The SDLP need to become the SDLWii

I imagine that even the old fogies and political geeks that inhabit this site have heard of the DS and Wii, given they are currently tearing up sales records all over the planet. But what probably isn’t understood is how unlikely this was just a few short years ago and that there are perhaps lessons in here for our struggling parties.
Bear with me, and hopefully some parallels will come through. Nintendo was the dominant gaming giant of the 80s and early 90s. It had walked over the corpses of exhausted and mismanaged rivals such as Atari after an early 80s crash and effectively redefined the console experience. It had a strict family orientated approach – it’s first console was titled the “Famicom” or “family computer” and it had strict limits on the content that could appear on its consoles. Gradually, however, it was out competed by more aggressive rivals. Sega, Sony and Microsoft heavily promoted sports games, racing games, fighting games and first person shooting games to the young males that made up the bulk of the videogame market; rather than family-orientated, Nintendo became pegged as “kiddie”. By the end of the the last console cycle (circa 2004) they had been pushed into a distant third place in the home console race. They still had a loyal fanbase, but the law of diminishing returns was kicking in. Sony was poised to move in on the profitable handheld console market that now formed its main profit base. The rumours were that Microsoft was considering attempting a buyout.

A lot has been written about how they turned it around. I’ll link to some more detailed articles at the end for those interested, and pull out what I see as some of the key things they did, which are prerequisite for any organisation trying to change the status quo:

  • They developed a strategic vision The new President of Nintendo Satoru Iwata, saw Nintendo’s decline as a function of a wider decline in the Japanese market, which had been gradually shrinking for a number of years. The population was growing older, and the games themselves had more more complicated and less inviting to those not already versed in gaming nuances. Iwata realised that solving Nintendo’s problem was a matter of solving the wider problems. It was an important insight. It is also important to realise that Nintendo didn’t abandon its traditional stance of “family gaming”, or become a “me-too” version of Sony. It worked on developing solutions that took advantage of its traditional strengths.
  • They invested in change Having identified the problem, they set about seeking solutions. The Wii and DS might look like effortless ideas, but it took a huge amount of investment in order to bring them to that state. The Wii controller went through something like 20 redesigns, and those who tried to copy Wii Sports simple interface found that getting it exactly right was a lot harder than it looked. The investment paid off not only with the Wii and DS hardware, but also design documents for Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wii Fit and Wii Music – some of the most successful games on the system and the bed rock of the Wii’s success.
  • They learned the importance of presentation The first product of the new strategy was the Nintendo DS which featured touch screen controls in an effort to simplify the interface. It was not an instant success. The initial console was a somewhat chunky affair, the games fun but still largely similar to what had went before. The marketing wasn’t quite right. These elements needed adjustment before the big turnaround was possible. These problems were fixed, with the DS Lite, “Braining Training” games and slick marketting with the likes of Nicole Kidman. The importance of the latter was in giving people “permission” to try something that they would not normally do.
  • They were prepared to alienate people, but didn’t go out of their way to do so Browse many internet gaming forums and you will find people not just unhappy, but angry at the success of the Wii. They wanted something more like a Xbox, but with Nintendo games on it. Nintendo was content to alienate these people but it is important to realise that it didn’t go out of its way to do so. The DS features traditional controls, in addition to its touch screen. Part of the reason behind those 20 redesigns of the Wii controller was that it was also required to support more traditional games. It was thought that the new controls could also be used for deeper experiences within traditional games. So the core was considered, but not pandered to. And more traditional games experiences like Smash Brothers Brawl sell fine on the Wii, suggesting they took most of those people with them
  • They sought intellectual validation Iwata gave a speech to the Game Developers Conference in 2006 where he outlined his company’s strategy. In it he cited the example of Pepsi, who had lost the cola wars but went on to dominate nearly every other soft drink sector. He also began to cite the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” in interviews, which outlined the need to move from highly competitive markets into “blue ocean” markets with greater profit potential, by making products that offered advantages both the consumer and the company. The company was clearly aware and interested in things outside of its immediate vision.
  • And what strikes me is that the SDLP, stuck in a similar rut to Nintendo in 2005 exhibits no evidence of any of them. I could give a vague outline of what I think SF might want Ireland to look like, but I don’t think I could accurately characterise what the SDLP think. Major decisions, such as whether or not to link up with Fianna Fail, seem to be muddled rather than made, without any strategic oversight. There is little evidence of any compelling policy work that would lead people to become excited by the possibilities that the SDLP offers, no evidence of looking to the wider world for inspiration or validation. Where feelers are put out tentatively for change, such as Durkan’s recent speech on the “ugly scaffolding” of the Assembly, they are quickly drawn back at the first sight of criticism or electoral offence. The party seems unable to hold its nerve in the face of criticism and it is telling their one notable success during this Assembly is where they made a decision and stuck to their guns over UDA funding. And ultimately, what all this adds up to is a complete failure of leadership, not simply with Mark Durkan but at the entire senior level.

    I realise it is harder to actually come up with polices than it is to criticise others for failing to do so, and there is no guarantee that even a concerted effort by the SDLP would produce success. But risk is also part of the strategy for success and the SDLP is a party that badly needs to disrupt the market here. To change nothing is to guarantee nothing will change. To quote Iwata-san:

    I was sure that if we continued down the path in which we were heading, Nintendo would have died a slow death

    Further Reading
    Nintendo employees discuss Wii hardware development
    Forbes interview with Nintendo USA
    Fortune magazine Wii article
    Times interview with Iwata
    Iwata GDC 2006 speech
    Blue Ocean Strategy

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