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E3 2017: The culmination of Nintendo’s pioneering digital-first approach

James walks us through the history of Nintendo’s E3 presence, since they began moving away from formal press conferences way back in 2013.

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E3 2017: Nintendo's digital first approach

James walks us through the history of Nintendo’s E3 presence, since they began moving away from formal press conferences way back in 2013.

Think back to early 2013, before that year’s E3.

The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One still haven’t been formally revealed, and the Wii U was already struggling with sales. Confounding everyone, given the air of negativity that was already surrounding Nintendo, was the announcement that they would not be holding a formal press conference at that year’s E3. Instead, they would be holding something akin to their Nintendo Direct series of online videos, referred to as a ‘Digital Event’, accompanied by smaller private events for the media and other associated members of the industry.

The following two years saw Nintendo become more creative with this format, resulting in a memorable Robot Chicken-style intro. Prior to this Nintendo had already collaborated with online video creators Mega 64 to announce Nintendo’s presence at the 2014 E3 event. 2015 saw this trend continue, this time seeing specially created muppets of Satoru Iwata, Shigeru Miyamoto, and Reggie Fils-Aimé before, during, and after their transformation into the cast of Star Fox.

Despite the fun antics – some of which were surprisingly self-deprecating of the traditionally uptight company – Nintendo still managed to provide all the same key announcements usually found in a ‘normal’ E3 press conference. Except of course without the technical difficulties and awkward blunders that can plague a live press conference, which has affected Nintendo poorly in the past, and instead distributed in a concise package that is easily digestible by all.

By concentrating the core information to a 30-minute or so, pre-prepared online video allowed Nintendo to diversify their E3 presence, which started with the Super Smash Bros Invitational in 2014. For this event, Nintendo hired out the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, where they had previously hosted their conferences. Except now they were hosting an eSports tournament on Twitch, so that people around the world could see the latest entry from one of Nintendo’s most important video game series’ in action before it was released.

The following year they focused on Super Mario Maker, where people played levels created in the game for the first time. This made for surprisingly engaging viewing, helping to change the minds of many at home who were still sceptical about the game.

Since the tragic loss of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, the Digital Events – or ‘Nintendo Spotlight’ as it went by in 2017 – have changed in tone, no longer quite as playful, very much sticking to the core message (ironically, the seriousness of fun). Here’s Reggie Fils-Aimé, Nintendo of America President and COO, sternly driving that point home at the start of the Nintendo Spotlight video:

https://youtu.be/M2mZS_p4A7Y?t=2m8s

With the continued shift in direction, Nintendo, similar to their approach to the design and ethos of their consoles, was operating via their own agenda, instead of the approach used by their competitors. For Nintendo, E3 was becoming less important, as thanks to its Nintendo Directs, E3 no longer presented the main way through which they would make big announcements. Instead, Nintendo could talk directly to their fans whenever they felt appropriate throughout the year. Retaining the power in their hands, something Nintendo is immensely fond of doing.

The 30-minute videos that Nintendo provided were carefully constructed messages that got straight to the point and told a narrative that Nintendo wanted to tell at that moment in time. It is here where the Treehouse Live streams come in. These are informal demonstrations with developers, where certain games are given a spotlight to better demonstrate what they have to offer. This also provides the opportunity for the announcements of games that didn’t make it to the main event for whatever reason.

Regarding Nintendo’s physical presence at the convention centre, little had changed at first, but 2016 saw Nintendo alter their approach. With the Switch still waiting to be announced (then known as the NX), Nintendo had very little ready to announce, which for most companies would be a disaster; then again, most companies don’t have something like The Legend of Zelda series. It seemed like a significant risk at first, to dedicate almost their entire convention presence to just The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but given just how widely anticipated the game was, it is since hard to imagine Nintendo not dedicating every booth to it. Even when Nintendo appears from a position of weakness, they focused on their strengths to come out ahead.

2017 seemed a like the culmination of this approach. Whilst their floor presence was more diverse this time around, the Digital Event was still the crux of their message to those at home, with Treehouse Live providing additional information and in-depth demos.

Even though Nintendo had more to show off in 2017, given that its latest hardware was now out, there was still a reluctance to show off too much. This was evident with the use of Treehouse Live to reveal to the world the existence of Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS family; something that surely would have generated much excitement, especially given the short reveal trailer for Metroid Prime 4. But a 3DS game in the Digital Event would presumably “dilute” the message concerning the Switch.

Nintendo E3 2017

Aside from this, the focus was on games coming out the same year, despite teasing a core Pokémon title for the Switch that is early in development and showing off new Kirby and Yoshi games that are tentative for 2018. This theme was not exclusive to Nintendo, and if there is a broadly unified take from E3 2017, it would a reluctance to show much beyond 2017, let alone 2018.

Nintendo also expanded the scope, although not necessarily the scale, of its Invitationals. Starting off strongly with a Splatoon 2 tournament featuring a team from North America, Japan, Europe, and Australia/New Zealand each comprised of the best players from their respective region. This provided an engaging watch as it demonstrated how players can take the game to the next level.

The following day was Pokken Tournament DX, but featured an unusual mix of players. Half of those present were dedicated eSports players – although only one mostly focused on that game – and the others were online personalities or ‘influencers’. Unsurprisingly the eSports players provided a more interesting viewing experience.

Last up was Arms, with an open invitational which, as the title alludes to, was open to members of the public. This does seem appropriate given that the most hands-on time people could be expected to have would be via the Global Testpunch events. The most skilled player was rewarded with the opportunity to face off against the game’s producer Kosuke Yabuki. The result of seeing victory go to Yabuki might have been expected, but it was a great demonstration of some of the tactics that can be used.

There has been some criticism online that there was perhaps too much focus given to the invitationals this year, but with three strong competitive focused games coming to Switch this year it made sense for Nintendo to show off the strength of these games and place them in a different context. Splatoon might still seem a bit of a joke, masquerading as an eSport, but Nintendo’s stance on “Competitive Gaming” as being about the community rather than large cash payouts, could prove more enduring and inclusive given its global appeal.

In 2014 Reggie Fils-Aimé said, “Ten years ago YouTube and Twitch didn’t exist. Ten years ago you could actually get media to pay attention,” but that now more people are watching the conferences online than in person. Nintendo had by this point already identified the shift in how the wider video game community interacted with events like E3, Reggie went on to state that “we’re reflecting the current realities”. 2017 appears to represent the culmination of the subsequent shift that Nintendo made, adapting to those “current realities” that have been enabled via online streaming.

Those physically present are just a part of the audience, there to help spread the message, and to add to images that can be spread via social media channels. Those at home are fortunate enough not to have to deal with the hours of queuing that has now become even worse at the event and therefore have more time to absorb the sheer amount of information that comes out that week. By having streams such as the invitationals and Treehouse Live Nintendo can keep its core fanbase engaged, but also attract some of those who aren’t quite as familiar with Nintendo’s recent creative output.

The Digital Spotlight serves as the appetiser, a short digestible piece to set up the rest of what Nintendo has on offer. Reveals like Metroid Prime 4 gets people excited, but showing off live footage of Metroid: Samus Returns gets people to stay around, instead of checking out news from another company.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.