Thought Bubble: How Nintendo won E3

Nintendo-E3

The E3 media blitz has come and gone. At their respective press conferences, Sony, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and EA offered a dizzying parade of trailers, a flurry of commandos, mercenaries, dragons and cars.

The thing is, though, without a breakdown of all the games shown off at the big four conferences, I can barely remember what happened. They lacked anything that seemed cool and different, even if they definitely showed something new.

They lacked the ‘wow’ factor. Despite the number of new trailers, little about the press conferences was truly memorable. The best parts are uploaded and consumed separately, independent of the venue from whence they first appeared.

Even though the press conferences are staged for developers and the in-house gaming press, they’re watched by scores of people who don’t fall into any professional categories. The week after E3, Twitch reported record numbers of viewers – 5.9 million on day one, 12 million for the four-day event – tuning in for their around-the-clock coverage.

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That’s far more than the total number of people who actually attended E3.

Maybe that’s why Nintendo – for the second year in a row – went without the traditional brick-and-mortar presser. Instead, it went to its own YouTube and Twitch channels and opened with an animated sketch produced by Robot Chicken. A stop-motion Reggie Fils-Aime tells a crowd of disgruntled reporters that they won’t be showing off a new Super Mario game (not a “traditional” one, at least) and then incinerates a scraggly-voiced man asking about the Star Fox series.

The preview for inter-franchise brawler Super Smash Bros. similarly begins with a video of Satoru Iwara and Reggie Fils-Aime brawling. At one point, Iwata launches himself head-first into Fils-Aime’s stomach like a lawn dart, meaning Nintendo’s Japanese and North American CEOs – their real-life top executives – began their not-a-press conference by reenacting a fight from Dragonball Z.

It’s utter madness for a risk-averse event like E3, but it became the most-giffed sequence of the entire week. While other gaming publishers work hard to avoid on-stage embarrassments (You can thank Konami’s surreal 2010 performance for that), Nintendo embraced the weirdness that resonates so well in the instant-reaction chamber of social media.

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More than the other major publishers, Nintendo recognizes that E3 is a show – a performance – seen by millions of gamers. The fans watching live online outnumber the executives and reporters at least by tenfold.

Iwata-headbutt
(Gif by raikouji/Tumblr. Original by Nintendo)

When Nintendo did fill the Staples Center for its own live event, it wasn’t for a press conference. It was a tournament for the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. Instead of journalists, the arena was packed with fans who had lined up outside for hours. The showcase featured 16 players – all well-known in the tournament scene – duking it out in the unreleased, unfinished Smash Bros. Fans cheered their favourite players and voted with giant flip-boards to call for their favourite characters. Nintendo’s Twitch channel enjoyed a consistent 165,000 – 190,000 concurrent live viewers for the tournament, which lasted nearly three hours.

Host Geoff Keighley, meanwhile, has interviewed execs such as Jack Tretton and, yes, Reggie Fils-Aime for Gametrailers TV, yet he looked entirely out of his element. Doing live commentary, he was unable to gauge crowd reactions that zigged whenever he telegraphed a zag.

With a half hour breakdown with Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai and a live tournament, Nintendo probably got more mileage out of a single, unreleased game at E3 than any other publisher or presenter. Most importantly, it did it in a novel and memorable manner. Rather than a PR-friendly intro followed by a three-minute trailer, Nintendo gave the game to the gamers.

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As a result, the gamers were let loose upon E3, and we got to see Smash Bros. in the state that most people will actually experience it. It wasn’t pre-rendered, nor was it a co-op demo performed by actors.

For a moment, it was honest.

mario-v-megaman

Nintendo’s masterstroke doesn’t make its E3 perfect, and it certainly doesn’t solve Nintendo’s ongoing financial troubles. The gorgeous Zelda Wii U game we got a glimpse of won’t be out until at least 2015, and Smash Bros. isn’t due until the winter holiday.

That may be why Nintendo attempted such a bold strategy: lagging in the financial rankings, it chose to embrace the players in a way that no one else has. It led to the company’s most memorable E3 in years, and (mostly) not for anything embarrassing.

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The gamers, the players, and the audience are the beneficiaries, and other E3 presenters could learn from the approach. A little more showmanship could make E3 more fun, memorable and even inclusive than before.

 

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