on Aug 07 by Michael O'Connell-Davidson
Sometimes, the hardest problems to see are the ones staring us in the face. The Wii U isn’t Nintendo’s death knell, as the company has billions of dollars in reserve, but recently released sales figures show that the console is in dire straits. Owing to waning interest, the console has even been removed from the shelves of British supermarket giant Asda.
With only 10,000 units sold across Europe during the last fiscal quarter, Nintendo have a long road ahead of them if they want to match their previous success. So where did it all go wrong? Let’s take a look at five simple reasons Nintendo’s Wii U dream turned sour.
Communicating with the public
The Nintendo Wii sold 100 million units, despite its somewhat silly name, and was little more than a repackaged Gamecube. Nintendo delivered an excellent pitch to the consumer: the Wii was cheap and intuitive, and with Wii Sports bundled with the console itself, it had a funny way of justifying itself to anybody who spent time with one. The result? Clever marketing and clear messaging left Nintendo with huge profits on console sales during a generation where other manufacturers sold units at a loss.
Don’t get me wrong: there are lots of reasons to like the Wii U. I like the idea of a DS for your TV, which is effectively what the Wii U is – a console with two screens and stylus controls, backed up by an excellent series of first party games. I think if Nintendo managed to communicate this appropriately, the public would love it too. After all, they’re the same public who bought 153 million DS consoles. However, with the popular misconception that the Wii U is just an addon for the Wii – a problem made worse by its use of the Wii remote as a secondary controller – a large portion of the public have no idea what the Wii U even is.
Failure to Act Against Competitors
Blood was shed at this year’s E3, when Sony delivered an eviscerating conference aimed at toppling Microsoft before the Xbox One even came to market. However, the real battle begins this holiday season, as Sony and Microsoft both ramp up efforts for the release of their new hardware. So what comes between then and now? Well, nothing, really; while the end of a generation is incredibly lucrative for console manufacturers, their attention is focused on laying the groundwork for the next set of consoles.
By comparison, Nintendo already have their new console. They also have access to a huge amount of resources and some of the most recognisable intellectual properties in the industry, and in figurative terms, Nintendo have an opportunity to catch their competition with their pants down. However, Nintendo’s E3 presentation – delivered via a Nintendo Direct webcast – was weak; outside of Pikmin 3, which hit shelves in late July, many of Nintendo’s announcements are due towards the end of the year, when public interest in Microsoft and Sony’s new consoles is set to reach a fever pitch.
Missing online functionality
The Nintendo eShop is awesome. Day one digital downloads as well as a number of indie titles make it a really appealing place to seek out a new experience. In some regards, the eShop outstrips the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Store in terms of what’s on offer. However, even though the company are ditching friend codes, the MiiVerse and the overall online infrastructure aren’t much of a match for the Xbox Live and Playstation Network services.
Sure, the service is free, and drawing silly pictures on the Funky Barn MiiVerse board is hilarious. But there are games where online functionality is critical – such as Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 – that are almost totally devoid of players, and this is partly because Nintendo have shown little to no interest in bringing their online service in line with that of their competitors. I mean, no achievement tracking system on the Wii U? Really? I realise that Nintendo are about more than just Call of Duty and voice chat, but the markets show that the public aren’t. The Vita and PS3 function so well as a pair that owning both is very compelling indeed; why did Nintendo avoid the same course of action for the Wii U and 3Ds? Would it have been such a chore to create a linked account system?
There’s also the looming question about what happens to games when a system is lost or stolen. Nintendo of America have stated that the warranty does not cover lost or stolen consoles, and that eShop purchases are tied to the system itself. Consumers are only now beginning to adapt to digital distribution; if you lost your 3DS, would you really be willing to buy all of your games again? Nintendo seem stuck in another age, and it’s a shame, because digital distribution is highly profitable and in some respects they do it best.
Few games justify the controller (also, there’s far too many controllers for the system)
As discussed earlier in the article, Wii Sports was a great piece of software because it justified the Wii’s control paradigm immediately. If anybody wasn’t sure of how motion controls on the system were going to work, Wii Sports was there to communicate that. More importantly, though, Wii Sports is a game that you would simply be unable to play (at least in its current form) without a Wii controller. Super Mario Galaxy – one of Nintendo’s finest games – did a great job of showing how the Wii controller could be used to breathe life into old franchises without deviating too much from the gameplay.
With the Wii U, Nintendo have produced Nintendo Land, which is an enjoyable game. However, it doesn’t come bundled with the system, and isn’t nearly as natural a fit to the Wii U controller as Wii Sports was to the Wii controller. Asymmetric multiplayer is an excellent idea and great fun, especially with people you know very well – a recent Penny Arcade comic posited the idea of a Dungeons and Dragons style game with the Wii U Gamepad offering dungeon master functionality, which practically markets itself. The trouble is, most third party developers have only really used the second screen for menus, inventory management and maps, and those are problems that have been sold in the past without a second screen (the Start button says hello).
The sheer volume of controllers is also absurd. The Wii U Gamepad, Wii U Pro Controller and the Wii remote are available for consumers to use, but only flanking some usable controllers with “Wii U” and giving the compatible WiiMote standard Wii branding is confusing for those who exist outside of the video games media and enthusiast crowd. The Wii Classic Controller is also compatible, but this information is not provided on Nintendo’s website. The Wii remote, which is practically required for some games, is also not bundled with the console. The sheer number of peripherals available for use with the Wii U is ridiculous, with Nintendo having created layers and layers of hardware which are basically impenetrable without having Google close to hand. It’s difficult to understand why Nintendo would go down that path; after all, wasn’t one of the reasons the Wii sold so well that it was simple?
Lack of third party support
Sure, Nintendo don’t have complete control over whether or not third party developers want to work with their system, but relationships of any kind – including business – are a two way street. When EA announced a partnership with Nintendo to bring their properties to the system, I cheered; Sure, EA aren’t the greatest company in the world, but the Wii really petered out towards the end of its shelf life. Two years on, EA have effectively abandoned the system. So what changed?
It’s hard to say without sitting on the board of EA or any other major third publisher, but it all comes down to system sales. The Wii U simply isn’t selling, and a narrow install base means even narrower sales numbers – even if everybody bought an EA game and a console last quarter, that would only translate to 10,000 copies shifted for the publishing giant. Considering Fifa 13 sold over 10 million units worldwide, ten thousand is a drop in the ocean. Why devote resources to a system where your sales potential is so low when there’s so much business to be had elsewhere?
Let me be clear – I love Nintendo. They’ve developed some of my favourite games, and my first console was a Nintendo 64. I wouldn’t wish anything bad on them at all, as tempting as it is to give into the tribalistic ‘console war’ mentality. As Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker has said in the past, you shouldn’t approach video games jeering at console manufacturers and hoping one will fail, because ultimately, it isn’t us vs them – it’s us. If one console flops, it’s terrible for the industry at large, because competition in consumer electronics has proven to be a good thing. I understand that consoles are hefty purchases, though, and that people want to defend their spending habits. People really care about the money in their bank account – and that’s the problem. The Wii U, as it stands, is a difficult product to justify. It’s expensive and doesn’t offer much value for money.
It might do in the future, of course, but this creates a vicious cycle. People waiting for the Wii U’s golden era are only delaying its onset; for Nintendo and other companies who need to begin pouring resources into the console, the install base is the only thing that matters to them. Units sold shows just how many people care enough to support a console at release, because those are the people who care enough to buy games at full retail. Those are the people who will readily buy peripherals, and who will act as Nintendo’s spokespeople among their friends and relatives. Nintendo have given surprisingly little to early adopters in response, which can only be a bad thing.
Of course, Nintendo are rich, and they have some great software in the pipeline. They’ve also done a great deal to salvage the 3DS, which is looking more and more impressive by the day. One day the Wii U may be one of the most appealing purchases to gamers of the future, but right now, the Wii U is looking unhealthy. To them, we only have one message – get well soon.