NINTENDO: a History of Strange Business Decisions

9 08 2013

Nintendo is a company that’s been around the block a few times.  In fact, I would challenge you to find any other company as associated with pure gaming outside of Atari.  They’re also the only company who have remained a juggernaut in the industry over the past 30 years; but being the Big N doesn’t mean there haven’t been stumbles along the way.  For everything the House of Plumber does right, it seems they leave behind them a wake of decisions that often leave both fans and detractors scratching their heads.  Here is, in my estimation, some of their most huh-worthy contributions to gaming.

 

 

GETTING INTO GAMING IN THE FIRST PLACE

 

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Back in 1983 when Nintendo entered the market in Japan, they were known mostly as a company that made playing cards and the occasional arcade game.  Sure, they had been dabbling in games since the 1970’s, but when the Famicom first surfaced, gaming in Japan was dominated by computers.  It’s closest rival was Microsoft’s MSX series of computer consoles, licensed to the likes of Panasonic, Sony, Sanyo, and National.  That’s a pretty ballsy move, going up against some pretty heavy hitters with very, very deep pockets; but Nintendo had done their homework, and they came loaded for bear.  First off, the Famicom (short for Family Computer) was set to directly compete on the PC front, even though it wasn’t a personal computer at all, really.  You could outfit the Famicom with a keyboard, disk drive, and it even ran BASIC.  This would be the only time in gaming history that Nintendo would enter the market not having a monopoly on what makes Nintendo, well… Nintendo: it’s signature games.  Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers, heck, even Super Mario Brothers were all available in one form or another on competitor’s machines; but it’s the superior Famicom versions of those games that would become classics.

 

 

SUPER FAMICOM DISK DRIVE

 

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Probably the most well known head-scratcher in the history of the company, Nintendo was famously working with Sony on a CD drive for their Super Famicom game console when it put the kibosh on the project well within view of the finish line, literally throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  The end result of this gigantic corporate punking was the creation of the PlayStation, specifically designed to pee in Nintendo’s coffee.  You need to understand that Nintendo’s main competitor at this time wasn’t Sega, but NEC, whose PC Engine system was the #2 console in Japan… a console that was built around CDs.  The number 3 company, Sega also has a CD option for their system, and although the technology was new, it provided an obvious path as to where games were going.  Interestingly, the excuse Nintendo would provide as to exactly why they made the decision they made regarding a CD add-on for the SuperFami makes no sense whatsoever.  N pointed to piracy concerns over the easily copyable CD format, when there had already been devises specifically engineered to copy both Famicom and Super Famicom cartridges on the market for ages.  The reality is Nintendo did this simply because they felt they could, because… they were Nintendo.

 

 

STICKING WITH CARTRIDGES

 

SONY DSC

By the time Nintendo’s Ultra 64 rolled out as the Nintendo 64, the gaming industry had already embraced the compact disk as the chosen format for game delivery; but Nintendo made the decision to stick with cartridge based games.  Their explained reason: sure, CD games were cheaper to manufacture and held more data; but cartridges loaded faster.  That’s right, the Big N was so concerned about how you spend your time, they didn’t even want you wasting that extra 20 seconds it might take a game to load had it been available on CD instead of cart.  That’s just how thoughtful they are.  This would prove the beginning of a disastrous trend for the company to forgo industry standards… just because.  The end result of this decision would lead to the departure of one of the companies biggest 3rd party assets, Square Soft, and set the stage for the position in the console market Nintendo finds themselves today.

 

 

64DD / VIRTUAL BOY ONE TWO PUNCH

 

64DD copy

Although the Nintendo 64 proved far from a failure, two devices Nintendo would release alongside it would come to define the word.  Nintendo assured it’s critics that it would address the space limitations of it’s chosen cartridge based format with an-add on that harkened back to its Famicom roots: a disk drive that could read and write data, giving game companies not only more storage options; but also the ability to expand games.   Seemed like a sound and interesting idea at the time, and no one was exactly opposed to it; only it took them forever to actually release the thing.   Announced in 1995 and finally hitting shelves in 1999, by the time Nintendo made good on their promise almost all of the anticipated disk games had already been released in cartridge format, and no one was supporting it… including Nintendo.  That’s right, Nintendo released a device that it had no intention of supporting because they didn’t want to feel like they wasted their money.  But they had no problem with consumers wasting theirs.

The Virtual Boy parallels the disk drive in almost every way but one: while the 64DD was held back by Nintendo’s need “to get it right”, the Virtual Boy was rushed out the door even in the face of protests from it’s designer, Gunpei Yokoi.  Yokoi made the machine his pet project, and Nintendo was onboard having been fiddling around with 3D since it’s Famicom days (the Famicom supported 3D gaming through a pair of active shutter 3D glasses and some early Super Famicom games had 3D support built in, although it was never utilized.  In fact, the N64 was once conceived as a 3D system).  So while Nintendo had been doing it’s thing, the inventor of the D-pad, gameboy, and creator of such classics as Kid Icarus and Metroid was tinkering away in the background on his little 3D device.  He had it up and running just fine, but due to the cost LED diodes at the time it only was able to display one color: red.  Yokoi was pleased about his progress so far, but felt that it still wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and that in order for it to be viable in the marketplace it needed a full color screen, not just red.  Behind closed doors Nintendo agreed with him, but then they went out and publicly announced the Virtual Boy’s release, much to Yokoi’s horror.  This move was beyond bizarre: not only was there no reason to release the system at that time (Nintendo dominated the mobile gaming marketplace, they had no real competition), but the folks who designed the system has specifically told the bigwigs not to release it. The system flopped, just as Yokoi has predicted it would in it’s current state, and Nintendo not only publicly blamed Gunpei but also went out of their way to shame him, fire him, and then later murder him.  Yes, Nintendo killed Gunpei Yokoi.  They also never really made any games for the system, marking the second time Nintendo sold a product to consumers it never had the intention of supporting.

 

 

MINI-DVDS

 

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Finally capitulating to the demands of developers, Nintendo announced that the followup to the Nintendo 64, called Project Dolphin, and later given the Christian name Game Cube, would in fact utilize DVDs for game delivery (thus bringing the system in line with the standard game format of the day); but not just any DVDs… MINI-DVDs!  It was like getting all the audio and load times of a DVD, but with half the storage space, once again making it nearly impossible to port a great many games to their system.  It’s important to understand just why the distinction between DVD and mini-DVD is so important.  The biggest reason beyond the amount of data it can hold is the cost to manufacturer.  Because DVDs were the standard format of the day for games, movies and computer software, it cost less to manufacture them and thus cost developers less to produce games on that format.  Because mini-DVDs were pretty much a specialty item, the cost to mass-produce them was significantly higher than your vanilla DVD.  Once again, Nintendo said the reasoning behind this was to protect from piracy, but let me tell you: if you can copy a DVD, you can copy a mini-DVD.

 

 

CONTROLLERS ARE TOO COMPLICATED

 

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As Nintendo was gearing up for it’s successor to the Game Cube, the company decided to go on an interesting tirade:  controllers had become too complicated, there were too many buttons and, where once gamers could just pick up a controller and go, they now had to learn the controls to the game before playing it and that impeded the joy-joy process.  Nintendo would fix this problem by offering consumers a simple controller that needed no explanation, said Nintendo’s talking heads.  The actualization:  the Wii remote and nunchuk.  Now maybe it’s just me, but having a two-part wireless controller that has to be in the very specific range of a sensor bar and whose function varies depending on what game you play at any given time, that can also be used horizontally as well as vertically is a lot more complicated than, say, a controller where you use one thumb to press a d-pad or analog stick and the other thumb to press a button.  This would be the beginning of a trend where Nintendo would identify perceived problems that didn’t exist within the industry and claim to fix them.

 

 

THE TWO SCREEN HANDHELD

 

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Nintendo’s announcement that the followup to the wildly popular Game Boy series of handhelds would feature two screens working together had gamers in a heightened sense of speculation.  What would it look like?  How would it work?  Would the screens be side by side?  The end result, the Nintendo DS (DS for Dual Screen) was an unmitigated success; but the Big N’s explanation of just why two screens were needed was a little bit… odd.  You see, in Nintendo’s mind the idea of pushing a button to access a menu or map or secondary screen within a game was just unacceptable.  They argued that, using the Legend of Zelda as an example, it took away from the gaming experience to have to hit the select button to call up the items screen and then have to push left or right on the d-pad to see the map.  It was much more logical and handy to have a second screen that displayed items or location information.  An interesting concept, yes.  A thorn in the side of gamers?  Hardly.  This was another instance where Nintendo would claim to fix a problem that just didn’t exist.

 

 

IT’S NOT ABOUT POWER, IT’S ABOUT GAMES

 

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During it’s Wii years, Nintendo would take a lot of heat for releasing an underpowered game machine, a system that just couldn’t keep up with its competitors.  N’s answer to this criticism would be that gaming was less about the power of the system and more about the quality of the games.  They then proceeded to release the Wii U, another underpowered system, repeating the games over horsepower mantra… while at the same times not releasing games for it.

 

 

TOUCH SCREEN CONTROLLER

 

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The main selling point for Nintendo’s Wii U system was less the actual system and more about the system’s unique tablet based controller.  While controllers in the past had toyed with the idea of having some sort of interactive display (most notably the usage of VMUs on Sega’s Dreamcast), Nintendo went all in giving the Wii U a controller that could display the entire actual game on it, without the use of a TV.  An interesting and exciting idea to be sure; but once again the reasons given behind the decision making is suspect.  What if, Nintendo has said, someone wants to watch something on TV while you want to play a game?  You can play it on the actual controller without the need of a TV!  Additionally, Nintendo again brought up the problem of pesky menu screens.  It’s much more handy to have a second screen handling menus instead of having to press a button.  It keeps you in the game!  Well, I don’t know about you; but it takes me out of the game a lot more to have to divert my attention away from the game to a secondary screen I’m holding, then to find an icon, press it, and then return my attention to the main screen.  And what about when your playing your game on the controller screen without using your TV?  Doesn’t that mean there should be a secondary controller screen to your secondary screen?  If not, how important does that make the necessity of having tablet controller in the first place?  Once again, a fix for a problem that never existed in the first place.

 

 

ALL OUR CUSTOMERS ARE IDIOTS

 

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The most recent example of Nintendo Brand Business Wackiness comes straight from the top, Mr. Satoru Iwata.  He announced publicly that according to an internal study, modern gamers weren’t smart enough to finish level 1-1 of Super Mario Brothers.  This distain for customer intelligence had been one of those things hidden in plain sight at Nintendo for years.  Look at their early games: they’re all pick-up-and-go.  Then on the Super Famicom they started giving more in-depth tutorials when a new gameplay mechanic was introduced.  The Nintendo 64 and Game Cube would give players a chance to see where things were before levels started.  The Wii featured an actual ghost player to show you what you were suppose to do.  The 3DS offers you up an indestructible mode of play on Super Mario if you die enough, and many games offer endless tutorials because as Nintendo now openly believes, you can’t figure out things for yourself.





A Brief History of Piracy and You

4 01 2012

Allow me to chime in on something I knew nothing about until last night… this is the internet, after all, where people make a living spouting opinions disguised as fact.  The topic is that Bandai Entertainment will be ceasing distribution of anime and manga in North America, and what it means to the rest of us.

First off, I’d like to say that I don’t follow the anime and manga scene much, especially not in America.  But I was a pretty big otaku back in the 1990s, so I was there for the anime boom.  I was there for the beginning of fansubs appearing on the internet, and I was personally instrumental in the price of dojinshi skyrocketing on eBay.

I apologize for making these so expensive for a while.

 

When I got into anime, Project A-ko had just been released in the states.  That puts the time period at around 1993.  At that time, if you wanted anime you had very few options.  You could buy the stuff that was released commercially, but it was very limited in scope and releases were few and far between, and even if something was released sometimes it could be a pain finding what you were looking for.  Anime was carried by Suncoast Motion Picture Company and independent comic book stores.  Your only other option was to get anime that had been translated and subtitled by fans.  In order to get those you first had to find a place that distributed them; ads for these could usually be found in the backs of magazines like Mangajin  (at least, that’s where I got my information).  Once you found a place, you had to send off for a catalog, which were just laundry lists of titles xeroxed and stapled in the corner.  Usually how it worked was one tape was $4.00.  Each tape could hold 120 minutes of programming, and you could pick up to 4 titles per tape up to a maximum of 4 tapes.  You’d pick your titles, fill out the form, get a money order, fill out return address labels, send it all off and then wait for the tapes to arrive.  The unwritten rule at the time was, once a title was picked up for domestic distribution, it was taken out of circulation by the fansubbers.  Fansubbing was really a labor of love back then.  At $4 a tape, no one was really making money off the deal, and the fansub community would get pissed at stores that would order fansubs and then sell them for profit.  ADV Films got its start selling fansubs for a profit.

A letter sent to the fansub group Arctic Animation in the early 1990s.

 

Then came the dawn of the internet.  Back then we had something called “dial up”.  It took forever to download anything.  I mean forever.  One day I stumbled upon some information that you could download fansubbed anime.  That was a new concept at the time.  Turns out that a digital anime distribution service was being run off the back of a major video game website’s servers.  You had to have the specific IP and a password.  Once you were in, the sky was the limit.  It was a real revelation in quality.  See, VHS and even SVHS fansubs were usually two or three generation copies, so the quality could be described as iffy at best.  These were crystal clear (for the time) and people were posting shows the same week they aired in Japan.  It was a sea change for anime fans.  At the time I don’t think anyone thought this could have any negative effects on the industry.  It seemed that the unified mindset was that the more exposure anime got, the greater its popularity would be and the more it would become available.  Looking back, it was a very selfish way of thinking; but nobody could have predicted the way the internet would explode over the coming decade and how media would shape the face of the world wide web.

 

Back then we dreamt of transcending being mere otaku to become otakings.

The dream of fans of Japanese animation and manga was that it would become an accepted thing in America, easy to get at a reasonable price.  Remember Project A-ko?  I had to work all summer to be able to afford that VHS tape, it cost $40.00.  The digital distribution of fansubs didn’t really increase awareness of the genre.  Mainstream exposure on popular television networks did that.  What digital distribution did do was create a beast that demanded that content be available on demand, without cost.  It created a situation where fans no longer supported the actual companies and the people who worked to secure rights, translate, redesign packaging, and get it to market.  Why pay for something when you could get the same product with pristine quality for free on your computer?  So what if it was just a digital file?  If you wanted to, you just create a compilation DVD.

Many American anime distribution companies have come and gone since 1993; Animeigo, US Renditions, US Manga Corps, and others.  Now Bandai Entertainment joins the list.  But the shuttering of Bandai offers a little more insight into the fragility of the anime market in America right now and we can expand that to reflect on the market for entertainment as a whole, including video games, movies, and music.  You see, Bandai Entertainment was more than just a redistributor of content, they were a content creator, and as a content creator myself through Happy Chicken Group and Studio Happy Chicken, I totally get where they’re coming from.  Digital distribution, or piracy as it should be more accurately called, is destroying the entertainment industry.  The fallacy that most fans follow is that media companies are the giant, evil corporations hell-bent on sucking every last dime from the consumer while giving them little or nothing in return, and that’s just not true.  I don’t think fans realize how expensive it is to create professional media.  Let me break it down for you a little bit.  To create an original anime, someone has to come up with a scenario and write a script.  This script has to be edited and then each action and scene is drawn out individually as storyboards.  Animators have to draw the major action in the anime, and then separate people called in-betweeners come in and add more movement to the animation.  Finishers then take this rough animation and trace it so that rough pencil sketches become smooth lines.  In today’s world these finished scenes are scanned into a computer one by one and then individually colored.  When I started watching anime the rough sketches were traced over to acetate and painted by hand.  Voice actors watch the animation and read the script providing the voices of the characters.  Backgrounds have to be painted.  A separate group of people called folly artists record sound effects.  A composer writes the music and then records it with a hired band or orchestra.  The voices, sound effects, and music are then synched with the action.  It’s then reviewed and edited down to fit a certain time frame.  A lot of time and money has already been spent, and the final product still isn’t out the door yet.  Packages and package inserts have to be designed, the animation has to be mastered and sent off for replication, and then the finished product has to be shipped to the distributor who sends it to stores.  Still more artwork has to be created and magazine ads and posters have to be designed so that people know the product exists.  All of that is just to get the anime out in Japan.  To release it in America, licensing rights have to be negotiated, packages redesigned, the entire script has to be translated and re-written; then re-timed and re-recorded by English speaking voice actors.  Subtitles have to be written and timed to match what’s happening on the screen.  Then the product has to be re-mastered again and sent to a manufacturer again so it can be sent to a different distributor that can get it into stores.  It’s a lengthy and costly process.  Video game production is very similar, but scripts are infinitely more vast than that of anime.  It’s actually more costly to translate and re-release a video game in North America than an animated title.

A small portion of the work that goes into producing animation.

 

From comments I read on the internet, it seems that fans believe that the entertainment products they hold so dear just spring into existence with the wave of the hand of a Hedeki Anno, Shigeru Miyamoto, or Keiji Inafune.  Consumers have become selfish monsters who are strangling an industry that is already on its knees.  Just because something is called a multi-billion dollar industry in the press doesn’t mean that the people involved in making things are all rich.  Every year in Japan more and more manga artists, animators, directors, and game designers are hanging up their hats because they can’t make ends meet.  Bandai Entertainment isn’t going out of business.  They’re a pretty big company and have a market far beyond that of the United States; but their actions do serve as a red flag as to what’s on the horizon unless the fan community stops it’s selfish and destructive behavior.  If we examine the actions of the last 20 years, and put our own selfish desires to the side we can see that the only thing fan translated anime, manga, and games serve to advance is our own desire of want.  It does not help the industry, it does not call positive attention to our hobbies, and while it may attract a small number of new consumers, more often than not these new faces will continue to feed on free pirated content because that’s how they were turned on to it in the first place.

 

SOPA is short for "we'd actually have to pay for things again."

 

People gnash their teeth and moan about the SOPA legislation that is snaking its way through the American Congress, but we have no one to blame for this but ourselves.  We created the beast, and we continue to feed it.  We’ve reached the point that it’s not uncommon for major websites to publish links to pirated content.  Pirating has gone mainstream, and unless we as consumers have the fortitude to reverse our actions, allow the market to work as it should, and develop the patience to wait for new products to become available in our region, or even not become available, the face of the internet and digital media will change.  It’s inevitable.