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Nintendo Needs To Be More Like Valve (But Not How You Think)


First off: hello! For those who might have recognized the username, no I'm not "coming back" to Dtoid beyond the occasional post or upvote in the comments (hold your tears, please). But I do admit: I have missed the blogging, and to be completely honest I'm curious who's still around these days. This topic has been on my mind recently given some news stories that popped up not too long ago, and I figured it'd be a good topic for a blog. Oh, and for those who don't know me: welcome!

Super Mario 64 HD running in Unity

As some of you might have seen, a developer by the name of Roystan Ross had been working to recreate the N64 classic Super Mario 64 in the Unity game engine. For someone trying to learn game development, this is actually a great way to teach yourself. Much in the way an English professor might have you use a stanza of a poem as a jumping off point for your own work, or an artist might recreate one of his favorite paintings for practice, using the mechanics and level design of the first stage in the first ever 3D Mario game can be an incredible learning experience. Not only would you have a (damn good) template to start from, but you actually get to recreate the nuts and bolts of one of the most revolutionary games of its era and see why it worked so well in the first place.

But Mr. Ross took it a step further. His plan wasn't just to recreate a level or two to learn from, but to actually remake the classic with modern tech for a new generation of gamers, putting his own twist on the formula using what the industry has learned about game design in the last two decades or so. A piece of video game fanfiction if you will: "What if Nintendo made Super Mario 64 today?" After all, it's not like Nintendo was ever going to do this themselves. In their 40+ years as a game developer, not once have they ever remade one of their games from scratch. The most we ever get from them is an enhanced rerelease (or an overpriced emulation on Virtual Console).

This part in the story is where opinions split. I've heard a lot of apologism in defense of Nintendo on this topic. A lot of people ignorant to copyright law who think that Nintendo is going to "lose the rights to Mario" if they don't issue cease and desist letters and force modders and fan developers to stop doing these types of projects. A lot of people whose entire thought process on the topic ends at "well it's Nintendo's right and it's legal so too bad". And of course, the largest contingent of apologists: "Can I still pay you $10 to buy Super Mario 64 for the fourth time? Then I don't care."

But few people actually stop and ask: "Why?" What does Nintendo have to gain by shutting down these fan projects? They're not losing the rights to rerelease their product, let alone the intellectual property as a whole (contrary to the belief of some wildly misinformed fans). They're not losing any money on their own remake of the game because (as far as we know) they have no plans to break their company long streak of never doing such a thing themselves. And the best part? You couldn't even play the damn remake on Nintendo's own hardware, thus forcing anyone with their newest console or handheld to buy a copy of the original game through them anyway. But maybe the more important question is this: "What is Nintendo losing by acting this way?"

 The Steam Homepage

Which brings me to the core point of this post: Valve. Unlike Nintendo, who is probably the most polarizing figure in the industry, Valve is easily the most widely loved. Do they have their detractors? Sure. But by and large, the good will that Valve has built up over their years with Steam simply can't have a price put on it. They have over 125 million active users, by far the largest of any digital distribution platform for gaming. Hell, this year Steam broke almost 9M concurrent users: that's more than the entire Wii U installed base to date. Competitive pricing with frequent promotions, cross platform purchases, a unified account system, a full suite of online tools and features, unobtrusive DRM, and a robust but user friendly UI have gotten them here; all things that Nintendo lacks.

There is one more thing, however: support for user generated content. As a part of that active users press release, Valve also announced that they now have over 400 million pieces of user generated content on Steam, from cosmetic items, to content based mods, to full on standalone releases (most of which are built on Source, Valve's own engine which they made the SDK for publicly and freely available). Valve is the antithesis of Nintendo here: not only do they allow people to make mods with their IP and source code, but they actively encourage and help them to do it. And what does Valve get from that? A larger corporate mindshare, more developers who know how to use their tools and engines, a pool of talent to poach from (as they do frequently), a cut of the profits when much of this content is sold directly on Steam, and that unquantifiable good will that Nintendo simply does not have outside their relatively small, dedicated fan base.

Black Mesa vs Half Life '98 comparison 

Oh, and they have this. For those who don't know, Black Mesa (first known as Black Mesa Source) is a total remake of Valve's 1998 classic Half-Life. Built from the ground up in Valve's own Source Engine with a brand new musical score and redone voice acting, the "Crowbar Collective" of about 40 volunteer developers (which began at only 13) aimed to not just recreate but reimagine the original and improve upon it. The first public release came out in late 2012, a full 8 years from its start date. Today, the game is available on Steam's Early Access program for $19.99, of which Valve sees their (assumed) 30% cut from every digital copy sold. All because they publicly released an SDK they already had and gave these guys a platform to sell their product on which already existed. A product which Valve could have legally stopped them from making at any point.

If you haven't picked up on a number of direct parallels and contrasts by now to Nintendo and that Unity fan remake of SM64, you should have. And I'm sure by now a number of you are already formulating a response (read: excuse) for why Nintendo "can't" follow suit. As if there haven't been dozens of console and handheld games since the N64 generation which support user generation content. Or games like Unreal Tournament 3 which allowed you to import mods created on PC into the PS3 version to be played. That the upcoming Mario Maker wouldn't be the perfect platform for Nintendo to test out a model for paid user generation content. Or a laundry list of other retorts I'm sure I could put together in response to the inevitable Nintendo apologism these types of blogs normally bring out.

But I'll leave it at this: Nintendo is fine. They have billions in the bank, they have some of the most easily marketable and widely profitable IPs in the industry, and as long as those two facts remain they won't be leaving the dedicated hardware market any time soon. But 10 or 20 years from now? I don't know. At this rate the WiiU won't outsell the Gamecube lifetime, and it's questionable if the entire platform will ever be a financially profitable endeavor (much as the OG Xbox failed to be). The 3DS will be lucky to sell half the units of its predecessor, falling far short of the OG Game Boy and likely the GBA as well. With 36% of 3DS hardware sales and 40% of software sales coming from Japan, a dramatic increase from the 20-21% for both figures on the GBA and DS, it brings into question how long Nintendo will be able to sustain themselves with Japan as their financial backbone.

Some things are going to need to change. Eventually. This is one of those things that would be relatively simple to implement, assuming Nintendo can bring their corporate culture into 2015 and stop thinking that Amiibos are going to magically solve their long term problems.

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About ctg867one of us since 2:47 AM on 11.29.2013

I'm an (aging) dude who plays games and comments about stuff. Been on Dtoid since 2010-ish, back during the Sterling days, though this account's a bit newer than that. Don't post on the FP anymore but you can find me on Qtoid and (occasionally) the Cblogs.

I also stream on Twitch sometimes, if you're interested: