On January 6th of this year, Southwest Airlines revealed through their blog that they’d created their own official Super Mario Maker level, at Nintendo’s invitation. “Southwest Air Adventure” is not a particularly noteworthy level; there’s no real discernible “ground” (per its aerial theme), and there’s an outline of the Southwest Airlines logo made out of coins. Finishing the level unlocks a costume based on the Sky Pop, Mario’s airplane from Super Mario Land.
It’s not the first level of its kind (Mercedez-Benz created their own level and GLA-inspired costume in December of last year). But “Southwest Air Adventure” and levels like it are significant because they’re the most clear encapsulation of where Nintendo is at these days. They’ve done co-marketing deals in the past, sure. But the construction of this particular stunt, from the way it happened (Nintendo reaching out instead of the other way around) and where it lives (inside Super Mario Maker itself, rather than as, say, a McDonalds Happy Meal toy) shows Nintendo finally understands the internet in their own strange way.
Nintendo didn’t arrive at the end of 2015 with a brand-new marketing team and design philosophy. They’ve been easing into this for years. The first sizeable, public-facing indication of their new approach to online content came back in 2011, with the introduction of their Nintendo Direct videos and livestreams. The first few Directs were little more than glorified trailers for their systems and consoles. Look up the first Nintendo Direct and you’ll see the same pieces the company uses for the videos now, but in rougher shape. The language is a bit playful, but stilted. They don’t really have much to show, and the presentation lacks any sort of momentum.
At the time, the videos didn’t seem like much. In fact, it seemed like a concession, a retreat from the boisterous campaigns of their console-making peers. When they replaced their live E3 press conference with an hour-long Direct, some saw it as an admission of defeat. Not an entirely unfair assumption, since their outlook wasn’t too bright at the time..
Cut to 2015, and Directs seem like a no-brainer for the company. They still get their spotlight during E3 without having to deal with the awkwardness of a press conference. They control the message completely and don’t have to deal with stage demo failures or mishaps. They can get The Jim Henson Company to create caricatures of their top executives and get people to fall in love with the idea. They’ve built up this sort of endearing air, like the kindly old neighbor you can’t help but always smile at. For a publicly-traded company showing off their products, this is incredibly rare.
They’re then free to relegate most of the actual demos for their games to their E3 Treehouse streams, which act as their own stage show for their products, cutting out that pesky chance some journalist will have questions that could steer the conversation about them off-message. Even better, they don’t have to stick to big trade shows to make an impact. Nintendo Directs have cemented themselves as Nintendo’s marketing cornerstone, and whenever they have one, they’re guaranteed to capture the attention of gaming message boards and social media for an hour or so. It’s a strategy that only works if the company knows its audience is active enough online to watch these kinds of presentations—if the company can trust that its audience will find its online marketing.
And in 2015, Nintendo showed that it can. Super Mario Maker was the biggest foray Nintendo have made into the online world, but it wasn’t their online coming out party. That was Smash Bros. for Wii U, with its regular updates and dedicated press conferences. Nintendo showed they understood why supporting a game post-launch made sense, and released several content and balance updates to the game over the course of the year. Splatoon also demonstrated they could build an online framework and community outside of their long-established franchises. It made online matchmaking and competitive multiplayer uniquely theirs, eliminating voice chat, making matches so short as to prevent anyone from really freaking out over a single match, and carving an online culture of their own through their Miiverse, allowing players to express themselves without the need for a live audience.
Super Mario Maker similarly keeps the potential for bad interactions to a minimum by limiting online interactions to level-sharing through codes that imply a sense of consent between users. Players don’t have to deal with a toxic community and won’t accidentally expose important information. They can only enjoy each others’ presence, however distant it might be.
Between all of these measures, it feels like Nintendo has finally found its footing in the online space. I don’t think this is a catch-up measure, either; I’ll hazard a guess and say Nintendo’s online infrastructure will never be as robust as we might want it to be. Rather, these moves feel closer to what Nintendo wants their version of online to be, in the way the Nintendo has always audaciously carved out its own path. They’re creating exactly the kind of online environment they’ve always wanted, the one they had in mind when they revealed convoluted console and game-specfic Friend Codes, or when they released the Wii Speak accessory with Animal Crossing: City Folk.
That’s what “Southwest Air Adventure” represents: the culmination of a strategy that’s finally gotten to where it needs to be. I’m sure Nintendo isn’t done tinkering with its approach to online, but it’s finally in a good place. And with the NX, their next console, supposedly targeted to arrive within the next year and a half, Nintendo has a shot at finally realizing the vision for an online space they’ve always envisioned. Hopefully, 2016 will show us it’s a vision worth seeing.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who has played far less of Nintendo’s 2015 lineup than he would have liked to. He’s written for Paste, ZAM, GamesBeat, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter.