Gamers try Wii U at the 2012 E3 Expo. (Credit: Ariel Zambelich/WIRED)
By Chris Kohler, Wired: Game|Life
“Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp. each sold more game consoles in 24 hours than the Wii U maker did in nine months,” read the story. “[Nintendo] sold just 460,000 Wii U machines in the six months ended Sept. 30, about 5 percent of its target for the fiscal year.”
Christmas may represent a big part of Nintendo’s yearly business, but it sure as heck isn’t 95 percent. Hey, at least things couldn’t get any worse! Oh, wait: Apparently in Japan, Nintendo’s big holiday release Super Mario 3D World has stumbled out of the gate. In fact, it seems to have had the worst launch week of any game in the series ever. But why shouldn’t it, when it’s the fourth Mario in two years? We criticize publishers like Activision for annualizing their games, and meanwhile Nintendo is semi-annualizing them.
The single major advantage that Nintendo had over Sony and Microsoft this console cycle was a one-year lead, which it has squandered. And we’re going to see a lot more statements like the one from Jason Rubin, the former head of THQ, who said recently that Nintendo is “irrelevant as a hardware manufacturer in the console business” and that it should put its games on Xbox One and PS4 posthaste.
What the hell is happening? And is there any feasible way to stop it?
Price Is the Problem
Nintendo’s portable 3DS had a similar stumble when it launched in 2011. Nintendo’s plan to get it turned around was not especially complicated: It drastically lowered the price within a few months and released compelling software titles. Today, although it’s not nearly as much of a cash generator as the original Nintendo DS, 3DS is in a much better place for Nintendo and for some third parties — Capcom said this week that it has shipped 4 million copies of Monster Hunter 4 on 3DS.
Capcom might be happy with the 3DS, but ain’t nobody happy with Wii U. As Nintendo was gearing up to launch Wii in 2006, third parties were slowly backing away — ultimately, each committed a teensy bit of effort to making one or two cheapo games for Wii that tested the waters on this oddball piece of against-the-grain game hardware. They had already been cooling on Nintendo, since its GameCube console proved to be rather inhospitable to third party efforts. But after Wii hardware sales exploded, everyone (except Ubisoft, which had fully backed Wii from launch) was sent scrambling to gin up a slate of Wii products aimed at its new casual audience.
With Wii U, there’s no such pressure, because third parties aren’t exactly leaving dollars on the table by not releasing Wii U software. Additionally, back when Wii launched, there was still a middle ground in the videogame market. Publishers could produce triple-A games, but also single-A or B games too. These days, it’s almost a competition as to who can make their lineups smaller. The middle has fallen out of the market — the big publishers are either doing the biggest of big games, or 99 cent mobile apps.
Independent game makers using digital distribution are stepping up to fill in those gaps, producing the games that are somewhere between huge and tiny. You’d think they’d be a natural fit for the lower-powered Wii U, and yet despite Nintendo’s push for more indie content, there isn’t much of that happening either. While the fact that publishers are still making games for PS3 and Xbox 360 will benefit Wii U, which got ports of Batman: Arkham Origins and Call of Duty: Ghosts (but precious little else), a console needs exclusives.
“Lower the price and make games people want to buy” is of course much easier to say than it is to actually do. At this point, and with more big exclusives on the way, the quality of the first-party Wii U software that exists is pretty high even if nobody’s buying them yet. So in the absence of some big game-changer, a Brain Age or a Nintendogs equivalent, Nintendo might decide that the most direct way to jolt the Wii U business out of its slumber would be a big price cut like it did with 3DS.
This, too, is easier said than done. In August, Nintendo said that at $350 it was taking a loss on each Wii U it sold, and then it lowered the price to $300. So it may be taking an even bigger loss now. Could Nintendo stomach lowering the price to a point where it might have a huge effect — say, $199.99? One of the problems with that is the fact that each Wii U includes the GamePad controller, with its built-in touch screen. How expensive is it? In Japan, where Nintendo says it plans to sell extra GamePads at retail, it’s priced at $135.
This inspired an epic Twitter speech from The Gaming Intelligence Agency’s Andrew Vestal about GamePad-as-albatross: “I wonder if it’s technically possible for Nintendo to patch out GamePad support and relaunch Wii U at $200 w/ classic controller only,” he wrote. This is an interesting question, as maybe there’s some technological reason that Nintendo simply can’t do it; that the Wii U requires the GamePad to function now and forever. Well, let us assume arguendo that the two are severable. Is it a good idea?
The Wii U and the GamePad - inseparable? Or not?(Credit: Alex Washburn/WIRED)
Although Nintendo launched Wii U with NintendoLand (a suite of mini-games that all required the GamePad controller), most of its current crop of games and everything in the foreseeable future do not actually require the pad. If anything, I thought playing Pikmin 3 with the Wii remote and nunchuk was preferable to the GamePad. I played Super Mario 3D World with the classic controller, only using the touchscreen when the game absolutely required me to. Nintendo is adding a couple of little touches to these games that use the GamePad’s second screen, but by and large they are optional. Mario Kart and Donkey Kong, coming next year, don’t look to be changing that paradigm.
Purely based on where Nintendo is going with its software lineup, GamePad is becoming an optional accessory. All that’s left is to make it an optional purchase. If selling GamePad separately might allow Nintendo to reduce the price of Wii U to just under $200 (with a game pre-installed on the console for extra value, of course) it would look much more appealing next to the $400 PS4 and $500 Xbox One.
If it seems unlikely that a game console would climb down so dramatically and remove the one thing that it pitched as its defining feature, think again. It’s already happened twice this year: Microsoft’s preemptive reversal of all of its Xbox One DRM policies (and making Kinect optional) and Nintendo’s release of the 2DS, which removes the 3-D screen that gave 3DS its name in an effort to knock the price down even further.
Is There Another Way?
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the idea that Nintendo might remove the GamePad is that it may be out of other solutions. I certainly wish it hadn’t made such a total dog’s breakfast of the Virtual Console classic games service, but even if that were to change overnight into a “Nintendo paradise” service, a one-stop shop full of every major game from Nintendo’s decades of history at impulse-buy prices, that wouldn’t fix Wii U by itself.
And Nintendo releasing another Wii Sports or Brain Age-like killer app is unlikely. Those games predated the iPhone, and so it’s possible that the conditions that allowed those breakout hits to even happen in the first place might be long gone. 3DS has become more successful without such a game-changing title, just with well-made traditional Nintendo software.
The Super Smash Bros. fighting series has always been extremely popular on Nintendo’s platforms. Could the next entry in the series make it a must-have for the hardcore? Possibly. But consider what happened when fans who loved the 2001 GameCube version played the 2008 Wii version (in a nutshell, they thought it lost everything that made the GameCube game good)–it may be that Nintendo will just continue to alienate them. (Attempting to shut down their big tournament surely wasn’t a help, either.)
And what about the thing that Jason Rubin and countless others have suggested — that Nintendo get out of hardware and put its games on others’ platforms? I’ve written before about why this is a bad idea. It might be tempting in the short term, but it’s a poison pill. Nintendo’s games sell millions of copies because it makes hardware, not in spite of that. The idea that Mario on Xbox would sell Call of Duty numbers is a pipe dream.
Yeah, Nintendo totally missed the boat on the future of games, and that sucks. Not embracing indie development fast enough, sluggish adoption of digital game sales, screwing up Virtual Console, no Blu-ray movie playback, a terrible “account” system for users — all of these things and more were unforced errors, own-goals that just never seemed to Nintendo to be problems until it was too late. And the fact that it went ahead with the very expensive GamePad controller without having a killer app that justified its existence was uncharacteristic of the company. But it can fix this stuff.
It’s important to remember that Nintendo has been here before. Right here, in fact. 3DS started weak and turned around. And even if Wii U doesn’t turn around — well, Nintendo’s been there, too. When GameCube was a few years into its cycle and getting killed by Sony (and, after a fashion, the first Xbox), we were hearing the exact same things: Nintendo is irrelevant, the hardware is only for Nintendo fans, give up, put Mario on Xbox. It tried to get GameCube turned around, and it didn’t. And instead it just had to suck it up, grin and bear it for a few years, then release the Wii.
Nintendo’s current management can turn things around. Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto have screwed up, but they don’t do that a lot. They learn from their mistakes. They try weird things, and when those things work they work really well. Now, if Nintendo were to release another console in five years that does even worse than Wii U, that would be an indication of serious systemic problems. But stumbling once isn’t a reason to give up, no matter how big the screwup is.
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