The Struggles of Marketing GameCube

During the GameCube era, Nintendo was limited in how they could communicate with their fans.  Social networks like MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter either didn’t exist or weren’t mainstream in popularity at that time.  YouTube wasn’t even founded until 2005, one year before the Wii released. Broadband internet and Wi-Fi connections weren’t as widespread as they are today.  Smartphones and Tablets weren’t part of every teenager’s daily life.  Fans couldn’t share their feedback through Club Nintendo surveys and Miiverse communities.  Nintendo Directs, “Iwata Asks”, and the Nintendo eShop did not exist.

Kyle Mercury was involved in all major U.S. Concepts/Nintendo marketing strategies for approximately seven years between 2001 through 2007.  This includes his roles as a brand specialist, consultant, technical director, production manager, and event specialist.  US Concepts was a marketing company who handled promotions for Nintendo of America during the GameCube/GBA era and the beginning of the Wii/DS era. He played a prominent role in carrying out promotions such as the Cube Clubs, GameBoy Advance SP Launch Tour, Pokemon Rocks America, and Nintendo Wii/DS launch campaigns.  In addition, Mercury was the technical director for the Nintendo Fusion Tour which toured over 35-40 cities every year between 2003 through 2007.  He was also a production manager on Nintendo’s 2003 “Who Are You” campaign.  In 2004, Mercury was a casting director/tour manager who personally managed and lead Nintendo’s New York City Street Team.  He oversaw the review, selection, and hiring of all 48 team members from thousands of national entries.

We would like to thank Kyle Mercury for being involved with the interview portion (second portion) of this article.  You can read Kyle’s blog here and you can also follow him on Twitter at @DropSlash


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During the GameCube era, Nintendo of Japan became confused by North America’s obsession with violence, epic cinematic stories, and photo realistic graphics.  By 2004, games such as “Halo 2″ (sold 8 million units) and “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” (sold 17.33 million units) were stealing attention away from Nintendo’s first party

“In meetings it was clear [Nintendo of Japan] could not understand why the brand had fallen so far here in North America or comprehend why the mature titles, and more powerful consoles, were so successful. Nintendo represented fun, in the purest sense of the word, they always have. When you play Nintendo games you laugh, you yell, you smile, and you jump around. You have FUN. Someone, sadly I forget who, would later quote in one of those meetings that “Consumers don’t want fun anymore; they just want to kill people… in HD.”  It was actually kind of true, and with the cultural differences between Japan and the US, it was easy to understand the confusion,” said Mercury in 2011.

[Editors Note: Halo 2 and GTA: San Andreas released late 2004, and Xbox 360 launched 2005.  By 2004, everyone at Nintendo knew next gen systems were jumping to HD. ]

Beth Llewelyn, Nintendo’s former senior director of corporate communication, was asked about the sales of Nintendo’s first party GameCube sales.

“We had to compete against games like Grand Theft Auto  which probably stole some of the thunder away from our bigger titles,” said Llewelyn.

“Someone, sadly I forget who, would later quote in one of those meetings that “Consumers don’t want fun anymore; they just want to kill people… in HD.” – Kyle Mercury recalls a Nintendo meeting

Mercury says Nintendo of America wasn’t confused by the cultural differences like Nintendo of Japan was.

“The problem, though, was that Nintendo of America wasn’t confused by the situation at all, they understood those cultural differences quite well, but even if they could defy the marching orders from Nintendo of Japan, I’m not sure they even would have. Gaming was growing up. This is when things started to get real ugly for a while inside those hallowed walls,” he says.  “Nintendo of America [NoA] is not, by any means or methods, Nintendo of Japan [NoJ].  NoA is like the misfit child send off to the strange land full of strange people.  Well, at least it was back then, I’m not sure if things have changed now.”

According to an NPD sales chart (which you can see by scrolling below):

  •  GameCube sold 2.2 million units in North America during the first 10 months of launch.  (Source: Joystiq)
  •  PlayStation 3 only sold 1.7 million units in North America during the first 10 months of launch.   (Source: Joystiq)
  • In both console generations, GameCube and PlayStation 3 were competing in a competitive market where three consoles fought for market share.

The difference is that PlayStation 3 miraculously turned around its gloomy situation by eventually selling between 75 to 80 million units worldwide.  GameCube would only sell 21.7 million units worldwide by the end of its six year run.

“No one I talked to at Nintendo could understand why the company was struggling, why the whole brand was in danger of collapsing much like Sega before them. “But we’re Nintendo.” I can’t even recall how many times I heard that as a catch-all excuse.” says Mercury.  ” No one, not a single soul, could believe that Nintendo was capable of being unseated as Number 1, even while it was happening right in front of them.”

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In an attempt to appeal to the PlayStation and Xbox crowds, Nintendo established deals with companies like Maxim and Heineken to reach the 17-to-25 year old males.  Mercury’s promotional teams would show off products like the Game Boy Advance SP at porn industry parties and night clubs.  To fight the kiddy/toy image that GameCube was facing, Nintendo created promotional campaigns like Cube Clubs, Nintendo Fusion Tours, and the “Who Are You?” campaign to bring public awareness of their products to older demographics.

“This deliberate staffing decision was designed for maximum demographic coverage in the “cool” circles. This would be the start of a long, downward, spiral of bad marketing decision making. It was people trying to make Nintendo into Sony (of the time) and that’s just not what the Nintendo culture was (or is) about. It was difficult to understand these decisions until I got inside Nintendo of America’s headquarters in Redmond, WA and had more actual conversations with the people behind the scenes,” says Mercury.

In 2001, Chicago Tribune wrote this about the Cube Clubs:  “Perhaps you’re wondering what Jell-O shots, Playboy centerfolds and special cross promotions with the men’s magazine Maxim have to do with Nintendo–the company associated with such lovable kids’ characters as Mario, Pikachu and Donkey Kong.  Nintendo is glad you asked.  Nintendo’s $76 million marketing blitz isn’t just about building awareness among the under-13 set, the company’s core consumers. It’s about cultivating a hip image among 18- to 24-year-old males.”

“Maxim is sponsoring Cube Club nights–the Maxim women will be there. There’s a Smirnoff Vodka tie-in,” said George Harrison, Nintendo of America’s senior vice president of marketing. “These are things that are unexpected for Nintendo–we’re saying to people over 21, we do have games and we are going to speak to you.”

Pat Wells, who was a Nintendo product tester (at the time) told IGN, “Well, we’re pulling in plus-or-minus two hundred people a night, both male and female…definitely the older crowd, which is kinda where we wanted to focus our attention on this particular marketing campaign.”

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On a late night in 2004 at U.S. Concepts in New York City, Reggie Fils-Aime visited the company for a presentation of the next Fusion outline.  At the time, Reggie had been appointed as the new NOA Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing.  Everyone was asked to just nod their heads quietly to everything shown in the presentation.  Nobody wanted to be embarrassed in front of Reggie.

“By this point, there was no love for the Nintendo faithful or even gamers in general. They were regarded as spoiled, fickle, rebellious, nerds. They would be told what was cool and like it.”

“The buzzwords were flying like crazy. The insincerity was thicker than a Los Angeles casting call.  I couldn’t believe anyone actually was buying into all this. By this point, there was no love for the Nintendo faithful or even gamers in general. They were regarded as spoiled, fickle, rebellious, nerds. They would be told what was cool and like it. It went on like this for about 45 minutes. I got to hear about how Geist was going to be the next “Halo Killer”. About how the next Mario Party was going to be amazing (I think we were up to 7 by this point). About demographics, and music, and branding, and schwag, and on and on. I listened and watched and nodded politely.” says Mercury.

At the time, Nintendo believed “Geist” — a first person shooter published by Nintendo — would be GameCube’s “Halo Killer”.  Shigeru Miyamoto had contributed gameplay ideas to Geist including “object possession”.  Because of Miyamoto’s minor involvement, Nintendo had strong confidence in the title, and everyone inside the meeting reassured Reggie that “Geist” would become a huge hit with the older hardcore gamers who loved “Halo”.

“And then at the end [of the presentation], Reggie looked around the table and basically said “Look, don’t bullshit me. How do you guys really think this thing is going to hold up?” No one said a word for a minute, and then people started just spouting off more marketing lingo and faux (self) assurance. None of these people were gamers, none of these people even LIKED video games.” says Mercury.

Everyone in the room remained quiet.  Although nobody wanted to criticize Geist, Mercury knew he had to say something to Reggie.

Mercury told Fils-Aime, “Look, I’m sorry, but it’s pretty obvious that Geist is no ‘Halo Killer’. I’m not sure it’s much of an anything killer right now, except maybe fun. If you want to talk ‘Halo Killer’, the closest things we have is Metroid Prime 2I understand that Geist is not done yet (understatement of the year), but it really should not be a focus title, 1st party involvement or not.”

Everyone in the room tried to rebuttal Mercury’s comments by spouting off marketing trivia and neat interesting facts about “Geist”.  Reggie didn’t respond.  He just sat quietly and listened to what everyone had to say.

Mercury then made another recommendation to Fils-Aime: “The other game we should really be focusing on is Resident Evil 4. This game is going to sell consoles. Period.”

Reggie was surprised at the idea of giving a bigger push to a third party title.

“This was the first time I saw any kind of expression register on Reggie’s face. It was an inquisitive look, an “Oh really?” look. I couldn’t believe no one else saw this. It was a big risk on my part, actually, to force a 3rd party title in front like that, but I’d played the RE4 demo and (though admittedly an RE fan) was just blown away by it.  It had to be given a spotlight of some kind. If we were going to fight the PS2 on their own turf, RE4 was the game to do it with,” says Mercury.

Toward the end of the GameCube era, Nintendo lost confidence in their own fans.  Nintendo was losing market share with each new console launched.

“Pride turned to arrogance. Ugly arrogance. Nintendo started to develop contempt for the gaming community. They felt as if they were being betrayed by the gamers they created. The marketing teams started to look at gamer focused strategies with ire and spite.”  says Mercury.  “The “hardcore” Nintendo audience was equally cast aside. “Why bother? They’re going to buy anything we put out anyway.”

To create a smooth transition from the GCN into the Wii, Nintendo positioned GameCube as a secondary console during its final years.  The goal was to give GameCube one final push to build excitement around Nintendo’s brand before Wii would be shown off at E3 2006.

“The decision was made to cede to Sony and Microsoft a bit and accept a stance of “The second console.” The reasoning was that by this point, everyone already had a PS2 or XBOX, so Nintendo, with a reduced GameCube price point, should shoot to be everyone’s Number 2,” says Mercury.  “We became the “other console” and the target demographic would now be “everyone” (more accurately: “anyone”), and we’d work hard to get the last batch of “killer” games out in front of people to salvage what was left of the GameCube market and build some Nintendo buzz before this new gaming revolution [the Nintendo Wii] hit.”


 

INTERVIEW WITH KYLE MERCURY

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Can you recall moments where Nintendo of America didn’t think a certain game or franchise was very marketable or didn’t deserve a big promotional push?

Not off the top of my head. I mean, other than games that just didn’t turn out very well. Geist comes to mind specifically because it was technically 1st party and Nintendo almost always pours considerable effort and resources into 1st party title promotion.  There wasn’t much hope [for Geist] when even on just the GameCube it was up against genre defining titles like Metroid Prime.

In your blog, you wrote, “Nintendo America [NoA] is not, by any means or methods, Nintendo of Japan [NoJ].  NoA is like the misfit child send off to the strange land of strange people.”

Did NOA employees ever feel that Nintendo of Japan’s philosophies were holding Nintendo of America back from making GameCube a bigger success in the west?  Also, were there NOA employees that secretly wished Nintendo’s Japanese studios would make edgier, more adult games similar to Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, etc?

I can’t really speculate to the secret wishes of other NoA employees, but it was less about the content/style of the games and more about how the company presented what it had and what was coming. There was a sense that edgier marketing initiatives and less traditional methods would never get approved because of the Nintendo of Japan philosophies about both marketing and the company itself. It’s easy to see in the marketing and advertising materials of the time (remember those weird GameCube commercials?). Nintendo is an incredibly proud company. They are over 100 years old, have had a profound influence on popular culture, and really helped cement video games in the eyes of the public as an entertainment medium. It’s easy to forget these days, but Nintendo had never faced a market challenge like they were in 2003, not even during the classic Nintendo/Sega days (the Dreamcast was already out of the picture by this point). The PS2 was almost in a league of it’s own and in Japan the Xbox was not really a threat, it still isn’t, so even though the face of games in the West was changing rapidly, the strategies used by Nintendo were slow to adapt.

I enjoyed your story about the meeting with Reggie Fils-aime where everyone talks about Geist being a “Halo Killer”.  I got the impression that Reggie was surrounded by “Yes People” who only agreed or nodded politely at every idea.  Was it difficult for employees to be critical of Nintendo’s policies even if the problems were quite clear?  And did that negatively impact the decision making in promoting/marketing the GameCube effectively?

It absolutely was.  Again, Nintendo is a very proud company and they were facing a market shift unlike any in their history. The Marketing team had to walk a fine line of keeping the energy up, keeping people excited about the future, and implementing solutions that tried to resolve the really glaringly obvious problems of the present. Too far in either direction and you’re either seen as sadly naive or a cynical doomsayer. For me, this meant staying sincerely passionate about the brand (and I was), but being honest about the position we were in. I was fortunate to have that mix of philosophies, but a lot of people didn’t and that made for a very trying experience when it came to developing initiatives. A huge number of people refused to admit there was a problem and many of the cynics levied the blame against the consumer, rather than Nintendo’s own policies. Marketing was doing the best with what we had. We weren’t making the software, or the hardware, we were just bringing it to the people and doing what we could to keep an notoriously fickle and increasingly disenfranchised audience engaged in a time where amazing new options were everywhere.

A huge number of people refused to admit there was a problem and many of the cynics levied the blame against the consumer, rather than Nintendo’s own policies.

It sounds like Nintendo of America was embarrassed of their own fans during the GameCube era (and early Wii years.)  You mentioned how at the end of the GameCube era, Nintendo viewed their faithful fans as “spoiled, fickle, rebellious, nerds”. There’s another quote where you say: “Nintendo started to develop contempt for the gaming community.”  I’m very curious about Nintendo’s relationship with their fans during the GameCube era.  Back then, social networks like Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook either didn’t exist or weren’t popular yet.  Nintendo didn’t have things like Nintendo Directs, Iwata Asks, Club Nintendo, or Miiverse to communicate with their fans.  

My question is: Was Nintendo (during the GCN era) completely detached from their fans? Was this a company that had trouble understanding what their fans wanted, and therefore, chased after casual gamers since they were easier to please (and were less demanding)?

I wouldn’t say “embarrassed”, it was more that the outgoing, vocal, minority of hardcore Nintendo fans were seen as a “sure thing”, so why waste the resources catering to a demographic that is going to buy it all anyway?  There was a conscious decision to focus efforts elsewhere. That, of course, is never met well by the devotees who feel they are being ignored and thus begins a long, downward, spiral of misunderstanding of intent on the parts of both parties.

Marketing, especially in Events and Promotions where I was, was that line of communication in a sense. I talked to hundreds of fans a night on every stop of Fusion. I lead street teams, produced other tours and events (CubeClub, Who Are You, Pokémon Rocks, launches, openings, etc) and spent a lot of time directly interacting with the community, listening, discussing, and collecting feedback.  Now, that said, I could only report back what the information I was receiving. How it was used wasn’t up to me and that’s probably where part of that disconnect came from. I was passionate about the brand and I was delivering data from a passionate community. I took that work very seriously.  A lot of the most passionate were really unhappy but didn’t want to give up on Nintendo, and I understood that. Unfortunately, information of that nature, no matter how sincere, can only get so far up the chain before people start to get sick of hearing it. No one likes having their problems constantly pointed out to them and, like you mentioned, the channels for delivering the voices of the community were pretty limited. Even more-so, the ability to quickly react and deliver on emerging trends or intense vocal outcry was far, far, different than it is today. There were no firmware updates, no game patches or title updates or DLC, consoles were barely online at all. That age of gaming was just starting. Nintendo did deliver some incredible titles at the end of the GCN lifecycle though, they were definitely still listening. There was a sense of  “Well, what can we really do at this point other than focus on what’s next?” though, since we all knew what that was going to be.

In relations to the EVO incident last month (July), you tweeted the following:  “Was told “No Smash” countless times in my 8 yrs producing events for Nintendo.  It’s a dangerous brand for them.”  (link: https://twitter.com/dropslash/status/354769765606236161)

Can you explain what you meant by Smash Bros being a dangerous brand for Nintendo?

From a Promotional perspective the game is almost always a guaranteed victory, it’s easy mode. People love Smash, period. In this respect, it tends to swallow nearly all other titles it’s placed alongside. Even during the Wii launch, Smash Melee would still draw huge crowds at events if it was fired up, pulling eyes and critical impressions away from newer Wii and DS titles. As that relates to EVO, the decision doesn’t really seem to make much sense and from what I’ve heard it was more a miscommunication between the parties involved. On the other hand, highlighting a 12 year old game from a console two full generations ago isn’t exactly going to lead to improved sales numbers. People always say “It’s free promotion!”, but that’s like using a Gameboy Advance SP to promote the 3DS. It was great at the time, but it’s not doing you any favors in 2013.

Unlike most other fighting game characters, the Nintendo mascots have far-reaching brands and franchises unto themselves that have to be considered and protected in a bigger picture view.

From a Marketing perspective, Smash is dangerous because of the content/playstyle of the game. Iconic Nintendo mascots beating the hell out of each other is an awesome gameplay experience, no one will challenge that fact, but from an overall Marketing view it’s, well, dangerous. The popular image of Mario, the widely publicly recognized one, can never be of him beating the hell out of Princess Peach or, say, of Link tossing Zelda into the fires of Brinstar, Pikachu hitting Jigglypuff with a baseball bat, so on, so forth. Unlike most other fighting game characters, the Nintendo mascots have far-reaching brands and franchises unto themselves that have to be considered and protected in a bigger picture view. EVO would have taken the character representations out of the hands of Nintendo’s control, boiled them down to pure violence, and broadcast it directly to 125,000 people. It’s not hard to see why Nintendo would be a little gun-shy.

Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to see Super Smash Bros Melee at EVO2013 (full disclosure, I was a Judge at EVO this year), but the outcry against Nintendo at the initial decision was so one-sided, so inconsiderate of what the company has to deal with to protect their brands, and just generally uninformed. Gamers want what they want, but there is always more at stake than we know.

Recently, there’s been a lot of bad news about the Wii U.  The console is even selling slightly less than the GameCube according to IGN. Right now, based on Wii U’s poor sales performance, it seems like casual gamers (or expanded audience) who made the Wii popular have abandoned Nintendo with the Wii U.

Since you worked with Nintendo during the GameCube era, what do you take from all of this?  Do you see any similarities between the GameCube era and the Wii U era?

There are certainly parallels. The Wii performed what was, at the time, a remarkable feat: It drastically lowered the barrier to entry to video games. Price, ease of use, novel and broadly appealing content, innovative technologies without the fear of complexity that usually comes from them, disregard for traditional demographics… It was a perfect recipe and something the video game industry sorely needed. The GameCube had elements of those things, but it’s not what the market was looking for in the time of the PS2. Nintendo’s mobile division (especially backed by the Pokémon money machine) saved the day and there was only gain to be had with the Wii.

The Wii U also has elements of that whole, but once again it’s not what the market is looking for. It has sacrificed the simplicity of the Wii, but hasn’t caught the sheer hardware or media power of Microsoft or Sony. Casual gamers have moved to phones and tablets which are unsurpassed in convenience of play and cost. Title offerings aren’t exactly bold and with more and more 3rd party developers, studios that defined the last generation of games, reducing or removing support for the Wii U and a sadly lacking indie development scene… what’s the value proposition? The Wii thrived because it changed gamers expectations. The GameCube and Wii U suffered because gamers expectations have changed.

The GameCube at least benefitted from 3rd party developers still looking to push boundaries and create a-typical experiences. Games that could take chances because we hadn’t quite reached the almost “AAA or Indie” only state we’re in now. The middle class of gaming has slowly been whittled away this past generation, though I would argue there is an exception to be made for the still Nintendo dominated handheld market.

The Wii thrived because it changed gamers expectations.  The GameCube and Wii U suffered because gamers expectations have changed.”

The Wii was pretty popular among females.  But the GameCube didn’t have that large female audience that the Wii had.  When you were touring through all of these different cities, was it challenging to get females to care about most of the games on GameCube?  In other words, did most GameCube games attract or repel most females during tours?   For GameCube, was the female market important to Nintendo?  

Well, I think it’s fair to say that the Wii was popular among everyone. That was always the goal though, that marketing design was intentional and well planned. I mentioned in my story that during the Wii the transition the target demographic really became “everyone” and the marketing, promotional, and advertising strategies changed to reflect that. During this time Nintendo was still riding the initial success of the DS and there has always been a clear marketing push towards females on the handheld systems (games, colors, etc). That helped lead into directions of the Wii campaigns.

I wouldn’t say it was “challenging”, per se. No more so than with any other console at the time. Nintendo first party titles have always been a little less “macho-hardcore” (even when they try to make them otherwise) so there was an advantage in that regard, but I don’t think any of the titles I toured with actively attracted or repelled females. Games like Mario Kart: Double Dash! and Mario Party have pretty low barriers to entry and are easy to pick up and play and games like The Legend of Zelda have near universal appeal. The female market is always important, though in those later GameCube years we really were doing our best to get everyone playing. Male, female, young, old, casual, hardcore… most specific targets were abandoned for broad reaching appeal in preparation for the Wii.

Did you ever worry that most people who showed up at the Nintendo Fusion Tours were only coming to see the popular bands but had very little interest in playing with Nintendo’s products?  Do you believe that the Nintendo Fusion Tours successfully boosted awareness for the GameCube from older people (teens to adults)?

It was a legitimate concern in that first year (2003). The game line up was not particularly strong and the headlining band (Evanescence) was on the top of the charts. The idea was to build a brand similar to “Warped” or “Ozzfest”, so it was an acceptable strategy to let the games be second to the music. The next three years were a totally different story though, even in 2005 with Fall Out Boy selling out nearly every venue. People would tell us stories about how they drove from across different states, in the rain, at night, just to get hands on time with the DS or, more-so, the Wii. People waited in lines for the entire duration of the shows just to wait in line for a chance to play the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Wii demo. I had hundreds of conversations with people about how they bought a ticket to Fusion just to play the games.

It probably boosted awareness among the older demographic, but I wouldn’t say considerably. Fusion was all ages, so the attendee age didn’t skew too high considering the nature of the bands. If anything it gave us rare opportunity to directly interact with parents who were there chaperoning.

 

You described Nintendo during the GameCube era as “one of their darkest hours” and you said “things started to get really ugly for a while inside of those hallowed walls”.  It must have been frustrating for your team to invest so much time and energy into promoting a product that kept disappointing in sales year after year.

Can you describe in detail what the overall atmosphere and employee morale was like at Nintendo of America during the Gamecube era?  Were there ever any heated debates and arguments at Redmond headquarters about GameCube’s performance?

Well, I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Redmond HQ at the time (I was on the road pretty much 2/3rds of the year and my marketing team was based in NYC), but morale was pretty low during those last GameCube years. There were some fantastic games being released on the system, but in Marketing and Promotions we were still neck deep in the “Kiddie Image” debacle. It’s difficult to describe how strong that tide was to fight against. Video games were growing up so quickly, the consoles were just turning into the living room media devices that they are today, but the GameCube was being thought of as a toy. Again, my team was tasked with bringing some “hardcore” credibility back to Nintendo, which is why I always fought for games like F-Zero GX, Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, etc, and why programs like Fusion were started. Nintendo was not happy with much of anything in those days. There were a lot of conversations about “not getting it”, meaning that the people on the road, like myself, were having a much different experience with the brand than the people in the Redmond office. The DS and the Wii were just around the corner though and we knew that. We were really just doing our best to give the GameCube (and the Gameboy Advance line) the best possible sendoff in light of the massive shift in marketing strategies that was about to unfold.

Nintendo was not happy with much of anything in those days. There were a lot of conversations about “not getting it”, meaning that the people on the road, like myself, were having a much different experience with the brand than the people in the Redmond office.

Did you get a sense that most employees at Nintendo of America viewed GameCube as a failure?

I can’t really speculate on what other employees may or may not have felt.  The GameCube delivered some titles that really pushed the limits and perceptions of games, titles that still live on fondly in the hearts of gamers today. It also helped introduce some console features that have since become standard in the industry, like 4 player functionality, handheld interoperability, and wireless controllers. In that regard, it was a success. Stacking it up against the PS2, which created an almost cultural shift in the perception of gaming as a medium, is a totally different story. Nothing from that time could stand against what the PS2 became. Even at the start of the current generation of consoles the PS2 was staggeringly dominant. The GameCube was a great console for what it was, but in a time where the market and industry was changing so rapidly, when the technologies were evolving so quickly, and when the consumer base was growing in size, maturity, and expectations, despite all it’s advances it really just wasn’t designed to keep up that breakneck pace.

What is the strangest story that you remember from that era of consoles that you’ve never written about?

There are so many, I could go on for days. Being told to flat out deny that the code name for the Wii was “Revolution” only to have our pre-production Wii’s display error screens that specifically called them “The Nintendo Revolution”. Printing out a giant CubeClub sign at Kinko’s and hand coloring it with pink and blue highlighters (to make purple) so my brother and I could photo (video?) bomb TRL in New York. Being booked into a Vivid Pictures (the porn studio) release party in LA to show of the pre-launch Gameboy Advance SP hardware. Firing not one, but two, different Tour Managers on Fusion mid-tour. Getting in a tour bus accident in 2005 and renting mini-vans to finish the drive to the next show so it could be built on time. Performing inventories at Nintendo warehouses and stumbling across crazy promotional items like full size Mario Karts, thousands of forgotten Gameboy Micro faceplates, a 35ft inflatable Pikachu, and an entire room full of the Pokémon Snap photo printing machines that used to be in Blockbuster Video stores.

It’s been a long strange trip. These are really just the tip of the iceberg.


 

What Lessons Can Be Learned from GameCube?

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There are many lessons that can be learned from the GameCube era.  It’s interesting how mistakes made in one console generation can still be made in later generations.  I assembled a list of quotes where Nintendo employees (current and former) discuss why the GameCube didn’t live up to expectations.  Based on the quotes below, you could probably come to your own conclusions on where things went wrong with the GameCube.  Do you see any of the mistakes (or problems) below being repeated with next gen consoles like Wii U, Xbox One, or PlayStation 4?  Or have console makers learned from all of the GameCube’s mistakes?

Hiroshi Yamauchi blames the popularity of violent games for GameCube’s weak sales.

“There have always been differences between players in Asia and those in North America and Europe,” he commented, “and I think those differences are becoming more clear.  Sales of GameCube software fell short in North America and Europe last year, and I believe that’s due to the popularity of violent games on other consoles.” (Source)

Hiroshi Yamauchi says it’s difficult for Japanese developers to achieve success in America/Europe if they don’t make violent games.

“The culture of Japan is very different and less accepting of such titles,” he continued. “Our target market is the entire world, so it’s very difficult to develop software that appeals to everyone – and that’s the lifeline of our business. That’s why it’s hard to achieve success in America and Europe for Japanese developers, even the most talented ones.” (Source)

Perrin Kaplan says GameCube had adult games, but most consumers didn’t know about them. (Lack of advertising for M rated GCN games.)

“We have the same stuff everyone else does, but because of the [kiddy] perception, people don’t go looking.”  (Source)

George Harrison says PlayStation 2′s sales prove that the most powerful system doesn’t always sell the best.

“But there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the GameCube has a very sophisticated chipset. It has great potential and capabilities, and it’s driven many great games. And yet, the console that’s succeeding the most in this generation is the PlayStation 2, which arguably has the weakest chipset of all three systems. So I think we learned that it’s not always about the most sophisticated technology”  (Source)

Nintendo of America’s George Harrison and Perrin Kaplan says GameCube’s design hurt its sales.

“I think it didn’t look as sophisticated. I think that caused people to maybe pre-judge it, especially since other systems may look a little more like electronic appliances,” says George Harrison. (Source)

“In hindsight, maybe people thought it looked a little bit like a lunchbox,” says Perrin Kaplan   (Source)

Perrin Kaplan thinks launching a purple GameCube hurt the console’s image.

“Maybe our color choice for the hardware was not of instant appeal to everybody.”  (Source)

Perrin Kaplan says Nintendo didn’t make a really good link between their products in their marketing campaigns.

“I think the thing that we’ve been missing the most is making a really good link between our products — showing that we have products for everybody. I think we have tended to promote things in a very one-off fashion and not linked things together as much as we should.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata and George Harrison blame GameCube’s weak sales due to lack of variety in games.  Iwata and Harrison believe they made mistake in thinking a single piece of software can change hardware sales.

“I think the biggest problem we were having was that thinking (that) one single software can make a great change on hardware sales. But we have come to realize by now that the circumstances have changed. No single software can do it, but rather, Nintendo, or more specifically GameCube, does need a great variety of different software which must be put into the market at appropriate intervals. Nintendo has to concentrate on something which is really unique to Nintendo.” (Source)

“If there’s a shortcoming for us on GameCube, it’s not delivering enough consistent breadth and variety of software. That really is the key. Consumers, I think, are past the time when they buy a system just to get one game. We used to believe that was the case,” says George Harrison.  (Source)

Nintendo of America’s George Harrison tells CNN that GameCube’s software sales were lower than expected because games like “Super Mario Sunshine” are too difficult for today’s gamers.  Due to Cube’s software sales, Nintendo of Japan and Miyamoto have decided to make games less challenging to sell software to larger audiences.

“Nintendo’s chief gaming architect Shigeru Miyamoto agreed with criticism that the Mario game was too hard. And, in a decision that might anger the hardcore crowd, the word has since come from up high to make games less challenging.” says CNN.  (Source)

“We’re trying to go back and make sure we don’t let technology alienate players,” said Nintendo’s George Harrison. “We want to make games that are accessible to everyone.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata and Perrin Kaplan blame software droughts after launch period for GameCube’s sales slowing down.

“When we launched GameCube, the initial sales were good, and all the hardware we manufactured at that time were sold through. However, after this period, we could not provide the market with strong software titles in a timely fashion. As a result we could not leverage the initial launch time momentum, and sales of GameCube slowed down. ”  (Source)

“One of the things we did with the GameCube was we had these big gaps in time and that really tested people’s patience,” says Perrin Kaplan.  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says launching GameCube late hurt GameCube’s sales

“I think that its biggest shortcoming was that we were late in launching it,” says Iwata. “Because of that delay, our competitors were able to create a large install base for their consoles. Even though it was easier for software developers to create games for GameCube, because of the delay, the developers had a chance to learn more about our competitors’ machines. In the end, we could not match that advantage.” (Source)

“The PlayStation 2 debuted one-and-a-half years ahead of the GameCube,” according to Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. “If we had launched the GameCube at the same time as PlayStation 2, the result would have been different. ”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says games being too complex hurt GameCube’s sales.

According to The Register, “Iwata blamed falling games sales on overly complex titles that are too tough for newcomers and casual gamers. They’re also bad for the business, [Iwata] added – gamers can spend months playing them, and while they’re doing so, they’re not buying other titles. Those who find they can’t win get so fed up with the experience, they don’t feel inclined to buy an alternative title. Nintendo’s message to the industry seems to be: forget about discs jam packed with ever more complex levels and involving gameplay, and give the punters something they can complete quicky – and get out to buy more of the stuff. Iwata wants Nintendo to focus on games that have a broader appeal.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says GameCube’s low software sales is because gamers don’t want to play long games anymore.

“Also behind the soft sales is a change in consumer trends. Consumers today apparently don’t want to sit in front of the television to play games for hours and hours.” – Satoru Iwata  (Source)

Iwata says GameCube’s poor sales is because gamers are bored of console makers focusing only on pretty graphics.

“Some people say 2005 was regarded as a transitional year in the industry. I just can’t agree with them. I do believe we have to find new ways to entertain people. In the past, we have always tried to entertain people with more beautiful graphics and more gorgeous sound and whatnot. The industry still believes that’s the only direction we can take in order to surprise people, but unfortunately people are bored already.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says GameCube’s sales in Japan could be blamed on Japan’s gaming market shrinking.

“In Japan, the gaming market is shrinking. There is still room to expand in the U.S. and Europe. But we should not become complacent with that growth.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says GameCube’s price being too expensive hurt GameCube’s Japanese sales

“Japanese are waiting for the price to come down,” says Nintendo President Satoru Iwata. “Spending more than 20,000 yen ($170) is a heavy outlay for a Japanese family today.” (Source)

Satoru Iwata says 3DS price cut was due to lessons learned from GameCube.

“According to Iwata, the Gamecube suffered because Nintendo did not take certain opportunities when they were available. The general feeling within company management is that the console had a chance to succeed, but that chance was not seized upon,” reports Destructoid.  (Source)

Satoru Iwata says poor GameCube performance in Australia is because he needs to learn more about Australia.

“First of all, I am most sorry that the Gamecube’s performance is bad in Australia among any area in the world. One of the biggest things I feel unfortunate about is that I have not been to Australia. I am looking forward to learning more about Australia.” (Source)

Reggie says Nintendo thought portability in a console would be a huge selling point — but it wasn’t.

“With GameCube, at the time, portability was thought to be a big factor – that’s why it has a handle. Obviously, that wasn’t the case.” (Source)

George Harrison says Nintendo was slow in sending out GameCube development kits to third party publishers.

Certainly we have to get [third parties] development kits on a timely basis. They need their kits a year and half or two years in advance to really make a quality game that’ll be ready to go at launch.” (Source)

George Harrison blames Rareware for GameCube’s first year software droughts.

“…when we launched the GameCube, we put the concentration of our development kits in the hands of only a few people — internally, of course, with Mr. Miyamoto’s EAD team, but also with Rare. And Rare didn’t deliver a single game for us at the launch, when their history had been to make some really great games for us in the past. That hurt us, and it led us into this gap of titles, starting after the launch and lasting for about seven or nine months until Mario Sunshine came out. Consumers want consistency. They would never buy a DVD player that had only one or two good movies a year; they want consistency and variety, and we’re trying hard to make sure that’s not only resolved for the GameCube, but as we go into the next system.”  (Source)

George Harrison says GameCube not being backwards compatible with N64 games gave them a disadvantage.

“I think that in Sony’s case, the backward compatibility [from PS one to PS2] gave them a great sense of momentum. That was not possible for GameCube because we were moving from cartridges to discs.” (Source)

George Harrison says Nintendo hadn’t successfully explained to gamers why GCN-GBA connectivity is important or exciting.

“We haven’t seen the killer application for it yet which is why I think it’s hard for consumers to fully get it, but there are some more things coming this fall. Clearly we’ve not shown the full potential of connectivity. We either have to deliver on that or we have to stop talking about it.” (Source)

“I think it [GCN/GBA connectivity] could be hugely important, but it has not so far lived up to its potential.  In other words, we haven’t shown the game that makes it a killer application.” (Source)

George Harrison tells IGN that memory cards hurt sales of sports games on GameCube.

“When we launched GameCube we didn’t have a memory card at the time that was big enough to hold, say, a full season. People really fanatical about sports demand to have that memory whether it’s in a hard-drive or a memory card capacity. So we kind of missed a beat there. Sports games were very important to the US market but maybe not quite as important to the Japanese one and as a result [memory card capacity] was overlooked at launch.”  (Source)

George Harrison says GameCube missing out on certain types of games hurt the GameCube’s popularity.

“I think if we look at the GameCube and say, “OK, what’s one of the things we missed in this generation?” Well, we really didn’t have the Grand Turismos or the Grand Theft Autos, so those are the things that the publishers with their particular expertise can really fill in the gaps on, and that’s important to us.”  (Source)

Satoru Iwata believes PlayStation 2′s sales success over GameCube was partially due to DVD playback.

“Although PS2 was a sales success because it had a DVD player function, it troubled me that we had moved to a hardware where the sole function wasn’t playing games,” Iwata said.  (Source)

Reggie talks about the lessons Nintendo learned from GameCube.

“First, we’ve got make sure that the titles in the first six months are strong and can drive sales. We’ve also got to make sure the console is attractive visually. And we’ve got to deliver on the right consumer needs.” (Source)

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10 Comments to The Struggles of Marketing GameCube
    • Nuno
    • Congratulations for the great article, although i would really love to read one talking about the DS and Wii success. I know that it’s very important to recall those Gamecube days and try to make an analogy to the Wii U ones and all, but every coin has two faces. Nintendo took hard lessons from the Gamecube days and turned it around, i would like to read a follow up unto the Wii days, according to your own narrative.

      Keep up with the good work but don’t forget about the successful times that Nintendo has enjoyed, and still enjoy with the 3ds. Greets

    • queazy
    • Impressive article. I hope somebody at Nintendo takes notice of the existing indicators of what to expect from their past & future success. This article sums it up some of the problems greatly!

    • NerdDev
    • Very interesting article. Just wanted to tell you that I’ve read some of your other pieces and find them incredible. I wish more people from the media strived for excellency like you.

    • HaNks
    • good read thanks. not sure i’d agree with smash at evo being a negative as far as marketing is concerned. with 2 new games in the series due next year, raising awareness has to be net positive. not everyone is a hardcore melee player and the competitive aspect should be enhanced by (hopefully) much improved online modes.

    • John Johnson
    • This was an amazing article and it confirmed so many of my suspicions. I’ve just linked it to so many people I know that need to see this. It’s so hard to get the clear picture of what really is happening with Nintendo but it looks like that’s all changing.

    • Jeff Barton
    • Emily, I really enjoy reading your articles. They’re well thought out, and backed with great sources. You and Alex Plant at GenGame totally get it.

    • LTS
    • We really didn’t have the same experience here in France. The Gamecube was marketed with pride as the console for real hardcore gamers with the real hardcore games. Nintendo fans such as I were pompous to feel that among all the trash talk, they had the best experience: Mario Kart, Smash, Metroid, F-Zero, Mario, Zelda, Tales of Symphonia, Baten Kaitos… The Gamecube was marketed with a strong sense of pride in gaming with the catchphrase:
      “La vie est un jeu : Gamecube.” (Gamecube: Life is a Game.)

      The simple reality was that there was nothing the Gamecube could do against the PS2. Sony had constructed its cool kid image ever since the original PlayStation, and in a country driven by fashion and appearance (in hindsight I remember how as high school kids we all, even us guys, use to wear perfume), the long established image of the PlayStation brand as well all that the PlayStation 2 had that the Gamecube hadn’t (DVD playback, GTA…) rendered Sony simply unbeatable in my country.

    • the perfume shop
    • You are so interesting! I do not believe I’ve read anything like this before.
      So good to find somebody with some genuine
      thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. many thanks for starting
      this up. This website is something that’s needed on the web, someone with a little originality!

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