The Secret to Nintendo’s Success Isn’t “Different,” It’s “Better”
For whatever reason, Nintendo has gotten it in their heads that the value they bring to players comes from how unique they are.
I guess this is kind of true — no other console maker is betting the farm on a mascot Kart racing game (Mario Kart 8 Deluxe), a 3D fighting game (Arms), a non-military shooter (Splatoon 2), a 3D platformer (Super Mario Odyssey), and a niche JRPG (Xenoblade Chronicles 2) in 2017.
But what makes Nintendo’s games so compelling isn’t that they’re unique. It’s that they’re really really good.
Look at Breath of the Wild. There’s nothing unusual about an open-world action RPG in 2017. Breath of the Wild is ostensibly a response to the popularity explosion open-world games have undergone in the last decade. Zelda has had to play catch up.
But the Zelda team did more than “catch up.” They delivered something far beyond what the rest of the industry was doing. It wasn’t that other open-world games didn’t have neat physics or environment-climbing or (sometimes) hang-gliding — there are other games that do. But they don’t often get the mix just right in the way Breath of the Wild does. There’s a level of craftsmanship from Nintendo that you just don’t generally see from other developers.
Eiji Aonuma may talk about “surprise” being one of Nintendo’s defining development axioms, but the big surprise this time was that we got a Zelda game that is so dynamic and rich and massive that people scrambled to buy systems off the shelves so they can play it.
This idea runs through Nintendo’s DNA. No one cared that NES was different than Atari; they cared that it played Mario. No one bought Wii for the innovative Wii Remote; they bought Wii for Wii Sports and Wii Fit and all its other hit games. No one played Pokémon Go because it had never been done before (indeed, Pokémon Go is basically a clone of Niantic’s other game, Ingress); they played it because the idea of catching Pokémon in the real world is incredibly compelling.
The winning theme isn’t “different”; it’s “better.” People want to play Nintendo games because Nintendo games are fun, approachable, and likable — all objectively good qualities. They avoid Nintendo games when they’re not fun, not approachable, and not likable, no matter how different they are.
Was the Battle Mode in the original Mario Kart 8 loved because it was different and unique? No, it was almost universally maligned, while the “return to form” in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is probably the best Battle Mode has ever been.
Did people think Other M was amazing because it used a unique control scheme and told its story differently than other Metroid games? No, it was a commercial flop that has people wondering when we’ll get a real Super Metroid sequel.
And you played Star Fox Zero, right? Just kidding, you probably didn’t, and you probably didn’t even own a Wii U.
The fact of the matter is, “different” is probably the least reliable predictor of Nintendo’s success. Their “unique” ideas can and often do fail, often precisely because no one gives a crap about the things that make them unique.
You know what people do reliably care about? Products that are good — that are better than other stuff on the market. It’s why Breath of the Wild is the new hotness in the open world of open-world games. It’s why Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is selling like crazy even though it’s a three-year-old game. It’s why people are excited for Switch, a console that basically just takes a bunch of existing good ideas, developed over the last ten years of advancement in mobile and dedicated video game computers, and puts them together in one attractive package.
That Sony and Microsoft haven’t already thought to make their consoles mobile will definitely help Nintendo — but that Switch is first and foremost an actually good, forward-thinking idea is what matters most.
If there’s anything Nintendo needs to take away from their early success this generation, it’s that “better” is always better.