[Nintendad Coffeehouse] I’m Not a Nintendo Stockholder, Neither are You

Written by Abram Buehner

It Began on Twitter

I spend a lot of time on Twitter, mainly in the Nintendo circles. I’m far from Twitter famous, but I often get fairly good engagement on my posts. This leads to some really engaging conversation as I share in the communal discussion. Yesterday, I had one such conversation after writing, “Nintendo’s sales are excellent but the fixation on them is odd. The sales didn’t matter to fans when the numbers were terrible. Either we hold Nintendo to a consistent standard or we don’t. I’m not a shareholder, so beyond context, I don’t care if Animal Crossing sells 20 copies or 20m copies.” I was debated on this statement, and what came of that was rather productive.

It also made me realize how ideas of this scale shouldn’t be articulated on Twitter. I needed to offer more context and really unpack the idea that I shared, getting to the heart of my tension with a more nuanced hand.

To paint first with the broadest brush – I don’t find discussing Nintendo’s sales figures to be particularly compelling. As I made reference to in my original Tweet, I’m not a stockholder. In the most reductive sense, I don’t care if Nintendo does well financially. Naturally, such a position lacks a lot of nuance that we’ll discuss later. But, in a selfish sense, I might even prefer Nintendo doing poorly.

A Counterintuitive Consideration

It’s a counterintuitive point but one that warrants examination. Think back to the GameCube. With a scant 22 million systems sold, Nintendo openly referred to the machine as a failure. However, I’d be hard pressed to look at the incredible catalog of games to come out of that box and call it a failure. Nintendo was aggressive with new IP, creative with their existing franchises. It was a golden era for software-level innovation, as well as nimble business deals. Remember the Capcom Five, anyone?

In modern examples, both the Wii U and 3DS proved to be compelling ecosystems in light of their financial turmoil. Of course, the 3DS course-corrected before too long – but it did so on the back of deeply engaging software, aggressive price cuts, and initiatives such as the Ambassador Program. From there, Nintendo never let up, but they wouldn’t have even hit the gas so hard if not for the initial failings of the machine. The Wii U, for all of its inherent shortcomings, also still provided one of the most interesting suites of exclusive software Nintendo has assembled. The machine may have only pushed 13 million hardware units, but it offered a lively user interface and an even more vibrant range of exclusives.

The Obvious Fact

Source: Nintendo

I’m not saying that in order for Nintendo to create great games the company needs to do poorly. That’s obviously a deeply flawed premise. The healthier and more profitable an ecosystem is, the more games are brought to the platform. More money circulates for development, more outside teams bring titles to the machine, more players fill up online lobbies. These are all objective, integral positives, and the ones listed only scratch the surface of the benefits to a financially successful ecosystem.

My point is merely that at Nintendo’s most successful financially sucessful or its least, my metric for engagement is never the IR data. It’s the consumer experience because that’s what I am: a consumer.  Nintendo is full of friendly faces and individuals who, on an interpersonal level, could easily become friends. However, Nintendo, as an entity, is not my friend. Its financial health is not my foremost concern, just as my power as a consumer isn’t Nintendo’s. You need to look no further than the de-listing of the Wii U’s $20 digital version of Pikmin 3 after the announcement of the Switch’s $60 Deluxe port. It goes without saying that I’d never align myself with such an anti-consumer move.

What I align myself with are the interests of the player. I care about Nintendo’s release calendar. I care about Nintendo’s communication. I care about Nintendo’s innovation. When I assert that Nintendo needs to speak to its audience more clearly and balance its schedule more effectively, the last thing I’m concerned with is whether droughts are permissible on the grounds of Animal Crossing: New Horizons selling – and continuing to sell – more copies than I could fathom. Why should I? Why should you? I bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons on launch day and it was the same polished, engaging title it is today back before sales data dropped.

Animal Crossing’s Absurd Success

Source: Level Push

The game doesn’t ripen with each million copies it sells. Nintendo hasn’t claimed to be releasing more DLC for the title now that it’s an astronomical success. Materially, no matter how many or few units the game was destined to sell, the gameplay experience wouldn’t have changed. I gain no benefit from New Horizon’s financial success. I take no solace in an empty release calendar being acceptable because New Horizons continues to move hardware. I’m a player and a student of the industry and this medium – not a stockholder.

Of course, there is merit to pointing out the ways in which Animal Crossing’s unparalleled dominance affects Nintendo’s calendar. As much as gaming is an art form and a hobby, it’s a business. That’s important context and perspective to have. This is a situation where multiple things are true at once. Understanding financial results and sales data offers rationale that we must use to ground our opinions in fact. Hell, I wrote an entire piece about the Metroid series through the lens of its historically poor sales, in which I reframed the conversation in that reality. This sort of realism is imperative.

But, that realism does not invalidate legitimate and essential player-side critiques. Perhaps the market has spoken and said that Nintendo rolling with a barren second-half of 2020 is perfectly acceptable. As illustrated most recently with the aforementioned pulling of Pikmin 3, the market doesn’t always carry the best interest of the consumer. The market says that AAA development riddled with season passes, persistent worlds, and microtransations are effective. The market clearly isn’t the arbiter of the player experience nor does the market speak for it. Profit-chasing often doesn’t align with quality, and when I don’t receive a cut of those profits, it’s the quality that matters. Again, I’m not a stockholder. See the refrain?

What Truly Matters

Source: Nintendo

This clears the way for the heart of the issue. Above the conditions of the player and the dynamics of the ecosystem, I’m most engaged by the games themselves. I love how each is a function of the creator’s mind, an extension of their imagination. I love to analyze design and judge games based on intrinsic merit. I want to dissect mechanics and celebrate achievements. I want to talk about the emotions a game evokes, the experiences it allows. I want to touch worlds that, just fifty years ago, existed only in the imagination. I want to talk about games as an interwoven canvas of artistic expression and meticulous skill. I want to share how a game has affected me and what I see in it with others. I want to hear the interpretations and critiques of others.

When sales information is injected into these sorts of conversations, tribalism comes along with it. Suddenly, I’m back in the hall of my high school comparing test scores with other kids. It’s a numbers game. The question, the content, is made irrelevant. Suddenly, it’s a matter of greater or less than. I want to talk about Super Mario Party through the lens of it being a local multiplayer game that facilitates genuine camaraderie and competition through a package replete with creativity and charm but incomplete in terms of content depth. I want to discuss how NDCube can grow the series while iterating upon what they have, evolving that foundation. I don’t want to be told that the game sold ten million units, so it doesn’t really matter if it had flaws. That misses the point – it eschews the axiom that we’re all players searching for the best experience.

Finding Balance

I don’t want to use the Switch’s sales to dunk on PlayStation and Xbox. I don’t want to turn comparative hardware figures into a setup for a punchline. I don’t care that several Switch exclusives have outsold all of PS4’s first-party titles. I want to celebrate PlayStation’s commitment to storytelling and fidelity. I want to celebrate Microsoft’s commitment to the empowering the player through services. I want to understand the dynamics between the big three and parcel out where each fits into the next-gen landscape. To do so, I have to factor in and pay due diligence to sales data and IR reports. But communally, we have to recognize our position relative to sales figures, who those sales figures actually benefit, and how we should interpret them effectively.

As such, recognizing and contextualizing market forces is important. But, using them as the last word in discussions ignores what’s most important – the player experience. The games industry is a dance of artistic creativity and business fundamentals. Acknowledging both and the ways they harmonize makes you a more acute thinker. However, just as every dancing pair as a leader, so do art and business. One sets the tempo, the other follows. As a player, art dominates.

Guidance from the Past

Source: Destructiod

I’m reminded of the late Satoru Iwata’s famous quote, “on my business card, I’m a corporate president. In my mind, I’m a game developer. But in my heart, I’m a gamer.” That is the sort of philosophy that sets Nintendo apart. That dedication to innovative thinking and compassionate leadership reminds me why Nintendo is special. To me, while Iwata’s tenure comprises only a portion of Nintendo’s lineage, no one quote will ever resonate with me more, no one statement will ever feel more authentic. Iwata knew that Nintendo is more than a simply a for-profit company. He embodied the spirit of ingenuity and creativity that has always driven Nintendo.

On my business card, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Nintendad. In my mind, I’m a writer and an artist. In my heart, I’m a gamer. I’ll never deny the business realities of this industry. But, I’ll never allow the imaginative spark of this medium to become subservient to a financial report. I’ll always hold up monetary missteps like Nintendo Labo, championing them alongside sales juggernauts like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But, I’ll evaluate them in the terms that are most important. I’ll celebrate Labo’s values and concepts, the way it recontextualizes play. I’ll celebrate Super Smash Bros. Ultimate not as the best-selling fighting game of all time, but the one that exudes unwavering passion and meticulous detail.

Setting a Consistent Standard

Source: Nintendo UK

We’re too hung up on numbers. It’s foolish to ignore them, but it’s foolish to allow them to make us forget who we are. I want to discuss and play in a community where financial results provide context but don’t define conversation. The whims of the gaming market and industry cannot dominate the spirit of the player. Thinking otherwise ignores our shared agency. When Nintendo was tanking during the Wii U era, we were still privilege to titles like Splatoon, Super Mario Maker, Nintendo Land, Pikmin 3, Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 3D World, Tropical Freeze, and many more that reminded us that numbers didn’t matter to us – the games did.

When the numbers suggested that Nintendo should go third-party, the community didn’t listen. When the numbers show Nintendo dominating the industry, we’re suddenly analysts. Celebrating the health and success of the company is one thing – leaning into hypocrisy is another. It’s time for us to set a consistent standard, one that isn’t defined by Nintendo’s cyclical booms and busts financially, but by what Nintendo is offering us creatively. That’s what matters, and that’s what I want us to remember. Hopefully, my almost 2,000 words are able to articulate more clearly what my 240 Twitter characters could not. Hopefully, my almost 2,000 words can get us closer to what truly matters: celebrating games.

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