Category Archives: Analysis

Gender in Videogames – A Historical View

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at the gender split of playable characters in video games. The overall result isn’t exactly surprising, but the detail within the data does offer a few new perspectives on the issue.

Continue reading Gender in Videogames – A Historical View

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Disney Infinity

I’m actually quite excited by the Disney Skylanders knockoff.  This is mostly because I have a nearly three-year old nephew who loves everything Disney at the moment.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself, in reality, I have a hankering to battle Zerg with the Dread Pirate Barbossa on the Death Star.

The basic premise is that you buy a base set which consists of the Infinity Toy Box software, a connecting base set and three toys:  Sully from Monsters Inc., Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean and Mr Incredible from The Incredibles.  The Infinity Toy Box, much like Skylanders, allows you to take the physical toy and play with in game versions when you slot them into the base set.  Each toy also gives you access to the area in game they come from, so Jack Sparrow has a Pirate themed area and Sully allows you to explore Monsters University.

There are no classical Disney characters, which is a shame, and the sets lean heavily towards Pixar and Pirates of the Caribbean.  There are some surprising faces, however, as Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas will be available to purchase when this is released later on this year.  So far there is no news on whether other Disney is going to exploit other IP in their quest for world domination, but surely it can only be a matter of time before we see Star Wars and Marvel Infinity sets?

The cost looks to be astronomical, if you want a complete set of figures, some sources are suggesting £300 for the lot.  If you want to buy them piecemeal, as most people will, the Infinity starter set is £55-£65 and the expansions are priced at £12-15.  If Skylanders is anything to go by, this is a license to print money.  The Activision game has raked in over $500 million since it launched in 2011.

Bullshot!

I had a brief twitter exchange with Duncan Harris, the proprietor of the excellent website Dead End Thrills, which, for the uninitiated, uses third-party mods and bleeding edge hardware to produce stunning screenshots from computer games, sometimes known as tourist shots or less politely, bullshots (because they’re bullshit screenshots, obv).  The following tweet from Duncan started it all off:

I’ve had a fair few industry requests for editor-assisted bullshots recently. Soon they will be everywhere, custom lighting and all.

And was followed by:

Normal screenshots just aren’t seen as competitive by a lot these days. Gotta spotlight those models and enrich those shadows.

I tweeted that I didn’t think it mattered in feature material, but in reviews it probably wasn’t a good idea.  Duncan replied that websites are moving to a more stylised lifestyle magazine approach, which meant that all the shots are likely to be bullshots, even those used in reviews.  His second reply stated that as long as everyone knows they’re fake then its not an issue, but he did later tweet that the jury is out on whether or not whether or not bullshots actively mislead.  The Storify link has the salient points or see our twitter feeds for full details.

The issue here is one of imperfect information.  As I am aware of bullshots and the possibility that any promotional material may be processed and not representative of the game, I fall into the camp of the informed consumer, and it is completely right that I should take note of the providence of the screenshots.  It’s also true that, due to the age of my PC rig, I was unlikely to get the best video quality anyway, so I was already labouring under a false pretension when I saw un-modded screenshots.

So why am I making a fuss?  First of all you get an impression of a game from its screenshots, especially in a review.  If the shots have been enhanced then it can mislead the reader, as they have a reasonable expectation of getting an approximate experience described by the words and images of the review.  Even though I can’t get the Ultra settings on my PC now, I have the opportunity to upgrade and achieve the same quality in-game, whereas the bullshot is usually impossible to recreate during gameplay as they can involve any number of tricks to achieve their fidelity and composition including stopping time, weather modifications, and third-party image processing and lighting.

But if it’s obvious, it’s okay, right?  I don’t know if the shots on Dead End Thrills taken in isolation are obviously modded to a layman.  I agree they are different to normal screenshots, but are they so different that you would know they’re not modded?  I’m not so sure.  If you put those same shots on IGN or Eurogamer in the middle of a review it becomes much less obvious.  Adding a disclaimer in each review and/or a note on the bullshot to state that it has been modded might be enough to placate my sense of foreboding, but I doubt it.

Context here is king.  On Dead End Thrills it is obvious that these shots are being produced by a combination of modding, artistic skill and top-end hardware because the website is all about modification and extremely detailed screenshots.  We are told very clearly what modifications have been used on every shot and in some cases have a detailed breakdown of how the shot was achieved.  On a gaming website, bullshots may, or may not, be marked that they’ve been produced by a third-party, and may, or may not, appear with a suitable caveat.  If a bullshot is being used for a review then that misrepresentation may be enough to convince a person to buy a game they may otherwise not have.

Bullshots, quite rightly, sell games, they can even make dud games look awesome, which is why their use in review copy a little troubling.  As ever, the cry is Caveat Emptor, Buyer Beware!

Portable Market Share

Is it sensible for the gaming press to largely ignore the stupendous growth in mobile gaming?

VGChartz publishes a weekly digest of video game hardware and software sales (here for the latest numbers), but it is limited to the big three console manufacturers and doesn’t take into account the iPhone, Android or windows platforms.  Perhaps the reason for this is that it is difficult to quantify the amount of use a mobile phone or tablet is actually dedicated to gaming.  As hybrid devices they are not going to be used purely for games, but surely some method of measurement should be attempted?

The reason I make this fuss is that it bothers me to see the market share graphs that VGChartz produces.  The 3DS and PS Vita are put head to head and it is clear that the 3DS is streets ahead of the competition, selling 35,000 units a day compared to a paltry 6,000 units for the Vita.  These sales figures give the 3DS a market share of 85% to the Vita’s 15%.

The really interesting thing is that these two figures are absolutely dwarfed by the sales of iPhone and Android devices that are nearly in the two million activation’s a day range (478,000 per day iOS, based on quarterly sales of 43 Million, and 1.3 million Android activations a day).  Looking at market share in those terms, Android has a 71% market share, iOS sits at 26%, the 3DS has less than 2% and the Vita is struggling to reach 0.5%.  That’s a 40 to 1 difference in sales between portable and mobile gaming.

The counter argument is that mobile phones aren’t pure gaming devices, so you can’t compare like with like.  The reality is that 9 out of 10 of the most popular apps on iOS are games.  It is difficult to see on Android, but the top 10 on the Google Play Store at the moment is made up of 5 utilities and 5 games.  Even if we say that mobile phones are only being used for games 20% of the time, and adjust the sales figures accordingly, they still trounce portable games by a factor of 9 to 1.

To put this into further perspective, even at the height of the Nintendo DS’s popularity, Christmas 2008, it only sold an average of 132,000 units a day, 10% of the current sales of Android devices…

The portable king is dead, long live the mobile king.

OUYA

I mentioned before that Android and iOS were going to be threats to future Sony and Microsoft consoles (here).  If you haven’t already taken note of the success of OUYA, the open source Android-based game console, the news they’ve secured over $1,000,000 in funding via Kickstarter in a little less than 24 hours should give you an indication that this is now something to take seriously.

This is different from the phone-based/DLNA route I thought might happen, and still might, but it is an interesting concept.  If it is a major success, and we’re talking to be a major success this project would need to sell a lot more than the 8,000 consoles they’ve managed to sell on day one, for comparison the PS3 currently sells about 14,000 units a day and sold over 70,000 a day at its peak, then this would be a hugely significant development(1).

OUYA is like Steam, in that it is a software digital distribution and communication platform on top of Android so you won’t be able to play games you already own on your phone on the OUYA system.  This begs the question, why not?  From an OUYA point of view it makes perfect sense, they don’t want you jumping ship to another Android Console every five minutes, but as a consumer it seems a bit backward.  As all OUYA games will have to have free-to-play elements (which could be as little as a demo) the pain of switching is lessened as you may not have invested a great deal of cash into the platform, but it is still a little disappointing that it isn’t as completely open as one might expect.

1. For further consideration, Android activates over 900,000 devices and Apple sell over 500,000 iOS devices a day.  To paraphrase Mrs Merton – What attracted you to the low development costs and massive user base of iOS and Android gaming, Mr Developer?

Rams’ Ten Principles of ‘Good Design’

I was poking around the interwebs, as you do, when I stumbled upon the ten design principles of Dieter Rams.  Rams is an industrial designer who used to work for Braun in post-war West Germany.  He designed some of the most iconic consumer electronics of the period and his functionalist design ethos heavily influenced Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive and their work at Apple.  How could this possibly relate to game design, you might ask?  Read on!

Good design:

1. Is innovative – The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

There’s a reason this is number one.  Innovation creates markets.

There are hundreds of different fantasy roleplaying games; Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Middle-Earth Roleplaying, the Palladium RPG, etc but they all exist in the Fantasy RPG market. The Fantasy RPG market is over-saturated at this point and hasn’t grown significantly for some time.  The success of Paizo and Pathfinder has come at the expense of 4e D&D, for example; they aren’t creating new Fantasy roleplayers out of thin air. Why?  Because there isn’t anything fundamentally different about the experience each of them provides.  You could say they each innovate in different ways in that they may have more realistic combat or more intricate skill systems or more detailed settings but, guess what?  That’s not innovation.  Innovation is not designing a better Fantasy RPG with more or different bells and whistles.  Innovation is offering the player something they’ve never experienced before.

White Wolf’s greatest triumphs, for example, have come from their innovative games: they ignored the dominant Tolkien-based explore-fight-loot model and instead created a World of Darkness interested in modern-day horror and political intrigue.  The times they have branched out into different genres they have met with critical, but not commercial, success.  Why play Trinity when you already own Traveller or Star Wars?  Why play Aberrant when you already own Marvel Super Heroes or Heroes Unlimited?  Why Play Exalted when you already own D&D or MERP?  This isn’t to say that non-innovative games can’t be successful, but think about this:

Magic: The Gathering created the market for card-based games in 1993 that enabled Wizards of the Coast to eat TSR and the D&D gaming line whole by 1997.

That’s innovation.

2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Its all very well creating a new experience, but if you don’t make the game playable, you might as well take your dice and go home.  Minimise the amount of crunch to make it easy to pick up and play.  Chess is a complicated game to master, but the basic rules are simple and can be summed up on a single sheet of paper.

Hell, minimise the fluff for the same reason.  The more you can simplify the initial user experience the more likely people will understand it.

Licensed properties have an easier time here as instead of having to explain the world you can point to a book or a film and say ‘read/watch that’.  The problem with licenses is that they tend to limit your audience to those people who were already fans of the original book, film or comic.  If the license has a lot of role-playing fans you’ll be okay, but it’s unlikely that the licensed game will ever be as popular as the original product.

You could go the ‘inspired by’ route, which is a convenient way to describe the game in a hurry.  Recent Kickstarter project School Daze asks if you remember high school as depicted in ‘Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, or Brick’ and Fiasco is inspired by films like Fargo, Way of the Gun and Bad Santa.  This short hand can be a little disingenuous (Brick and Saved by the Bell, really?) but it imparts the flavour of the game in a succinct way.

Going back to White Wolf, the settings of Exalted and the Trinity Universe might be impressive, but having copious amounts of detail may actually be a barrier to entry in these cases – if you have to wade through 200 pages of background before you roll up a character it’s not something you can pick up and play.  While the World of Darkness has a rich mythology it can be easily described as our world, but shittier and with real monsters.  The clan system in Vampire: The Masquerade provides another short hand way of getting the players into the game faster – want to play a conflicted musician?  Try clan Toreador.  A loner naturalist? Gangrel.  A rambling madman?  Malkavian.

Remember you are not just competing with other pen & paper RPGs anymore!  If I can choose between playing World of Warcraft with my friends now or spending a couple of hours reading a game’s back-story and rules before creating a character and then sitting down with them, I know that I’m more likely to go with the online RPG because it’s more convenient.

3. Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the game needs to be beautiful or feature full-colour artwork, but some consideration of how the game looks and feels is essential.

This could also relate to the simplicity and elegance of the rules.  Lumpley Games’ Dogs in the Vineyard has a wonderful set of rules that evoke the flavour of the wild west and the type of game that it wants to play by deploying a system of raises, folds and calls.  It’s evocative because it directly references something that is intimately tied in to the western genre, the poker game, without being a direct copy of it.

Dogs is also a lovely book physically.  It is in a comfortable form factor for reading and carrying about, being small in terms of dimension and page count.  It has only 12 pages of artwork, including the cover, but each is the same sparse style and each reinforces the theme and mood of the game.  The book’s layout is simple, clear and includes compelling stories that reinforce the mythology of the game.  Even though the book is detailed it has a sense of openness created by the wide page borders and line spacing.  It feels like it could be an artefact from the world it is trying to represent.

4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Layout and structure should be clear, unless your design goal is to deliberately obfuscate and confuse the gamesmaster or players.

As well as bringing clarity, the layout and structure should also express the type of game you want to play.  That means putting the important and cool stuff in prominent places.  if your game has unique mechanics or an interesting setting, make sure that they are at least summarised within the first few pages of your book.

A problem with the White Wolf’s Aberrant is the main rulebook starts with nearly 100 pages of background material.  This leaves the reader with two impressions: You need to read this stuff to play the game and White Wolf’s background should be important to the gamesmaster’s campaign.  You could use Aberrant’s rules as a basis for your own superhero campaign setting, but the Aberrant back story is tied to the rules in not insignificant ways, particularly the source of Aberrant superpowers and Backgrounds.

The opposite is true for the 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook, the rules are clearly laid out and lead gently from character creation, through powers and feats, to combat.  But there is no setting to guide you at all.  This is, of course, because D&D encourages many different settings and to give prominence to one in the main rulebook would be to the detriment of all the others.  But consider a first-time player, someone who has entered Barnes & Noble and picks up a copy of the Player’s Handbook.  What they see is a collection of tables, numbers and rules that don’t tell them what it’s like to be a fighter: your hand slick with your enemy’s blood, clad in Starmetal, clutching the Barbed Blade of Hubris and hearing the lamentation of their women.

5. Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

A friend of mine was running a Warhammer FRP game and the players were trying to get from one part of a village being attacked by chaos hordes to another without attracting any attention to themselves.  They reached a high wall surrounding a church and the GM asked them to make a Scale Sheer Surface roll.  Being inexperienced adventurers, they failed, and kept on failing until they decided it was easier to attack the rampaging beasts of Nurgle than get over the damn wall.

Was this fun for the players?  Not really.  It wasn’t a tense moment where getting over the wall was life-or-death; they eventually found an alternative route and play continued.  Was it fun for the GM?  Almost certainly not, he was trapped as much as they were.  The problem he faced was once you’ve set a difficulty for a task, it’s hard to fudge it in the player’s favour after the fact or back down from the initial set up without losing authority.

Who’s at fault here?  I believe the system has to shoulder some of the blame, as it encourages you to make rolls for uninteresting things by having a skill to roll against.  Is scaling a sheer surface interesting enough to warrant its own skill?  Unless you’re being attacked by something, it’s unlikely that you’ll fail or that the act of climbing will create enough tension for it to be interesting in and of itself.  You could make combat more difficult, and make falling a consequence of missing or botching a roll, but that raises the stakes of the scene and adds to the drama rather than detracts from the session’s flow.

So, why bother creating rules to climb over walls if the only consequence of failing is that you don’t get to climb over that wall?  You could say ‘Why bother creating rules to arbitrate combat if the only consequence of failing is that you fail in combat?’ but this is a little disingenuous – combat encounters give players interesting choices to make and failing in the encounter will have bigger consequences than simply not winning.  There is a growing movement of games that tell the gamesmaster to ‘say yes or roll the dice’, Diaspora by VSCA Publishing and Dogs in the Vineyard for example.  In situations were there is little at stake, the GM should simply say yes.

If the main focus of your game is combat, then outside of combat, could you let the players do what they want?  If you put a mechanical arbitration system into your game it should be fun, not just a barrier to doing what you want to do.  If the players want to do something interesting then you need some way of dealing with it, but if it’s just climbing over a wall, who cares?

Should the system attempt to model or arbitrate the most important aspect of the game?  A game like Call of Cthulhu, for example, could really do with a good system for researching and uncovering knowledge, as that is one of the primary activities of Investigators.  The current method works but its not exactly compelling, is it?  I haven’t played the Gumshoe powered Trail of Cthulhu, but all indications are that this is exactly what this spinoff does.

In essence, the system should not get in the way of having a good time.

6. Is honest – It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Reward behaviour that you want to see.  D&D is clear about the behaviour it wants to see: you fight for experience and loot.  Skill challenges are rewarded, but not as much as combat is, so they seem less than optimal ways to get experience and items.  Luckily for D&D, combat is fun in and of itself, so it’s a win-win situation for player and gamesmaster.

Looking at the reward/experience systems of games gives you an insight into the type of game the designers had in mind when designing it.  Call of Cthulhu and Cyberpunk reward players for using skills, White Wolf games reward roleplaying your character well and Fate rewards players that go looking for trouble.

I don’t know if the designers of Cyberpunk added the life path section to character creation before or after they’d finalised how deadly combat was, but it does make character creation interesting and fun.  It’s a smart move as players aren’t discouraged from taking risks in combat by a clunky and painful character creation process.  Having said that I once spent a morning when I was a kid rolling up eight characters in quick succession, all taken down by rogue headshots, that wasn’t much fun.  I think I carried on with a dim conviction that I wasn’t going to be beaten by dumb luck.  It turns out that, yes, I was.

So clearly there are two ways to reward the behaviour you want to see – make it pay or make it fun.  Good games will do both.

7. Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

This is the point where I argue that licensed games are doomed to fail.

To be sure they make money if they’re brought out in a timely fashion, but can you think of any that have stood the test of time as good games in their own right?  The obvious answer is Call of Cthulhu, but I’m not sure that’s your typical licensed game.

Any others?  The success of games like TMNT, the Ghostbusters RPG, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily dependent on the popularity of the licence.  If the licence falls foul of fashion then no matter how good your game is, people just won’t play it.  Taking a look at the computer MMO market is instructive here, Lord of the Rings is a reasonably successful MMO, but is certainly not a market leader, despite the health of the licence.  The Matrix Online, once heralded as the next big thing in MMOs thanks to the all conquering Matrix licence crumbled and disappeared when interest waned in the films.  There are so many factors out of your control that once you’ve hitched your wagon to a licence that it seems inevitable that unless it’s an evergreen, like Star Wars or CoC, which are already taken, you will struggle when the going gets tough.

8. Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

You could read this as a call to model every possible outcome through dice rolls or card reveals.  I think, this would be a mistake.  As previously discussed, rolling to see if you can catch a trout, or repair a shield buckle or cook a stew aren’t necessarily entertaining if you’re playing D&D.  They are certainly necessary and need to be entertaining if you’re making a game about fishing, repairing or cooking.

Exalted is a game about conflict on all sorts of scales and every theatre.  It attempts to model every possible way these conflicts could play out, be it through debate, personal combat, skirmish warfare or state and continental diplomacy.  While it achieves the goal of making sure important actions/interactions are modelled, it is debatable if they are always entertaining.  The charm system is heavily skewed towards personal combat, so the other interactions are less interesting as there are fewer options for players.

A different example of thorough design is Fiasco.  Every meaningful interaction during play is settled mechanically; how each scene plays out and what happens to the players at the end of the acts is settled through selection or rolling of dice.  The beauty of Fiasco is that the only random element is the roll at the end of each act, every other mechanical interaction is still dictated by a choice of the players; choose to set up the scene or resolve it, choose a good or a bad resolution.

I’m thinking now about an Exalted playset for Fiasco…

9. Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

This is a tough one to make fit, but I’d suggest that you make positive games.  What I mean by that is you should make games that, at the very least, aren’t derogatory, anti-social or encourage criminal behaviour.  It’s a fine line, but take the example of Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is about rampant capitalism and the destruction of the human spirit in the face of technology.  It’s a depressing concept, but it’s also a warning.  It can, of course, be played as something that glorifies criminal activity.  You can skirt the morally ambiguous line playing mercenary street gangs, but the game itself doesn’t reward you for doing so and has a brutal combat system that kills players more often than not if they do get into combat.

It’s a bit of a joke around our table that if a system doesn’t have a Humanity stat, like Vampire, we feel we have no obligation to be nice, decent people when we play.  That aside, White Wolf show their talent for game design by including the Humanity/Path/Road system.  Not because it tells you how you should play, but because it gives your choice consequence.  The game is designed from the ground up to be an exploration of humanity so it makes sense that there is some measure of a character’s moral rectitude and a mechanism for it to be changed.

It also wouldn’t be a bad thing to offer environmentally friendly products in terms of their production and dissemination.  Specify paper that meets sustainable or recycled standards for print versions or offer an electronic version to reduce your environmental impact.

10. Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

If it’s not important, chuck it out.  Don’t set out to create a 400 page epic.  And if you do get to 400 pages take a long hard look at what you’ve got and ask yourself what’s important and what could be edited down without making the game less fun.

And, as brevity is the soul of wit, and I’ve already been typing for an age now, I shall depart.  Let me know what you think, either here or on Google+.

Ninten-woes

I bet you think Nintendo made a ton of money from the Wii and DS?  Their turnover since 2006 has been exceptional, but you’d be surprised at the relatively small amount of profit they made, considering the boatloads of cash spent by folk on the little black and white boxes of motion controlled joy.  In fact, based on last years performance, and this years interim results, Nintendo could be in for a rocky few years ahead.  So why are they in trouble now?

Back in 2003/4*, Nintendo wasn’t looking great.  Their flagship products were either stillborn, the Gamecube, or were on their last legs, the Gameboy.  In a prescient opening to the 2004 Nintendo financial report, Saturo Iwata said the following:

‘Unfortunately, in the current market, increasing numbers of casual gamers are not picking up controllers because games created using the old formula for success are no longer as appealing as they once were. Increasingly complex games with intricate game controls, while popular with avid game enthusiasts, are not what the majority of the game playing public is seeking. Most players are not looking for games that require them to invest large amounts of time and energy, instead most want games they can enjoy periodically, when there’s a free moment in their day.

In Japan, the software market has been shrinking for the past few years and the North American market, which used to experience significant growth year after year, is seeing a slowing of that trend. Under such circumstances, a revolutionary approach to video game creation is required more than ever.

Currently, the game play skills of avid gamers far surpass those of novice players. Led by Nintendo, the industry needs to present a style of play that levels the playing field, so players of all skill levels can enjoy video games. In order to expand the market, we need to place everybody back at the same starting point.’

It was easy to dispute this viewpoint at the time, Nintendo were flagging behind Sony and Microsoft in the sixth console generation, and hadn’t grown as a company for about six years.

A product called the Nintendo DS was released in November ’04 in the US, and it wasn’t clear that it was going to be the monster smash it became, largely because it looked like it had been designed in the soviet bloc.  The DS only sold 5 million units in 2004/5, the Gameboy Advance sold 15 million in the same year, and the Gamecube sold less than the DS.  Sales were flat and profits were falling.  Dire predictions about the future of Nintendo, comparing them to Sega and suggesting they’d be better off as a software only publishing house, were abound.  2005/6 was little better, while DS sales picked up slightly, GBA sales halved, it was as if there was a limit to the number of handheld sales of around 20 million a year.

It was then that Nintendo revealed the Wii.  It was largely rejected by the mainstream gaming press as a pile of old rubbish (much grist was generated by looking at its internal hardware and comparing it to the much more powerful Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles which it was supposed to be competing against).  But, if the gaming press had been paying attention, Nintendo were trying to do something else, they were trying to halt the stagnation of the gaming market.  The Wii had two significant advantages over its main rivals, it was cheap, as it used relatively inexpensive hardware and eschewed HD fidelity, and it was great for playing in groups.  Its no surprise that the Wii sells out at Christmas, what other system was so heavily geared towards party and family games?

To say that the Wii was a success is an understatement.  It is now one of the most successful consoles of all time, selling over 85 million units since launch.  After a redesign, the Nintendo DS has sold nearly 150 million units which makes it the most successful handheld console ever.  So why do I think that Nintendo are in trouble?

While Nintendo have sold a lot of consoles, they have also had to spend a tremendous amount of money designing and buying hardware, building or renting facilities to manufacture and assemble units, on warehousing, distribution and marketing and on the salaries of all the new staff they’ve had to employ to keep up with demand.  The success of Nintendo at this time is unprecedented in their history, and they’ve gone from manufacturing around 20 million handheld and home consoles a year to nearly 60 million in 2008/9.  The tales of shortages at Christmas might be exaggerated, but I wouldn’t say they are entirely unjustifiable.

So revenue is up, but costs are also up.  Take a look at the following graph and you’ll see what I mean:

The spike in revenue is striking, but the bottom line, the net profit, the profit after the cost of all of Nintendo operations is deducted, doesn’t have quite the same dramatic shape.  In 2008/9 Nintendo’s revenue was up 260% but it’s profits were only up by 180%.  In an ideal world you’d want those figures to be pretty much the same, but because of the reasons above, they’re never going to be.  It’s not even a major problem, until the sales start dropping off.

Ah.  Now we’ve got a problem.  Nintendo’s revenue has been dropping off a cliff for the past few years and net income is back to pre-Wii and DS levels.  So even though Nintendo are turning over more than twice as much money as they were in 2004/5 (1,014 Billion JPY vs 508 Billion JPY), their profit levels are actually worse than 2004/5 (77.6 Billion JPY vs 98.4 Billion JPY).  You would normally expect to see profit increase relative to revenue, all other things being equal, as products are made more cheaply or more effectively and companies engineer out expense by replacing expensive hardware with less costly alternatives, but because the Wii was already a streamlined product at launch, it must have proved difficult to take out more cost.  It could be that it is actually becoming more expensive to make the Wii, as older chips are no longer mass-produced for other non-Nintendo products, reducing the significant economies of scale in chip production.

The other explanation for the reduced profits is the increased budget required to launch a new console.  We can see in 2003/4 Nintendo’s net profit takes a nose dive, before the release of the DS, so perhaps the costs of the Wii U and 3DS are having a significant impact.  What if this is just a blip and Nintendo are going to bounce back to their Wii/DS revenue of 2008/9 in the next few years?

The stars aligned when the DS and Wii both turned out to be massively successful.  There hasn’t been a better time to be at Nintendo than the past few years, as the cycles of their handheld and home console popularity converged like a perfect storm.  But, while this amounted to a massive boom, the waning popularity of both products at the same time means that both of their next projects had better be at least successful on their own terms. 

Looking at the 3DS, its not had the greatest of starts.  It sold 3.6 million units in its first six months, which is below the 4 million Nintendo forecast, but still higher than the DS sold in its first six months.  The problem is that Nintendo sold 7 million less hand held consoles than they did the year before.  The issues the 3DS has with player nausea, the difficulty of advertising a 3D product in 2D media, and lack of killer titles, mean that it isn’t assured of the same level of success as the DS.  That’s not a problem as long as the Wii U works out.  But I don’t think the Wii U is going to be a success, and it goes back to Saturo Iwata and the 2003/4 financial report. 

For all of the fuss about hardcore and casual gamers, there is one thing that is undeniable, Nintendo did grow the market for video games, for everyone.  That’s the reason for Sony’s Playstation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, they saw massive amounts of cash to be had and ‘innovated’ in that direction.  Nintendo have effectively levelled the market, but Sony and Microsoft have now joined them in the casual market.  It may be cheaper to buy a Wii U than an XBox360 + Kinetic or a Playstation 3 + Move, but the essential Wii U package isn’t different enough to make people want to buy an additional console or upgrade from the Wii.

This is because the Wii U will not expand the market the way the Wii did, and its the same reason the 3DS won’t expand the market like the DS did.  The Wii U is not innovating in the right direction.  The unique selling point of the Wii was that you could play the Wii with your family on a standard definition telly.  The unique selling point of the Wii U, compared to everything else available, is that you can play on the controller when the telly is being used by someone else.  It is essentially changing the experience from a group activity to a single player activity.  It is a regressive move, not innovative.

I would love to be surprised by the success of the 3DS and the Wii U, as Nintendo is an innovative company, but I remain pessimistic.

* Dates are all based on Nintendo’s Financial year which run April to March.