Nintendo revealed plans this week to develop a brand-new video game franchise, surprising many gamers who have come to associate the company with its iconic and somewhat repetitive line of "Mario" and "Donkey Kong"-like games.
Nintendo has been struggling to live up to its own legacy ever since it released the Wii U console last November to middling sales and a chilly critical reception. And while the company has done its best to spur interest in the Wii U with new rounds of "Mario" and "Zelda" games, it has suffered from a persistent lack of third-party content.
Now, Nintendo is trying to change things up in a way that has surprised gamers who've come to see the company as reliable, predictable, even boring. Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's creative director, said in an interview with influential Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu (as translated by Kotaku), that he's working on a "new franchise" for the company best known for sticking to its stable of tried-and-true franchises — many of which Miyamoto first created himself:
Famitsu: So, starting with Pikmin 3, you've got a lot of new Wii U titles planned up until the holiday season.
Miyamoto: With the recent version upgrade [of the Wii U], we've worked on the system side of things and we're planning on further system tweaks ahead, but even as is, [the Wii U] has become a useful item for the living room. However, it's pointless to talk about other features, no matter how fulfilling, without releasing games of our own, so we hope you'll look forward to the games to come. Next Spring, with the release of Mario Kart 8, we'll have a general selection available, so I've been thinking it would be a good time to bring out a new franchise.
Famitsu: A new franchise! An all-new title that you would be working on?
Miyamoto: I can't say too much in detail right now, but I've been pretty busy with this title these days.
Many critics and analysts have become increasingly sour on Nintendo because of the dearth of third-party developers trying to make their own games for the Wii U. Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told NBC News in April that the company already has "lots of IP" (intellectual property). So is a new Nintendo franchise really what the company needs?
Melissa Otto, an analyst for TIAA-CREF, told NBC News that that may not be Nintendo's best bet, but it might be their only option at the moment.
"They're really caught between a rock and a hard place, " Otto said. "The Wii U is a bust. It's not selling well, and it wasn't cheap to make. Their brands have become a bit stale!"
The staleness of Nintendo's brands is something that's even become a point of contention for Nintendo itself recently. In an interview with Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo during this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), Miyamoto sounded increasingly defensive when he denied his company was "playing it safe" with its seemingly endless parade of sequels.
But creative risks aside, Otto said that her primary concern is with the company's stubbornness when it comes to making any of its games available on third-party platforms like iOS or Android.
"The real question when I heard this news was: is this new franchise going to be one that's digital — accessible through an app?" Otto said.
If it's not that, Otto fears that Nintendo could give up its storied legacy as a "family entertainment" company. While Microsoft and Sony have both tried to market their new video game consoles as "the next extreme" for an increasingly adult gaming audience hungry for the next "Halo" or "Call of Duty," Nintendo has continued to make family-friendly games without necessarily keeping track of where most people look to find "family-friendly" games in the first place.
"Things like Mario are not really resonating with teens today because kids are playing games on their iPhones and iPads," Otto said.
"They've really got to think about: Who the franchise is for, and how they're going to communicate and innovate with this new generation that they've already essentially lost."
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
First published July 10 2013, 2:39 PM