Does Nintendo’s Last-Minute Hype Really Sell Games? A Tale From The SF Summit

There are things people at Nintendo know that they don’t want me to know.

There are things they don’t want you to know either.

Is it possible that such things include the simple, straight-forward details of a new high-quality Wii game that comes out in less than two weeks?

And, if so, is there method to such apparent madness or are Nintendo’s most hardcore games just being set up to fail?

At the Nintendo Media Summit last week in San Francisco I asked the company’s vice president of marketing in the U.S., Perrin Kaplan, about Nintendo’s apparent strategy to wait until the last minute to tell its customers about certain Wii games. We talked about the brief and deeply unpopular pre-release “Metroid Prime 3” hype campaign, comparing it to “BioShock” and “Halo 3.

I’ll share that exchange in a moment, but first, let me tell you a story that epitomizes the issues. It’s a story from last Friday, a day after my interview with Kaplan, a day I tried to find out a little bit more — a little bit too much, it turns out — about “Battalion Wars 2.”

And what a mistake that was.

I began my Friday morning at Nintendo’s top-floor showcase room atop the Westin St. Francis hotel with my eyes on the four Nintendo Wiis that were set up to play “Super Mario Galaxy.” They were occupied. The two running “Battalion Wars 2″ were not. I sized the situation up and saw: opportunity.

The first “Battalion Wars” was a radical spin-off from its source material, the hit Game Boy Advance series “Advance Wars.” The single-player-only title put players in control of a squad of cartoonish soldiers, tanks, helicopters and bombers, allowing direct control of individual units and strategic control of all others in a series of exciting and challenging skirmishes. It was exactly what you’d want, if ever you wanted a Nintendo take on the EA-published “Battlefield” series. (So long as you could settle for a good solo campaign treatment rather than multiplayer).

The first game, like the second, was developed by U.K.-based Kuju Entertainment and published by Nintendo, making it one of the few titles in recent memory to be developed by a non-Japanese third-party company but backed with Nintendo publishing yen. (Compare that to “DK: Jungle Climber,” “Elite Beat Agents,” “F-Zero GX,” “Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time,” “Star Fox Assault,” “Star Fox Command,” “Super Princess Peach,” “Wario Thief,” “Yoshi’s Island DS,” and a host of other titles developed by Japanese indies and published by Nintendo during the last few years.) It came out in September of 2005 in the U.S. and a month later in Japan, a release pattern that typically indicates that the title is more important to the West then to Nintendo’s home country. Coming relatively late in the fast-fading GameCube era, it got good reviews but was no sales hit. I played the game from beginning to end in 2005, and I thought it was fantastic. I recommended it with little reservation.

The sequel was announced last August. The game was shown briefly at a one-day New York Nintendo media event in September. And then it vanished. At E3 of this year Nintendo played a tightly-held hand, only letting the press play a handful of Wii titles, including “Super Mario Galaxy,” “Metroid Prime 3,” and the not-until-2008-in-the-U.S. “Wii Fit,” but no “Battalion Wars 2.”

It might be worth noting at this point that “BW2″ comes out in North America on October 29, 2007. And if you think I just buried that info, well, then what about Nintendo?

Because, you see, I spotted “Battalion Wars” at this summit, on a Friday that the calendar indicated was October 12, 2007. I noticed Kotaku’s Michael McWhertor eating some sort of breakfast and asked him to try the game with me. I had gotten a very brief tutorial the day before about the game’s controls and knew that the two “BW2″ Wii’s were set up for Wi-Fi multiplayer. Clearly, Nintendo was trying to promote the one major omission of the first game. Good thinking on their part.

McWhertor and I sat down and played the game. We played for two minutes, and if you go by his account of the session (which he only allowed himself two minutes to write) you wouldn’t get the whole story. I like Mike, but I think he buried the lede.

See, when he and I sat down to play the game, no Nintendo reps were looking. We went to a menu screen that would have allowed us to play the single-player campaign, but I told him that Nintendo didn’t want us playing that. Let’s be good sports and just try the multi-player stuff, I suggested. So we clicked the multiplayer options. Available to use were Co-op, Skirmish and Armada. During my brief session with the game the day before I played Skirmish against a Nintendo rep. It was fun and essentially what I would have expected from a ground-based two-player conflict based on the design of the first game.

I knew that the other major new element to “BW2″ was the inclusion of naval units. I suspected Armada would include some. So I said we should play that. We booted it up. We read on-screen directions that instructed us to steer our respective fleets of battleships and destroyers into conflict. I started chugging the ships into motion. And then… a Nintendo rep came over and told us to stop playing.

We were told that the company only wanted people to play the Wi-Fi options. I explained that we were. But, actually, the company only wanted people to play the Wi-Fi Skirmish options. I protested: isn’t this game coming out in two weeks? Doesn’t Nintendo want people to know about this? The Nintendo rep apologized and told me he was only going by the instructions that had been written down for him. Mind you, this whole conversation occurred while, directly behind us, people were playing the February 10, 2008 game “Super Smash Brothers Brawl.

Let’s bring this back to my conversation the day before with Perrin Kaplan. To set this up, you need to know that the Wii’s “Super Paper Mario” was released in early April but only shown playable to press a month before at the Game Developer’s Conference in March. It went on to have a strong first month of sales. “Metroid Prime 3″ was released with just a few days to go this past August and managed to sell 218,000 copies by the end of that month, according to NPD, which tracks sales. The XBox 360’s “BioShock,” on sale for a week longer than “Prime,” sold 490,000 copies in August. “Halo 3,” released a few weeks later, has sold millions, though official September sales figures for any of those games won’t be released until later today.

Enough with the set-up. Here’s the exchange:

Multiplayer: There was a lot of talk among the hardcore gamers that they didn’t see hype a lot for [“Metroid Prime 3″] in advance. And I noticed that even with “Super Paper Mario, there wasn’t a lot of awareness of that before it came out. So on the one hand, is Nintendo shifting philosophy in terms of how early it talks about games and tightening that window so that you hear about a game much closer to the release?

Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing, Nintendo of America Our marketing schedule in terms of when we talk about products really varies by the product. We are trying a couple of different approaches and that is talking about products shortly before they are launched to really try to grab the attention of people at that moment. If you talk about something too early they can’t really go buy it. We do talk about things in a smaller way and then really make the attention focused on the product two weeks prior to its launch — and then continue to talk about it when it is available at retail. So it’s a slightly different approach for us, but we think it’s working.

Multiplayer: How do you think you guys did with “Metroid”? Because at E3 I think it was [Nintendo of America localization producer] Bill Trinen who assured the audience that it was the best first-person game coming out on any console for the year. And my impression was that in terms of buzz it got swamped by “BioShock” on one side and “Halo” on the other side, which had much longer-term marketing campaigns and hype-building campaigns than “Metroid.” It seemed to kind of get lost in the shuffle with very little promotion until the 11th hour.

Kaplan: “Metroid,” for us, has sold better than we even expected, given that we know it didn’t have a long lead-up of conversation about it. The sales on it have maintained at a pretty strong level. So I think we’re impressed. It’s getting a lot of word-of-mouth and some pretty good reviews. To compare that to “Halo” is a little bit of apples to oranges. They’re different products, different experiences…

Multiplayer: What about “Bioshock”?

Kaplan: … Which I can’t even speak much to because I don’t know as much about it. But “Halo” is the absolute — you know, that’s the “Wii Sports” for Microsoft. It’s the “Zelda” for Microsoft. So I do think you’re talking apples to oranges in that comparison. But “Metroid” has performed very well and I think will continue to do so, and we’ll continue to talk about it.

The clock is ticking on “Battalion Wars 2.” The game is on the verge of release. But like the hardcore “Metroid Prime 3″ before it — also developed primarily for the Western market — Nintendo doesn’t seem anxious to build hype for it. In this case even the press aren’t given much access.

Sometimes the simplest solution provides the answer: maybe the game stinks and Nintendo is hiding that fact. Somehow I doubt that, though. “Metroid Prime 3″ didn’t stink, and yet that game had to sit on the bumper while other games were taking a back-seat to “Wii Fit” at E3. It received a “Month of Metroid” campaign leading up to its release, a program that provided Wii users a downloadable channel that hosted a few low-res movies of the game that undersold the title’s graphical finesse. The month-long celebration also offered Wii owners two for-pay downloads of classic “Metroid” games. And that’s it. No Super Bowl commercial for “Metroid.”

So as reporters and as gamers we are left to wonder. Does Nintendo know something we don’t know? Can hardcore games sell without much advance hype? Do games like “Metroid” and “Battalion Wars” get less push from Nintendo because they aren’t also targeted at the Japanese market (but then how to explain the last-minute promotion for “Super Paper Mario”)? Are these games being set up to fail? If not, how possibly can they be expected to succeed?

Has saving the hype for a game until the last minute ever helped a game’s sales? And how often has long-term hype ever hurt a Nintendo title? I can’t recall an oft-delayed Nintendo game — a “Zelda” or “Mario” — stalling on the sales charts in any way that suggested the game was just arriving too late and was suffering from too much anticipation.

But I now see a pattern in which quality Wii games are being given less chance to succeed than they seem to deserve. What’s a gamer to do? A reporter? A person making one of those games?

What are you up to, Nintendo, and who, if anyone, stands to gain?

Today marks the beginning of the E for All Expo in L.A. Nintendo is showing games to the public there. Let’s see if “Battalion Wars 2″ gets a spotlight — with not a moment to spare.