who jumps from title to title always looking for a new experience, you may find yourself waiting longer and longer for that next hit.