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Nintendo: playing the long game?

It's been a mixed few weeks for us Nintendo fans. In fact, the past few months have been something of a smorgasbord regarding good news and bad. When the Wii U initially launched, it moved more units than either the PS3 or 360, and made Nintendo more money than the Wii's launch. By any definition, that sounds like a pretty good launch. Now we're being told that the console only shifted 55,000 units in January, which isn't all that rosy no matter how you look at it. We had a Nintendo Direct about three weeks ago revealing a veritable host of upcoming games for the console, with the promise that more are on the way. And yet just last week, Rayman Legends got kicked all the way to September, and one of the Wii U's most intriguing exclusives is now exclusive no longer.

For every bit of good news, there's been something to dampen proceedings somewhat, and it's easy to ask just what Nintendo's gameplan with the console is. So far this year, the console hasn't had a huge amount of software, and things aren't looking to get much better until March, when Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate, NFS: Most Wanted U and Lego City finally end the dry spell. When you compare that to the slew of titles already made available this year for PS3 and 360, it's easy to feel like Nintendo hasn't so much dropped the ball as purposefully kicked it down a well.

But perhaps we're looking at things from the wrong perspective. If there's one thing Nintendo is known for, it's banking on financial strategies that aren't always obvious from the outset. The DS and Wii are testament to that.

Here's the thing. The 360 and PS3 are currently on their last hurrah. Their successors are all but guaranteed to be announced this year, and with them the 8th generation of consoles will get into full swing. So when we see the glut of titles releasing for PS360 this year, we're seeing developers getting their final games out for consoles that are soon to be replaced.

Now, while we know very little about PS4 and Nextbox outside of rumours, there is a common consensus that they're both going to be released towards the end of this year, with the PS4 at least expected to be announced imminently. With the release of both, Microsoft and Sony are going to be changing their strategies, and focusing on getting their new machines established. But here's where it gets interesting. Because from what Nintendo have been telling us in their interviews and Direct videos, they themselves have got quite a few titles penned in for release towards the end of this year.

What does that have to do with anything? It's simple. I think Nintendo may well have been rather crafty. When the PS4 and Nextbox launch, they're both going to be very expensive consoles, with launch titles of questionable quality. The 360 launched with the likes of Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo and Quake 4 amongst others. None of those exactly set the world on fire. In fact, it took a while for the 360 to start getting real must-have titles in its library, first enduring the likes of Bullet Witch. The PS3 was even worse. It launched with titles like Genji, Sonic '06 and Ridge Racer 7. There were decent titles mixed in there as well, but again, nothing deemed a killer-app. Generally though, we just accept that as the way of things. Console launch games are always somewhat dodgy, and you pick the console up on the promise of future, better titles.

Anyone remember this? Anyone at all?

When the PS4 and Nextbox launch, there's bound to be a lot of crap mixed in with whatever good launch games they have. And here is where Nintendo may have positioned themselves rather advantageously. Because the period when the other 8th-gen machines are rumoured to come out is also the period where they're likely to be bringing some of their heavy hitters to the market. They've already confirmed Wind Waker HD for the end of this year, and they're heavily hinting that we're likely to see new Smash Bros and 3D Mario before the year is out, as well as the SMT/Fire Emblem crossover game. If they time these releases to coincide with the release of Sony and Microsoft's machines, that will give them one hell of a hand. Not only will they already, at that point, have a back-catalogue of games like Pikmin 3, MH3 and Wonderful 101, but they'll be releasing four of their heaviest-hitting titles to entice consumers with.

You know this is going to drive gamers batshit.

What will Sony and Microsoft have to offer on launch that can match new Mario and Smash Bros? I highly doubt there'll be a Naughty Dog game from Sony, as they're already committed to The Last Of Us. Santa Monica is similarly committed to GOW: Ascension. Halo got dished up just last year by 343 on 360, so it's highly unlikely they'll already have the next instalment ready to go for launch this year. Epic have got their latest Gears Of War down for this year. All the big guns for Sony and Microsoft already seem to have prior engagements with the PS3 and 360, so it's doubtful we're going to see next-gen versions of well known exclusives to help generate enthusiasm at launch. They're going to be relying on the usual round of somewhat questionable launch titles that they have done for generations prior, and that gives Nintendo a unique opportunity to steal some of the thunder.

To me, this sounds especially plausible when you look at what happened with the 3DS. Similarly to the Wii U, the 3DS got about a year's headstart on it's more technologically advanced competition. It's library was similarly bare at launch. But then, just as Sony was getting ready to release the Vita, Nintendo started bringing out the games like Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus, Mario Kart 7, and getting third party titles out like Resident Evil- Revelations. All of a sudden, it had a rather attractive looking library compared to the Vita's one-two hit of Uncharted and Gravity Daze. The 3DS started taking off properly, and the Vita ended up stumbling at the starting line.

Of course, it wasn't just the games. The fact that the 3DS had been given a hefty price cut no doubt helped things along. But still, the fact remains that Nintendo managed to get some of their best games for the system, games that people had been waiting to get their hands on for over half a year or more, at the same time that Sony were just trying to get their new handheld off the ground. And to many, many consumers, the 3DS all of a sudden looked like a much more attractive option.

Perhaps it was just fortuitous timing. But even if so, I highly doubt Nintendo weren't writing down notes and seeing just what caused the 3DS to start taking off. And the strategy with the Wii U seems to me far too similar to be pure coincidence. If they weren't worried about the next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony, I think they'd have spaced their releases far more evenly throughout the year. As it is, we're apparently going to be getting a lot of high profile releases at right about the time the competition will be wanting gamers to look at their new offerings. Once again, that's either chance timing by Nintendo, or they know damn well the best way to steal the thunder is to bring out your heavies right when your competition can't compete with them.

After all, it's worth remembering that the period when Sony was launching the PS3 was also the period Microsoft was finally getting some exclusives worth getting excited about. Namely, Gears Of War. And that hurt Sony a lot. Timing your exclusives right is one of the best ways to mess up a competitor's launch, and get all eyes on you instead. All three know this, and Nintendo is thus far the only one placed to be able to pull that off.

I could very well be wrong. The videogame industry is a horrible, writhing mess of incoherent business decisions and facepalm worthy economics, so it may well be that Nintendo legitimately didn't mean for the start of 2013 to be a drought for the Wii U. I'm certain they were at least counting on Legends to carry February for them, a notion Ubisoft has made sure to shatter. But looking at the way Wii U titles are weighted right now, and the way the industry seems to be pushing its momentum for the year's end, I'd be very surprised if they're not trying the 3DS approach again, and taking a long-game approach in competing with the PS4/Nextbox, as opposed to actively trying to compete with the PS3 and 360 now.

This isn't meant as some kind of Ooh-Rah Nintendo blog or anything, though I will admit I do prefer them out of the Big Three. Instead, this is meant as an analysis on the sort of methods and intrigue that make up corporate videogame behaviour. All three companies are in competition with each other, and it can be very interesting to sit down and try and work out the various strategies they're using to try and get the edge. We've already seen with Nintendo, with several successive consoles, that they're either the luckiest sons of bitches working in the industry, or they've got the sort of killer instinct that could shame a great white shark. Going up against the Vita, and with the advent of smartphones and tablets, no-one expected the 3DS to succeed. Instead, it's going from strength to strength, with 2013 looking to be its best year yet, with the Vita still struggling to get off the ground, and smartphones having seemingly little effect at all. With the Wii U, expectations are similarly low, and I wonder if Nintendo aren't simply hanging back in order to give themselves more running space when the competition reveals their hand.

Who knows? That's the joy of speculation in this industry. As it goes though, I think the old adage still holds true. No matter how things look, never count Nintendo out. They'll always end up surprising you.
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About TitusGroanone of us since 8:55 AM on 11.03.2012