There’s a meme that I’ve seen circulating on the Internet that shows the Xbox One console package promoting Microsoft’s exclusive characters. It shows Master Chief (obviously), Lara Croft, Marcus Phoenix, and… ‘car’. This latter figure represents the Forza series, but it’s a bit jarring to see it next to the likes of the others. This image speaks to Microsoft’s biggest problem, but that’s discussed so much that to elaborate more here would be pointless.
Nintendo Is Playing The Long Game
The real lesson to be learned from this meme is not just that consoles need exclusives to differentiate themselves, it’s that gamers get attached to their characters (as opposed to just gameplay) and a strong line-up will benefit the success of the console. Video game companies need characters that players can form an attachment to. PlayStation and Nintendo have cracked this code with Nathan Drake and Mario to name a few respectively. Where Nintendo differs, however, is in their decision to capture a child’s interest and hold their devotion through their adult life. The big N’s youth-targeted strategy ensures the company’s livelihood for decades.
They’ve been smart to create all-ages games. It ensures that almost all kids can play (believe it or not some parents don’t let their children play M-rated games) and form a connection with their characters during the prime nostalgia-building period of their lives. When Super Mario Odyssey came out last fall and sold over 9 million copies by the end of the year, the game wasn’t just purchased by children. While the content of the game was far more “kiddie” than other AAA on the market at the time, it tugged on the nostalgia cord of adults who had formed a connection with the character from their childhood. They were itching to dive back into adventures with Mario.
This year, one of the most anticipated games is Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo Switch. Yeah, the gameplay is fun, but more so it’s entertaining to see your favorite character kick the living [redacted] out of each other. These are characters that you’ve met before and they are characters you can look forward to meeting again (well, maybe not the Ice Climbers). Nintendo built their properties with longevity in mind and isn’t afraid to tug on the nostalgia heartstrings not just to attract their current audience of gamers, but also the audience that has grown up and retains fond memories of playing with these characters.
This is a strategy that is not just proven in games, but probably has been most visibly successful at Disney. They have created a stable of properties that appeal to kids, for example Beauty and the Beast from 1991, and continued to lean into these properties to keep their fans coming back time and time again, whether that’s enticing them to come to Disney World or see the “grittier” live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast from last year. That film made over a billion dollars and that’s not because the story was particularly groundbreaking. It’s because children wanted to see a princess movie and adults wanted to revisit the characters they had grown up with.
The console market is extremely fluid. Just last generation Xbox 360 was the market king in the US and PlayStation was in third place. Even this generation Nintendo saw themselves struggling with the Wii U – one of their big risks that didn’t pay off. Given the tendency for the market leaderboard to fluctuate, it’s smart to focus on creating exclusive characters (not just games) that fans can attach themselves to only on your family of systems. This is, as aforementioned, something Microsoft has always found great difficulty with.
If your console is underpowered as a home console (Switch) or is lacking a huge online community (Xbox One) then you’ll still find an audience by milking nostalgia and using your core gaggle of memorable characters. Create fans when they’re young, keep them forever. That’s smart business – Rodders.