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E3 In-Depth: Nintendo's Cult of Personality Helps Wii U

Nintendo's E3 press conference showcases Wii U, props up 3DS' future, and shows the importance of making your executives someone that the average person can relate to.
Something Nintendo is able to do, which arguably none of the other press conferences were able to do accomplish, is play to the goodwill of the audience. Nintendo expects you to know what the company has done, and who everyone on stage is, without spending a whole lot of time on explanations – and it works for them. To that end, Nintendo’s E3 press show opened with a dramatic video of Zelda games throughout the ages, accompanied by a live orchestra, to a cacophony of cheers from the audience. Shigeru Miyamoto trotted out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, saying that “music is an indispensible piece of The Legend of Zelda.” That the company felt it had 10 minutes of its hour conference to devote to musical interludes speaks volumes to Nintendo’s close (though fabricated) relationship with its fans. Miyamoto announced that for the anniversary, a Zelda game would be available on all platforms – Link’s Awakening on the Virtual Console eShop, Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D for 3DS. On DSiWare, Legend of Zelda Four Swords as a free download this September, and finally Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for Wii, launching alongside a gold Wii remote. “Over 200 people have worked on the series,” said Miyamoto of the lifetime of Zelda development, which also speaks to Nintendo’s different ethos. Over 200 people have worked on most individual blockbuster console games from the last several years! Though Satoru Iwata and Reggie Fils-Aime did prop up the 3DS and its eShop, as well as some new games, the biggest announcement was Wii U, a new console with a tablet for a controller. In announcing it, Iwata said that, “some hardware is seen as being appropriate for only the most active, passionate players,” referring to games that offer “core” experiences. He also admitted that many say the Wii is only for casual audiences. The party line for every one of the console makers is to provide entertainment for everyone, but somehow, when Iwata says, “for Nintendo, the goal of innovation is to serve every player,” you’re more inclined to believe it. Maybe because Nintendo has that legacy goodwill with the hardcore, but has also proved many times over that it can engage audiences that didn’t previously play games. Wii U “Deeper, and wider” is the goal of the Wii U, a “new platform [that] will provide deeper game experiences than what even the most passionate gamer has experienced before,” says Iwata, and a wider experience, “even than Wii.” The console’s tablet looks interesting but unwieldy to hold, especially for more intense game experiences. It sports dual analog sticks, a d-pad, four face buttons, and four shoulder buttons, but all spread across the outside of a 6.2 inch touchscreen. Aside from myriad curious Wii-like experiences, such as putting the tablet on the floor to see your golf ball, which you can smack into the screen with your Wii Remote, the company also showed people playing with Wii Remotes alongside someone using a Wii U controller to see a top view of what everyone else was doing. The new touchscreen controller allows you to stream your game from the console, allowing play without a television screen – or, to play games on the big screen, with a second screen on your controller, essentially turning your living room into a giant DS. Critically, the new console is backward compatible with the Wii and its myriad controllers. What was odd, though, was the company’s hesitance to refer to Wii U as a new console. They kept calling it a controller, leading to post-show speculation among attendees regarding what they had actually been shown. But to be sure, it is a new console, with high definition graphics, and a nod to the hardcore. A sizzle reel of bloody shoot-the-men games was shown toward the end, full of gorefests from third parties. In that reel, executives from the biggest publishers and developers discussed what Wii U means to them, opening even bigger questions. John Riccitiello came on stage to discuss the console, and praised its “open online system.” What does that really mean? Details were not forthcoming. Though Nintendo said that screenshots, videos, and demos would be available in the future, the online experience was only vaguely alluded to. Nintendo’s online strategy has been dismal at best, for the last several hardware iterations, and will be critical to the company’s success. So Nintendo is encouraging hardcore games on its console again, while also trying to push forward the casual market. But is the hardcore really necessary for Nintendo? And with a rather unwieldy-looking controller at that? It all depends on how they use it. It’s true that core players keep a system going through ups and downs, buying games to the exclusion of all else. But will it confuse Nintendo’s message? This is when the company’s marketing strategy becomes all the more vital. Marketing magic I think the biggest takeaway for me was how, even though Nintendo has disappointed some of its fans with its hardcore output, it has managed to retain a great brand in Wii, which extends beyond the core to moms and casuals. I’ve heard more casual players talk about their game playing experience, saying that they used to own a Nintendo, and now they have a Wii. “Nintendo” and its NES used to be synonymous with games – you’d go to a video rental store, and they’d say “Yes, we have Nintendo,” when they really meant the NES, Genesis, SNES, and so forth. Nintendo has managed to build a second brand in Wii that’s nearly as powerful as its own name. So simply adding a U to the console’s name is pretty important. For the core, I think Nintendo has managed to foster that goodwill by making its executives such likable, relatable personalities. When Sony and Microsoft bring their executives onstage to ramble tonelessly about things they’re “really excited about,” the audience yawns. When Nintendo brings out its personalities – Miyamoto, Iwata, and “Reggie” (how many executives do you address primarily by first name?) – people listen, they cheer, and they root for the company. If Nintendo can keep up that momentum, while simultaneously making their strategy a lot clearer, and not diluting its message, the next few years will be good ones.

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