Game over for Game Boy?

As a gamer and all round geek I have grown up with the name Nintendo. I remember getting the original Game Boy for Christmas at the age of about 5, I remember the Pokémon fad as it swept my school, and I remember hitting refresh repeatedly to land a Wii console from Amazon’s last batch for launch (yes I got one). So for me, and many others, the thought of a world without the iconic company is quite a depressing thought.

Nintendo as a company have been around a lot longer than you may think. They were initially founded in 1889 producing Hanafuda cards. The company then went on to experiment in a number of markets, including a taxi company and a love hotel, before becoming the big name in the games industry we know it as today.

In 1977 Nintendo began to develop their own gaming hardware, going on to build iconic systems such as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the Game Boy, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Although their dominance faded with the launch of Sony’s PlayStation they have still been a popular name in the gaming industry.

In recent years Nintendo have tried to capture new market segments. Both the Nintendo Wii and DS have attempted to target the casual game market by making their games easy to pick up and play. Soon after the launch of the Wii lots of videos of mothers playing on them flooded YouTube. I uploaded a video of my own mother which ended up on a gaming website – she didn’t speak to me for a week. It also spawned a number of YouTube legends such as the video below. The video itself has to date had close to 11.6 million views. The woman in the video has gone on to make a number of TV appearances and has had her 15 minutes of fame.

There are arguments for and against targeting the casual game market, but purely on the basis of console sales you have to say that it’s a strategy that paid off. In 2007 the Nintendo DS and Wii were first and second respectively in the best-selling concole race. The Wii also outsold the PlayStation 3 by 3:1 in Japan that year.

So where is it all going wrong for Nintendo? Well sadly there are a number of factors that are mounting up.

First lets look at the handheld market. It’s dying. Nintendo launched their 3DS back in 2011 and they’ve struggled to shift it since. The concept in theory was a good one; 3D gaming on the move without the need for glasses. However such a system isn’t cheap to produce, launching with a price tag of $250 in the states. For a handheld gaming device this is a steep price to pay. Even with the new marked down price of $169.99 Nintendo are struggling to shift units and are making a loss on every one they do sell.

Similarly Sony have recently launched their new handheld the PlayStation Vita in the UK at a cost of £197, already a drop on the usual cost of £229.99, for the Wi-Fi version. The drop is no doubt a reaction to the reception the product has recieved and an attempt to try and pursuade more consumers to pick up the device, but it does seem that the company may already be fighting a losing battle.

Price tag aside, handheld gaming these days is dominated by smart phones too. Most users are content to play games on the go using their phones and why not? With addictive games like Angry Birds along with major titles such as FIFA and Grand Theft Auto readily available why would you need anything else?

Now lets look at the casual gamer market. With the constant development and improvement in browser gaming, casual gamers feel they have little reason to shell out for another piece of hardware, especially as their Wii is probably now sat collecting dust. This issue is partly Nintendo’s fault. A combination of few Nintendo staples and a mass of poor 3rd party titles has left most Wii owners with only Wii Sports in their collection (the game bundled with the device) and after 4 years we’re all sick of tennis and bowling.

The rise of Facebook hasn’t helped Nintendo either. Take my mother for example. When the Wii first launched and it sat pride of place in the living room she’d be there for hours playing tennis. These days however I find her sat playing Bejeweled and other Facebook games. With so many titles readily available, and usually for free, whenever she does get bored she simply tries a new game and she’s not alone in this. Companies like Zynga are quickly becoming household names. That coupled with the rise of indie development is definitely changing the gaming industry. You can read Lewis’s thoughts on indie development here.

Finally Nintendo’s biggest problem is it’s upcoming addition the Wii U. Announced last year, fans and critics were less than impressed with the system’s design and concept. After the announcement at last year’s E3 share prices fell almost immediately. Judging from initial feedback Nintendo will have to have a good launch line-up or they’re in for trouble.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tVFKosGiKE

It’s hard to imagine a world without Nintendo producing consoles, but it’s fast becoming a real possibility. You only have to look at SEGA. For years they dominated the console market alongside Nintendo, only to hit trouble when they launched the Dreamcast. Looking back it’s suprising that a console that was ahead of its time in so many ways (capable of online gaming, for instance) ended up killing a once great hardware producer. If Nintendo do fall on hard times it’s likely that they’ll adopt the same path as SEGA; producing games for other systems.

As a fan of games and the gaming industry I think we need companies like Nintendo to push the boundries. Without innovations like the Wii we probably wouldn’t have the Kinect, without the SNES we wouldn’t have the PlayStation and without Mario we wouldn’t have Sonic. I hope Nintendo can weather the storm but only time will tell.