Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be asking whether everyone should just give up on conferences and rip-off the Nintendo Direct formula?
Nintendo is often described as a company that specialises in innovation, and they’ve certainly earned at least some measure of that reputation. Unquestionably, there’s some innovation going on there at Nintendo HQ, and we owe many of today’s standards in gaming to them and their ideas, but I think people often go a little too far in their readiness to champion Nintendo as gaming’s masters of creation. Quickly perusing some forums and online hide-outs and reading what people have to say about the big N, one could be forgiven for thinking that Nintendo invented, well, pretty much everything.
While to an extent their reputation is earned, true invention has never been one of Nintendo’s strongest suits as far as I’m concerned. As a company, their greatest trait has always been the ability to make fantastic games first and foremost, and then their next most valuable commodity, in my humble opinion, is the ability to take an idea that somebody else has already had and transform it into something that’s more palatable for the masses. While I’m sure that many Nintendo fans would cry foul at the assertion that one of their beloved console manufacturers most desirable traits is similar to that of a scavenger, I don’t think the comparison is an insult at all.
Originality, I think, is an overrated concept. Does it really matter who came up with an idea first? Sure, Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, and that’s impressive and all, but if the 400th person on the moon is building a Krispy Kreme up there then frankly, that’s more use to me than a dusty old footprint. Many wonderful products and pieces of art were built on the backs of other creations or feats of originality. I see nothing wrong with celebrating Nintendo’s ability to recognise a hit and then run with it with their own little twists, and it doesn’t matter that it was somebody else’s original thought that got them part of the way there.
Take the Wii, for example. Going by the way that some people talk about the Wii, you’d think that Nintendo invented motion controls. They didn’t. In fact, they didn’t even invent the tech that went into the Wii Remote. They didn’t even have the idea to build a motion controller and then look for tech companies who could build one for them. The concept was invented by some dude named Tom Quinn, who attempted to sell his idea to both Microsoft and Sony who weren’t interested, before ultimately pitching it to Nintendo who took him up on the offer seeing it as a novel design that could revitalise their image after the failed GameCube. Nintendo bought his idea, built a console around it, and then came up with a game – Wii Sports – that was so simple to understand that even your granny could play it – and win. It was ingenious, and it matters not one whit that they didn’t actually do a lot of the legwork in the beginning. They were astute enough to recognise how to improve someone else’s design where other companies, foolishly, were not.
Similarly, where would we be today if Sony hadn’t taken the analogue stick from Nintendo’s N64 controller – which, by the way, Nintendo didn’t invent either – only to add a second one to their pad for camera control? We’d still be controlling our cameras with shoulder buttons, that’s where. And anybody who has gone back and played early PS2 games recently only to discover that they haven’t aged like fine wines can attest to just how important a step forward that second analogue stick being assigned to camera control was, so much so that all three major console manufacturers now offer controllers with a two stick set-up. It’s become the standard for a reason.
If you’re the sort of person that watches press conferences at trade shows like E3 or Gamescom, you’ll have noticed that there’s a sort of accepted standard that each publisher or console manufacturer adheres to, and over recent years, each has made efforts to up their game, refine their act, and make their pressers as entertaining as possible. A corporate suit comes out, dispenses some pleasantries, and then they show a bunch of game trailers, occasionally stopping to talk to a developer or bring a celebrity out for no reason. Rinse and repeat, for an hour or so. Most gaming conferences follow the same basic pattern, and how well the conference goes is generally judged on how interesting the announcements are that they have to make, and how they manage to balance the dev-talk with the explosive trailers.
Nintendo, however, is doing something entirely different to the rest of the pack, and has been for a few years now. The Nintendo Direct is essentially a prerecorded press conference that Nintendo streams at a predetermined date, and people around the world can tune in to watch it. It’s basically a forty minute long infomercial for their upcoming wares, a press conference condensed into just the most salient information. It’s not that they invented the format that is now known as a Direct – other companies have been doing similar things for an age. But they took an idea, made it their own, and it’s gotten to the point where I was watching the conferences at E3 2018 and wondering, “Why isn’t everyone else just ripping off the Nintendo Direct?”
Nintendo’s E3 2018 Direct wasn’t anything particularly special. It wasn’t an especially strong advertisement for the Switch, and there wasn’t an abundance of exciting game reveals or brand new information aside from the twenty minutes or so spent talking about Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. It lacked the razzmatazz of the best E3 conferences, and was actually one of the weakest pressers of E3 2018. But as a format, it was leagues ahead of the competition. It was swift, there was very little down time, there was no awkwardness because it was prerecorded and so they could have as many takes as they wanted to get it right. They had time to tailor their message, and whether you enjoyed it or not, the point is that the delivery method, regardless of how well utilised it was in this case, has a lot of positives over a traditional press conference.
Take Sony’s E3 conference, for example. It undoubtedly had more exciting gameplay on show than Nintendo’s Direct, and undoubtedly there’s more high profile games coming to PS4 than to Switch based on what we saw. What we saw, of course, isn’t the whole story as there’s games in development that weren’t shown off, but for the purposes of this point we’ll run with it. They had the content nailed, but unquestionably, the worst thing about Sony’s E3 2018 conference was the conference itself. It was a muddled, badly organised, badly paced, logistical nightmare, that included two musical numbers, an intermission, and a mid-conference venue change that benefited absolutely nobody, from the attendees being herded from one room to another, to the thousands upon thousands watching around the world waiting for Sony to just get on with it and announce some games.
Even if we look at the best conference of E3 2018, which was unequivocally Microsoft’s, we can come to a similar conclusion. There was little awkwardness on stage and hardly any wasted time, but there was also nothing to be gained from performing the presser in front of a live audience. In fact, if we really think about it, barring a handful of crowd pleasing moments like the Final Fantasy VII Remake announcement from 2015, or Sony’s destruction of the original Xbox One DRM policies on stage in 2013, little has ever been improved during gaming conferences by having an audience there, and in fact, the unpredictability of a live show only increases the probability of everything going disastrously wrong.
Microsoft’s 2018 E3 conference succeeded because it was an almost beat for beat recreation of Sony’s 2016 conference, which was one of the greatest of all time. Both pressers shared almost perfect pacing precisely because they cut down on cumbersome moments involving on stage chats with developers ill-prepared to speak in front of large audiences, and were essentially just trailer after trailer after trailer, book-ended by appearances from executives thanking everyone for watching. Comparatively, Nintendo is essentially doing the same thing with their Directs, only they’re sacrificing their ability to conjure rapturous applause from a live crowd in favour of being able to master the pacing, the delivery, the tone, the background music, the entire production of their messaging, without any potential for embarrassing mishaps. Surely, that’s more than a fair trade.
In the age of Netflix and YouTube, a live conference seems in many ways like an outdated concept, a hangover from the days of pre-widely available broadband Internet, and when E3 was reported not live, but in the weeks that followed the event in gaming magazines printed on glossy paper. Those days are long since over, and the general public no longer waits to hear what happened at E3 in print. Today, the general public watch E3 conferences at the same time as games journalists, only instead of being cramped into a hot and sweaty auditorium in LA, they’re sat at home in their pyjamas, enjoying the show in comfort thanks to the power of high speed Internet.
Those watching E3 conferences at home are arguably getting a more enjoyable experience than those in the press who’ve been sent to cover the event, something that I was reminded about while reading about Goomba Stomp’s own attendees at E3 this year, and their disappointing experience at their first trip to the expo. For my part, I was sat at home watching the conferences at my leisure with a chilled beer, and it didn’t cost me a red cent. Other than the ability to play a handful of game demos in busy, noisy rooms, what’s to be gained by anyone actually travelling to E3? Couldn’t we just send out codes for these demos, and let people play the games in an environment that’s more conducive to actually having fun? And more importantly, couldn’t we all just take a leaf out of Nintendo’s playbook, sack off the live conferences, and just deliver a prerecorded broadcast to get the message across more efficiently?
Nintendo is often seen as a backward company when it comes to connectivity on their consoles and there’s a catalogue of good reasons for that, but when it comes to conferences they’re the most forward thinking of our current console manufacturers, having already shed the unnecessary skin of live, on stage pressers in favour of prerecorded announcements that allow them to control every facet of their messaging more deftly.
There isn’t a single press conference that went down at E3 2018 that wouldn’t have been improved by following the Nintendo Direct formula, even the ones that weren’t a train-wreck. Some of the conferences – particularly Sony’s – were nearly derailed because of the delivery method, rather than because of the message they were conveying, and that should never happen. The format of the on stage conference is dated, and in 2018 it feels more redundant than ever, a relic from a time before we all had mobile phones that could stream content in the blink of an eye. Nintendo is ahead of the curve on this, and it would surely make sense for Sony, Microsoft, and video game publishers across the globe to take heed. There’s nothing wrong with looking at something good that another company is doing and being inspired by it. There’s nothing wrong with taking that idea and doing it – or at least trying to do it – better. But there’s plenty wrong with stubbornly clinging to tradition and ignoring progress.
Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. If you want more from Counter Attack then perhaps check out Ranking The E3 2018 Conferences, or The Rise and Fall of SEGA.