on 02.13.2013Playing With Power: Pt. 1
I originally wrote this in 2011, during the whole Nintendo finance mess that was all over the news. It's relevant once again as the Wii U falters and Nintendo starts falling off the cliff one more time.
What you are about to read, should you decide to read it, is all true to the best of my recollection. I have had a long, strange, journey through the video game industry. I have dozens of stories, this is just one of them.
Remember Link Cables?
It’s for breakfast now.
It’s interesting to see all the news about Nintendo recently and the expected fiscal loss posting. “First time in 30 years…” “Lower than expected interest in the 3Ds.” “20 billion yen.”, etc etc. I really only have one question: “Is anyone really that surprised?”
Ok, let me preface this with a few things.
1. I am not a financial professional. I don’t analyze trends, stocks, or earning strategies.
2. I am not a corporate business strategist. I understand the complexities of running a business, but I am by no means an expert on the intricacies of running a massive, multinational, corporation.
3. I have worked for and with Nintendo in the past (2002-2007). In fact, I did through one of their darkest hours, the end of the GameCube lifecycle, in what was essentially “the trenches”, Marketing and Promotions. I was also there for one of the truly brightest moments, the launch of the Wii.
4. Yes, I have met Reggie Fils-Amie. I sat across from him at a marketing meeting in New York City in 2004 and told him we should probably forget Geist ever existed and focus on Resident Evil 4 and Metroid Prime 2 for that particular holiday season. I’m not saying it affected anything either way, but we all know how that turned out.
In any case, all I present here is my experience with Nintendo, the frustration that came with working for them, especially as a fan of the company and their products, the insight it gave me to the insane swing-set-riding-a-roller-coaster that the company exists on, and why it should surprise no one that they’re on the big down-swing yet again.
This is a thing that happened.
Blow On It
No one from my generation wants to see Nintendo fail. There is a special something about the company, and their icons, that just tugs and tears at our nostalgic heartstrings. No matter how many bad decisions they make there is nearly always a sense of acceptance and forgiveness. Even when things are bleak, the loyal Nintendo fanbase holds strong. They will weather the storm, suffer the abuse, and hold steady for the sake of their treasured childhood video game company. Nintendo is the whimsical creator of more lucid daytime dreams, fulfilled fantasies, and vivid bittersweet memories than any other company I can think of. I know first hand, I’ve been there. I remember receiving my first Nintendo Entertainment System on Christmas morning in 1985. My brothers and I were the last kids on the block to get one, but as soon as we played our first game of Mario Bros., as soon as we felt the first, springy, click of the Zapper trigger, we were an exciting, wonderful, world away. We would experience that same feeling all over again in 1991 when the Super Nintendo launched. We had it on Day 1, and every incarnation of the GameBoy in between. Sure, we had a Genesis, and a Sega CD, even a TurboGrafx 16, but nothing compared to our SNES, that is, until 1995 and the release of the Sony PlayStation. The first, slow, stumble away from Nintendo.
Random Aside: My brother Troy and I still debate over the greatest gaming console ever made. Super Nintendo or PlayStation?
Enough of the history lesson though. If you grew up with Nintendo, you know what I’m talking about. Come to find out though, there is one, easy, sure-fire way to break the grip that Nintendo has on your rose-colored recollections: Work for them.
It Spins Counterclockwise
So, anyway, let’s jump ahead to 2002. I’m part of a team designed to help promote the Gameboy Advance in its twilight years, to talk about the GameCube (which is getting mercilessly, ruthlessly, crushed by the PlayStation 2, and to a lesser extent the XBOX, at the time), and play up the interactivity between the two. It’s basically the job everyone fantasizes about what working in video games is; driving around to cool places and playing them with people (the reality is much, much different). It was a really fun gig. I was a big fan of the AGB (internally it was always called “AGB”, not “GBA”, though we were never allowed to refer to it as either when dealing with the public), especially since I was a big Pokémon fan at the time. Suffice to say, I ended up playing a lot of link cable Mario Kart, Advance Wars, and, of course, Pokémon, with people from all over the country. The team was an amazing group of people, and we all had a real passion for Nintendo and its brands. I was the “atypical gamer” archetype, tattoo’d, pierced, “cool”. The exact image Nintendo was not associated with, but wanted to capture like the PS2 had. They were trying desperately to break what was known as “The Kiddie Image”. We were the highest order of brand evangelists. It was with this team I would come to understand and learn the most important rule of marketing, promotion, and consumer interaction, a value that I still today hold above all others. Sincere enthusiasm. (The second rule? Photograph everything!)
In the background though we, of course, knew that the Gameboy Advance SP was just around the corner. Although Nintendo insisted that the SP was going to live alongside the AGB, we knew it was really the last nail in the AGB’s coffin. It didn’t really matter though, the SP was awesome (I still remember the launch announcement at CES that year). Once again, a team was put together to travel around and evangelize the system and games. For this go-round though, we were supposed to deliberately target “non-gamers” and “non-traditional” venues and locations. The idea was that the SP can really bring games anywhere and we were supposed to be playing up its contemporary design sexiness. You wanted to be seen with this hot, new, device. We went to nightclubs, film premiers, porn industry parties, concerts, the beach… anywhere, honestly, no one would actually want to play. The team on this go round was not a team of Nintendo “fans”, per se, but of professional promotional people. I was the token “gamer” on the team, which also consisted of the most politically correct, ethnically diverse, unit of people since the original Power Rangers. In fact, just imagine the Power Rangers but instead of morphers, they have SPs and, except for me, could care less about saving the world. (Yes, I realize that analogy makes me Billy. Shut up.) That was us. In fact, the whole thing was built from the ground up by straight up marketing people, not Nintendo, or even videogame, fans. It was very obvious. We drove around a graphic wrapped Hummer V2. Not only was it shallow and desperate, I felt like an outsider on my own team just because I actually loved the products I was showing to people. I didn’t blame Nintendo, of course. How could I? The games and hardware were still great; this had to be the fault of the marketing team. The GameCube, and the whole brand, was still taking a beating, unable to shake The Kiddie Image. This deliberate staffing decision was designed for maximum demographic coverage in the “cool” circles. This would be the start of a long, downward, spiral of bad marketing decision making. It was people trying to make Nintendo into Sony (of the time) and that’s just not what the Nintendo culture was (or is) about. It was difficult to understand these decisions until I got inside Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, WA and had more actual conversations with the people behind the scenes.
Nothing says "Nintendo" like Jake Busey shotgunning beers at Mardi Gras.
First thing first; Nintendo of America [NoA] is not, by any means or methods, Nintendo of Japan [NoJ]. NoA is like the misfit child send off to the strange land full of strange people. Well, at least it was back then, I’m not sure if things have changed now. Anyway, it’s 2003 and Nintendo is flailing both externally and internally. The GameCube is a distant 3rd place to both the PS2 and the XBOX. Nintendo is just not able to get a foothold on the rising “hardcore” gaming audience born from the new mature, gritty, titles on the competing systems. Innovative titles like Metroid: Prime are helping, but they just can’t stack up to the Grand Theft Auto’s and Halo’s of the current console generation. By this point, I have put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into executing marketing and promotion strategies aimed at restoring the legitimacy and gamer credibility of Nintendo’s brand. “Nintendo invented ‘hardcore’ gaming!” “Capitalize on nostalgia, don’t rely on it!“
In meetings it was clear NoJ could not understand why the brand had fallen so far here in North America or comprehend why the mature titles, and more powerful consoles, were so successful. Nintendo represented fun, in the purest sense of the word, they always have. When you play Nintendo games you laugh, you yell, you smile, and you jump around. You have FUN. Someone, sadly I forget who, would later quote in one of those meetings that “Consumers don’t want fun anymore; they just want to kill people… in HD.” It was actually kind of true, and with the cultural differences between Japan and the US, it was easy to understand the confusion. The problem, though, was that NoA wasn’t confused by the situation at all, they understood those cultural differences quite well, but even if they could defy the marching orders from NoJ, I’m not sure they even would have. Gaming was growing up. This is when things started to get real ugly for a while inside those hallowed walls. See, the attitude inside Nintendo had started to shift, or at least it seemed to, it may have always been like what I am about to describe.
If there is one universal thing I have come to understand about Nintendo employees, it is that they are stuffed to the brim with pride. I mean, understandably so, they’re Nintendo. That pride though, is unwavering, defiant, and sadly, at this point in the story, totally blinding. No one I talked to at Nintendo could understand why the company was struggling, why the whole brand was in danger of collapsing much like Sega before them. “But we’re Nintendo.” I can’t even recall how many times I heard that as a catch-all excuse. No one, not a single soul, could believe that Nintendo was capable of being unseated as Number 1, even while it was happening right in front of them. They were Nintendo, and therefore, as shown by history, the best. Why should they have to change anything? They were Nintendo. Just look at all they had done! They were NINTENDO. Who was anyone to tell them how they should run their company? NINTENDO! They invented the whole industry!
And then the worst possible thing started to happen, “The Shift”. Pride turned to arrogance. Ugly arrogance. Nintendo started to develop contempt for the gaming community. They felt as if they were being betrayed by the gamers they created. The marketing teams started to look at gamer focused strategies with ire and spite. The Nintendo hardcore were suddenly regarded as almost the enemy. The “hardcore” gamer audience, the Nintendo generation that had grown up, was no longer the target demographic. They had abandoned Nintendo, despite Nintendo refusing to grow with them. They didn’t want to. Deep down, locked away in their cold, withered, FPS addled, hearts, was a little sliver, warm and beating, hoping that Nintendo would make a glorious comeback. That the glory days of Raccoon Suits and Master Swords would soon again be upon us, grown up and ready to fulfill all those lingering hopes and dreams, to vibrantly recolor the faded memories. No one wanted to abandon Nintendo, but the company didn’t give them much choice. The “hardcore” Nintendo audience was equally cast aside. “Why bother? They’re going to buy anything we put out anyway.” I tried, with everything that I had left to fight that attitude. “These are the elite fans that will pull you out of this! They should be cherished and acknowledged!” I knew it was true, I was one of them!
Random Aside: In fact, I was both of those things, which is why, I suppose, they kept my rebellious mouth and attitude around the marketing office. I was still the target demographic, connected to the community, and wholly passionate about my work and the brand. My younger brother, Troy, who worked with me on occasion, had, by this time, wholly embraced the XBOX and the glory of Halo. He became fully convinced that the next generation consoles and their games were the only future. He abandoned Nintendo without a second thought, sick of the lack of any kind of serious titles (though he is still known to boot up 007: Nightfire). He was one of the hardcore that felt totally betrayed and abandoned by Nintendo and he was not shy about communicating that fact. I, on the other hand, still held on to a thread of hope. Maybe I’m a sucker for nostalgia (hint: I am), but I really, really, wanted to see Nintendo through this and help them pull out of their nosedive. There was so much history, so much potential. If they could just let go of the arrogance, all they had to do was one simple thing… give gamers what they want. That would become my mantra, but I would soon discover, no one at that time was listening.
Second Place is the First Loser
Something was in the works behind the scenes by this time. A secret, revolutionary, project that was going to change everything. First, though, the bleeding had to be stopped, or at least stemmed. We had to buckle down and save face. The decision was made to cede to Sony and Microsoft a bit and accept a stance of “The second console.” The reasoning was that by this point, everyone already had a PS2 or XBOX, so Nintendo, with a reduced GameCube price point, should shoot to be everyone’s Number 2. We became the “other console” and the target demographic would now be “everyone” (more accurately: “anyone”), and we’d work hard to get the last batch of “killer” games out in front of people to salvage what was left of the GameCube market and build some Nintendo buzz before this new gaming revolution hit. Nintendo was going to shake things up. It would turn out that it wasn’t just one big Nintendo hardware shake up, but two, and I was about to be on the front lines for them both.
Random Aside: Does that marketing strategy sound familiar? It should, it was used for the Wii too. It had it’s origins way back here though.
The first of 4 tour buses I would come to call "home".
So we roll up on the end of 2003. We’re talking about the next big push, a mobile, sponsored, concert series called Nintendo Fusion. The “fusion” part was of “music”, “games”, and “lifestyle” (though none of us could actually figure out what the “lifestyle” part really was). Nintendo would show off its newest hardware and titles during shows by today’s hottest artists. It was an interesting idea with a lot of potential and we were convinced that we could pull it off. That first year we hit the road with Evanescence, Cold, Cauterize, Finger Eleven, and Revis. Evanescence had been brilliantly (luckily?) contracted just prior to their explosion onto the music scene. They brought unexpectedly massive star power to the freshman tour and gave it instant credibility. I have tour stories from now until infinity, but those are for another time. I played a lot of Soul Calibur II and Viewtiful Joe on that tour. We sold out a lot of shows. It ended up being deemed a critical success.
Fast forward. It’s 2004 and a late night in New York City. I’m sitting in on a marketing meeting in the west side offices of US Concepts, a marketing company who handles promotions for Nintendo of America. I was in the meeting as a consultant (I’d been producing Nintendo marketing campaigns since the last Fusion Tour), but I was told that a condition of my attendance was to keep quiet. Recently appointed NoA Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing, Reggie Fils-Aime, was going to be in the this meeting and no one wanted me “nerding things up” in front of him. He had just come out guns blazing at that years E3. We would listen to what he said and we would all agree and nod politely while presenting the next Fusion outline and everything would be peachy keen. My job was to listen and translate all the "gamespeak" after it was over. The meeting started and I listened and watched and nodded politely.
If you’ve ever been in a serious marketing meeting with straight up marketing people and have had a single shred of caring, enthusiasm, or love, for the brand you’re discussing, then you know what it’s like to be heartbroken. Over and over again. That was this meeting. The buzzwords were flying hot and heavy. The insincerity was thicker than at a Los Angeles casting call. I couldn’t believe anyone actually was buying into all this. By this point, there was no love for the Nintendo faithful or even gamers in general. They were regarded as spoiled, fickle, rebellious, nerds. They would be told what was cool and like it. It went on like this for about 45 minutes. I got to hear about how Geist was going to be the next “Halo Killer”. About how the next Mario Party was going to be amazing (I think we were up to 7 by this point). About demographics, and music, and branding, and schwag, and on and on. I listened and watched and nodded politely.
And then at the end, Reggie looked around the table and basically said “Look, don’t bullshit me. How do you guys really think this thing is going to hold up?” No one said a word for a minute, and then people started just spouting off more marketing lingo and faux (self) assurance. None of these people were gamers, none of these people even LIKED video games. I had say something; something to represent what I felt was really going on out there in the community. A voice for the gamers, which I, at heart, still was. Looking back now, it seems like a trivial decision, to speak up, but at the time I was putting my job and involvement with this project on the line. “Honestly…” I said. Everyone on my side of the table looked down at me. It’s like in a movie, when everyone goes into slow motion and yells “Noooooo!” as something they expressly wanted not to happen, happens. I knew this could be the last thing I ever had a chance to say in all this, so I had to make it good.
I started with Geist. “Look, I’m sorry, but it’s pretty obvious that Geist is no ‘Halo Killer’. I’m not sure it’s much of an anything killer right now, except maybe fun.” I’d played the demo a bunch of times. It was not good. Do you remember playing it? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It was credibility suicide to leverage it as anything more (I would later have a great conversation with Spike TV about it, but that’s later). “If you want to talk ‘Halo Killer’, the closest things we have is Metroid Prime 2.” (Yes, I know that MP2 was not designed as a “First Person Shooter”, it was a “First Person Adventure”, but given the critical success of the first game and the disaster that was Geist, it was an accurate assessment). “I understand that Geist is not done yet (understatement of the year), but it really should not be a focus title, 1st party involvement or not.” I was met immediately with a rebuttal full of all the upcoming awesome marketing trivia about Geist from other people, but Reggie just sat quietly and listened. “The other game we should really be focusing on is Resident Evil 4.” It had been mentioned and glanced over in the meeting. “This game is going to sell consoles. Period.” This was the first time I saw any kind of expression register on Reggie’s face. It was an inquisitive look, an “Oh really?” look. I couldn’t believe no one else saw this. “Let me go out there and push these two games to the front, they are going to be huge.” It was a big risk on my part, actually, to force a 3rd party title in front like that, but I’d played the RE4 demo and (though admittedly an RE fan) was just blown away by it. It had to be given a spotlight of some kind. If we were going to fight the PS2 on their own turf, RE4 was the game to do it with.
And then there was the elephant in the room… The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Dear. God. It was barely even confirmed as real, with just a single trailer existing from that year’s E3. “Just let me talk about it with the public. Let me say something, anything. Let me confirm that it is real. Is there a demo? (there wasn’t) That game is exactly what we needed to get people talking about Nintendo again.” I went on to talk a little more about how we should execute the video game half of Fusion, the importance of sincere enthusiasm, and how important the “hardcore” Nintendo fans were to the success of this project. Reggie thanked me for my honesty, but I could feel the burning hot glares of my co-workers.
Nintendo Fusion 2004. Year 2.
After that meeting I was pulled aside, but not for the reason I was expecting. Turns out my honest approach was actually very well received. I had injected the meeting with the sincere passion and enthusiasm that Nintendo was looking for. My knowledge of the industry, the community, and the brand had lent serious credibility to the team. Nintendo Fusion 2004 was go. I was going to get my Resident Evil 4 demo for the road. I would also be getting to include Super Smash Bros. Melee (a HUGE win), F-Zero GX again and Super Mario Kart: Double Dash, which I had helped launch with the previous year’s “Who Are You?” tour. Twilight Princess was a no go, though I would come to discover why very shortly. 2004 was going to be a good year for the show… in theory.
To be continued…
Note: Sorry for some of the formatting issues, lack of more images, etc. The code here was getting more wonky the longer I went..
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