Greater fool

With the announcement of SNES Classic Edition, or the mini as I’ll be referring it to as, the collective retro gaming Internet lost its shit and the console sold out in matter of days, or hours in some store’s case. not only that, but some sites already have re-sellers putting up their units for grossly exaggerated prices. That is not to say stores would be upping their price anyway after seeing the success the NES mini was.

The suggested price of the SNES mini is at $79,99, or around 70€ to 80€. However, even now there are stores that have jacked up the price over hundred, because they knew it would sell out and that they can fetch higher price. The Greater fool theory has few variations to it, but for our purpose it can be stated as a person investing into a product in hopes of selling to a greater fool who is willing to pay more. The retro game market has become somewhat similar to a stock market, where certain people try to find fortune in finding games at a lower price, jack up the price somehow and then proceed to sell at a much higher profit margin.

There are few ways of doing this. One of course is the removal of products from the market and further making it a rarer piece. This can be done with relative ease, especially if one has the foresight to proceed to empty the market at the right time. If you were to buy certain games fifteen years ago at a low price, these games could now fetch up to two hundred their purchased worth.

Then of course you can change how the market perceives the products. Even now, some games are absolutely terrible, but due to their limited runs and relative obscurity, they can fetch stupidly high prices. The quality doesn’t really step into the equation here, it’s all about how rare something is.

This of course makes sense when looking at other collectables markets, where the exact same things happens over and over. However, the one thing that can’t be ignored with this theory is also the personal perceived value the greater fool might have towards a game. When you combine the believes and expectations a buyer has for a game with his personal affections towards it, they can be ready to pay extraordinary high sums of money.

As stated, a rational buyer may just buy the game and sell it forwards at a higher price, because there is a greater fool. This cycle has been going on in the retro game market for a solid decade and then some, and I’ve seen some argumentation for longer period of time. Whatever the case is, the current prices used retro games are going for now, and in the foreseeable future, will not stay. This is a bubble that is waiting to be burst, but I highly doubt it’ll be an overnight event. Rather, we’ll see something like a common Super Mario Bros. peaking at its highest point at some extraordinary price, and then things will dwindle down.

Or rather it should,  but it won’t. The kind of retro collectors we have now are willing to spend high amounts of money for their collection. Of course, the sellers are willing to accommodate with equally over the top prices. I’m talking about people who are willing to pay over hundred dollars for a loose Mega Man 5. At that money, any sensible personal would just pick up one of the collections for whatever platform and spend the rest on ice cream.

The NES and SNES mini have made things interesting, to say the least. While Nintendo has claimed they’ll be producing the SNES mini in higher numbers than the NES mini, there won’t be enough. Nintendo has always underestimated their classic library to the point of neglect. Nintendo’s strategy with these re-release consoles is not to introduce new people to their older library, but rather just grab some cash before they can do something sensible with the Switch’s online. Nintendo never realises how much demand there is for their classics. The Super Mario All-Stars Limited Edition they released for the Wii sold out faster than they could imagine. Twice! Nintendo is gearing up to something with the Switch and whatever plans they have for their classic library, but these mini consoles are just stopgags on the way there.

Nintendo seems to be aware of the retro market. While their profit margins are less with these mini consoles than with Virtual Console, this is catering to a certain demographic first and foremost. While you could argue that the demographic is the general audience, the fact that NES mini wasn’t released in same production amounts or even officially in places as the Switch says that the target demographic was rather limited. The SNES mini will always be sold out, and despite the supposedly higher production run, it will still see similar fate.

And there will be greater fools who are willing to pay three times the original price for their own reasons.

The Atari Box wants to hit the same core demographic. Someone at Atari saw the demand the NES mini experiencing and wanted some of that dough. Whether or not it is a full-fledged console as rumoured, the chances are that it’s more or less a flashback sort of device like that NES and SNES mini. It would be easy to do a modern Atari console with most classic games installed while offering the possibilities to expand the library in the future. Nothing says an older console couldn’t be re-released and have new titles released or produced for it.  After all, Nintendo’s pushing Starfox 2 on the SNES mini as well, and they’d make tons more money if they would allow the user to purchase more games on some sort of game cards and have them run on the system.

Or just release things on the Virtual Console and be done with it. I’m still expecting Nintendo to announce Netflix style gaming for its online service, where the consumer has no ownership.

Netflix style gaming

Some time ago I was asked what do I think will be the next big thing in gaming. Usually I tend to argue that digital will not replace physical release for some time now (digital distribution has been said to obsolete physical media for some fifteen years for now) but I do recognize that cross pollination between the media is common. The future of gaming can once more found in the past, and that probably will be streamed games.

Streaming games isn’t anything new and few companies have already tried it few times over. Nintendo’s Satellaview service is perhaps the most prominent example next to OnLive’s cloud gaming. These two functioned rather differently, with Satellaview requiring a specific cartridge that would download and save the game on the cartridge itself, whereas OnLive’s MicroConsole TV Adapter (that’s what their console was called) would access a title on OnLive’s servers and stream it directly to the console.

Netflix’s and other streaming services’ success is something modern game industry is probably highly envious of. Games and movies don’t only affect each other visually speaking, but also how the industries sort of work. Modern mainstream game industry is just as corrupt and full of itself as Hollywood is, and both are envious of each other of their successes and products they put out. The consumer really loses in this little battle with each other.

It could be argued that modern technology isn’t up to perfect game streaming yet. Satellaview was more or less a similar service to Steam in how the game required a specific setup in order to be played, and OnLive’s service stated that the user needed to live thousand miles of within their server in order to get quality service. The Internet speeds are the bottle cap of the system overall, and as games require more and more oomph from the machine, the machines need to reflect this in their hardware. However, hardware still doesn’t reflect the quality of the games, as that’s still up to the developers how their games are designed and optimised, two things that seem to be missing from current mainstream industry.

One of the main reasons why companies would want to aim for game streaming is that they can claim it to be fighting against piracy through that. Claim is the choice of word here, because game companies don’t like people trading their games with each other. It’s better for them if everyone bought their games new from the stores. A streaming service would keep their the control of the market in their hands. Purchasing of games wouldn’t be a thing as the consumer would subscribe to a service. Except for the DLC, that would always be a separate thing. Of course, the user wouldn’t need to use any of his HDD space for the games due to cloud based service. In regards of history archiving, stream-only games would be hard to archive for future generations. Satellaview games suffer from this, especially with the radio broadcasts that went with them. Even now, a game that has its license expiring will be removed from stores and online services whenever applicable, and the same will apply to any streaming service.

Of course, the ownership question always pops up. With a streaming service, you would only own the console you would use for streaming, and for computers you wouldn’t probably own the software. You’d need to subscribe to the service itself and would have no control over anything in the end. Without a doubt, regional variants would continue to exists, just like with Netflix and other streaming services that limit what can be streamed in which country. This sort of regional locking is something that isn’t an issue with modern consoles any more, but with stream-only services a user wouldn’t be able to access games from another region without a VPN.

Which if the Big Three would launch their own modern game streaming service first? Sony certainly should have the basics for it, as they bought out OnLive. They should have all the documentation and basic framework how to set up a similar cloud gaming service. Perhaps this could be their ace in the hole to compete against Nintendo’s hybrid console. Microsoft on the other probably won’t do anything of the sort for a while now before they see how Project Scorpio turns out, and probably will mimic whatever Nintendo and Sony put out while trying to trump them with something over the top (see; Kinect and WiiMote.) Nintendo on the other hand seems to be already testing some waters with Switch’s paid online, as the current word on the street is that Nintendo’s paid online service has been delayed until 2018 and rather than offering a game for the subscribers to play, they will be able to access a plethora of classic games. Of course Nintendo would only offer classic games and nothing newer, as they don’t give a damn about their classic lineup of games. On the surface it does seem nice, with the cheaper price and all, but this most likely also means Nintendo won’t give two shits about Virtual Console, which was one of the reasons people bought Wii. Perhaps in their eyes a streaming service of these classic games could increase console sales, especially if the service was cheap enough.

I admit that companies hoping to take control over the consumers’ consumption of goods into their hands does sound like conspiracy theory to an extent, but no company would pass such an opportunity, because ultimately it is all about the money. By having all the string in your fingertips, a company could log in all the preferences of a consumer, supplement them, hit the right spots and sell the information forwards while still selling their own  product (i.e. subscription service and DLC in this case) to the consumer. The current consumer trend is to give control of products over the companies, and Steam probably exemplifies this the best alongside with Netflix. Certainly it is cheaper and you don’t amass large amounts of discs on your shelf. Perhaps there is too much trust put into these companies with all the information we give them.

Nintendo itself is not the brand

Neither are their developers or any of the individuals we see on streams and in interviews. Nintendo’s value as a brand goes up and down according to what they do. While branding is often given to the visual design and flavour of a company or a product, everyone knows branding is a lot more. If not consciously, then through unconscious osmosis of simple consumption of products. Brand goes hand-in-hand with reputation and the perceived value of the product produced by the company. Naturally, the product’s perceived value colours the value of the company.

It is extremely easy to make your product to look bland, and once you’ve made that misstep, it’s hard to recovered. Mass Effect Andromeda is extremely bland bland game and thus its perceived value is low. Patches only help so much, and PR is what the publisher must do in order to recover from the failure. It’s even worse if the fans lose their perceived value on the game, and that takes some effort to do. Like making your characters hold guns in reverse and essentially making it inferior to the first title in the series. Much like other AAA video game titles, it’s a very bland, very grey product.

What brings colour into a product is disruption. Nintendo has a history of heating up the Blue Ocean and disrupt the market with coloured products, though they have a history doing very grey products that wallow in the Red Ocean as well. The Switch, as it is currently, is about disruption in the video game industry. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo went with what probably is the future of console gaming and created a hybrid system.

To use car industry as an example, Volvo’s brand is security and safety. Their cars are not the most exciting things in the world, but they are very trustworthy overall and suit the best for everyone. Until somewhat recently you couldn’t find a car that would move away from this branding from their main lineup. This is because Volvo has begun to change this somewhat bland yet trustworthy brand image of theirs with premium cars that offer more exciting cars. Their image is not safety, but the content with the car and the options you can have.

Nintendo’s brand has been perceived similarly as kid’s and family’s console to play. A Nintendo console usually has a good variety of games for everyone to play, whereas Xbox is a first-person shooting game wet dream in console form (though that has been severely diminished with the lacklustre recent Halo titles) while Sony is that black console cool kids who like hardcore games go for. The original PlayStation followed Nintendo’s branding as a whole family’s future generation console, but at the same time used Sega’s not-just-for-children approach. While the PlayStation had games that kids enjoyed, it also had titles like WipeOut that hit the cultural club scene if the latter 1990’s. The N64 on the other hand wasn’t everybody’s console due to the sheer shit tier library it had. Saturn was ever successful in Japan and was mostly staying within then-passed arcade port title. As much as it hurts Saturn and Dreamcast fans, arcade ports didn’t cut it any more at that point, and arcades themselves were starting to die out.

People don’t just buy what companies are selling. They buy the perceived product the company is selling. Shit in a can isn’t perceived valuable, but when an artist does it and sells it as art, the perceived value among certain crowd skyrockets.

Nintendo Switch currently has a highly regarded perceived value because of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. No other title is driving its sales as much. 1-2 Switch is a joke, though the new Bomberman seems to have gone through a rise in perceived value after the latest patch. The Switch is currently the prime example how game industry and the Red Ocean consumers don’t get the market worth jack shit. As I’ve mentioned before, the Switch was proclaim dead on arrival and that its weak hardware wouldn’t be able to do anything. Yet, BotW alone is driving Switch’s sales. This is what a Zelda game is capable of when it is allowed to be true to the series rather than just a puzzle-dungeon game. Less Aonuma there is with Zelda, the better it gets.

It doesn’t matter if you personally think that these people who bought Switch and are enjoying its games are normies or have shit taste. They are not the deviation of the form, but the rule. The AAA game industry might shove millions into a game production and barely make even with the Red Ocean consumer, who seems to be easier consumer to please and pull money from as the Red Ocean is filled with competition. Developing and releasing games and consoles is hard work, and while it can be understood why Red Ocean developers want to stick where they’re most comfortable at (of course, with no expanded life experiences outside games, how could you even imagine developing game for the Blue Ocean consumer? Shoving an agenda to the player’s view is the last thing they want) and this is why even 10% drop in sequel game’s sales will put alarms on. Despite millions being in play, even the slightest change will throw the finely tuned balance off.

While video game industry is creative, it is service industry. If you want to use this sort of comparison, video game developer is on the same level as a burger flipper. Developers’ job is to serve the consumer and their needs, it is the consumer who ultimately decides whether or not your product is good enough to be purchased. You can work your burger however well, but if the consumer doesn’t want it, the onus is on you. Not on the consumer.

Nintendo’s last three home consoles show how their disruption coloured their brand. The Wii , as much as the Red Ocean hates it, was a massive success because Nintendo didn’t stay with the comfortable Red Ocean market. The Wii U was made for the Red Ocean, and it succeeded worth jack shit. Hell, it was pulled from the stores to make room for the Switch, which again has disrupted the industry and hopefully will continue to do so with both low- and high-end software aimed for everybody.

Ageless games across generations

Video games have more in common with hide-and-seek than with movies, literature or music. This is due to video games, and electronic gaming in general, being the latest iteration of play culture. As such games of the past, be it the NES or Atari era, still find home within the new generation of consumers just as easily as any well planned out children’s play, game or even sports would. Only in video game industry we hear something become obsolete because of its archaic technology or because we have that aforementioned new generation. Soccer, basketball and numerous other sports still are around because they are ageless because each of them has been passed down to a new generation, just as children’s plays are.

Children will invent stories as they play along, be a costume play, playing with figures or something else. While there is a rudimentary narrative running in these plays, playing is the main thing. Electronic games, both PC and console games especially, are largely a legacy of these plays. The problem with electronic games is that they are static and can’t dynamically change as the player wants. This is why more varied games are always needed and the more unique titles we have, the better. The Legend of Zelda and Skyrim may be based on a similar notion of a hero in a fantasy land, but their realisation is different and serve different purposes. On the surface the ideas and even core structure seems similar. The reader already knows, the two games are vastly different in how they are played. Just like how the narrative in children’s plays are to enforce the action of playing rather than being the main thing, so do games use narrative as a support for playing the game. Changing it otherwise undermines both playing and gaming.

An ageless game will sell to future generations despite its technological backwardness. This is why emulation will never cease to exist, as anyone who knows the basic use of a computer and reading comprehension probably has already fired up at least one sort of emulator. As an anecdote, I’ve seen people as young as seven doing this without any outside help, and they enjoyed playing Super Mario Bros. on JNes. Why Super Mario Bros.? Because Mario is still a cultural icon, and using a Nintendo system most likely the one thing that people go for first. Not because of the modern entries in the series, but due to how large of an impact the franchise left on the face of culture in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Much like the game industry at large, those companies with a long history with electronic gaming often simply ignore the possibilities of their library. Instead, we may see plug-n-play conversions of some titles like with Atari 2600, but sometimes we get a piece of products that hits the cultural nerve just the right way and outsells itself to the point of amazing even the producers themselves. The NES Mini surprised Nintendo and its execs without any shadow of a doubt, as mentioned by Reggie in a CNET interview regarding the Switch. To quote him;

The challenge for us is that with this particular system, we thought honestly that the key consumer would be between 30 and 40 years old, with kids, who had stepped away from gaming for some period of time. And certainly we sold a lot of systems to that consumer.

Reggie claims that Nintendo is aware of the popularity of their classic games, which he contradicts with this statement. Furthermore, if they were aware how popular their classic games were, Nintendo would aim to make them obsolete rather than push games that enjoy less popularity. The NES Mini, as Reggie mentions above, wasn’t just popular with the people who grew up with the console, but with basically every age tier. Furthermore it should be noted that even in Europe the legacy of the NES has become that they were the victorious console, but do go back few entries to read how well Nintendo royally fucked NES in PAL territories.

It’s not just the nostalgia that sold NES Mini. As Reggie said, NES Mini is popular among kids, and kids have no nostalgia for a thirty years old game console. The games cherry picked for the system simply are mostly well designed and can stand the test of time. Super Mario Bros. does not appeal just because it is a Mario game, but because it’s a fun adventure in a fantasy land. Zelda‘s open world Action-RPG is popular outside the fans of the franchise (and I hope to God BotW will have an open world in the spirit if the original.) Metroid‘s action-adventure appeals similarly to a larger crowd than just to the fans, thou game devs have been furiously masturbating to this genre for the last years harshly.

There is nothing that would keep Nintendo from realizing the spirit of their older games in their future titles. Nothing keeps an old game from appealing to modern consumers, just like there’s nothing from modern children playing games invented couple of hundreds of years ago. We still play cards like Go Fish! or Shitpants with our kids. Hell, one could even say that when we grow into adults (or rather, we realize we are adults) we still keep playing the same games, but stakes are just higher. Poker may replace Go Fish!  but a new generation will still play that. A new card game for kids will appear in the future to supplement already large library of card games, but it’ll never be able replace anything if it doesn’t refine the formula somehow. Even then, it’s hard to beat a solid classic.

To use another Nintendo example is the Wii. Wii’s Virtual Console sold more titles than Nintendo’s big releases in the latter part of the console’s lifecycle, and saw a slow death on the 3DS. This seems to say that Nintendo doesn’t really take into heart the notion that classic games and their core are still viable. Instead, they concentrate on something surprising and that old games are only played due to nostalgia. A sentiment the game industry at large sadly seems to agree upon. With the success of NES Mini, will Nintendo begin to value their classic games more rather than just as the beginnings of an IP? Probably not, but Switch should tell us in due time.

Monthly Three: Death of the casual industry

The title may be click bait-y, but it’s really the best title for this topic. This will kick off a loose Monthly Three for the time being, as it seemed most people deemed themed posts worthless. But first I’d like to note that I am talking about the casual game industry, not about the casual gamer.

What the term casual gamer entices in the end is muddy at best. Its meaning has changed significantly at the core to the point of it being mostly a throwaway marketing term to push certain kinds of products over the other, and largely to condemn consumers with certain tastes and habits.

The first console in the 2000’s to be named as casual to any extent was the DS due to it having low-end games in mass quantity. Low-end game does not mean a game that is bad, technically or in design, but a game that is extremely easy to get into and play. A low-end game is not necessarily lacking in content or anything that most people would associate with so-called casual games, as New Super Mario Bros. on the system would show. To go further back in time, many modern industry workers who played the NES would not consider Super Mario Bros. 3 in the same league as Wii Sports, but both titles are high-quality low-end games. In comparison, the DS had high-end games like Solatorobo and Umihara Kawase Shun Second Edition Kanzenban, which in comparison weren’t massive hits. Mostly because the aforementioned Umihara Kawase title was Japanese only, but you get the picture.

The Wii is often regarded as the pinnacle of a console, where quantity was over quality, thou history would disagree. There are consoles out there that may have smaller library of games, but in reality only one or two games are even decent. Virtual Boy being an example of this. The other end would the Game Boy and the DS itself. Nevertheless, the Wii was regarded as the most desirable console out of the three of its generation and sold higher number of consoles than its competitors. Not because of wagglan, like most suggest, but because the Wii disrupted the game industry.

The industry had abandoned low-end games almost completely before the DS and the Wii, producing mostly high-end games. These games were not of highest quality either, so for every few good title you got loads of titles with pretty design and technical aspects. The PS2 library is like this in large extent. The consumer base was not being expanded and companies continued to cater to the niche, red ocean consumers. Most people who bought a PlayStation seemingly moved to the PlayStation 2, with those who didn’t have faith in the Dreamcast and whatever Nintendo would be pushing out after the N64 were doing the same. Much like how most American comics only sell to comics comic nerds without any regards, and even in that there has been changes to cater a more niche audience.

The Wii however started much like other Nintendo’s successful consoles; low-end, but high-quality titles. This disrupted the industry, as there was very little production of low-end games going on at the time in comparison to the 1980’s or even the early-to-mid 1990’s. This goes hand in hand with the rising costs of game development, where higher-end game requires higher bucks to be finalised, but it will also lose big if it’s a bomb. Wii Sports is a perfect example of a low-end game hitting what the general consumers were looking for. Without a doubt it’s a game with a very simple surface that anyone can access, but the underlying layer of complexity, the physics, offered a challenge. There were multiple modes too. It’s execution left people to yearn more of content in similar philosophy, but after a booming start, not even Nintendo kept up with this. It’s much easier to realise your own dream of a game than take consumers’ voice into account.

However, making a good low-end game is hard. Not anyone can replicate Super Mario Bros.‘s quality, and even the Big N themselves shot themselves in the leg by giving their later 2D Mario titles less attention and resources during development, thou Miyamoto himself has admitted that 2D Marios take more work to make right. No wonder they released Mario Maker to take off that load from themselves.

The game industry doesn’t like being disrupted, especially when disruption ends up making a company huge amounts of money. Looking at the coverage the Wii was getting from both industry insiders and gaming press, the news are pretty raw. Outside the usual Nintendo’s finished we see every time they release a new console, the consumers were pretty much called idiots and considered almost like subhumans who couldn’t appreciate the marvels that HD gaming and cutting edge hardware could produce. This attitude is very apparent in the third-party games on the Wii across its years, as there is no passion in the titles. These people who bought the Wii, they weren’t the people who bought the PS2, these weren’t the people who played games. They were casual gamers.  Who has a passion to make games for people they consider as idiots, unworthy of appreciating true pieces of works?

The game industry created an industry just to cater the consumers they thought they were seeing with Wiimotes in their hands, but in reality no such area existed. This was apparent in the sales as well. When the third-party games turned out to be less than satisfactory, the Virtual Console titles became the main point of the console, outselling even Nintendo’s own new titles. Super Mario All-Starts 25th Anniversary Edition was a surprise to Nintendo, as people still wanted to play those games. Low-end and high-quality combination has always been highly desired combination when it comes to gaming, and largely is the silver bullet in plans to make a successful game. The rest comes with world and game design.

The death of the casual game industry essentially came to an end when the industry stopped making games for idiots. It wasn’t because of the hardware’s power, but the design and utility of it. It’s surprising how little people consider a console’s design anywhere else but in outer appearance and technical hardware, except when something negative had to be mentioned. The Wii could use traditional controllers, it had the Motion controls, which also served as a more traditional NES style controller, and it had the possibility for multiple other input methods (at least on the outer appearance.) However, all this largely fell apart, the potential of the Wii was kicked in the curb when Nintendo moved onwards to concentrate with their next console. If I were to say my view on the matter, the killing blow Nintendo dealt to the Wii was Wii Music, a title that nobody ever wanted and a title that showed that Nintendo too believed their consumers were idiots, unwilling to purchase their masterpieces… like Metroid Other M. Indeed, Metroid Other M is like anti-thesis to Wii Sports, filled with the intentions of making the best story-driven high-end Metroid that would wow the opposite audience of these idiots, ensuring that Nintendo and the Wii that they were the shit. What happened is common in cases like this, and the less said about it the better, except that it is a title that showcases how Nintendo once again left their larger audience, the audience that had made them a recognized name in the overall popular culture.

Nobody makes a bad game intentionally is something I hear people saying when it comes to terrible titles. However, not everybody aims to make the best title either, lacking either in passion or will to go all out on a game they themselves have little faith or value in. The casual game industry died when the industry largely stopped producing those games, to some extent. The Wii U is filled with middle-end games with no quality whatsoever, despite Nintendo making it the anti-Wii. The 3DS had such an awful start with ports and carry-over titles that it wasn’t desired until the library had grown and saw more low-end titles with less emphasize on the 3D. The less Nintendo listens to the industry, the more they find success. It just takes loads of work.

The argument that you need third-party products to succeed nowadays is partially correct. You need high-quality products on your system across the spectrum, not just from one end of the spectrum no matter who makes it. A game library is like a food circle, with high-end games being the meat and low-end games being the greens. Breads, rise, pasta etc being lower-mid end, milks, meat and fish being higher-mid end and high fat foods being the high-end foods. Roughly speaking, that is.

Ports of games people are already playing on a different systems does not allow it to rise above from the sea of grey, and seemingly ports are treated as the fries of a console library; they’re there to supplement the main burger. Third party burgers aren’t rare either, seeing both Microsoft and Sony have largely relied on third-party to make their systems big hits. Except for Halo in many ways.

Will Nintendo Switch have a casual game industry? Only if the developers start treating their consumers like retards again and unwilling to produce quality products for the system. They’ll feel that in their pockets then. Whatever the Switch ends up being is completely tied to its software library.