As the sales of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One climb higher ever so steadily, the Wii U sales numbers are making the latest Nintendo console situation seem more dire by the week. The inferior technology, combined with the stigmas associated with the Wii name and several marketing miscues have drastically shrunk the target demographic of the Wii U.
Even as the sales of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One tower over Nintendo’s current flagship console, so do the complaints about the two more powerful systems. Whether it’s the varying degrees of paywalls that exist across the platforms or the lack of focus on gaming in favor of zeroing in on media apps, gamers have no qualms about making their opinions heard about PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on social media, in comment sections, and everywhere else people voice their concerns.
“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
- Steve Jobs
But what about the Wii U? While some would argue that the new consoles–perhaps Xbox One in particular–are trying to push technology ahead at a faster rate than consumers want, the Wii U’s capabilities and focuses appear to be more in line with the loudest consumer desires, yet it lags far behind in sales, popularity, and developer support.
The Wii U focuses on gaming first and foremost. That is the major sticking point that has turned many consumers off about the PlayStation 4 and, particularly, Xbox One. The two consoles from Sony and Microsoft have made it clear that they intend to deliver fully integrated media experiences to those who use them on a day-to-day basis. This was most apparent in the Xbox One’s namesake, but the PlayStation 4 is certainly accomplishing this as well. Though games were a scarcity in the early months of the Wii U’s lifecycle, and third-party developers have since all but abandoned the platform, Nintendo has made it clear that gaming is the number one priority for its system.
In going with this decidedly “gaming first” approach, the Wii U didn’t include any bundled cameras or online connectivity requirements, nor did it feature any paywalls for its apps or over-reliance on system and game updates. The Wii U has also done an outstanding job of releasing games digitally on day of launch, and Nintendo was even the only company to support backwards compatibility with its latest console.
To further support this approach, Nintendo has released an unparalleled lineup of exclusive titles over the past 12 months which has featured its biggest franchises from Mario and Zelda to Donkey Kong and Pikmin. In addition, Wii U has brought brand new franchises to life through Platinum’s The Wonderful 101 and Nintendo’s latest Frankenstein of a creation, NES Remix. And yet that has done little to shake the stigma of the Wii U as a console that is fighting a losing battle.
Now, as we’ve all heard, “nobody buys Nintendo consoles for third-party games.” And I will agree with that sentiment, as since the SNES, I’ve not bought a Nintendo console because of the non-Nintendo games that would appear on it. The reasoning behind this is because Nintendo consoles have arguably the best game developer in industry history as an exclusive developer for its platform: Nintendo.
The problem with the approach of placing so much reliance on first-party releases is that those properties simply cannot keep up the pace Nintendo needs them to in order to make the Wii U a successful console worthy of owning. This results in small bursts of releases of excellent games, as was seen in Holiday 2013, followed by large gaps with no big releases, as is being seen now. Those bursts, when left unsupported by other developers during the gap times, lead to an extraordinarily unbalanced release schedule, which is not healthy for any platform.
In addition, Nintendo, a year and a half following launch, has done a poor job of showing people what the Wii U is. Asking somebody who isn’t in tune with gaming culture what a Wii U is can still result in confusion; something that isn’t quite as common with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. This could be due, in part, to the poor marketing by Nintendo that is rooted in the name of the console being too similar to the console’s predecessor. I called out Nintendo’s nomenclature in a 2012 pre-launch article, stating that it was too similar to the iterative nature of the company’s DS models (DSi, DS XL, etc.), possibly pointing those familiar with those models to think a Wii U is just a new model of the Wii.
So does the Wii U’s lack of success in the marketplace suggest a “branding identity crisis” among gamers? Not particularly. The poor sales are more likely indicative of the changing marketplace and the iconic company’s antiquated view on online capabilities. Whether you’re talking its crackdown on streaming monetization, or simply referencing the company’s notorious online infrastructure, people who play Nintendo typically do so alone or with someone else on the couch. Even as recently as 2005–less than a year after Halo 2 revolutionized online console play–Satoru Iwata was quoted as saying “customers do not want online games.”
That type of viewpoint is what has haunted Nintendo and hindered its attempts to compete with Sony and Microsoft. Nintendo has since tried to modify its stance on online play, but even with the Wii U, it just can’t get it right. Games like Batman: Arkham Origins shipped to Wii U without the online play found on PlayStation 3 an Xbox 360, and even Nintendo’s big first-party exclusives have lacked online play. While games like Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze proved to be spectacularly entertaining, their appeal was limited by the capabilities of the system.
If Nintendo does want another console that can compete with Sony and Microsoft in terms of sales and popularity, it will have to do away with the very stubbornness that got it into this spot. Being different is one thing, but refusing to appeal to those wanting to take part in the biggest trends in console gaming from the past decade isn’t wise from a sales perspective. If Nintendo does want to correct the poorly trending sales of Wii U, it will have to go back to the drawing board and try to reassure gamers and third-party developers alike that this is a system worth owning. I’m just not 100% convinced Nintendo is entirely unhappy with the direction it’s currently heading.