A company’s narrative is equal parts public back story and manufactured idea created by the company’s image. By creating a theater in which consumers can interact with and learn about their purchases, as well as new products that have yet to hit the market, a company can control its own destiny.
Nowhere is this concept more important than in the world of videogames. As a medium, videogames are a form of communication unlike any other, allowing consumers to interact and participate in their entertainment in a way unlike any seen before. This interaction and participation opens a window through which any company able to tell a good story can climb in and form a relationship. Perhaps no company has done this with more style and enthusiasm than Nintendo.
Since it first hit news stands in July of 1988, Nintendo Power, the official magazine of Nintendo, has had a special role in bringing exclusive coverage of all things Nintendo to the hoards of Kong, Link and Pikachu fans. By speaking directly to consumers, Nintendo Power has had a unique part to play throughout videogame history. As the magazine’s managing editor, Scott Pelland, wrote in an email, “Telling the story of Nintendo is really at the heart of what we do. Every page is telling part of the [company’s] evolving story.”
Nintendo Power‘s lineage can be traced back to its ideological predecessor, The Nintendo Fan Club Newsletter. Beyond acting as a forum for fans to sound off about games and receive information about upcoming titles, the Newsletter also provided gameplay tips and secrets. Pelland described how, with assistance from Japanese publishing company Tokuma Shoten, the concept behind the Newsletter was fleshed out into a full-fledged magazine.
“At the time, the concept of creating a corporate magazine was quite novel, and there were no other North American publications that were dedicated entirely to videogames.” Pelland wrote. “The early content reflected the look of Japanese gaming magazines since the designers at Workhouse USA were trained in that business.”
Less than two years after its inception, Nintendo Power became a monthly publication. By this point, tried-and-true departments such as Game Watch, Classified Information and Now Playing had developed their role and could be counted on by frequent readers to provide the coverage that they had come to expect. With gamers reading Nintendo Power, Nintendo, through its new venture, had expanded its influence beyond the time consumers spent in front of their television.
Today, Nintendo of America stands at the precipice of what they hope will be a quantum leap forward not only for their company, but also for videogames as a cultural medium. A look at the videogame best-seller charts reveals little in the way of variety. Instead, it’s the Grand Theft Autos, the Final Fantasys, the FPSes and the EA franchises that dominate. And why not? Like most Hollywood studios, game design houses have learned that to minimize risk and maximize profit, their best bet is to stick with what works. They pump out sequels and brush ups of older, successful titles.
As the next generation consoles move closer to market, there has been a great deal of discussion and speculation about what Nintendo’s role would be. For its part, the company has fueled this debate by largely remaining tight-lipped. When they have spoken, however, their words have carried great weight. In January of 2005, a Kyoto newspaper interviewed Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, and he offered few details, but said only that the company’s newest system, the Revolution, would represent a “paradigm shift” in the world of gaming.
In a March 8th editorial for IGN.com, veteran Nintendo critic Matt Casamassina, armed with the latest information released about Nintendo’s new console, discussed Iwata’s proclamation. He explains that at the crux of Nintendo’s planning is a fundamental disagreement with Sony and Microsoft over the future of videogaming. “Nintendo bigwigs believe that graphics have reached a ‘saturation point,’ and that gameplay, not more detailed game worlds, is in need of a renaissance.”
Casamassina continued by underscoring this philosophy, “One thing I’ve learned about some of my Xbox 360 games is that while the graphics are initially impressive, you eventually take them for granted, at which point gameplay returns to its rightful place as the most important factor.”
He concludes by arguing that the Revolution, with its innovative yet familiar looking controller and significantly smaller price tag, will be the system that truly breaks into the mainstream market. Games like Grand Theft Auto may sell three million copies, he says, but the Revolution has ambitions of bringing current non-gamers into the market and, well, revolutionizing the way the populace thinks about videogames.
Casamassina’s ideology is one that melds seamlessly with the story being produced monthly by Nintendo Power. The paradigm shift spoken of by Iwata is evident in the editorial content of the voice of Nintendo. It becomes even more visible when one compares it with the official voices of Nintendo’s two main competitors, Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox. Like NP, the Official PlayStation Magazine (OPM) and the Official Xbox Magazine (OXM) seek to bring gaming coverage directly to the fans of their respective systems. For the purposes of comparison, let us look at the March 2006 issue of each magazine.
The cover of a magazine is the most important editorial space in the publication. As in any business, it is critical that a magazine put its best foot forward. In the case of videogame magazines as a genre, this usually means highly illustrative cover art, typically from the game that will receive the most coverage within the magazine. This holds true in the case of all three official magazines. OPM features a largely bare (by game magazine standards) cover, split only by a circular bullet hole. The headline, referring to the highly polished FPS which reached shelves this month, reads: “Black: The Last Great PS2 Game?” OXM trumpets an “exclusive hands-on” feature on Scarface.
Meanwhile, NP‘s cover is much more text heavy; the largest element is a two-word headline that screams: “Gonzo Gaming!” The choice of adjective itself tells a great deal. Meaning bizarre or unconventional, gonzo recalls wild-man journalist Hunter S. Thompson or the eponymous blue-haired, loose cannon of the Muppets. Adorning the cover alongside the headline is one of Nintendo’s newest gaming creations, the gonzo Chibi Robo.
Turning inside the magazines, the differences become even more marked. NP’s cover story, titled “Breaking the Mold,” is almost too obvious in its furtherance of Iwata’s mantra. The article opens by stating: “For discerning game enthusiasts – those who shy away from cookie-cutter sequels and status quo action bonanzas – the pickings can be brutally slim at times.” The piece, a “tour of the unexpected,” then goes on to profile five games, all Nintendo exclusives, that break with what most would consider traditional gaming genres.
In his March editor’s letter, Pelland emphasizes the shifting paradigm, as well, when he refers to games discussed in the “Breaking the Mold” feature. “[They] explore topics and game styles few gamers or game makers have ever contemplated…[They] aren’t just technical or visual experiments; they’re innovative games that lead to truly great and often-surprising experiences.”
In full, the magazine dedicates 34 pages to features covering upcoming or recently released Nintendo-only games. Among this coverage is a three-page spread, part of a now eleven-part series, focusing on the team developing the forthcoming Zelda game, Twilight Princess. This nearly yearlong expos
In comparison to NP‘s “Gonzo” feature, OPM reviews upcoming PlayStation 2 and PSP titles whose genres should be easily recognizable to anyone who has held a game controller in the last decade. Aside from the Black review, the magazine also breaks down five 3-D action/adventure titles, four RPGs, three sports cartridges, a racing game, a WWE title and a couple of other retreads and ports – all in all, nothing that steps outside the standard fare.
What was perhaps most interesting, however, was a one-paragraph note in OPM‘s front of magazine section called Hype. In the short take running under the headline “Game Envy,” the staff picks the game that it would most like to see on the PlayStation. Their pick, Animal Crossing: Wild World, wasn’t nearly as interesting as their rationalization. They write:
No, we haven’t suddenly regressed into a staff of babies, but there are quite a few aspects of Animal Crossing for the DS that we’re jealous of… We’d rather have a new and interesting game that emphasizes socializing, debt repayment, tree planting, letter writing, and T-shirt designing as opposed to yet another game that has a gun, or a sword duct-taped to a gun.
In terms of editorial content, OXM offers even less than its PlayStation counterpart. The only features to speak of in their March issue are the extended preview of VU Games’ Scarface and a very similar write up on the much-delayed 3-D Realms/Humanhead FPS Prey. Their eight game reviews feature a handful of sports franchises, racing extravaganzas, a fighting game and other equally pedestrian game concepts.
Where both OPM and OXM do succeed in out dueling NP is in their coverage of the technological advancements of their next-gen consoles (read: flashy graphics). But in doing so, both publications, and the companies providing them material, are playing right into Nintendo’s hands.
Instead of trying to wow gamers with stunning visuals, Nintendo has set a course to engage the hearts and minds of game fans. That is not to say they have pushed visuals aside; quite to the contrary. Recent titles like Windwaker and Resident Evil 4 have proven that the company is quite capable of producing a visual experience on par with any competitor. The Revolution will continue to push the boundaries of graphic representation in games, but as Iwata made clear and NP shows month in and month out, innovation will be the new bar by which Nintendo products will be measured.
Just as they did in their March issue, the staff at Nintendo Power magazine will continue to engage their readers with the story of Nintendo. It is a story that stretches back to the coin operated Donkey Kong that put the company on the map. Along the way, new characters have been introduced and others have been phased out. Through four household consoles and six instantiations of their handheld unit, Nintendo has occupied and fascinated generations of gamers. Nintendo Power has played a unique part in Nintendo’s history and will continue to shape the company’s future.
As Scott Pelland points out, it’s all about the story. “When [editorial consultant] Reggie [Fils-Aime] talks about business strategy or [staff writer] Chris Shepperd gives insights into beating Castlevania DS, it expands reader’s perception of the gaming world. We believe that we have the most compelling story in the game business to share with our readers, and our insider status at NOA, while it may be questioned by some, gives us the best position to deliver those stories with accuracy and passion.”
Jon Schnaars is a freelance writer with interests in genre and representation in gaming. He blogs full-time about issues in psychology and mental health for Treatment Online.