Nintendo Confronts a Changed Video Game World

TUCKED in the woods here, west of State Route 520, is a little piece of the Mario Kingdom.

Behind the unassuming doors is the business built by Mario, the pudgy plumber, and Luigi, his lanky brother, as well as characters like Link, wielder of the mystical Master Sword, and Princess Zelda, of the royal family of Hyrule. All of them, and more, are the pixelated children of Shigeru Miyamoto, the Walt Disney of video games and creative genius of the Nintendo Company of Japan.

Nintendo Confronts a Changed Video Game World
But while Mr. Miyamoto is dreaming his dreams across the Pacific, an army of marketing types is at work here in Redmond, inside the shiny new headquarters of Nintendo of America. This palace of play is quiet, but there’s trouble brewing in the world around it: three decades after the mustachioed Mario burst into arcades via Donkey Kong, plucking countless quarters from people’s pockets, the kingdom is under siege.

Nintendo’s enemies have arrived by battalions. Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and other inexpensive, downloadable games, particularly for cellphones and tablets, have invaded its turf. Changing tastes and technology have called into question the economics of traditional game consoles, whether from Nintendo or Microsoft, maker of the Xbox. Nintendo recently posted the first loss in its era as a video games company, a prospect that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. And while game consoles aren’t going away, analysts are skeptical that the business will regain its former stature soon.

All of which makes Nintendo’s next move, and what is happening here, so crucial. Nintendo counterattacked on Nov. 18, when a new version of its Wii game console arrived in stores nationwide.

The original Wii, the first wireless, motion-capturing console, was nothing less than revolutionary. The simplicity of its controller, which Mr. Miyamoto helped design, attracted new audiences like women and older people. Customers lined up in stores for it — and then it simply faded. Now, the new console, the Wii U, may be Nintendo’s last, best hope for regaining its former glory. Executives are hoping for a holiday hit, and perhaps even another runaway success.

Initial demand appears high. GameStop, the video game retailer, opened 3,000 stores at midnight on Thursday for Black Friday sales, and before long almost all its Wii Us were sold out, according to Tony Bartel, GameStop’s president. “I think people are starving for innovation, and Wii U is giving them that innovation," Mr. Bartel says. 

THE Wii U is a recognition that the living room is no longer the province of a single screen. More people, particularly the young, now watch TV with a smartphone or tablet in hand, the better to tweet a touchdown or update their Facebook status during a commercial. The Wii U looks like a mash-up of an iPad and a traditional console, with a touch screen embedded in the middle. It’s no mere festival of joysticks, buttons and triggers.

But will it be the blowout that Nintendo needs? Many industry veterans and game reviewers are skeptical. They question whether the Wii U can be as successful as the original, now that many gamers have moved on to more abundant, cheaper and more convenient mobile games.

“I actually am baffled by it,” Nolan K. Bushnell, the founder of Atari and the godfather of the games business, says of the Wii U. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big success.”

The bigger question is what the future holds for any of the major game systems, including new ones that Sony and Microsoft are expected to release next year. Echoing other industry veterans, Mr. Bushnell says that consoles are already delivering remarkable graphics and that few but the most hard-core players will be willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a new game box.

“These things will continue to sputter along, but I really don’t think they’ll be of major import ever again,” he says. “It feels like the end of an era to me.”

Nintendo is unbowed. Mr. Miyamoto was involved in developing the original Wii, and had a role in the Wii U as well. He rarely gives interviews, and was unavailable for comment for this article.

But one recent evening in Redmond, Corey Olcsvary, a Nintendo product marketing specialist, was slashing his fingers across the touch screen on the GamePad, as the Wii U controller is called, casting “throwing stars” at a ninja gang that sprang from the corners of a giant TV screen. In another game, a group of players chased Mario — one of the most popular video game characters ever — around a maze shown on a TV while Mr. Olcsvary stared at a bird’s-eye view of the maze on his GamePad and tried to help Mario dodge his pursuers. The players shouted when they caught sight of Mario’s red overalls and cheered when they tackled him.

Starting in December, people will also be able to use the GamePad as a remote control to set recordings and change channels on their cable and satellite TV services.

November 25, 2012

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