The Wii U State of the Union: A Strike-out or a Stepping Stone? - Tim Gruver Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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The Wii U State of the Union: A Strike-out or a Stepping Stone?

 


It’s no secret that this past week has been a polarizing one for the Wii U among critics. A summer of discontent with the console’s performance has been brewing and players and journalists alike have been at odds over where its potential is headed. With Nintendo’s latest sales statistics at the ready, headlines have been armed to the teeth with figures and their best business estimates to effectively lead the charge in spelling the console’s imminent doom. Is it entirely called for?

You may connect this blog to whatever fanboyish attitudes you wish, but I am unapologetic about the fact that I was a day-one Wii U owner. I still love the GamePad, I own every 1st-party game released for the platform, and I’m unashamed to admit that I played Mario Chase to death with family over the 2012 holiday season. I have many a beloved memory of both the Wii U and Nintendo's previous stable of games and systems since early in my childhood and I’ve since developed a faith and trust in the brand name if not only due to the quality I've experienced in it. My gaming love is concentrated but not limited to Nintendo. I currently have in my possession an aging PS2 and a fancy PS3 Slim in my home and I've been a Sony guy for almost as long. You'll see plenty of PS4 and X-Box One praise in the industry now (though, granted, fewer for the latter), but in times of Nintendo’s “imminent doom,” *foreboding voice* it’s necessary to stick up for the underdog once and a while. 

In spite of my appreciation of the system, it'd be dishonest not to acknowledge the Wii U's struggles as of late. Reports show that in the last 3 months, the Wii U only sold about 160,000 units, with stock from previous months still probably sitting on store shelves. It’s in worse shape than the Nintendo 3DS, which by this point in its life saw a 32% price cut from $250 to $170. Nintendo's figures for the Wii U's first months on sale, from November through to March, are even harder to look at. The big number of 3.45 million units sold worldwide isn't the game-breaker, but merely the split behind it: 3.06 million of those came in the first month. Since that point Wii U has sharply declined, even with the release of traditionally big-deals like Dragon Quest 10 failing to make a dent in the Japanese market. If you believe those pesky analysts, April saw things get even worse in the US with the Wii U shipping under 40,000 units, easily outsold by the 360 and PS3 and even the Wii.

There is no denying the conservatism of the Wii U's design. For Nintendo, the alternative wouldn't have been more horsepower, but another new direction. Nintendo has made a necessary artform of subsisting on low installed bases and high loyalty in the past, on home consoles at least, and may have to do so again. Nintendo isn't in serious trouble yet and this Christmas may be it’s one true test in the market. Microsoft and Sony have the habit of talking about their consoles in terms of 10-year plans. The Wii U feels like more of a 5-yr. bridge, and a little bit like playing for time. In retrospect, Nintendo should've given its new console a whole new identity with a sparkly, sexy name no one would’ve guessed. I'm personally fond of "Revolution," the Wii's codename. "Wii U" is confusing a few ignorant consumers who still just don’t know what this console is. Associating their new console with the Wii is not convincing hardcore gamers to buy it; perhaps they have a false fear that it’s just going to be an HD version of the Wii with a bunch of lousy kids' games.

Nintendo's business philosophy has always been simple: creative hardware inspires developers to make creative software. It's something that, like with the DS, was a huge success -- though largely because of Nintendo leading the charge. It comes with one problem, though. Many console developers, particularly big publishers, are less interested in being creative than they are in following quick-cash templates. One can sympathize with that position from the perspective of a corporate bottom-line. The Wii U's gamepad is a less obvious sell than the Wii remote was and not as instantly exciting. There have been good uses for the gamepad in many Wii U titles, but the concept hasn't yet been the foundation of anything. Software is the bigger difference. Nintendo launched Wii with the best pack-in title ever made, Wii Sports, and followed that then cultural phenomenon with the Wii U's Nintendo land, a rather standard run through classic rides of Nintendo's glorious past. Satoru Iwata has sated that "Asymmetric gameplay" is a key element that differentiates the Wii U from other products. That gameplay is interesting, but unfortunately for many players, that "interesting" experience is difficult to describe to family and friends in the best words. 

Up Next: 3rd-Parties, IPs, and Your Livingroom [PageBreak]

If there's a flipside, it's 3rd parties. Nintendo has already put its full force behind Retro Studios and Platinum Games, two studios that sell well in the Japanese market and especially with the upcoming Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Bayonetta 2. These exclusives are of almost guaranteed quality, but severely lack appeal beyond the console's Western turf. Others like Monster Hunter 3U, Dragon Quest 10, and a new Xenogears/Xenosaga are and might be just as good. For all the praise the hardware can receive, most of these titles are unlikely to get as much coverage across the Pacific. It's simply the product of a strategy to cement Nintendo's traditional position in Japan above all else and it's disheartening to see the West so stubbornly refuse new tastes.


Combine this traditional feature of a Nintendo platform with a low installed base and, as one of EA's Senior Software Engineers employee put it in a candid moment, "Nintendo are walking dead at this point.". Too many 3rd parties have walked away in such mock disgust. Exclusives like Rayman Legends have been lost and then there's the recent "will they or won't they" EA saga, with the publisher appearing to confirm it was not supporting Wii U at all, then swiftly rowing back on this. There's been much talk  about whether the Wii U will survive once the PS4 and Xbox One launch this holiday season. Some developers are saying that they won't develop for the console as they don’t think it’s a wise investment. Bob Summerwill of publisher Electronic Arts (voted the “world’s worst company” by the Consumerist for the past two yrs), thinks the system is “crap.” The Internet is crawling with trollers telling players not to buy the Wii U because it "sucks."

EA's sour position reflects an attitude of most Western developers' with the Wii U. It's clear is big titles are definitely not coming to Wii U, or at least not in their full form. Wii U versions of popular games, like Call of Duty or Arkham Origins, aren’t getting the same downloadable content as the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions and its aggravating gamers that are trying to enjoy their new Nintendo console, but feel like they're missing out on the "hipper" players toys. While Nintendo arguably needs to strengthen its relationship with developers and publishers, the case can be made that many 3rd parties simply aren't trying to be friends either. EA blamed the decision on poor sales of FIFA 13 but this isn't just about sports. Though the Wii U is unlikely to see cross-platform versions of games built using the Frosbite tech or Unreal Engine 4, it's been reported that it is indeed possible in spite of EA's lethargy to make it happen. The Wii U will undoubtedly lose on this particular front in the next-gen war. However, it's easily one which, in all fairness to Nintendo, it never cared about or needed.

The craziest idea being floated in light of the Wii U's rough start is that Nintendo should reconsider its position as a hardware manufacturer, and go on to make games across all platforms. Say what you will about the Wii U, its success or otherwise will not crash Nintendo -- it's not as though the company is losing money. Nevertheless, people rightly ask what Nintendo is going to change to meet future targets. By March 2014 it projects selling 9 million Wii Us and 18 million 3DS units, as well as 38 million and 80 million games respectively. Such estimates look unconvincing while the 3DS estimates look good. How aggressive this will make Nintendo's pricing of the former in the winter launch period remains uncertain. Original, even branded IPs, with new takes on interaction are risky business in the mainstream--witness THQ's doomed attempt at doing a Nintendo with Udraw. The Wii, outside of hits like Carnival Games and Just Dance, wasn't good for 3rd-parties.

The truth behind the matter is that the Wii U's positioning is at a time when its competitors's goals is to conquer your living room. Nintendo's ambition is simply to inhabit it as a true-blue games console, no more. Some may cry out that it’s 2013, and Nintendo has yet to release a console that plays CDs or DVDs. While a big deal to many people, it may be a smaller deal to Nintendo's bottom line than you think. Games are most important for a home console but, true, it’s nice to watch Blu-rays or DVDs when you want a break from games. The Wii U's incapability to do this might force Nintendo loyals to buy a PS3, 360, or even a BD or DVD player. However, one can argue that they probably had such things before a Wii U. As mentioned before, I myself have other systems alongside my Nintendo ones. Nintendo may simply be accepting the fact that it can live in peace with other consoles and devices in the home yet still maintain its value in other more productive areas, like 1st party titles. At they very least the Wii U does play Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video, services that more and more people are relying on for tv shoes and movies and not hard-copies. The Wii U isn’t a new beginning so much as it’s a consolidation strategy, an attempt to attract back gamers and sell Wii players, and only time will tell if its less obviously attractive features like the Mii verse and back-compatibility with the Wii’s games are worthwhile. Doesn't it matter that Nintendo is the only company keeping players' existing game libraries and accessories relevant? Or do people only care about the latest doo-dads on the internet? 

Up Next: Holiday Rush, 1st Parties, and Immortality [PageBreak]

The main arena in which Microsoft and Sony will rumble is regularly assumed to be the only console market. There's a bigger assumption behind this, and it's that the PS4 and X-box One are going to launch to the sound of crinkling dollar bills, quickly acquiring large installed bases and shifting enough software to keep both companies swimming in piles of money all winter. The idea that the market is desperate for new consoles has widespread influence in the specialist press. Once Microsoft and Sony are on the scene, goes the wisdom, Nintendo is a goner -- Christmas 2013 ain't no place for a gamepad. That may be true. . . to some. Consider this scenario though: Microsoft and Sony launch with incremental improvements on the same old software we're used to playing at around $400-$500 apiece. Nintendo, with the Wii U officially at $320-$300 by then and give us a real family-centered special: Super Mario 3D World alongside Pikmin 3 and Wonderful 101 copies under the tree. That's a real choice for consumers, especially desperate parents, and not one with a predictable answer.

In time, the Wii U may very well end up like its predecessors in terms of repeating history. The Gamecube never sold like hotcakes and Nintendo kept it afloat to just do alright. The Wii, short of Wii Sports and Twilight Princess at launch, never had anything until really the first Super Mario Galaxy, what Pikmin 3 could be considered the Wii U's symbolic equal. It was 2008 when Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii released, 2 yrs. after their console's launch--same as the Wii U and Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros. Wii U in what will probably be both 2014. It was not long afterwords by 2010 that the Wii had plenty of solid titles like Super Mario Galaxy 2, Kirby's Epic Yarn, and Donkey Kong Country Returns that things were going swimmingly. The Wii U lost its momentum due to the release pace of software titles after the launch period. Just as the 3DS has been revitalized by consecutive game releases, the basic principle of the video game business is that software sells hardware. Starting with "Pikmin 3," this August, Nintendo's most key titles will easily give the sales momentum to survive the drought of this latter half of the year and into 2014, the time in which Nintendo will finally be able to fire up its big guns and begin to thrive. This is why the Wii U's supporters rightly point out that the key software is still to come. 

Nintendo has always excelled at 1st parties, but many people complained about their lack of fresh faces pushing the Wii U's early line-up, especially with Super Mario 3D World's lack of originality. It's a simple truth that flagship franchises sell. Super Mario 3D Land even sold more than the Super Mario Galaxies, so can Nintendo be crucified for relying on their biggest cash cow? Fans still say, "Where’s Metroid? Where’s F-Zero? Where’s Star Fox?" The simple answer to GI editor Ben Reeve's demands for a Wii U Metroid game is easily countered with the quick fact that the afore mentioned series, while capable of getting stellar reviews, are only played by a few million players or less. The Mario brand is played by tens of millions, especially with any and all multi-player features. You'll be seeing X-Box One milk Halo and Gears before we know it and it's not like Sony's ever abstained from the same formula with releasing another Killzone for the PS4 later this year. Release games that people care about, and the system will sell. It's true that Nintendo needs to have strong 3rd-party support for its system to thrive, but that will come in time. Enormous 3rd party titles like GTA IV took 2 yrs. to hit the PS3 and 360 and the same will come with Nintendo when its ready. No doubt a Starfox game could very well be brewing as we speak, but like most companies, Nintendo chooses not to rush it and rightly is relying on the traditional system-sellers to buy time and ready itself. With such money-making titles being released in succession from next month into next year, we believe that we can dramatically improve the situation of Wii U.

Needless to say, Nintendo is a brand that will endure for the short-term and no doubt the long-term to boot. As much pressure as people are putting on it, it's only because so many people expect such great things out of it. Akin to Walt Disney, Nintendo already has established itself as the "happiest place on earth" for gamers of all ages and will continue to develop those 1st party titles that you can't get anywhere else, like all consoles will. As a company, there may be something fundamentally different in its nature than most others. If its Nintendo Directs are any indication, Nintendo still actively talks to its consumers and not at them in its talks and they're very understanding of readying themselves for the long-haul. The PS4 and X-Box One's press-conferences may have gotten the fear and respect from the mean industry streets like beat-nix hipsters, but Nintendo is loved. 

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