When it comes to the Eastern United States, the annual Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) East in Boston is the biggest gaming convention, bar none. Nintendo has elected to skip the conference this April, leaving many fans to ponder the company's current plans, and why it might be reluctant to share them.
It's no secret that the Wii U is a flagging console. Nintendo initially believed the system could sell 9 million units in 2013; that target number subsequently became 2.8 million. Even Nintendo's stalwart handheld, the 3DS, failed to meet the company's expectations. While the handheld was supposed to shift 18.5 million units, it's now on track to move 15 million instead.
Nintendo's strategy, at this point, is anything but clear. The company wants to produce a new health-based console, presumably aimed at more-casual users, but has refused to lower the price on the Wii U below $300, insisting the platform might still have some life left. That said, if Nintendo has big news on the Wii U front, the console manufacturer certainly won't be sharing it at PAX East.
Fans have pointed out — correctly — that Sony will also have a very limited presence at the show (Microsoft will be out in full force). But even a token showing sends a different message than skipping the convention entirely.
Furthermore, although Nintendo did show up for last year's E3 convention in Los Angeles, the company declined to hold a press conference. At two of gaming's biggest conventions, nine months apart, one of the three biggest names in gaming will have had very little by way of new or unexpected announcements.
Even if Nintendo did announce a release date for a piece of must-have software, such as the new "Super Smash Bros.," some stalwarts are not convinced that it would help. Tom's Guide spoke to Bob "MovieBob" Chipman, a fan-favorite pop-culture critic with a well-documented affinity for all things Nintendo.
"The assumption that [the Wii U] is going to sell once 'Smash Bros.' comes out seems to be based on an idea that there are people who know what 'Smash Bros.' is, like it, would buy a system for it and are on the fence about a Wii U," Chipman said. "I don't know if enough of those people exist."
Nintendo is also caught in the same odd space as Microsoft and Sony right now, producing hardware for what very well might be the last generation of traditional consoles.
"Eventually, something has to give," Chipman said. "This model isn't sustainable. It's been sustained longer than it ever should have [by] gamers who were kids when the NES and the Sega Master System and the Genesis came out."
The old guard of console gamers, he argues, is used to buying a new console to get new games every five years or so, but modern teenagers have no such habits.
"[They] have no great affection for console generations and bit wars and substantial move-ups," Chipman said. "Technology is something that is liquid. You get multiple iPhones, multiple iPads … All your stuff carries over."
In other words, older console gamers can accept buying a whole bunch of downloadable games on a Wii and finding them unplayable on a Wii U, which is the way things currently work. But younger gamers reared on smartphone and tablet games may find that practice completely unpalatable.
Nintendo has expressed some interest in expanding into mobile platforms, but becoming a third-party developer would not necessarily be a panacea, Chipman explained.
"If the Wii U 'Zelda' comes out cross-platform, is 'Zelda' suddenly outselling the next 'Call of Duty' or 'God of War?'" he wondered. "I don't think that happens."
Nintendo, both as a console manufacturer and as a pop-culture tastemaker, may have already had its time in the sun.
None of this should suggest that Nintendo doesn't have a few great Wii U games left in its arsenal, or that the company will fade into nothingness if it cannot compete on equal footing with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But the House of Mario has seen better days, and cutting its presence at two major gaming conferences indicates that Nintendo faces more turbulence ahead.
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