Editorial: The Blue Ocean Myth

The Wii worked out for Nintendo for a while, but the plan was short lived and ended up far from ideal.
Nintendo Power Cover gleefully detailing the success of the Wii at the time.

As Nintendo circles back around to begin acknowledging core gamer interests once again, I have begun to think about the creative talent Nintendo still possesses. Cynical people may be quicker to note than I that this is just another in a string of attempts to bolster Nintendo’s flagging hardware so that the casuals notice the system because the person in their social circle that “knows games” is talking about or owns one. And as true as this may be, my optimism, which has allowed me to dwell on the possibility that the “real Nintendo” is back, has helped me with a difficult thing: uncovering another layer of Nintendo’s bullshit. Many years and E3s ago Nintendo announced their Blue Ocean strategy alongside the launch of the Wii that discussed how, as the smaller of three companies vying for console dominance, Nintendo would benefit from exploring nontraditional avenues to find a lucrative place in the industry. Unable to feasibly compete any longer in an escalating arms race of tech specs between giant multi-industry corporations like Microsoft and Sony, Nintendo deferred and walked away from the red ocean of direct competition. The decision was met with success, in large part thanks to Nintendo’s miserly accounting, and it seemed that, while disappointing to older fans, this strategy was the way to go. Well, I think it was wrong. I think the money they made, in the flash success they experienced, was only a short taste of the kind of success they could see today. And that success would not have to include executive pay cuts, frustrated core gamers amidst cycles of inattention and sudden apologetic acknowledgement, wasted time on dead end peripherals like the Vitality Sensor, or risking entering a new field with whatever Iwata’s Quality of Life initiative is all about.

To advocate a Blue Ocean strategy is to say there is no chance to directly compete, and I find this very untrue in Nintendo’s case. The myth is not that Nintendo could be met with success but that it is a wholly necessary campaign given the competitive landscape. First of all, the notion is misleading bordering on ignorant of the industry as a whole. The “Ocean” Nintendo sails is not truly blue as they regularly compete directly with their competitors, as they always have, for shelf space and third party support. Aside from the misleading idealism of the strategy, the Blue Ocean has by now proven itself to be as risky a territory as anything else. Wrangling the attention of casuals means having to continually be on the ball of “what is trending” (typing that made me want to vomit, excuse me) and by the nature of modern tech trends this means things boom and bust in very short order. Nintendo all but sold their latest handheld on a feature (they even put it in the name) that peeked and fell in the span of about two years. Now Nintendo sells a version of the same handheld without that feature included at all. Likewise the WiiU was conceived and brought to market around the tail end of the e-reader and tablet boom, which in 2014 are two gadgets people gave up finding creative excuses to use in front of whoever gave it to them for Christmas in 2010.

So instead of continuing to play a game of “what will most people in my local super market think is neat” I think Nintendo has to face the fact that their touted Blue Ocean is no more reliable or ideal than the alternative. The business strategy plays no more to their strengths, instead I think it sits very much outside their wheelhouse. When describing Nintendo, two terms I would never come to are “trendy” or “on the ball”. Their beginnings of Gunpei Yokoi’s “lateral thinking with withered technology” is a mindset meant to cater to a company with fewer resources and an interest in consumer value as a selling point. Contorting that view to fit into what the Twitterverse is currently hashtagging holds more, not fewer, pitfalls than committing to an industry Nintendo has been a successful part of for over thirty years. But getting fully back on the horse as a leading force in gaming requires the dispelling of yet another myth. This one is so big the whole industry believes it.

Iwata: Banana Bunch, where should I go for lunch today? Bananas: ... Iwata: Oh I don't know how to get there, you'll have to drive us.
No Nintendo centric post is complete without this.

This myth is that Mario is unbeatable. So much so that even attempting to compete with Mario and other AAA first party Nintendo products is actively harmful and better off avoided. So the problem is that Nintendo platforms feature such amazing software that, instead of attracting more buyers to the console and thus making fertile ground for all games, it creates an attention vacuum that enthralls buyers so much that anything even distantly related (such as sharing a platform) makes them look meager by comparison. Now I do love Nintendo games, and I hold their internal studios in pretty high regard at least as far as potential goes, but I do not subscribe to the notion that Nintendo games are quite this stupendous. Flattering as it may be to Nintendo, this notion represents an astounding lost opportunity. But it will remain lost in the face of Nintendo’s world-class obstinacy and refusal to seek assistance in the areas they need it. Where Nintendo is capable of being creative in the confines of their “withered technology” they are remarkably less so when it comes to fitting in with what others want from them. Instead they develop totally unique hardware that only their own internal studios have the first clue how to implement correctly. And then some brave third party flops a middling zombie shooter alongside a towering convergence of hardware and software development planning that spans back years and includes some of the best minds in the industry to make Super Mario 3D World. 3D World is a fine game, but I think Nintendo sells itself short if those same “best minds” could not create an equally masterful experience with technology that was more welcoming to those residing outside the Nintendo Mind Meld. The idea that Mario and company are more of a burden than a selling point for Nintendo’s third party relations is a demonstration of total mismanagement. And the idea that Nintendo’s fierce business practices in the Yamauchi days should still keep people wary is only one perpetuated by omission. Yamauchi and his time are gone and quite literally buried. If his specter still haunts public relations or, even worse, still informs current day relations then Nintendo will never find a magical land where everyone loves them no matter what they call it. Nintendo needs to bury their bad habits like they buried the man and begin to capitalize on the assets they have while they still have them. And this need not entail some grand forfeiture of creative control toward the production of a generic box. A Nintendo brand can still be established alongside a core- and third-party-friendly atmosphere. And if Nintendo cannot figure out all the details to make this work then the response should not be to give up.

If you cannot tell, readers, I had a tough time ending this week’s article. There is simply too much to be said about this frustratingly inept yet talented little company, especially in the face of this demonstration of true talent once again. My WiiU sits by my other consoles, sad and unplugged since the day its wifi conked out on me, and I can only imagine games I could be playing on it. So do you agree about the general failure and myth of the Blue Ocean strategy? Would you rather a progressive and industry-popular Nintendo rise to the top or do you think better of the current state of things? Bellow at me below!

8 comments

  1. This is great. An even-handed and interesting look at Nintendo’s past, present, and future.

  2. Thanks, Ethos. That means a lot to me.

    Also, Oracular Banana Bunch for Smash! wooo

  3. Great article Mel, as usual. You had so many well presented points in the article that it is hard to think of something more to contribute, but I’ll try anyways.

    If anything, I think this generation is (hopefully) schooling Nintendo on why following fads is not what the Blue Ocean strategy was preaching. Nintendo got lucky last generation because the DS was easily able to transition from touchscreen bullshit to normal handheld and the Wii’s crazy success because Oprah got moist at the thought of motion controls. With the Wii, Nintendo created a fad that died out after a few years, something they anticipated while designing the Wii U.

    Now, Nintendo seems to be in a position where they no longer know who their target audience is. When the Wii U launched, they promised us that it was the console that shifted its focus back to core gamers, then Iwata announces the “Quality of Life” platform, something that will surely be aimed at getting the casuals back. Even their first party games are aimed towards the younger audience, even though most kids today are more infatuated with Halo and Call of Duty than Mario.

    If anything, I hope Nintendo enters the next generation with a better idea of what kind of gaming company they want to be because right now they just seem completely lost.

  4. Thanks!

    I agree that Nintendo seems pretty lost. I think the Wii’s success just delayed the problems they were having with the GameCube and now they’re resurfacing again with the WiiU.

    Also, I’ve heard others touting the Wii’s high software attach rate (I think it’s still the highest of any console) but how much of that gets zeroed out by the kinds of games people were buying? Yes, the Oprah endorsed Wii probably DID compel a lot of soccer moms to buy Wii Fits and the various knock offs made by EA and Ubisoft. I’m sure TONS of people bought the next copycat bowling game after enjoying Wii Sports bowling that came with the console. Sorry if I don’t “count” those purchases. Take all the shovelware purchases away and I wonder what we’re left with. My guess is probably not much. And now that Nintendo’s home console is no longer propped up by fair-weather casuals, the reality has sunk back in that they need to open the fuck up and leverage their insane legacy content.

    Something I didn’t really work in is how much that sets them apart. Their console is the only remaining home platform left that has exclusivity as a real selling point, and somehow they’ve turned that into a burden. Sony and MS are losing exclusives to developers who know they can make more money if their product is on more platforms. Gone are the days when major 3rd party franchises are staples to one platform. Resident Evil and Final Fantasy used to be like 90% Sony territory. Now, every major FF or RE title released is on PC, Xbox and PS platforms. Exclusivity is dieing out (which is also making it harder for me to justify moving away from PC gaming) but not on Nintendo platforms. If not for exclusivity I’d own NO games for the WiiU. I wouldn’t own the system at all! Even for my GameCube, my library would be cut by more than half (I actually just counted and 26 out of the 44 games I own are exclusives).

  5. I agree that their exclusives are something that truly sets them apart. Unfortunately, as you said, those exclusives, especially their first-party ones, are a burden rather than an asset because Nintendo designs their hardware with only their games in mind. The Wii U is a supplemental console, you buy it for the exclusives but nothing else. Even third-party devs have realized this, just look at Watch Dogs, It is releasing for PS3/4, 360, Xbone, and PC today while the Wii U version still has no release date.

    I think Nintendo’s best shot to really leverage its exclusives is by making their next console on par spec-wise with the next Sony/Microsoft console. They can do whatever gimmick they want, just so long that they don’t force developers to utilize it. The new console would need to be priced aggressively as well. I think these things could go a long way to reaffirming Nintendo’s next console as a go-to console. Nintendo will only truly be able to properly leverage their exclusive advantage once they prove their console can also serve as a viable landing point for (current gen) multiplatform games.

  6. It’s a concept I don’t think anybody even lets themselves think about because it’s too good and makes too much sense. Imagine a Nintendo console that could compete technologically? The GameCube could, but it was also a purple toybox and for better or worse, aesthetics makes a difference in sales.

    Nintendo seems terrified to lose its identity, but I think their first party powerhouse lineup makes that something close to an impossibility. They’re at a stage when they can harness the power of the adult fans who grew up with them as well as continuing to make their games all-ages. Media like Avatar: TLA and Adventure Time provide that “children’s content” can actually be more thoughtful, imaginative, interesting, and even more subtle than most of the adult TV shows available. There’s no reason why Mario can’t become that for gaming. Sony proved that you can have the most powerful home console on the market for the cheapest price and still be profitable, so I’m not really sure the “saturation point of graphics” argument still holds up.

    I just wonder what it will take to win 3rd Parties over. I doubt Ubisoft will once again try to latch early to a ship until it proves it’s not going to be sinking this time.

  7. It really is a lamentable hole that Nintendo has dug for themselves. They need 3rd party support to prove to gamers that they can be more than just a secondary console for core gamers, but they also need core gamers to come back to their console so that 3rd parties see an audience to develop for. It probably isn’t something that can happen in a generation, but they have to put out a console that competes in terms of power, otherwise this Wii U fiasco will likely repeat itself.

Comments are closed.