Hello Nintendo Switch, goodbye its predecessor… Wii hardly knew U

 

The Nintendo Switch gaming console was launched to much fanfare this month. But will it avoid the mistakes that marred its predecessor, the Wii U? SEAN GANNON finds out.

For almost 40 years, the Nintendo Corporation has made their money from video game consoles and software. This month March saw the launch of its latest creation, the Nintendo Switch, a hybrid machine that can be played both at home and on-the-go. Meanwhile, its current system, the Wii U, is no longer in production.  

It is fair to say that Nintendo’s last machine has not fared well; over its four year lifespan, the console suffered consistently low sales and frequently failed to meet financial targets. With its time in the sun drawing to a close and its successor just around the corner, the time feels right to look back on the Wii U and ask one simple question: where did it all go wrong?

The answer may be found as far back as 2011, when the console was first announced. Its predecessor, the Wii, had tapped into a goldmine by appealing to all audiences, earning over 101.6 million sales in its lifetime. However, this mammoth success did not come without problems. Chief among these was the fact that the Wii had been intentionally designed to be much less powerful than its rivals, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, which had both embraced high definition gaming. While this had allowed Nintendo to make a massive profit in the short-term, it also created a divide between this new casual audience and so-called core gamers, who felt alienated by the apparent focus on family-oriented ‘waggle-friendly’ games. Their next system, then known only by its code-name of ‘Project Café’, was intended to address these issues.

All this led to Nintendo’s conference at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Exposition (otherwise known as E3), where the Wii U was unveiled for the first time. The presentation focused on the multiple potential uses of the Gamepad, the console’s controller, which had a built-in touch screen among other functions. It also devoted a fair amount of time to various game developers who claimed that they would support the new system. Industry icons such as EA’s Peter Moore, Disney’s Warren Spector and Irrational Games’ Ken Levine came out to proclaim that this ‘was the console they had been waiting for’ and that they couldn’t wait to make games for it. The Wii U was a console made for you, the player, and it would be the flagship that would bring both the core gamers and casual audience together.

Sadly, all did not go to plan; despite launching a full year before the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the Wii U was quickly outpaced by its competitors and in the end only sold a mere 13.5 million units, the worst lifetime sales of any major gaming device in recent memory. Looking back at those tentative first steps, it is easy to see why.

Keighley resident and avid gamer Derry Warke was working in retail when the Wii U was first made available for purchase. When asked to recall what this period was like, he said: “The amount of customers that just thought the Wii U was a peripheral for the Wii, a new Wii controller or just didn’t know it existed was pretty worrying from the start. In order to sell your console, people need to know about it.”

Indeed, Nintendo’s approach to promoting their new system seemed half-hearted at best, with very little in the way of advertising. What little marketing it did get was focussed almost entirely on the Gamepad, but even these titbits were muddled and provided little reason for why it was needed. Compare this to the promotion of the Wii or even the upcoming Switch, which both give a clear idea of what their respective consoles are about, and the staggering failure of the Wii U’s advertising becomes apparent.

According to Warke, the problem may stem from the machine’s name, as he added: “Using the Wii’s name was the biggest mistake in my opinion. While the Wii did sell very well, by the end of its life cycle most people’s console was collecting dust and it was commonly seen as a console aimed towards the casual market. The name itself almost shows how out of touch with their audience Nintendo were.”

Warke is himself the owner of a Wii U console, having purchased one to play exclusive Nintendo games such as Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. However, the machine has seen little use in his possession and he knows of only one other person who owns one. While he does admit it has some good qualities, such as its Miiverse messaging service, it is clear that he is not impressed with the system overall. The main reasons for this disappointment seem to be the lack of notable game titles and the fact it is considerably less powerful than its competitors.

However, the thing that drew the most criticism from Warke was in fact the Wii U’s main selling point, the controller. He said: “The actual Gamepad required by most games and the only controller sold with the console was, in my opinion, a cumbersome and out dated piece of hardware. It relies on too many gimmicks and uses a touch screen less impressive than found on most phones. If it isn’t entirely obvious, I am not a fan of the gamepad.”

His words are echoed by Leeds-based game critic Mark Brearley, who was kinder to the hardware but nonetheless critical when he said: “The tablet is a pretty good piece of kit, but it’s just really gimmicky – a mess of different ideas that don’t really come together. They clearly didn’t market it properly, but to be honest there’s not really that much to market.”

Despite being rather fond of Nintendo, Brearley also considers the Wii U a disappointment, describing it as ‘underpowered and underwhelming’. His criticisms are much the same as Warke’s, with the blame for the system’s failure being placed on its lack of marketing, power and games. One thing he did point out, however, was that the scarcity in its games library was not due to a lack of effort on Nintendo’s part.

“The first-party titles were excellent – they really got the most out of it,” he said. “Unfortunately, there was no third-party support and that is really what killed them. They needed that support – you can’t succeed in this business without it.”

This abandonment by other game creators is particularly strange; as mentioned above, when the console was first unveiled, several developers spoke up to proclaim their support of it. Yet, following its release, these words were revealed to be hollow. All but a few of the third party launch titles had already been available on other consoles for several months, and when the Wii U failed to be an instant hit, most developers never bothered to make anything for it. By far the worst offender is Electronic Arts, who prior to the Wii U’s launch claimed they had brokered an ‘unprecedented partnership’ with Nintendo. This partnership quickly came to nothing when, after releasing a couple of ports for the console’s launch, EA mysteriously decided not to provide any more software for it.

The words of EA’s CFO Blake Jorgensen may shed some light into why this happened. Speaking at the UBS Global Technology Conference in 2015, he said: “We don’t make games anymore for the Wii or the Wii U because the market is not big enough, the PS Vita – the Sony product – we don’t make games for that anymore because the market is too small, so it’s all about the size of the market.”

The implication seems to be that game makers were simply following where the money was going, a suggestion backed by the words of many other developers, such as Ubisoft, who opted for a ‘wait and see’ approach when the Wii U wasn’t met with instant success. However, there are some that think that this desertion is a symptom of enduring animosity between third party developers and Nintendo. It is no secret that the console maker has struggled with outside support for decades, largely due to their insistence on doing things their way instead of going along with what their rivals are doing. This had led to Nintendo systems lacking an abundance of third party titles since the days of the Nintendo 64 and there are some, including industry analyst Michael Pachter, who feel that this frustrated relationship has reached a new low with the Wii U.

“The problem is I think they [Nintendo] did a bad job with third parties with the Wii and they’ve done an abysmal job with third parties with the Wii U,” Pachter said in an interview with Game Informer, “so I don’t think third parties would come back for a new console.

“Ubisoft got really burned on the Wii U making dedicated titles like ZombiU,” he continued. “Activision stopped making Call of Duty for the Wii U, and EA hasn’t ever made a game for the Wii U. I don’t think they will come back.”

Of course, looking at it all now, it’s easy to point at all the mistakes Nintendo made with the Wii U and declare it a failure. There is no doubt that it failed – its abysmal sales figures can attest to that, but the question now becomes whether this is will be a mere stumbling block for the great and venerable house of N or the beginning of a downward spiral.

According to Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, it’s the former. In an interview with Alistdaily, the man in charge of the company’s American division gave assurances that they had taken note of what had happened with the Wii U and hinted at the steps they would be taking to ensure that their next console, then known by the codename NX, would not meet the same fate. He said: “Every time we launch a new platform, every time we launch a critical new game, we always learn. We always do our breakdown of what worked, what didn’t, and certainly we’ve done that with Wii U.”

“One of the things that we have to do better when we launch the NX [is] we have to do a better job communicating the positioning for the product. We have to do a better job helping people to understand its uniqueness and what that means for the game playing experience.”

Whether Fils-Aime’s words will ring true is something that only time will tell. For now, the Wii U’s tumultuous time has come to an end and the dawn of its successor, the Nintendo Switch, is quite literally just around the corner. Will it learn from its predecessor’s mistakes and attain the same heights as the original Wii? Or will it be yet another black mark on Nintendo’s financial history? The world is starting to find out…

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