Saturday, March 14, 2009

The History of Nintendo Systems

Nintendo is in the unique position that it must produce a new hardware product every three years or so (including home systems and portable systems). As a result, some of its ventures have been more successful than others. Let’s take a look at some successful products and some less successful products to see how they did when attempting to overcome the new risks and challenges with each product.

Although it seems that videogame hardware would be fairly straightforward, as new technology progresses, the opportunities progress as well. Nintendo must take advantage of the latest technology, ideas, and innovations or else their competition will take advantage of them and have more success.

The first product we’ll take an in-depth look at is the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) from 1985. That was Nintendo’s first big console success (they’ve had a few successful arcade ventures before that). Atari had died down and the videogame industry was thought to be dead. Nintendo sought to do what Atari was doing previously, but they wanted to take it to the next level with arcade-like graphics (they do not compare to the graphics today’s games, but they were cutting edge for their time), scrolling environments (this was a new innovation at its time), games with many items and power-ups (also an innovation), a new innovative controller (they invented the cross pad for this system), innovative supporting peripherals (like the Zapper and Power Pad), and a large library that covered all the genres.

Along with a stellar advertising campaign that made the games look cool, Nintendo was able to overcome the high risks and investments to produce an innovative system and get people excited about games once again. One of the biggest opportunities that they took advantage of was covering all the genres. Because they had all the sports games, athletic types started playing videogames. The puzzles attracted the parents. The arcade games attracted their existing audience. And the new trailblazers like Mario, Zelda, and Metroid built new audiences. They had to truly look at their broad portfolio to make the biggest impact.

The NES succeeded because of graphics, game mechanics, controller innovation (the cross pad), supporting peripheral devices (including the Zapper), and a large library that covered all the genres and appealed to all audiences. Their next home console, the Super NES, also was the most successful console of its generation, and it succeeded because of having the best graphics (including innovations with 3-D scrolling techniques, the first 3-D polygon games, and 3-D rendered side-view games), game mechanics, controller innovation (the shoulder buttons), supporting peripheral devices, and a huge library (with new genres like Pilotwings).

Next, Nintendo made a few critical mistakes. They abandoned a console they paid Sony to make, which used a CD-based system. They foresaw the troubles of CD-burning piracy and wanted to stick with cartridges for the Nintendo 64. They also continued to ignore online gaming because they didn’t see how it would profit the company. As a result, Sony released the technology themselves in the form of PlayStation, and they took over the industry. The CD technology was preferred by game companies (in addition to PlayStation’s better graphics), and PlayStation ended up with the larger, well-rounded library. For the first time, Nintendo didn’t adopt the latest and greatest technology. Despite that huge bump, Nintendo fought hard and secured a solid second place due to game updates to 3-D (most were masterfully done), controller innovation (analogue control stick and rumble feedback), and a large library of fun games (including games that opened new genres like Goldeneye and Smash Brothers).

However, in the next round Nintendo slipped even further. The new console Xbox came on the screen and Nintendo’s GameCube slid just under the Xbox in sales, making it the #3 system. Nintendo finally upgraded to a disc technology and more competitive graphics, but they didn’t have the game library that turned heads (most of their sequels were seen as inferior to previous versions), they still didn’t invest in online features, and they didn’t get as much support from other game companies, which made their game library even more lacking. Despite these issues, they still performed well enough and included controller innovations (analogue buttons and radio-controlled remote controllers).

Meanwhile, after the NES was released, Nintendo also released the first portable system in 1989 (Game Boy) and created a new product industry. Nintendo never had the best graphics, but they managed to stay on top of the portable industry every time since, including releases of the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Nintendo DS. This was mostly due to having a huge library (where they keep re-releasing previous games), the most innovative games, and the lowest-cost system. Also, with the Nintendo DS, they took it to higher levels with hardware innovations (using two screens and an optional stylus) and new genres (brain training and virtual pets).

The next example is Nintendo’s least-successful product, Virtual Boy. Nintendo took a huge risk by releasing a product that utilized new technology to create a unique 3-D experience. The Virtual Boy was a mask-like viewer that you put up against your eyes to see a virtual, 3-D world. It might have started out like a great, innovative idea, but technology, costs, and usability issues took over as they developed it. First and most importantly, they couldn’t get enough memory and power into the unit to support multiple colors and to get the graphics competitive with the 3-D graphics on home consoles at the time. That meant that they were left with red and black graphics that weren’t visually impressive. Second, they didn’t have a solution for how to make it truly portable, so it was released as a portable system, but you still had to stand it up on a table when you used it, thus limiting your experience to using it with a table and chair combination that was the correct height, and thus making it not portable. As a result of these two issues, there weren’t enough third party games released for the system, and so the system didn’t have the library of titles that the successful Nintendo systems have had.

The Virtual Boy was doomed from the start, before it launched. It seemed to be a case where it was a product that seemed like a great, innovative idea when it was first conceived, but the technology, costs, and usability issues limited the value too heavily. Nintendo was moving forward because it was a great use of new technology, but they didn’t stop before launching the product. They should have researched and re-evaluated the product before launching it, to make sure the product they made was valuable to the consumer and not the product they originally imagined (because they didn’t end up making the product that they originally imagined).

The final example is Nintendo’s latest and arguably greatest success, the Nintendo Wii. After releasing their least successful home console, Nintendo GameCube, Nintendo went back to the drawing board and took a look at what made them innovative with their previous systems. What they ended up with is still astounding. As with their previous successes, the Nintendo Wii included controller innovation (motion controllers that you can move to control the games; this opened up new audiences and made everybody a potential gamer), supporting peripheral innovation (Nunchucks for two hands, Zapper, Wheel, and Wii Balance Board), updates to the popular franchises, and a large library that opened up new genres for non-gamers (Mii custom avatar characters, casual sports and games, brain training, casual music-playing, and physical fitness). They also rolled out a marketing plan that marketed the devices to families, parents, and grandparents, people who normally don’t play games. As a result, the sales broke every type of record even though most of the games are purposefully simplified in graphics.


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