Nintendo is the only platform-holder in the world whose company name is synonymous with gaming. Microsoft and Sony have had to painstakingly build their gaming brands. While Sony had some cachet of cool credibility with the Walkman and Discman in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was nothing remotely sexy about Microsoft’s corporate image before the Xbox. But videogames are not merely a division at Nintendo; they are the company’s raison d’être.
With such credentials, questioning Nintendo's strategy is something that should be embarked upon with trepidation; over the decades, many an observer has been forced to clear their throat, shuffle their feet and change the subject after wrongly betting the farm against the Japanese giant.
Two products aptly demonstrate the company’s defiance of projected failure. The first is the Nintendo DS handheld, unveiled to the public alongside Sony’s PlayStation Portable in 2004. At that time, many looked at the superior technical capabilities of the PSP and declared that the DS would be dead on arrival. By 2010, the PSP had sold more than 53 million units. The Nintendo DS, more than 144 million.
Even more spectacular has been the success of the Nintendo Wii, a sub-HD console with an unwieldy input system. If core gamers have been derisive of the platform, the rest of the world’s consumers have not. Wiis reside in more than 75 million households around the world. It’s a figure that dwarfs the respective install bases of the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 – and if people aren’t playing their Wii every day or buying new games every month, that’s disappointing but far from disastrous for Nintendo. Unlike its competitors, who have relied on software licensing to recoup losses incurred on expensive hardware, the Wii was designed to be profitable from day one. And so it has been. Nintendo’s annual operating profit is the envy of much of the games industry.
As a result, the weeks leading up to Nintendo’s revelation of a new console at E3 this year were filled with excitable discourse. What Nintendo revealed turned out to be the Wii U, an HD console that is capable of playing the same kinds of big-budget core games seen on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Where the Wii U differentiates itself is with a tablet-like touchscreen controller.
But if the tone of online discussions generally changed from anticipation to confusion in the hours and days following the Wii U's unveiling at E3, there were few who were willing to pin their colours to the mast and call it a lame duck.
Much of that confusion stemmed from the console’s name. Wii U, says Nintendo, is a moniker that demonstrates the company’s intention to retain the substantial casual audience built by its predecessor – “We” – in addition to recapturing the self-centric core gamer market: “You”. The Wii U, it seems, wishes to be all things to all men, women and children – and that’s where Nintendo’s offering begins to fray.
Some would argue that there’s not much in a name, a fact evidenced by the Wii’s success in spite of its name being a colloquial homonym for human waste. It’s unsurprising that Nintendo would wish to continue the Wii brand after its unprecedented success in bringing new consumers of all ages into the gaming fold. But without a name strongly differentiated from its predecessor, Nintendo will have its work cut out for it informing that same inattentive “We” audience that the Wii U is an entirely new console, and not simply a flash new touchscreen controller for their current Wii.
That same touchscreen controller underpins a missed opportunity in the casual space. At 6.2”, Nintendo could have had a profitable horizontal in porting downloadable iPad games, for example. However, the Wii U controller's touchscreen does not support multi-touch, a feature used in almost all iOS games. Additionally, the touchscreen uses older resistive rather than capacitive touch technology, meaning a stylus will be required to use it with the kind of precision seen on tablets.
Moreover, each Wii U console will only support one touchscreen controller. Any additional players must use the classic Wiimote with its limited button configuration and emphasis on motion control.
In the core gaming market, a second screen is a curiosity – interesting but largely unnecessary and even frustrating should developers try to shoehorn features into it. Rather than the imperceptible glance required when using the auxiliary screen on a Nintendo 3DS or DS handheld, players will have to tilt their head and look towards their lap when using the Wii U’s controller. In ponderous genres such as role-playing games, having an inventory or map a mere look away could prove satisfying. However, it’s a much less attractive proposition in competitive or attentive genres such as first-person shooters or fighters where looking away at the wrong moment can mean a Hadouken or rocket-propelled grenade to the chest.
Nintendo has teamed up with AMD and IBM for the Wii U’s hardware, an arrangement that developers currently working on Xbox 360 titles will be very familiar with. Indeed, id Software’s John Carmack says that the Wii U’s capability is on par with both Microsoft and Sony’s current generation consoles.
Nintendo’s attempt to court the core gaming market is not without irony and certainly not without hurdles. Its competitors' announcements of Kinect for Xbox 360 and Move for PlayStation 3 were seen by many as a late bid by Microsoft and Sony to woo Nintendo’s garganutan casual consumer base just as the core games market reached saturation – late attempts to prolong the lifecycle of this console generation.
Nintendo’s corresponding late bid for the core market with hardware that is merely on par with the current five-year-old generation of consoles is equally baffling. If the Wii U is only capable of playing the same games as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, there’s little impetus for installed core consumers to switch platforms.
It’s unlikely that Nintendo will make the same mistake it has with its handheld 3DS, launching it outside of gift-giving season and without a strong portfolio of games. The flaws in Nintendo's handheld strategy have been made abundantly clear after its decision this morning to slash a third off the 3DS's price amid lacklustre sales. But even launch-day Mario and Zelda titles are unlikely to woo all but the most entrenched of Nintendo fans to the Wii U this late in the game.
What attraction the Wii U may hold for core gamers will only last until Microsoft and Sony reveal their next generation of hardware – the first rumblings of which have already begun. With the Wii U itself not due until sometime next year, that could result in Nintendo's new console becoming obsolete in less than three years.
But perhaps the most damning indictment of the Wii U is its abject inability to sustain any hype or discussion whatsoever little more than a month after its announcement. Initial excitement and speculation has fallen off with alarming rapidity. There’s ample time for the marketing and PR cogs at Nintendo to whip its varying target audiences into a lather, but it’s clear that without their direct, ongoing input, the buzz can't sustain itself.
That’s a grim prospect for the biggest player in home consoles, and if no one is prepared to put the property deed in the kitty just yet, they’re certainly considering getting a valuation.