A conversation about Wii U with Jeff Ryan, the man who wrote the book on Nintendo

Jeff Ryan knows Nintendo. His Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America tells the story of the century-old company as a video game seller in this country, from its start as the peddler of mediocre arcade games to its current status as an industry behemoth whose name is synonymous with first-party quality. We asked Jeff for his thoughts on Nintendo’s new console, the Wii U, which launches next Tuesday.

How does Wii U fit into the context of Nintendo as a business?

For about twenty years Nintendo were going back and forth between thinking of themselves as a toy company and thinking of themselves as an entertainment company. They tried to become an electronics company; every Nintedo console from the Famicom on had some kind of modem capability. They tried to set up AOL-style walled gardens. They had a huge install base, but their install base wasn’t interested.

At some point right after N64 they realized that they weren’t going to be an electronics company. They were going to be the company that gives us Mario and Link. They embraced that with the GameCube by saying it wouldn’t have a DVD player and it wouldn’t play CDs — the things that you could do on the Xbox and the PlayStation 2.

That was to their detriment; the GameCube came in third and rightfully so, even though it was the cheapest console in that generation. They went back to their amusement roots for the Wii, and they developed hardware that you couldn’t play unless you had a Wii.  

But the rest of the industry has caught up. The Kinect is doing things that you can’t do with the Wii. With the Wii U, Nintendo was looking for another kind of hardware that you can’t play on 360 or PS3. On that level, it continues Nintendo’s trend of offering hardware limitation. If it’s good enough, people will buy it, and other game companies will copy them.

Do  you see the strategy of imposing hardware limitations as a contrivance purely for Nintendo to stay competitive with the big boys or a genuine dedication to innovating new ways of playing?

Both sides of that are right, though I really do think they lean more towards wanting to offer a new style of gameplay than to freezing other people out. Nintendo has yet to make a standard shooter. The closest thing they’ve done over the past three decades was to make Metroid a first person game, and even then it was a first person exploration game, not a standard shooter. It would be the easiest thing in the world for Nintendo to make a military shooter that would sell five million copies, but they won’t because they couldn’t make it sufficiently different. The ultimate proof of their innovation is that people copy them down the road.

The Wii had a very obvious and elegant elevator pitch that I could give cogently to my grandmother. I’m not sure the Wii U has that; I’ve been reading about it for more than a year and I’m still not sure I totally understand the nugget. How do you think this will effect the new system?

I think it will hurt. People didn’t quite get the 3DS because a “3D game” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. They need to come up with a better elevator pitch because “asymmetrical gameplay” doesn’t sound like something eight year olds will be bragging to each other about on the playground. 

It’s also asking a lot of developers. You could probably develop a fantastic two person football game, for example, but that takes a lot of work and then you can’t just port over the PS3 version of the new Madden and expect it to work that way. I’m not sure developers will jump onboard to make a games like that. The art doesn’t come first too much in the video game world.

I have this feeling, and it’s not backed up by too much evidence, that the Wii U is kind of a stopgap effort. When the Virtual Boy came out the idea was that it was Nintendo’s way of not putting out a true 32-bit system. They were going to wait out the 32-bit cycle and put out the N64 first. I think they don’t have a true successor to the Wii so they’ve taken a Wii and are offering HD graphics and a new controller, but not a radical change to gaming. Other than the controller, it’s like, you’re just joining the 21st century when it comes to computing power.

Look, Google couldn’t launch a social network; I don’t think Nintendo is going to be able to.

They’ve shown at demos they were trying to create some kind of hologram technology, in which you had, say, a light version of Mario and you could interact with that light. But maybe they don’t have that tech ready and it may not be ready for another five years. It could be the tech, or it could be cost, or both. You can’t put out a console that costs $1200.

They wanted to be first to market and put something out. So they took assymetrical gameplay and went with it.

What do you think of the media integration in the Wii U? 

At first I thought “wow they’re doing a DVR” — that’s interesting, because usually Nintendo tries to stay away from saying their game console is anything other than a game console. Their Netflix came a year after everyone else’s. People wanted their Wii to be a settop box, but Nintendo wanted to use the popularity of the Wii solely for games.

I think that they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. They’re not just offering DVR: it’s merged in with this unusual social network. They say that the more friends you have the more you get out of it because you know what your friends are watching and playing. I don’t need another social network in my life, especially a social network that lets me know exclusively what people who play Wii U are watching. I think the DVR will be dragged down by the social network.

Look, Google couldn’t launch a social network; I don’t think Nintendo is going to be able to.

Wii U doesn’t feel as “Nintendo-y” as past console releases; I don’t see Mario and Link everywhere. Is this deliberate? 

One of the things Nintendo did with the Wii was to deemphasize Mario branding, because Mario was sort of their core market. For Nintendo that segment skews younger and they were trying to get away from the idea that Nintendo is just for kids. So I think they are trying to build a new identity, which is why you see Nintendo Land and Animal Crossing without Mario. He’d be a perfect fit, but you don’t see him in there. It’s just Mario-ish instead.

I wrote a chapter for the paperback of my Nintedo book, a kind of modest proposal – Nintendo should make a theme park. Their characters have a huge Q score; much less well known characters are now established theme park characters. 

Mario has such value, and I think Nintendo is leaving a lot of dollars on the table by just keeping him in video games. If you see a Mario t-shirt it’s likely that Nintendo didn’t make it. If this was Disney they’d be maximizing revenue – putting Mario places that you wouldn’t expect to find him.

Why is this? You write extensively in the book about Nintendo’s huge branding effort around their characters in the late 80s and early 90s. 

I think this has to do with the whole amusement idea; Nintendo isn’t defining themselves as an entertainment company but as an amusement company. T-shirts are not an amusement; they are a little side business.

What would make the Wii U worthwhile, in Nintendo’s world, other than financial success?

Whatever their metric is, I don’t think they are going to have the immediate success they did with the Wii. I think the market has changed too much.

For people that bought a Wii, that system is still good; it may be dusty and they may not use it that often but there is no reason for them to spend another 350 bucks to get a Wii U. I’m not sure what audience there is that is going to get a Wii U that has a Wii but doesn’t have a 360 or a PS3.

What would it take for Nintendo to become like Sega, a sofware company trading on existing franchises?

I think making software for other companies is Nintendo’s nightmare scenario. It’s a nightmare for them but wouldn’t be for the rest of the world. A 360 Zelda would be amazing. There’s no question Nintendo does very well financially and they wouldn’t do as well as making hardware; that’s why they’ll never put out a Mario app. The smartphone market is pennies compared to what theyr’e getting for 3DS games.

They won’t even put out Excitebike as a five-dollar app. If you want Nintendo software you need to buy Nintendo hardware.