[Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell talks with games industry analysts and marketers about what Nintendo's new VP of sales Scott Moffitt needs to do to keep the company exciting, noting "If he's not afraid, he should be."
When historians of the future fix their gaze on the whirling mob that makes up this early 21st Century games business, the focus of their sharpest interest will not fall upon Microsoft, Sony, EA, Rockstar nor even Zynga. They will be fascinated by Nintendo.
There is a simple reason for this. Nintendo is way, way more interesting than any other company in gaming. It has a richer history, more colorful personalities, higher-soaring IP. It evokes deeper passions among its devotees. It takes more risks, fails more spectacularly and succeeds more brilliantly adding layers of texture to the global entertainment culture.
, formerly a marketer of soft drinks and soaps, is tasked with the job of making sure Nintendo stays fascinating, stays relevant and stays in the game. None of those things are guaranteed, especially as the company feels its way from the age of Wii and DS, to a new uncertain era, mined as it is with unfamiliar dangers and powerful enemies.
I spoke to a few pals in the games industry - analysts, marketers, Nintendo acolytes - to find out what tips they wanted to give Moffitt as he lays aside under-armpit smellies, and gets to grips with Zelda, Mario et al. Here are our five pieces of advice.
We Demand a 'New' New
Moffitt needs to understand just what he's taking on here. If he's not afraid, he should be.
Let's be honest. We don't know what form Project Cafe will take, despite the fake videos and boneheaded speculative articles. But for Moffitt to stand a hope in hell, it better be something special.
Five years ago, Wii transformed Nintendo from a fading power to an economic miracle. Why? Because Nintendo gave the world something it wanted, and by the way, sold it superbly.
Wii opened up a vast new continent of people willing to spend a few hundred bucks on a games console and maybe two or three games. It was an immense achievement.
The idea of it being repeated five years later seems fanciful. But that's what Moffitt must deliver.
In 2007, Nintendo was named marketer of the year by Ad Age. Marketing partners like ad agency Leo Burnett and PR agency Golin Harris scooped up prestigious awards. Wii Fit was paraded on Good Morning America. Has a $200 million ad budget ever been more wisely spent?
These are the intensely challenging targets for the new man. His LinkedIn page says he took SoBe from unprofitable to a star in the PepsiCo pantheon. He looked after a $700 million business for Henkel. But this task is way, way bigger.
(Interesting that both Moffitt and his boss Reggie Fils-Aime spent large parts of their careers working in the food and hygiene sectors, Fils-Aime doing his time at Procter & Gamble and Pizza Hut.)
Wedbush analyst and devoted Nintendo-watcher Michael Pachter sums up what's expected, "Does [Nintendo] Japan think the new guy is going to rejuvenate the DS and Wii? No. Do they expect him to get 3DS on track and to make a big success of the new launch? Absolutely."
Wii sold because it was a great device that did something new. But also because the ad campaigns were awesome, the effort to make sure people understood Wii was immense. Even if we assume that Project Cafe is something a lot more than a HD Wii with a touchscreen controller, all this must be created anew.
Make 3D Shine
It was launched outside the Holiday season with an okay software line-up. The gaming elite duly trotted out to buy one, and then sales fell away. If Nintendo wants to stay in the mobile business (it's possible that Project Cafe is a mobile+console play, but let's leave that aside) 3DS must do a lot better.
3D is a crucial messaging challenge, and it needs to be refined. People might be okay with it at the cinema, maybe even at home, but on a smaller device the benefits have to be sold. Ads so far, in my opinion, have been tired and predictable and have not managed to convey the magic of the 3D experience. Something new is required in order to get 3DS from hardcore trinket to genuine mass-market player.
, veteran marketer and a blogger on marketing in games warned, "The hardware business is littered with a lot more failures than successes, and Nintendo have had their own fair share of non-starters. The only way to succeed is to have a strategic advantage that sits above marketing." The jury is still out on whether 3D represents such an advantage.
Worse, the world is a good deal more hostile to mobile devices than it was back in 2004 when DS was launched. Mobile phones in those days played elementary, crappy games. They have undergone a transformation. Is 3D enough of a draw to make millions want to slot another device next to their Android or iPhone?
Do Wii Still Want to Play?
Recently, Gamasutra's Matt Matthews speculated
here about Wii's chances of over-taking PS2's incredible sales records. It was a useful reminder that Wii is not going away, that this Holiday will be important for the console, that Nintendo generally does not abandon its consoles until the last drop of profit has been extracted, and that Wii sales are down, sharply.
A coming price-cut to $99 must boost the market, along with some big releases like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
and Wii Play Motion
. But Wii is looking like a spent force, especially as Kinect has captured the innovation high ground.
Wii opened up those new markets, but their sustainability is suspect. One wonders how many of those 35 million Wiis in U.S households are actually being used today; how many hold the promise of new software purchases?
Eugene Allen, an editor with popular fansite Infendo says, "I'd like to see them focus more on the games that we've loved Nintendo for over the years. I think a lot of core fans who stayed with time during the Nintendo 64 and beyond have kind of skipped Wii."
Reconnect the Core
The charge has repeatedly been aimed at Nintendo that it "abandoned" the hardcore with Wii, that it spent too much time chasing the casual audience, that it allowed too much casual shovelware to appear on Wii and not enough hardcore third party games, nor even enough first party favorites.
It's difficult to dispute this claim, other than to suggest, maybe, that Nintendo's purpose is not to please third party publishers, nor minority audiences, only to sell its games and consoles, although I think that's a short-sighted view. (Nintendo president Satoru Iwata recently said
his company would be more mindful of third-party release schedules).
Certainly, even a cursory research at Metacritic shows just 11 Wii games scoring 90% or more, half of them first party IP standards. On Xbox 360, the number is closer to 40, with only a handful coming from Microsoft (similar results for PS3).
Pachter says Nintendo's inability to secure enough hardcore games on Wii has shortened its life-cycle. "The biggest problem Nintendo has is that it's gained the mainstream market with Wii, and they did a great job, but they lost the hardcore . I don't mean Nintendo fanboys, I mean the hardcore games players. It's not enough to have a console without key gaming franchises from third parties, or with inferior versions of those franchises."
He adds, "When Reggie shows you the diagram with the core at the center and the mainstream radiating out, he's right. He wants them both. He needs them both. The mainstream likes Nintendo because they know it's cool, and it's cool because of the hardcore. Nintendo doesn't want to be McDonalds, the low-end happy hamburger joint. They are more like The Cheesecake Factory. You can get a nice steak there, you understand? It's not expensive, but if feels like it's more upscale than a cheap quarter-pounder."
Stop Being So Tight-Assed
Nintendo is kind of weird. It communicates with the world in two ways. Firstly, through the magic of its art, the emotional rainbow it creates through the genius of its designers. Secondly, through bland corporate language, if you're lucky.
It is like the sculptor who shows us humanity's complexities, but can't hold a conversation at a cocktail party. Talking to Nintendo straight-on is challenging. There is nothing playful or lovable about Nintendo in the flesh. It talks like a press release, made hideous flesh.
I don't mean to suggest that everyone who works there is an asshole. Quite the contrary. It's not personal, it's cultural which is weird because Nintendo is always at its best with a dash of humor.
Howard Lincoln, Nintendo's boss in the 1990s, looked like a lawyer from casting central and was always careful with his words, but he had a deep sense of humor and, if you cared to pay attention, a playful edge. Nintendo's public face for many years, Perrin Kaplan could always be relied upon to offer the cutting bon mot, much to the delight of the press.
Fils-Aime showed what can be achieved by letting loose, kicking ass. "My body is ready", all that, although we have seen less of his individuality in recent years. Nintendo never was open, but it always delivered up personalities for the press to enjoy. Less so today.
It would be unkind to be mean about Moffitt's predecessor Cammie Dunaway, now that she has departed (I found her to be charming and smart in person) but there is no doubt that she failed to connect with the specialist media, and in so doing, failed to connect with the media's audience and the millions who follow their lead.
Moffitt needs to get out there and glad-hand the press, take some editors out for a few beers. We don't expect him to be Roger Sterling (although that would be awesome), but the evidence shows that cutting loose is a better strategy than sticking to the script.
Likewise, Nintendo's social media is horrible. In 2010 it was among the top ten brands mentioned on Twitter. But its Twitter page is a bland catalogue of special offers, contests and all the usual horseshit. Incredibly, there is no Facebook page at all. YouTube is, of course, a collection of ads.
This from the company that was publishing its own magazine, way back in the 1980s. If Moffitt wants to find an area where Nintendo could use some quick-fix innovation, he won't need to look far.
Jonathan Block-Verk is boss of PromaxBDA organizer of the annual games marketing convention MI6. He said, "Social media is a missed opportunity for Nintendo. They should be way more connected. They should be allowing their brand ambassadors to share content with others, to spread themselves out through Nintendo's sub-brands and game properties. I mean, if the Government can manage to have a social media strategy, surely Nintendo can too." A good point, except Nintendo probably has more secrets than the Government!
Nintendo is an enigma, sometimes a source of frustration. But it remains the most admirable achievement this industry has yet produced. Its greatest assets are the imagination and daring of its designers and inventors; its culture of success and innovation, and the devotion of its millions of fans around the world. These must be he starting points for Scott Moffitt as he attempts to take the company into the uncertain and challenging future. Good luck.
[You can follow Colin on Twitter @brandnarrative. As well as being business editor he works for a marketing agency that supplies content to companies.