The first day after a haircut, especially on a somewhat cold day, is always weird – it takes me a while to get used to the cold air on the back of my neck.

Anywho, I’m going to devote another post here to Nintendo. Specifically, their current conundrum of being successful yet having problems succeeding conventionally.

Worldwide, Nintendo’s GameCube is selling a little bit better than the Microsoft Xbox (at one point at least it was 10 million versus 8 million). However, in North America and most of Europe, the Xbox is selling better. Most of the reason the GameCube is doing better worldwide is that Japan doesn’t like Xbox at all – and they’re 1/3 of the world’s gamers.

Still, it’s not like the Xbox is obliterating the GameCube (they’re both being obliterated by the PlayStation 2 – with 50 million units worldwide). Plus Nintendo recently instituted a system wherein people who buy a GameCube get one of four free games – one of which is Metroid Prime. That should help sales some more.

Nintendo’s problem, though, is not that the GameCube isn’t selling or hasn’t sold enough. In fact, Nintendo doesn’t really have a problem at all, really. It’s everyone else.

See, what tends to happen is this – people go buy a GameCube, then they get Metroid. And Mario. And they preorder Zelda. And if they’re feeling adventurous they go get Animal Crossing, Pikmin, Starfox Adventures or Eternal Darkness. The problem with this? They’re all Nintendo developed games (first party titles), or made by comapies Nintendo owns part of (or in the case of Starfox, owned) and published by Nintendo themselves (second party). Third party games (by companies with no Nintendo ties) are pretty much ignored by GameCube gamers.

As a result of this, some publishers are pulling support for the GameCube. Sega announced last week that they’re not going to publish any more sports games for the GameCube, and 3DO (who themselves just recently became profitable again) has decided to cut back their GameCube presence, plus EA is thinking about not releasing sports titles on the Cube (which would be a bad thing, as it would pretty much rid the GameCube of sports titles). The reasoning is simple – when they release a game on all three platforms, it’s the GameCube version that doesn’t sell so well, and when the stockholders start to complain about a lack of profit, something has to go.

So what’s caused this problem? Several factors, some of which are obvious and others which are less apparent.

The most obvious is that since fewer people in North America own a GameCube, there’s less sales for fewer consoles. However, if this were the only cause then they would just make fewer copies of those games. If your newspaper only sells 50 copies a day, don’t print 100. However if your newspaper sells zero copies a day then you go out of business.

So what this means is that it’s not just that third party games sell fewer copies, it must be next to no copies. So why then do millions of people buy GameCubes and then buy no third party games?

Probably the biggest part of the problem – and what a part to have – is that Nintendo games are simply too good. I seem to recall several places listing Nintendo as the best developer in the world, and I (of course) think it’s true. These people consistently make games that are so good people buy hardware just to play them. Think of the tons of people who bought a Nintendo 64 just to play Goldeneye (a second party game). People buy Nintendo systems to play Nintendo games.

Since Nintendo does so well with their first party games, they don’t really do all that much to try and ensure exclusive third party games – something that Xbox and PS2 thrive on. PS2 is the only place to get GTA3 and GT3, and Xbox is the only place to get Splinter Cell and Halo. But almost every exclusive GameCube game is by Nintendo themselves. The only third party exclusives I can think of are the recent Resident Evil titles, but Resident Evil was a remake, Resident Evil Zero was a prequel, and the game that people really want, Resident Evil 4, won’t be out until next year.

In some ways the developer reluctance is a holdover from the Nintendo 64 days. Developers didn’t want to do anything for that system, both due to market reasons (the PSX always sold better) and format reasons – cartridges were not only small in storage size but they were expensive as well – as much as $30 per cart. Now Nintendo has a nice disc-based system to develop for but the third party developers still aren’t going for it, and the ones who do are greeted with poor sales.

The Nintendo 64 legacy isn’t just being felt by the developers, it’s being felt by the consumers as well. Many people bought a Nintendo 64 and decided they didn’t like the fact that the games were few and far between, and at comparitively higher prices when they did come around (like the $60 and $70 games). Some let their system fall into neglect, in favor of the PlayStation, some sold their Nintendo 64’s or threw them away. Many came to regard the Nintendo 64 as a system that was good for the occasional Nintendo game and that was it.

So now many of these same people see the GameCube as a system for playing the occasional groundbreaking Nintendo game and that’s it. If they want a game that’s available on all three platforms then they’ll buy it on PS2 or Xbox.

Another part of this thinking is the perception that the GameCube is a toy system and that Nintendo is a kiddie games company. It doesn’t help that the GameCube is tiny and has its own handle – not unlike small 45 record players many of us had as children – and that Nintendo releases Animal Crossing with low-key childish graphics and the Zelda game will look like a cartoon. Of course people also lambast the Xbox for being too large and heavy. Why it occurs to no one that all game systems are in fact toys and that portability concerns mean nothing when you rarely if ever move the systems I don’t know. So what winds up happening is that people don’t want to buy a “serious” game for the GameCube (and many take the sports games very seriously) since it’s a “toy” system.

Plus some people just don’t like the GameCube controller. The game Soul Calibur II is coming out on all three platforms with the twist that each version gets its own bonus character – PS2 gets a fighter from Tekken, Xbox gets Spawn, and GameCube gets Link, probably the most popular of the three (mainly because people are ambivalent about Tekken and Spawn hasn’t been too popular since the movie came out, plus its coming out in close proximity to Wind Waker). But despite this many have stated they won’t buy the GameCube version of SC2 since they can’t stand the GameCube controller – they don’t like the stick/button layout for fighter games.

And another thing which I believe sticks in people’s minds is the small size of the GameCube discs. They’re 3″ DVD’s that hold 1.5GB per layer, so for a 2 layer disc it’s 3GB, which is still less size than the 4.7GB a single layered 5″ DVD can carry (the outer portion has more space than the inner portion). Many people believe that their games must be cut down or scaled back to fit on these smaller discs – another holdover from the Nintendo 64 days, and one I’m not sure is entirely incorrect. Others think the discs are too puny and when you’re talking about sports and fighting games, an inferiority complex is a bad thing. This goes back to the “toy” perception problem. Finally, some games – like Resident Evil Zero – have already spread to two discs. Many gamers figure the reason they moved to DVD in the dirst place was to avoid disc switching (though in RE0‘s defense the multiple disc thing is also a function of how the game works).

Finally, few people have a GameCube as their lone system. Again, this comes back to the “toy” problem. Since most people have multiple game systems, when a game comes out for multiple systems they have to decide which system to get it for. In previous generations, when there were huge and obvious gaps in console power, theseb decisions were easier. Actually, when the gaps in power were bigger, the developers made the calls. If you wanted realt fast action, go Genesis (Sonic), if you want lots of colors, go SNES (256 vs. 32), if you want storage space, go PSX, etc. However these days the three dominant consoles are pretty much the same. Sure, they have different architectures and different programming techniques and such, but when a game comes out for all three consoles, it’s pretty much identical. The publisher doesn’t want to spend the additional cash to come up with minute differences. Plus in the case of movie tie-ins, they want the games to be simultaneous (i.e., the three Spider-Man games available at the movie launch). Finally of course they don’t really want the games to be competing with themselves.

In the N64/PSX generation this easier – there were only two consoles. You made tons of copies for the PSX, and then came out with enough N64 copies to sell, making more as needed. Publishers don’t want to go back to the monopolistic NES days – Nintendo was simply draconian back then with licensing policies as they were the only game in town. So what the publishers would really like is a duopoly again. Of course PS2 is set with the number of consoles out there, so that leaves Nintendo or Xbox. Many would like Microsoft to win – but Microsoft is untested in this area, and they keep dropping hints about the next Xbox (so does Nintendo, but less frequently), as well as having really crappy policies on online usage (imagine how pissed many gamers were when they found out that, despite having broadband built-in, they had to pay more to play Xbox online. Nintendo actually could capitalize on this, and I kinda hope they do).

But Nintendo isn’t going anywhere, and they’ve even confirmed that a GameCube successor is in the works. Plus Nintendo has billions in the bank. They could take tons of losses on GameCube and more than make up for it with whatever Pokemon GBA title they’ll unveil. I can really see why the publishers are pissed that millions and millions of people own this inexpensive video game system and yet don’t buy anything other than Nintendo games for it. It’s not because people are tied to Nintendo per se, it’s just that Nintendo makes really good games.

So we have three companies, each entrenched with money, none of which are going anywhere (if Microsoft leaves, it’ll be because they’re bored – not because they’re going broke). So this leaves the question – if third party development for the GameCube goes away but Nintendo sells millions of units of hardware and tons and tons of their own games, does this mean that the GameCube is a success or a failure? Hardcore gamers won’t limit themselves to this console and they’ll speak highly of the Nintendo-authored games, but they’ll generally dislike the lack of games on the console. But if Nintendo sells a ton, makes a ton, and people who do play the games and buy the system love it, will it matter? Sure, you won’t be able to swing by Wal-Mart on the way home and pick up a Dukes of Hazzard game, but when the next Pikmin comes out then you’ll get more out of it than a roll in the hay. Is this a bad thing? I can see why people got mad when Nintendo 64 games slowed to a trickle, and then the new game was something like A Tigger Adventure, but will the GameCube situatiuon ever become that dire?

SNK’s Neo Geo system lasted for a long time based almost entirely on their own games. They carved out quite a niche for themselves for a long time, before it all caught up with them in 2001. Could Nintendo do the same thing – last a long time selling their own hardware and their own games for that hardware? It would be one hell of a huge niche. Oddly enough this is the same thing that PC gamers like myself make fun of the Macintosh for – the Mac only has a handful of games, and they tend to be the ones that worked well on the PC – but as a result the Mac games have a better chance of being good, since the sorting has been done already.

If nothing else, this pretty much cements the fact that the console market is one with a huge barrier to entry which is going nowhere fast. We’ll never see a 3DO or Atari again, much less an Indrema. This is kinda sad, since it’s hard to really pull for Microsoft or Sony – meaning Nintendo’s the last “true” game company out there. Perhaps this is why I root for them so much – they’re the last of a breed. If they go away it’ll be two major non-game corporations competing, until the next major corporation tries to get in. So if you’re like me, you’ll be buying all your third party games for the GameCube from now on. It’s just a thought.