Nintendo news used to be harder to come by. Back in the day (a.k.a. two years ago), Nintendo didn’t just announce things every eight to ten weeks. They instead saved up their announcements for one or two events per year, namely E3 or their own Space World expo. That is, until the start of Nintendo Direct in October 2011. Now, instead of unleashing a barrage of game news only once or twice a year, Nintendo can use these video broadcasts to release a steady stream of information throughout the year. In many ways, it’s a smart strategy. It allows for Nintendo to control its news from end to end, avoiding the frequent ‘Nintendo is doomed’ rhetoric that some journalists may muddy their coverage with. It also lets Nintendo release news on their own terms, dominating news cycles on off days instead of competing for the top story spots during major events. Plus, it gives each game plenty of breathing room as smaller titles can have their own Directs instead of being buried under the weight of a new Mario or Zelda. Yet even with everything these Directs do right, they lack the reach of more mainstream events. In many ways, the Directs are echo chambers in which Nintendo is not convincing new people to buy their products, but instead pitching their products to those who will already support them. Allow us to break it all down “directly to you.”
The strongest evidence that points to Nintendo Directs creating an echo chamber effect comes from Nintendo itself. During one of the company’s financial briefings earlier this year, Nintendo Global President Satoru Iwata explained that the eShop is quickly becoming the preferred place to watch Direct videos. Roughly 60-70% of all Nintendo Direct viewings take place on the eShop itself. On one hand, this is excellent news for Nintendo as it not only shows fans’ active interest in new games, but also ups the chances of people downloading demos or, better yet, browsing the rest of the eShop and making a purchase. The flip side of this, however, is that it means the vast majority of people who watch these videos are people who already own a Nintendo system. These are people who already have a vested interest in the Nintendo ecosystem. While this is fine for smaller titles, it becomes a problem for the high-profile releases that Nintendo wants to turn into system sellers. If the majority of the Nintendo Direct audience is watching the videos on the systems Nintendo is trying to sell, they obviously aren’t pitching to the right people.
To Nintendo’s credit, the company tries to rectify this preaching-to-the-choir issue by also posting every Direct on YouTube. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the videos sit at view counts in the low 100,000s, even months after they are posted. That’s a decent number, but the problem is that this number is stagnant. As Iwata explained in the same financial briefing mentioned above, Directs “did not show apparent growth on YouTube” even when growing on the eShop. In other words, they’re not attracting a new audience. This is most notable for the Directs that are aimed at those outside the core Nintendo fan base; the videos that focus on more casual experiences or new games not based on core Nintendo franchises. For example, September’s Wii Fit U Direct only has 83,000 views as of this writing, while The Wonderful 101 Direct from this past August has an even fewer 71,000 views as of this writing. In both of these examples, Nintendo is discussing games that appeal to more than just their core fan base. Wii Fit U is aimed at the casuals and soccer moms, while The Wonderful 101 was in part created to attract a certain type of core gamer who played Platinum Games’ previous works on other systems. Based on the raw viewership numbers, neither of these targeted groups appeared to watch in droves.
The times that Directs have been most successful are when they coincide with bigger industry events that already attract the attention of a large audience. Take this year’s E3, for example. Nintendo decided to ditch their usual press conference and do a Direct instead, and while it wasn’t televised, it still garnered a huge number of viewers. Since the video was uploaded to YouTube on June 11, 2013, the Nintendo Direct @ E3 2013 presentation has been viewed over 1.6 million times – and that’s just on YouTube. If you add in an estimation of the eShop audience (based on non-eShop views representing 40% of all views), the viewership grows to over 4 million people. While we unfortunately cannot make a direct comparison to this year’s PlayStation and Xbox conference ratings (those stats were not released publically), we can at least get a sense of how it stacks up against general E3 TV ratings in the past: in 2011, all of Spike TV’s coverage topped out at 4.4 million viewers, which means Nintendo was able to reach a comparable audience through its special Direct. It wasn’t so much the Direct itself that was successful, but that it coincided with a big event. You could see this theory in action as recently as this past Saturday’s VGX livestream. Nintendo didn’t produce a Direct, but actually attended the event to announce Cranky Kong being a playable character in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. It was a relatively minor reveal, yet it dominated Twitter’s worldwide trending topics for most of the broadcast. If that news came out of a Direct posted on a random Tuesday, it most likely wouldn’t have generated the same level of buzz.
That’s not to say independent Nintendo Directs are a bad idea. Far from it, in fact. They provide the most passionate Nintendo fans with a steady stream of updates, give Nintendo a chance to highlight lesser games, and allow them to present news on their own terms (plus, they avoid Geoff Keighley repeatedly asking “is that really all you have?” like at VGX). Nintendo simply has to be aware of the fact that their Directs cannot be the be all and end all for announcements. If they are trying to attract new people to their platform, they need to do more than just post a video on YouTube and the eShop, where they are essentially preaching to their own choir. With games like Bayonetta 2 and Monolith Soft’s X on the horizon, the best way to tell the larger gaming public is by appealing to them when they’re already looking at game news, be it during E3 or VGX. For more casual fare such as Wii Fit U or Nintendo 3DS Guide: Louvre, Nintendo needs to reach out to real mainstream press to get coverage because, quite frankly, casuals are not going to watch Iwata explain how the Fit Meter works for ten minutes straight. Yet for the latest on new tracks in Mario Kart 8 or how the battle system of Bravely Default will work, there’s no better way to share the news than directly to us fans.