North Wind And Sun

On being loved by a multi-national corporation

Posted in Economics, Nintendo by Ricardo Bilton on 20-July-2008

I’ve never put much stock in analyzing the actions and motives of corporations from any vantage other than profit. Profit is what makes a company tick. Milton Friedman said that “because doing so is legally required of of corporate executives, profit must be the ultimate of all business decisions.”

So color me cynical when I read something like this tear-jerker posted on Nintendo blog GoNintendo. In it, blogger RawMeatCowBoy relays his thoughts on an interview with Nintendo Vice President of Corporate Affairs Denise Kaigler. It’s a heartfelt, earnest post and I would encourage anyone interested in the current conflict between Nintendo’s core gamer and Nintendo’s stockholders to read it.

But there are a number of things about it that, through no fault of the author’s, strike me as a bit false and insincere, and much of it comes from a simple look at Nintendo’s recent history.

Over the past few years, Nintendo has launched itself from the doldrums third-place status in the console race to the dominant and well-earned position of market leader. It’s done this through pursuing what is called a “blue ocean” strategy, a strategy that vaunts innovation as a means by which to tap into new markets. Nintendo’s “blue ocean” was the largely untapped market of what became known as the “casual market.” This group consisted of those traditionally ignored by the video game industry – in particular mothers, the elderly, and young women – and Nintendo’s goal was to morph them into their newest income source.

Their strategy  paid off. Realizing that the number of people who did not play video games far outnumbered the number that did, Nintendo crafted titles aimed at attracting these new gamers. But they first had to answer a number of questions, many of which dug deep down to what the heart of what video gaming had come to be. Why had the term “gamer” become synonymous with geeky basement dwellers? Why did some people seem afraid of video game controllers? How can developers make games for those who had never touched a video game before in their lives?

The answers to these questions resulted in the invention of Nintendo’s two newest consoles – the Nintendo DS and Wii. These consoles radically redefined the gaming climate, and, led by Nintendo’s lucrative new strategy, launched the gaming industry – for better or for worse – into the the era of the expanded audience, i.e, the casual gamer.

But for Nintendo loyalists, this new era was fraught with a number of uncertainties. If the new focus was on the more lucrative casual game market, where did that leave the “core” gamer? Would Nintendo abandon those that stood by the company, even through the tumultuous GameCube years, in favor of increased profits? Would the traditional idea of the video game evaporate with the emergence of Nintendo’s new strategy?

This uncertainty was certainly brought to the fore once again with Nintendo’s recent, decidedly poor, E3 showing. For “core gamers” it couldn’t have been worse. Nintendo showed off a new iteration in the fan-favorite series Animal Crossing, a new Wii Sports title, and the painfully simple Wii Music. All of these were first-party, AAA-quality Nintendo titles, to be sure, but they weren’t what those who were really paying attention to E3 were looking for. Where were the core titles, the Mario‘s, the Zeldas? Weren’t they promised a new Kid Icraus?  (They weren’t.) Had Nintendo really forgotten the core gamer and the loyal Nintendo stalwart?

Enter RawMeatCowboy and his interview with Kaigler. Cowboy runs the very popular Nintendo blog GoNintendo, which I visit fairly often. The popularity of his blog, and the often rabid enthusiasm of its readers, seems to inspire Cowboy to think of himself as a type of representative for his readers. During his fifteen-minute interview with Kaigler, he addresses many of the concerns that core gamers are having with Nintendo’s new strategy, and, in particular, their issues with games presented at this year’s E3.

Responding to the question of the direction Nintendo was taking with its games, Kaigler points to the past few years as evidence that Nintendo has not shafted the core gamer in favor of the casual audience. Titles like Mario Kart, Twilight Princess, and Mario Galaxy, Kaigler says, are proof that Nintendo had not forgotten who their core constituents are.

Cowboy then goes into a thoughtful, philosophical adventure into Nintendo’s casual strategy, comparing Nintendo to television and their games to programs designed for everyone. It makes tons of sense, and I am certain that a number of GoNintendo readers forced themselves to begrudgingly agree with the analogy.

But I can almost hear the crescendo as Cowboy approaches his next point. Marking it as the statement that made the whole interview worth it, Cowboy says that Kaigler, honestly and sincerely, said the following:

Nintendo loves you.

As I read this, I could hardly stifle a groan. Like I said above, I’ve never been too convinced that a company like Nintendo, whom I have been a regular costumer of for most of my life, can afford to concern itself with emotions like love and duty. Uttered in that context, “love” becomes a PR word. The subtext of love, that fanciful notion typical of us fleshy humans, is a bit more cold and robotic: Profit. A corporation is not human. It can not love a group of people. If we view a corporation like a Darwinian machine, the symbiotic relationship typical of love becomes an evolutionary strategy. It’s another tool to be used in an effort to increase profits,  the corporation’s version of fitness.

Dangerous? Slightly.
Dangerous? Slightly.

This is why I think it’s dangerous to take these sorts of comments at face value. When we treat a PR spokesperson or Vice President like a personal friend, as someone whose views trump their company’s continuing quest for profits, we are setting ourselves up for disaster. In the case of the core versus casual debate, economic forces could cause Nintendo veer in a completely new direction, one that just might cause them to completely ignore their loyal core gamer. An event like that, as heartless as fans might take it to be, is completely natural in the corporate world. As glacial as it might seem, a corporation only values its customers as much as those customers are capable of producing revenue. Once a bloc of consumers ceases to become economically-useful, they cease to become relevant.

It’s safer, certainly, to see Miyamoto, Reggie, and Iwata as our best buds, those who hold our best interests at heart, but we cannot forget that those love-able figures have families to feed. And we don’t write their checks.

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