Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 1

Between the lackluster sales, the dearth of third-party support, the recent announcement of the Nintendo NX, and the indefinite delay of the latest Legend of Zelda game, it would seem the writing’s on the wall for the Wii U.  Though Nintendo insists that the NX won’t be a simple replacement for the Wii U (or 3DS), it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the release of the NX – whatever it is – ends up boosting Wii U sales.  After two and a half years and about 9.5 million units sold, we can confidently declare that the Wii U has been a commercial failure.

Wii-U-web-001
Take a good look. It won’t be here forever.

 

Nintendo needs the NX to be successful.  The company remains committed to dedicated gaming devices, but another system that sells as poorly as the Wii U did will force them to reconsider that position.  So what should they do with the NX?  How can they avoid a repeat of the situation they’re in with the Wii U?  To understand that, we need to take a look at everything that went wrong with the Wii U.  And to understand that, we first need to hop into our DeLorean and look at the ways the Wii failed, and the ways Nintendo failed the Wii, because, in a lot of ways, the Wii is what put Nintendo in this mess.

[Note: This was originally going to be one post, but as I’ve been working on it, it’s grown to epic proportions.  So, I’ll be breaking it into a few chunks and posting the first couple parts while I finish the rest of it.  The main gist of the post is to look at the Wii U’s failure and consider what it means for Nintendo going forward, but it’s going to be a bit of a walk to get there.  In part 1, I’ll be looking at how the Wii failed.  In part 2, I’ll be looking at how Nintendo failed the Wii.  In part 3, I’ll be looking at how the Wii U failed.  And in part 4, I’ll be looking at what Nintendo should do going forward.  I aim to have all four parts posted by the middle of next week, but who knows, by then it might have grown into six or eight or fifty parts.  I spend a lot of time thinking about Nintendo.  Anyway, enjoy!]

How the Wii Failed

It’s weird to think of the Wii as a failure.  It sold more than 100 million units, and outsold its contemporaries – the Xbox 360 and PS3 – by more than 15 million units.  It was Nintendo’s best-selling home console of all time, selling almost as many units as the NES and SNES put together, or about five Wiis for every Gamecube.

Conventional wisdom holds that the Wii’s failure was its inability to sell games, wisdom so conventional that the New York Times reported on it back in 2008, near the height of Wii mania.  The story on the Wii was that a lot of people bought it just to play Wii Sports and maybe Wii Fit, and this just feels true.  Everyone knows someone who bought a Wii for this purpose.  There was a Wii in my grandfather’s assisted living facility, and it was used exclusively for bowling.

The numbers don’t exactly bear this assumption out, though.  Wii owners have bought over 900 million games, putting the attach rate at over 8.9, the second best attach rate in Nintendo’s history.  To be fair, Nintendo includes “sales” of the pack-in game Wii Sports in its figures, so the effective attach rate for the Wii should be dropped down to 8 or so, but that would still put it in the neighborhood of the NES and SNES, and well ahead of any of Nintendo’s handhelds.  Counting Wii Sports or not, four of the top ten best-selling games of all time were Wii exclusives.  This chart over at VGChartz.com – while yielding slightly different numbers than Nintendo’s data do – puts the Wii attach rate at sixth all-time, (but also puts it behind the PS3 and Xbox 360 by about one and two games, respectively).

Ladies and gentlemen, the best-selling console game of all time.  (Image: BagoGames
Ladies and gentlemen, the best-selling console game of all time. (Image: BagoGames)

So, overall sales figures belie the notion that Wii owners weren’t buying games.  But, when you look a little more closely at the numbers, you can start to see some of the Wii’s problems.  Take another look at that Wikipedia list of top-selling games.  (To be fair, the Wikipedia page is sourced from a mishmash of places; I’m using it mostly because it’s organized well.  Compared to other sites, the Wikipedia numbers seem accurate enough for my purposes.)  There are seven Wii exclusives on the list: Wii Sports, Mario Kart Wii, Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Wii Play, Wii Fit, and Wii Fit Plus.  In other words, games with Mario on the box and games that could charitably be called “casual games” – or cynically called “novelty games.”  Scrolling through a similar list on VGChartz shows this trend continue.  Eighteen of the top twenty Wii games can be classified as Mario-related, fitness-related, or a minigame collection; the other two are Twilight Princess and Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Meanwhile, look at the other “Wii games” on that Wikipedia list.  Four other Wii games have sold at least fifteen million copies across all platforms, all of them Call of Duty titles: Modern Warfare, Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops, and World at War.  (Inexplicably, Modern Warfare 2 did not come to the Wii.)  These were all huge games, certainly.  But they’re not what you would call huge Wii games.  Of the tens of millions of copies that Modern Warfare 3 sold, for example, fewer than a million were for the Wii.  The pattern holds for the other entries in the franchise.

I don’t bring all this up to start an argument about what counts as a “real” videogame or who ought to be playing games or targeted as an audience.  I don’t go in for Real Gamer tribalism; the more the merrier, I say.  Nintendo obviously hit on something with its “blue ocean” strategy, and found a huge audience for fitness games, puzzle games, dancing games, and whatever Michael Jackson: The Experience is.  My point is simply to break down what drove the Wii’s success, and sales data point out a few trends.

First, obviously, is Nintendo’s perpetual success with the mildly offensive Italian plumber stereotype.  They even sold over a million North American copies of a soccer game with Mario on the box.  Six of the fifteen best-selling Wii games had the word “Mario” in the title, and a seventh, Smash Bros., features him prominently on the box.

Second, Nintendo sold a lot of games to non-traditional gamers.  Fitness and dancing games were huge on the console; in addition to the two Wii Fit games, the Wii charts are littered with successful Just Dance games, which have done far better on the Wii than on other platforms.  (Even this past October’s Just Dance 2015 sold 1.7 million copies for the Wii, compared to 490,000 for Wii U, 420,000 for Xbox 360, and far fewer copies elsewhere.)  EA’s biggest game on the Wii – by a pretty big margin – was EA Sports Active, and 505 Games cracked the Wii’s top twenty with Zumba Fitness, which outsold Wii games like Donkey Kong Country Returns, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, every LEGO game, every Guitar Hero game, and every Skylanders game.  Minigame collections also sold really well on the Wii.  Wii Sports Resort, Wii Play, Wii Party, Mario Party 8, and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games were among the best-selling Wii games.  The Wii’s top fifty also includes a number of other entries in the Mario Party and Mario & Sonic series, the 4 million-selling Carnival Games, a Big Brain Academy game, a Wario Ware game, and something called Game Party.

It had sequels!
It had sequels!

One big takeaway from these trends is that the Wii’s surprisingly high attach rate needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  The Wii software library was full of shovelware budget games like Game Party; there’s a big difference between an attach rate of nine $50 or $60 games per console and an attach rate of nine $20 games.  Wii games also benefited from a lot of bundling.  Wii Sports Resort, the sequel to the Wii’s initial pack-in and the third best-selling game on the console, came bundled with the performance-enhancing Wii Motion Plus accessory and, starting in 2009, was bundled with the Wii console alongside the original Wii SportsWii Play, the fourth best-selling Wii game, was bundled with a Wii remote and was therefore effectively a $10 game for anyone who wanted a second controller.  Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus – which are essentially the same game­ – were bundled with the wildly successful Wii Balance Board.  So, five of the Wii’s top ten games were bundled with a piece of hardware.  Even Mario Kart probably got a little boost from the fact that it was bundled with a steering wheel-shaped piece of plastic in an attempt to lure in some of the Wii’s millions of first-time gamers with a more intuitive control scheme.  The common strategies of minigames, budget price points, and bundled plastic peripherals all collided with Link’s Crossbow Training, the $20 mostly on-rails shooter that came bundled with a vaguely gun-shaped plastic controller shell called the Wii Zapper and somehow sold almost 5 million copies – more than BioShock sold across all platforms.

Another big takeaway from a glance at the charts is that Nintendo lives and dies with… Nintendo.  Look at that sales chart on VGChartz again, specifically the “Publisher” column.  The first nine games were published by Nintendo.  Fourteen of the top twenty Wii games were published by Nintendo, and a fifteenth – Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, published by Sega – has Mario in it.  And as much as the Wii depended on first-party games, a closer look at the console’s third-party lineup is perhaps even more telling: they all belong to a very few categories.  Third-party developers of both the AAA and shovelware variety were perfectly willing to release games like Just Dance and Monopoly that appeal to casual, nontraditional gamers, and games like the LEGO and Skylanders franchises that appeal to young kids, but they didn’t release much else, Call of Duty notwithstanding.

For a while, developers made some valiant efforts at marrying Wii controls (and hardware limitations) to the types of games that appeal to more traditional gamers, to mixed results.  Some of these games were pretty fun, but none sold particularly well.  Ubisoft made the first attempt at realizing the Wii’s potential for unique FPS gameplay with the stumbling Red Steel and then finally made good on the promise with Red Steel 2, but neither game cracked 700,000 copies and the franchise appears dead.  A similar fate befell Sega’s The Conduit, which set the bar for FPS controls on the Wii but sold about a half million copies and a mere 120,000 of its sequel.  A few games, like No More Heroes and MadWorld, tried match the Wii’s inherent weirdness by being totally bonkers in a very mature (i.e. violent) way, but none cracked the million copies mark.  Attempts were made here and there to bring some big, traditional gamer-targeted cross-platform hits to the Wii, but, outside of Activision’s somewhat solid commitment to bringing Call of Duty to Nintendo platforms, most of these attempts fell flat and publishers eventually stopped trying.  Meanwhile, huge cross-platform franchises like Grand Theft Auto, MineCraft, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock, Batman: Arkham, Borderlands, Mass Effect, Far Cry, and many more were taking off on Xbox 360 and PS3, but were nowhere to be seen on the Wii, with the exception of Far Cry Vengeance, a Wii launch-window title that sold a scant 80,000 copies.

Again, I don’t point all this out to make some sort of argument about “real” games and gamers.  I’m not arguing that publishers should have released games like Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto on the Wii, nor am I arguing that Nintendo should have more aggressively pursued these games and their audience.  I am simply establishing the facts of where and how the Wii succeeded, and where it didn’t.

And one place it didn’t totally succeed was with the traditional, or “core,” gamer crowd.  People like me.  I bought a Wii just after launch (with difficulty), and I had a lot of fun with it.  In addition to all the Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games that are released every generation, I had a lot of fun with the few first-person shooters that made their way to the Wii, games like Boom Blox and Tiger Woods that made great use of motion controls, and cross-platform games like Guitar Hero and The Godfather.  But, at the same time, I was getting more and more frustrated by reading about but not being able to play so many amazing-sounding games.  I’ve been a Nintendo fan my entire life; growing up, my brothers and I owned every Nintendo system except for the GBA – yes, even the Virtual Boy ­­– and my wife and I had Link and Zelda on our wedding cake.  But when, in 2009, I had a roommate with an Xbox 360 and finally played BioShock, I was instantly converted.  As soon as I moved, I ran out and bought an Xbox 360 of my own – my first non-Nintendo system – and it quickly became my primary console.

I bought a Wii U when it came out, and am glad I did, but when the Xbox One came out, it was a question of when, not if, I would get one, and I eventually did and play it more than I play my Wii U.  Heck, I still play my Xbox 360 more than I play my Wii U, working my way through a huge backlog.  [Note: I’ll soon be starting a series of columns about this backlog of games.  Stay tuned!]  Few people want Nintendo to succeed as badly as I do.  But, as much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that my Wii U is, at best, my third console after my cross-generational pair of Xboxes.  There’s even an argument to be made that my phone ranks above my Wii U.  (Just typing that makes my soul hurt a little.)

So the Wii lost core gamers.  This isn’t necessarily a failure; especially considering the fact that the system sold so many hardware and software units.  The loss of core gamers seems like a side-effect of the “blue ocean” strategy – the pursuit of a new, heretofore untapped audience – that, on its face, looks like a massive success.  But the “blue ocean” strategy may have sown the seeds of long-term failure.

Careful in that ocean, guys.  (Image: Ryan Espanto)
Careful in that ocean, guys. (Image: Ryan Espanto)

The Wii came at a unique moment in gaming – and consumer electronics – history.  With the Wii, Nintendo targeted a new audience: the so-called “blue ocean” of people who didn’t typically play videogames or buy consoles.  Ten years earlier, this probably wouldn’t have worked.  Back then, gaming was too niche a hobby, the audience too young.  Home computers were only in around 35% of American homes, cell phones in 16% of North American homes and pretty rudimentary, and the Internet, such as it was, was being accessed by 14% of Americans.  Technology was just not that big a part of people’s lives.  Videogames were a novelty for kids.

But by 2006, the ground had been softened a bit.  Computers, the Internet, and cell phones were in a lot more homes and did a lot more stuff.  Even people who didn’t play videogames actually did play videogames a little bit: they played Minesweeper and solitaire on their computers every once in a while, or they played Tetris or Alleyway or whatever one basic game came with their flip phones.  They also browsed the Internet to kill time and entertain themselves; computers weren’t just glorified typewriters anymore.  And someone who was ten years old when Super Mario Bros. came out was now over 30; there were a lot of people, some with kids of their own, who hadn’t stuck with gaming but who at least had memories and familiarity.  But, on the other hand, smartphones didn’t really exist outside of Japan, and the iPhone was still a year away.  There was no such thing as a Kindle or an iPad or a Fitbit or, for non-students, Facebook.  In other words, there was a big blue ocean of people who were habituated to the idea of entertaining themselves with digital devices, but who didn’t belong to – and perhaps felt intimidated by – the niche of what we now call “core gamers.”

Fast forward almost another ten years to today, and the idea of releasing a $250 console for casual games seems almost quaint.  Everyone already owns some kind of device that plays casual games, and everyone is playing those games: mobile game revenues are about to eclipse those for console games with a predicted $30 billion in 2015.  The blue ocean that Nintendo found in 2006 is now blood red.  With so many casual games available – many of them either free-to-play or only a few bucks – it would probably be impossible for something like the Wii’s success to happen today.

Nintendo found the perfect moment for this strategy, which is normally what you want for a strategy.  And in the short term, it appears to have been successful: they sold gobs of hardware and software.  It may also have been Nintendo’s only move.  In a three-way battle between Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo for console dominance, the smart money was probably not on the follow-up to the GameCube.  Given the choice between forging a new path or being crushed under the feet of Microsoft and Sony, giving up on core gamers was probably the right call.  But in the long term, this move hurt Nintendo.  Whatever chance they had to retain or regain the core audience was perhaps lost forever, and the millions of casual gamers recruited to fill the void have since been poached by the massive mobile games market and probably aren’t coming back.

So now Nintendo is left with neither the core audience nor the casual audience.  All they’ve really got left are Nintendo loyalists: people like me, who will always buy the Nintendo console to play Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, but for whom it is decidedly the secondary or tertiary console in the house.  Just consider the precipitous drop-off from the hundred-million-selling Wii to the Wii U, which has only sold about ten million units in two-and-a-half years.  To me, this is the most noteworthy thing about the Wii: that its success couldn’t be transferred over to the next generation.  For Sony and Microsoft, there’s a huge contingent of gamers who will buy the new console because it’s the new console.  That’s all they need to know.  It’s what’s next.  Success in one generation automatically carries over to the next, to some extent.  The biggest marketing challenge these companies face is convincing people to buy the console now instead of next year, and convincing some of them to buy one new console instead of the other.  For Nintendo, though, the challenge is convincing people to buy anything at all.  And if your target market is casual gamers who already own smartphones and tablets, that’s a big challenge.

This is the second half of the “blue ocean” strategy, and it’s where Nintendo seems to have utterly failed: converting these new customers into gamers.  And by “gamers” I don’t necessarily mean people who are going to devote hundreds of hours to Skyrim or League of Legends or Call of Duty.  I just mean people who regularly play games, who buy new games on a regular basis, and for whom – and this is key – a console is not a device but a device category.

SONY DSC
But I already own a videogame…

For most people, certain devices are thought of first and foremost as device categories rather than as specific devices.  The category exists, and then the device exists to fill that category.  You have a smartphone: specifically, a Samsung Galaxy S5.  You have a car: specifically, a 2009 Toyota Corolla.  You have a gaming console: specifically, a PS4.  And most people are inured to the idea that you have to keep replacing and upgrading these devices, even if the old ones still work.  Phone carriers in particular have done a great job conditioning consumers to buy a new phone every couple of years.  And gamers are accustomed to buying a new console every five or six years.

But for many Wii owners, the Wii wasn’t the console that came after the last one and before the next one; it was a thing unto itself.  It was just a Wii.  For many of those hundred million people, owning a Wii seems to have had no bearing on whether or not they’d buy another console.  Meanwhile, the Wii U simply seems to have picked up where the GameCube left off in Nintendo’s steady decline of home console sales.

This challenge of converting casual gamers to more dedicated gamers is one that faces the entire industry, but is much more pressing for Nintendo.  Sony and Microsoft have the core audience to fight over.  They’d like the overall pie to get bigger, sure, but making the pie bigger isn’t essential to their immediate survival.  Nintendo, though, surrendered in that fight, so they now have to create a new audience for their products.  And now that smartphones have stepped in to steal away casual gamers, it’s not entirely clear that there’s anywhere else for Nintendo to find an audience for what’s next.

The Wii existed, as I said, in a unique moment in time.  Nintendo, to their credit, managed to find that moment and exploit it for billions of dollars.  They succeeded, but they succeeded with a strategy that cannot be repeated, and in the process they burned some bridges and left themselves few viable options for the future.  They had a window.  They had tens of millions of people playing their hardware and buying their software.  They used that window to make a lot of money, but what was more valuable than the money was the unique opportunity to create a new customer base out of thin air.  And Nintendo completely squandered that opportunity.

In the next part, I’ll take a look at all the things Nintendo did – and didn’t do – that contributed to the Wii’s failure, the Wii U’s failure, and the company’s uncertain future.  Stay tuned!

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