Nintendo President Satoru Iwata is an active cutter of the middle man. In a recent episode of Nintendo Direct, the man ceremonially unboxed a Wii U Premium Pack for all to see:
Who’s this middle man, you ask? A great article (courtesy of Gamasutra) on the role of public relations in the gaming industry takes us to the matter. Here a certain Luke Smith is quoted about a potentially growing trend: “Right now you have four bridges between developer and reader: Developer to PR, to journalist to reader.” Sounds more like four islands (and thus three bridges) to me. But that’s not the point. When publishers make their own video content by interviewing developers in-house, they’re effectively leaving the journalist (and PR too, unless they have a hand in said content) to twiddle thumbs. Instead of forging their own content, journos are led to relaying it with commentary. The “Iwata Asks” series provides another instance of this: developer interviews come straight through Nintendo’s website and to its readership.
But a clinical unboxing is not something we would have seen from the big N in past generations. Especially not before the Iwata era began in 2002, when a notoriously reclusive and hard to please Hiroshi Yamauchi stood as President of the company.
Yamauchi’s quite a character. He inherited– there’s no other word– the Nintendo presidency in 1949, dropping out of Waseda University and stipulating that any employed relatives be laid off beforehand (this included an older cousin). Upon arrival, he laid off other personnel stubborn enough to doubt his managing ability. The episode reads more like medieval intrigue than 20th century business, but there you have it. Oh, and when Steven Kent led interviews for his sweeping chronicle, The Ultimate History of Video Games, Yamauchi was one of just three individuals to turn down face time.
On the other hand, Yamauchi is also the man to have handed Miyamoto his first creative opportunity. From it Donkey Kong would arise. He also led Nintendo’s charge into the American market with NES, believing in the system’s stateside success despite abysmal feedback from American focus groups. And of course, heading the company since 1949, it is Yamauchi who took the company public in 1962, and later stewarded Nintendo’s jump to the electronics industry it is now inseparable from.
Former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi transformed Nintendo from a tiny hanafuda card company into the gaming giant of today.
Writing about the Yamauchi-Iwata transition, Daniel Sloan in his book Playing to Wiin shares that “a genuine affinity for gaming was one of the two most striking contrasts between the 42-year-old and his predecessor. The other was a characteristic Yamauchi seldom displayed nor likely valued– a sense of humor, nurtured by Iwata’s early days in Japan’s hinterland” (p. 28). Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to imagine Yamauchi opening a Wii U box for all to see (and joking around along the way). But that doesn’t explain why Iwata chose to do so. Why, for instance, didn’t he do something similar with Wii?
Well, it might have to do with the fact that Nintendo’s GameCube didn’t sell that well. With Wii they were perhaps looking to share approachable fun with the brand name in the backseat. A small price tag and word of mouth would be enough to sell the thing, wherever it came from.
With Wii U, Nintendo needs nothing less than to be shy about its brand power. Wii won the console war, and Wii U– a nearly identical name in hand– might have the attention of the last round’s consumer base. I only say “might” because those casual gamers who got on board with Wii probably don’t feel the same allegiances that do more storied gamers. They’ll likely flock to wherever the interactive fun is at next generation.
Another motivation for the unboxing could be that, in our YouTube era, console and special edition unboxings have been nearly fetishized. Hungry for the biggest hype over the smallest details, some fans fuel their impatience by watching game writing offices and other crazed consumers do the deed, weeks or days before they’ll have their chance to.
So maybe Nintendo is trying to give out that visual information in a controlled way instead of having it thrown around ad nauseam by midnight launch fiends, shaky cam in hand. Most probably, it’s simply down to Iwata’s personality and leadership style. Just as he and Miyamoto were often the ones to demonstrate the accessibility of Wii Sports, it doesn’t go against precedent that he would share Nintendo’s next console in an even more personal way. And now, Wii U is nearly upon us. Whether it will amass significant momentum, and to where it will carry it, no unboxing video can tell.