Can Nintendo Win Back Core Gamers?

Can Nintendo Win Back Core Gamers?

We’ve turned off the paved road, and now we’re bumping along the last, dusty stretch of pebbly dirt that will lead us to E3. Hardware engineers are worn out, game developers are worn out, PR folk are ready to sink onto a couch with a bottle, but gamers are just getting geared up. E3 is never a small event to begin with, but 2011’s E3 is arguably going to be the biggest one since 2006, and for similar reasons: Nintendo is getting ready to unveil a new console.

But this time, Project Cafe might even garner more attention than the Wii simply because the Wii’s five-year lifespan has been such a curious journey. Earlier in May, IndustryGamers looked at the conception, life, and struggle of Nintendo’s seventh-generation game console. Though the white plastic box seemingly began its journey in a pair of jet roller-skates, its momentum has long since petered out with core gamers and third-party developers who just can’t seem to kindle a hit on the system.

What will the Project Cafe bring, we wonder? The Wii was quite unorthodox next to the likes of the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3, not only because of its less powerful (albeit more affordable) technology, but because of the waggle controls that enthralled a whole new player base while they simultaneously turned off traditionalists who’d grown up with the d-pad. Will Nintendo be able to appeal to the casual gamers it snagged with the Wii and still manage to win back hardcore gamers?

It depends on the lessons Nintendo chooses to take away from the N64, GameCube, and Wii, all of which were very different from the competitor’s consoles and proved rather difficult to cross-publish games on. Nintendo works on a plane of existence that’s separate from Sony and Microsoft, which is wonderful when you consider the innovative bits of technology that have risen from Nintendo’s independence: The analogue controller, motion controls, even the rebirth of the video game industry. But Nintendo’s drive to innovate also makes it bullheaded, stubborn, and slow to adopt other companies’ innovations, even things that become industry standard (online gaming, digitally downloadable games, hard drives, CD storage).

Problem is, the industry is currently evolving at breakneck speed, and while Nintendo has a leg up on the competition thanks to its solid franchises, the runaway popularity of the DS, and a widely-adopted console that made it a household name again, core gamers might be less patient about a lack of basic features in their consoles, regardless of what else is offered. In other words, even if the Cafe boasts a touch-screen controller and plays a super-cool Mario game, it won’t mean much if the system doesn’t have decent online capabilities, an online store that’s less impotent than the Wii Shop Channel, and a hard drive, core gamers might turn away.

But Nintendo’s staff is not naive. While the Wii remains without question a runaway success, criticism over the system is plentiful, and, for the most part, valid. Some of it is hard to gauge: The comments thread on David Radd’s IndustryGamers story presents some interesting ideas about why third parties generally did not succeed on the Wii, and they can’t be narrowed down to one solid reason. Still, it’s likely Nintendo has taken down notes on what it did right in the last generation, and what it did wrong. Project Cafe won’t please everyone–it simply can’t–but with some engineering adjustments, the mysterious system can at least play on the same level as the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3; and from there, we can welcome whatever innovations Nintendo unveils.

After all, what will become of the casual gamer who latched onto the Wii and sent its sales numbers skyrocketing? Do said gamers still use their Wii on a daily basis, or have they moved on to the endless casual games available online and on iOS devices? Have they learned to love Mario, or are they disinterested? Nintendo shouldn’t abandon the casual gamer by any means, nor should it drop optional in-game features that can help a younger and/or less skilled player through a game (the “Superguide” options in Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns, for instance), but the company has more to gain by showing core gamers that it hasn’t forgotten the audience that supported it from its earliest days.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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