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Nintendo Innovations

Maria Smith | Tuesday, August 23, 2005

At Nintendo headquarters near Seattle, it’s all about fun and games.

That’s the goal, at least, and that’s what makes it out of headquarters to the many avid video game fans around the nation. But video games are a competitive business, and keeping consoles and games at a high standard and on the edge of the market is an endless task.

In the world of video games Nintendo has the undisputed advantage of nostalgia. Older generations of gamers might remember Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog fondly, but Mario, Donkey Kong and Princess Zelda are a quintessential childhood memory for countless college-aged and older people across the country.

But as the market matures, the tools for success change. Lately at video game and media stores around the country, Nintendo products just aren’t selling as well as their counterparts on PlayStation 2 and xBox. Whether it’s the wide selection of PlayStation games or the graphics capacity in the xBox, the products of media giants Sony and Microsoft have got an edge. The recently released Nintendo DS, a dual-screen portable system with a touch-screen and stylus, is going to face some tough competition from the new PSP, PlayStation’s own handheld system.

What will it take for Nintendo to keep its place in the market it created? For one thing, the company will have to keep up with their aging fans.

“We’re getting an older and older demographic,” Brian Lucus, Best Buy public relations representative, said. “A lot of people grew up with video games, and they’re maintaining a strong interest into their twenties and thirties.”

But Nintendo has a lot to gain from sticking to its roots. The same qualities and characters that formed the video game market might be its best bet for maintaining its place in the hearts and minds of gamers.

At the Nintendo College Media Day in Seattle, college reporters from around the country got an inside glance at many aspects of video game marketing and developing. A two-day look at Nintendo headquarters and upcoming games showed that there’s a lot going for the original video game masters.

Nintendo headquarters

Nintendo headquarters itself, located in Redmond, Wash., doesn’t look like a fantasyland from the outside. Inside, the building is undoubtedly the home of Nintendo. Fan art mailed in to the company is displayed along the walls. Walkways between cubicles are marked with street signs reading “Octorok Circle” and “Torpedo Ted Turnpike,” and the conference room is “Wario Woods.” All the employees have GameCubes at their desks.

At 5 p.m. sharp the video game testers stream out of the testing room as eagerly as they would from any other job. They may get paid to play games, but often play the same level over and over again for an entire work day.

Of course the gift shop is a walk down memory lane for Nintendo fans – a timeline display of systems traces the history of the company, which actually produced playing cards before the onset of video games. Nintendo candy dispensers, flashlights and other merchandise are available along with countless games, and a big screen TV in the corner features new games as they come out. It is mostly here that avid Nintendo fans can satisfy their craving for a real-life reflection of the pixilated world they love.

New waves in advertising

One of Nintendo’s perennial problems is that it has never been able to lose its childlike image. “Madden NFL 2005” and “Night Fight Round 2” are not going to change the fact that the company’s logo is a favorite childhood animated character.

“We’ve had to change our focus and philosophy,” said Perrin Kaplan, vice president of Marketing and Corporate Affairs. “The audience is larger. The question is, how do you make six-year-olds fall in love and still keep the people who are 26?”

This is perhaps the idea behind the new media push toward college-aged gamers. This includes the Nintendo Street Team, an 11-city tour continuing through April 2 giving college students a chance to try games and an “ultimate dorm room display,” as well as publicity stunts at popular spring break locations such as Panama City Beach, Fla. Nintendo also seems to be aiming at an older audience in its advertising. The Nintendo DS sports the slogan “Touching is good,” and its new television spot features MTV’s Wildboyz, Chris Pontius and Steve-O.

Marketing also breaks its consumers down into categories. Budding enthusiasts are a younger market. Dabblers will pick up games now and then. Image animals, the most avid fans, want everything the moment it comes out, and are perhaps the most important in spreading a game to the wider market.

In some ways the move toward mature advertising is a shame, since it seems to be a move away from Nintendo’s unique identity. But Nintendo is right to boast that it has the chops for older audiences. “Resident Evil 4,” with incredible graphics and an all-too-creepy atmosphere, is proof that Nintendo can create games for aren’t just for the kiddies. Ads aside, this is what will change the common view on Nintendo products. If the company can keep putting out games that good, it may just lose its stigma.

Quirks and traditions

But hopefully Nintendo will continue to focus, as it currently does, on games that are innovative and unique instead of just graphically better.

“Donkey Konga,” with its bongo drums for controllers, is an example of an innovative game that strikes a new chord, and will lead to better things. “Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat,” in which Donkey Kong is controlled through levels using the drums, looks bizarre but is surprisingly entertaining and addictive. The game is likely to become extremely popular after its release on March 14.

Many games produced by Nintendo are almost directly translated from their Japanese counterparts, which is a challenge both in language and in culture. Levels of sexual humor which are acceptable in Japan won’t fly in the United States, and sometimes games have to be edited to remove sexual overtones.

It can also be hard to predict whether a game like “Animal Crossing,” which takes players into a real-time village populated with animals, will actually be a success in the United States. A great deal depends on how well the game is translated, and even if this is well executed it might turn out to be just a little too strange for American culture.

Nate Bildorf works in product development localizing games out of the Kyoto studio and the new Tokyo studio for the United States. This includes translating messages and descriptions as well as voiceovers.

“‘Animal Crossing’ had over 20,000 messages – it was a nightmare to localize,” Bildorf said. “You’ve got to fit a description in twelve characters. In kanji, you can say a paragraph.”

As the need for new and innovative games increases, Nintendo has begun trying to capitalize on any of these new game ideas which might provide a new experience. The Nintendo DS offers a particular opportunity for strange and unique games. “WarioWare: Touched!” is an example of something which is initially bizarre, but has become reasonably popular.

“Maybe 10 years ago that wouldn’t have made it out of Japan,” Bildorf said. “It has to be very Japanese for us not to want it.”

“Polarium,” a black and white geometrical takeoff on Tetris-style strategy games, will probably not be a bestseller after its release on April 18, but will likely become a new addiction for other gamers.

Nintendo also does well to rely on the characters that have made it famous. Mario continues to be a huge franchise. The new game in the Zelda franchise will be Nintendo’s focus for E3 2005, the hugely anticipated video game conference in May. The offbeat and the nostalgic might not be the biggest markets, but they’re out there, and Nintendo has an undoubted knack for both.

It would be a sad day for video games if Nintendo lost its place in the video game scene. But Nintendo has enough innovative power to keep it going. This particular fantasy world of childhood has yet to fade away.