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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Nintendo's Secrecy: Why It Helps And Why It Hurts

Nintendo is one of the most secretive companies out there.  They remain very tight-lipped about every game they release, every system they announce - just about anything they do is under a cone of silence.  It's a stark contrast between Nintendo and Sony, which has more leaks than a shooting gallery full of condoms.  Much to Sony's consternation, we heard about the PSPGo and the PS3 Slim before Sony even said a word.

Is Nintendo's tight-lipped attitude a good thing or a bad thing?  It depends.  Let's break it down.

Advantages:

When Nintendo Speaks, People Listen:  If Nintendo makes an announcement, you know it'll count.  It won't be a cryptic announcement like Sony's horrible Agent announcement at E3.  It'll be clear and decisive, with a solid release date and specifics about what they're offering and why.  They learned their lesson from Super Mario 128: Don't talk about anything that you don't actually have ready to go in the pipeline, and have it ready as soon as possible.

Limited Hype Cycle:  Game announcements made four years before the game releases are awful.  The available footage gets endlessly dissected and criticized, people form opinions based on it, battle lines are drawn and conclusions are leaped to years before the game's release.  Look at the firestorm of controversy surrounding Fallout 3 from the Fallout community:  Those who pilloried the game pre-release missed out on the best game of last year, all because they had too much time to think about it.

Everyone Loves Secrets:  Before E3 this year, everyone knew there was a new Mario announcement coming out, so New Super Mario Bros. Wii was no big surprise.  It was greeted with a half-hearted shrug of mild excitement.  No one was prepared for the Galaxy 2 announcement, and much less for the Metroid: Other M announcement.  No one expected Zelda: Spirit Tracks to be announced at GDC last year, and it ended up stealing the show and keeping eyes on what Nintendo planned to say for the rest of the show.  That secrecy keeps people on their toes regarding Nintendo's future plans.

Above The Fray:  Nintendo is an odd throwback to the days before the internet.  While other devs maintain close ties to the community, getting into virtual fistfights and insult swordfighting, Nintendo stays out of it.  The only person who really gets into the trenches of trash talk is Reggie, and that only occasionally.  This helps maintain Nintendo's position as the elder statesman, the company that stays above the teeming, criticizing masses and emerges from on high to proffer its goods at its own appointed time.

Disadvantages:

Lackluster Conferences:  Nintendo's E3 in 2008 was absolutely, ridiculously awful, but it didn't have to be.  Think about it:  Sony will drop names for games two years in advance.  In 2008, they announced God of War III with a CGI trailer and no gameplay footage whatsoever.  I mean, let's be honest, if Nintendo and Sony switched places, Sony would have taken the one drawing that Miyamoto had for the new Zelda this year and made it into an event all its own.  So let's think about which games Nintendo COULD have announced in 2008:

Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Excitebots
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Fossil Fighters
Galaxy 2

Kid Icarus (maybe? All you need is a CGI trailer)
Metroid Other M
Wii Fit Plus


According to what other companies have done, they would have been well within their rights to do so.  Most of these games would have been 1-2 years away, but Sony announced God of War III at E3 2008 and it's not due until next year.  As it was, Nintendo had the worst, most debilitating conference in the history of conferences that might have irreparably damaged the Wii's reputation among the hardcore.

Connection Lost:  While it's great that Nintendo remains above the fray of the petty console wars, it would be nice to know more about the guys who make some of the finest games available.  All we know are their names and what we've gleaned from past interviews.  We know a couple of names: Iwata, Miyamoto, Fils-Aime, Dunaway.  For instance, do you know the name Yoshiaki Koizumi?  Maybe, maybe not.  If you don't, you should.  He designed Majora's Mask, Mario Sunshine and Mario Galaxy.  How do we not know more about this guy?  He worked on Link to the Past, for God's sake.  He should be a rock star, and we know next to nothing about him.

Give Me Something To Look Forward To:  Speaking of the lackluster conferences that Nintendo has had in the past, it's really hard to defend a company when their release schedule looks awful.  How can you?  If there's nothing in the apparent pipeline, there's no way to get excited for future games.  Now, there's a high level of excitement about what's coming out at the end of this year and during the next, but there was virtually nothing to look forward to last year, prompting a lot of people (myself included) to seriously consider dumping the Wii in favor of a more robust system.

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All in all, it's not a bad idea that Nintendo keeps its future projects under wraps and that it keeps new hardware under its hat.  You can't deny that it's worked out really well for them, but there's something to be said for a little openness.  In an era where even Microsoft is contributing lines of code to Linux, you can't stay hidden forever.