E3 Reaction: Nintendo Blows Its E3 Conference Opportunity

The Wii U looks great, but it was a bad press conference.

With Microsoft and Sony in a state of détente a year out from their respective next-generation reveals, Nintendo had a great opportunity this week to convince you, me and the rest of its fans that Wii U will be worth buying this Christmas. But despite the encouraging way it trailed its E3 conference over the weekend, it completely blew it.

In the end, the conference that we were told would be about nothing but Wii U games was also a little bit about hardware and a little bit about the 3DS anyway, but the hardest pill for hyped-up Nintendo fans to swallow was that so few of the games were exclusives aimed at them. Just Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros. U, and the reception to the latter suggested that it's already become the second-tier Mario series in most people's minds.

Subsequently we learned of Platinum Games' P-100 (which looks weird and fun, and has Hideki Kamiya and Atsushi Inaba working on it) and a Wario Ware game, but these trickled out into a storm of internet indignation and could do little to relieve it. There was no sign of Retro Studios' game either - something hardcore fans were deeply hoping to see - and no reference to Masahiro Sakurai's ongoing Smash Bros. project announced last year.

It all started so well, with a wonderful debut for Pikmin 3.

Nintendo Land, though well-intentioned, fell completely flat - I have never, ever witnessed only a smattering of polite applause at the end of a Nintendo conference. In the atmosphere of snap judgements that pervades E3 platform holder presentations, where everything must be hastily categorised and there is no patience for explanation, Katsuya Eguchi's interesting and reasonable demonstration of the concepts barely penetrated the air in front of his face, so clouded was it by anticipation, and it was simply too easy for those at the Nokia Theatre and viewing at home to label it a mini-games compilation aimed at casual gamers. Repeated allusions to Wii Sports - a mini-game compilation that transcended preconceptions - as a reference point also failed to have the desired effect.

In truth, of course, Nintendo Land is much more than a mini-games compilation as well, as we discovered when we played it straight after its unveiling. It's more Wii Play than Wii Sports, but it is home to a lot of neat concepts that are well-executed, have the potential to scale, and help to convey the system's unique capabilities in enjoyable ways.

So too were some of the other concepts demonstrated during the conference, and it was much better for everyone that they were all to be found in real games this year. Warner's use of the Wii U GamePad in Batman: Arkham City's Armored Edition was compelling, and the use of Miiverse in Scribblenauts Unlimited had more than a touch of Draw Something to it. Elsewhere, FreeStyleGames' SING could make karaoke even more social by allowing singers to face their audience rather than staring at a screen.

But of course Nintendo failed to grasp several important things. For one, as Geoff Keighley tried to explain to Reggie Fils-Aime in almost heated exchanges on Spike TV right after the conference, everyone who knew they wanted a Batman game already bought Arkham City last year and they will not be convinced to give WB and Nintendo $60 for another copy no matter how elaborate the embellishments.

The same will probably be true for Darksiders 2, Mass Effect 3 and any other third-party games on Nintendo's list of 23 that happen to be out on other systems before November or December or whenever Wii U is released. (And that's before you get on to whether they will even look as good on Wii U, which for a host of reasons - the maturity of content pipelines on PS3/360 compared to a new Nintendo system, retrospective porting processes, etc - it's hard to imagine that they will.)

Batman looks great, but good enough to make you buy it again?

For all this negativity, it's still important to remember that E3 conferences only live long in our memories, and E3 itself can be a poor barometer for success. Nintendo itself should know this, having sounded out of touch in 2005 when it announced Revolution (before we knew about the Wii controller and witnessed the magic and creativity) and having appeared ahead of the curve in 2010 when it unveiled 3DS (before getting a little too far ahead of its own curve by shipping too early and at the wrong price point). Success or failure at E3 can be made and unmade just as quickly.

And if you look beyond the names and 'sizzle' reels, the content was rich with spark and imagination: sharing ingenious word combinations in Scribblenauts over the internet using your GamePad and Miiverse; tracking a ghost by touch and communication in Luigi's Ghost Mansion; marshalling followers with touch controls in Pikmin 3; griefing speed-running friends in Mario Bros. U; or finding just the right touch for a perfect throwing star parabola in Takamaru's Ninja Castle. There was actually more originality buried in Nintendo's conference than the rest of E3 put together.

As Oli Welsh said when he actually got to play it, "in many ways Nintendo Land shows the Kyoto developers at their best: realising new gameplay ideas with clarity, perfecting tactile control schemes and designing with clever restraint." When viewed dispassionately, there was lots of evidence of that throughout Nintendo's conference.

Nintendo got its balancing act wrong this time.

Of course a successful E3 conference must be a balancing act. Your indirect audience, in boardrooms and on the global markets, is vitally important, so you have to talk about strategic partnerships (because they pay the bills and open the door to similar arrangements elsewhere), and you have to show how you're targeting multiple demographics and communicating your product with brand extensions like Wii Fit U and Nintendo Land.

But if your direct audience is mostly vocal fans watching online, then you have to give them more than Nintendo was able to provide. You certainly can't get away with proudly saying you're going to show 23 new games and then it turns out that less than 10 per cent of them end up being relevant to that crowd. We've seen some unbelievable violence during E3 conferences so far this week, but even the sight of Sam Fisher stabbing someone repeatedly in the neck was nothing next to Nintendo's evisceration on NeoGAF after that.

Past precedents suggest this won't matter a whole lot if Nintendo finds a Metroid game or new Mario Galaxy hiding behind that plaque in Satoru Iwata's favourite pinewood boardroom between now and launch, but it's still quite stunning the degree to which Nintendo managed to go from hero to zero between Sunday night and Wednesday morning, and how even very good news - like support for two Wii U GamePads simultaneously, or the wonder of Pikmin 3 - has been completely overshadowed.

Perhaps the most depressing thing, however, is that I was able to use the phrase "unique capabilities" earlier for probably the first time in the whole of the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo, in reference to the Wii U, which is a potentially magical and wondrous piece of technology, but I had to do so in the context of savaging Nintendo's public relations. If nothing else underlines the scale of its conference blunder, then hopefully that does. A wasted opportunity.

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