The Verbal Elegance Of Apple And Nintendo

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Editor’s Note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of the leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Companies often shout in the games industry. They yell with videos, music, press events with booth babes and the monster that is E3. They hustle and go balls-to-the-wall for attention. They make big noise in order to get you to notice what they’re up to and write about it. Everyone, that is, except the two companies that have probably been most crucial to the last few years of the industry: Apple and Nintendo.

Just this week, both Apple and Nintendo made big news with new product launches. For Apple, it was the usual Tim-then-Phil-then-Scott-then-Tim show. It was quiet stage presence — “just look at how incredible this is” — some very mild jabs at the competition, and the whole “best work of their lives” routine. They could, at this point, phone that performance in.

Meanwhile Nintendo out-dorked its usual dorky self with its Wii U announcements on Nintendo Direct, showing (in the EU edition) Satoru Iwata teleporting into the most stilted initial presentation anyone has ever seen in the history of history. This was followed by Satoru Shibata sitting at his desk explaining all the things Nintendo is about to launch with the flair of a high school counsellor. You could not get more lo-fi.

Both companies have the air of the about-to-be-written-off for many journalists. With all the shiny new toys that their competitors seem to be showing off, bloggers seem to feel that neither can go on indefinitely. With Lumia 920’s a-go-go and who knows what console magic from Microsoft and Sony on the horizon, the arguments against both Apple and Nintendo are about conservatism, lack of muscle and so forth. All of which is just inside baseball.

Ultimately it amounts to nothing. The iPhone 5 is already sold out, and Nintendo Wii Us are very suddenly  hot, with the old Mario and Zelda alongside the exciting new Bayonetta 2. With the former we’ve gone from leaks-akimbo and dismissals on Monday to slack-jawed amazement at figures by Friday. And for the latter, a sudden jolt of anticipatory frenzy. Despite supposedly being out of touch, Apple and Nintendo have likely won all over again while their competitors are forced to yell and play second fiddle.

But why?

While most of their competitors are in the business of loudly selling content and (some) innovation, Apple and Nintendo are in the business of selling verbs.

Verbs

The language of game design is confusing because it is a battleground. A lot of people who write about games (me included) find themselves defining new words that don’t have wide acceptance, or using old words in ways that don’t 100% agree with everyone else. Even a term as seemingly innocuous as “game mechanic” is fraught with peril. You often have to provide glossaries of what you mean (for reference: here’s mine) to get any useful discussion off the ground.

So I can only tell you what I mean by “verb”: A verb is a physical thing that you do when interacting. It’s what you do on this side of the glass to effect change in a digital world. Clicking, swiping, pressing, twisting, flipping, pinching, speaking, tilting, typing, holding and shaking are all examples of verbs. However, punching, kicking, accelerating, dodging, leaping, commanding, running, sorting, cutting, pasting, deleting, slotting and so on inside the screen are not verbs. They are “actions.”

You use one or more verbs to create an action. So pressing a button is a verb and causing your avatar to kick is its action. Control-clicking on your Starcraft 2 marines and then clicking on a position in a map is a combination of verbs that form one action: You command a unit to go over there and shoot the enemy.

There are many kinds of actions, but not many verbs. Verb invention is really hard to do and requires a strong aptitude for elegance, very deep thinking about people physics and and an eye for the simple machine with a thousand uses. It also often requires the development of software that works with those ideas to show them at their best. However the companies that invent — or steal, reinvent, and popularise — those verbs attract the most ardent fans. And everybody else pretty much copies them.

That’s the position that both Apple and Nintendo have occupied twice. It was Apple who invented the popular form of the mouse, the graphical user interface, the laptop form factor that worked, the iPod scroll wheel and the touch-screen verbs. Meanwhile it was Nintendo who invented the digital joypad, the analog stick, the stylus touch-screen game controller and the gestural controller. Other companies have basically rushed to fill in the categories that Apple and Nintendo have defined.

In the last few years especially, a flurry of verbal inventions has helped bring Apple and Nintendo to the fore, and consequently to win. Apple entered into the phone market very late, but swept aside the competition in an almost derisory fashion. Nintendo brought the Wii, a console that many assumed would fail due to a lack of graphical power, and then went on to dwarf its competitors.

Both leverage online live blogs and video to send their message. So do their competitors. Both also have a fan base and marketing story that their competitors would kill to have. Both are in the position of true greatness, because they define their respective markets, and both will continue to win for the near and medium future.

And yet…

The End of Verbal Discovery?

In the mid-90s both Apple and Nintendo had hit the skids before launching incredible comebacks. They had always had loyal followers, but companies who were better at partnerships, distribution, and playing well with others were in the lead. Sony and Microsoft were good at collaboration in a way that both Apple and Nintendo were not, and this horizontal approach paid off.

Nowadays everyone is striving to be vertical because Apple and Nintendo show that it works. Everyone wants their big play for the living room, has their tablet in the works, their phone, their TV and their online service. A number of giant vertical ecosystems (Sony, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook as well as Apple and Nintendo) are jostling for position, but none can ever achieve dominance because of a lack of interoperability. The wind is with Apple and Nintendo (and perhaps Facebook, but for other reasons) because they keep redefining the verbal landscape. But what happens when the verbs run out?

Many of us are coming to the conclusion that the iPhone may well be an apex product with nowhere left to go, and iPads likewise. As for Nintendo, the Wii U is in many ways bold, but its GamePad controller could also be read as everything-but-the-kitchen-sink. A sort of final solution for video game play.

If we end up back in the kind of fairly stable space that characterised the 90s, won’t this flip the switch back toward companies who know how to share? Won’t horizontal partnerships come back into vogue (as Nokia and Microsoft are doing), and won’t software and services start to matter more? In these areas Apple has learned some lessons (the App Store), but is also very weak in other areas (iCloud). Meanwhile Nintendo is still very difficult to really want to work with, and perhaps over-protective of its platforms.

We’ve had a great decade of invention in the verbal space and can now interact with our gaming devices in ways previously thought to be pure science fiction. But I wonder whether the next decade of games is really going to be about who can play well with others rather than tell everyone else how it’s going to be.