Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 3

[Note: This is the third part of a multi-part post.  In the first part I looked at the ways the Wii ultimately was a failure, and in the second part I looked at the ways Nintendo failed to capitalize on the Wii, helping to create the situation they find themselves in now with the Wii U.]

With the hundred-million-selling Wii having largely faded from public consciousness, Nintendo in 2012 decided to release the Wii U.  Two-and-a-half years later, the system is struggling to reach the ten million sales mark.  Third parties have largely abandoned the console, and Nintendo doesn’t seem to have many bullets left in the clip, having already released entries in most of its major franchises.  It’s unlikely that anything is going to turn this ship around; no matter how good Splatoon is, it’s not going to send another ten or twenty or thirty million people out to buy a Wii U.  No, when all is said and done, the Wii U is going to go down as a failure.  But why did it fail?

Why the Wii U Failed

The Wii U has been a failure for a lot of reasons, some of them inevitable.  As we’ve seen, Nintendo gave up on trying to woo core gamers to instead pursue casual gamers, and by 2012, those gamers had moved on to smartphones and tablets.  Because of Nintendo’s inability to convert Wii owners into reliable customers, any attempt to leverage the Wii’s success to sell a new console was probably bound to fail.  Really, the Wii U falls perfectly in line with what’s been happening to Nintendo for basically ever.  Nintendo’s sales have been in steady decline for decades, the Wii notwithstanding.  Every Nintendo console, except the Wii, has been the worst-selling Nintendo console to date.  A single hit isn’t going to change that if it doesn’t address the core problems behind this decline.

(Data source: Nintendo)
(Data source: Nintendo)

So before the Wii U ever launched, there was a certain amount of baked-in failure.  But even if it was never going to be a Wii-sized, success, it could have been less of a failure.  For one thing, the Wii U probably should have come out sooner.  By the time the Wii U came out, the Wii was not only past its prime but had become something of an afterthought.

Take a look at this graph over at GeekWire.  The left half of the graph tells the tale of the Wii’s massive success.  When the Wii launched in the fourth quarter of 2006, it outsold the PS3 by almost two to one.  (The Xbox 360 outsold them both, but that’s probably a function of the 360 having already been out a year and having plenty of stock; Wiis were sold out everywhere, and you can bet that the Wii would have sold many more units if only Nintendo could have made them fast enough.)  Every quarter after that, the Wii was the best-selling console, by a pretty wide margin, often selling as much as the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined.  This held until Q3 2010, when the Wii dipped behind its competitors before rebounding to win the 2010 holiday season.

But then, look at the right half of the graph.  After outselling its competitors in Q4 2010, the Wii was the worst-selling console for every subsequent quarter.  The Wii went from dominant to lagging behind almost overnight.  Using the underlying data behind GeekWire’s graph, I cooked up a few more graphs that illustrate this point.  Take a look at the Wii’s share of console sales for its generation:

Wii-PS3-360-sales-share-001

For the first few years, the Wii was the dominant force in console sales.  But then its competitors started claiming a larger and larger share of the market, and by 2012, the year leading up to the Wii U’s launch, the Wii was a minor player.  When you present the data in raw numbers rather than percentages, they look like this:

Wii-PS3-360-sales-share-002

What you see here is a rough hump shape.  It takes a while for sales to reach full steam as the new generation takes hold, then sales peak, and then they start to decline as the generation comes to an end.  Only, this trend is driven entirely by Nintendo’s sales, or lack thereof.  Look at the data with the Wii’s sales removed:

Wii-PS3-360-sales-share-003

The Xbox 360 and PS4 were still going strong in 2012, and continuing to improve sales.  Meanwhile, the exact opposite thing was happening to Nintendo: the Wii made a big splash and then faded into obscurity.  By the end of 2011 or even 2010, it was probably time for Nintendo to move on to the next thing.  Maybe the Wii U wasn’t ready.  Maybe they wanted to squeeze every last drop of juice out of the Wii before retiring it.  Maybe they were too drunk on champagne from celebrating their earnings reports to see the trends unfolding.  But for whatever reason, Nintendo waited way too long to release the Wii U, and any chance they had of capitalizing on the Wii’s success was gone.  Instead of introducing a new product into a market that they dominated, they were introducing a new product into a market from which they were all but excluded.

Timing aside, the Wii U is just a confusing piece of hardware.  It has no idea what it wants to be.  To begin with, Nintendo unveiled the Wii U gamepad before unveiling the console itself, a move that – especially in conjunction with the product’s name – led many people to believe that it was simply a new Wii peripheral, a perception problem Nintendo was still trying to correct even after it had been out for a year.

The Wii U is just trying to go in too many directions at once.  It’s trying to be something new and exciting with the gamepad, but it’s also trying to be everything about the Wii that you loved, as evidenced by the ubiquity of not-redesigned-at-all Wii remotes (not included, sold separately) in the Wii U’s promotional videos.  It’s trying to be for casual gamers, as indicated by all the commercials featuring aggressively happy families enjoying games like Wii Sports Club and using their Wii Balance Boards.  But it’s also trying to be for core gamers, as indicated by the presence of pro controllers, the fact that the Wii U gamepad has all the right buttons in all the right places for multi-platform games, and the fuss Nintendo made about the fact that the system was launching with games such as Assassin’s Creed III, Batman: Arkham City, and Mass Effect 3.  It’s trying to be technologically current, finally outputting full HD graphics in 1080p via HDMI and incorporating an impressively hi-res touchscreen, but it’s also not trying to be technologically current, with horsepower on par with the Xbox 360 and a resistive – rather than capacitive – touchscreen.  It’s all about local multiplayer, as those promo videos attest, and it’s all about the gamepad; only, it comes bundled with just one controller, so multiplayer will require you to go buy more controllers, but different controllers, because the system only supports one gamepad.  It tried to be consumer friendly at launch, with two SKUs.  Only, the casual-friendly SKU – white, like a Wii! – was $300 and didn’t come with any games, which was probably asking a bit much, while the souped-up, pricier SKU – black, like a PlayStation! – only had a 32 GB hard drive and was bundled with the decidedly un-hardcore Nintendo Land.

To see what a confusing system the Wii U is, all you have to do is look at the back of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.  (Yes, that’s what it’s called.  “For Wii U” is part of the actual name of the game, which should be the first indication that Nintendo’s having messaging problems.  The next step is to name it something like A Videogame Called Super Smash Bros. That You Play on Your Wii U, Which is a Brand New Videogame Console and Not the Same Thing as the Wii, but is Similar to the Wii, So If You Like the Wii Then You’ll Like This, and You Can Use All Your Old Wii Games and Controllers with It, but Also This New Gamepad That… Listen, Mario’s in It, Okay?)

WP_20150602_002

Look at that!  The little, wordless controller compatibility box shows five different control schemes that work with the game – though inconsistent use of the plus sign makes it kind of seem like six – using controllers from three different console generations and one adapter.  A blurb elsewhere on the box points out that you can also use a 3DS as a controller.  (And then there’s the Wii U Fight Pad, a controller licensed by Nintendo, featured on their website, and branded with Mario, Link, and other Smash Bros. characters, but produced by Performance Designed Products; basically, an update of the GameCube controller that corrects its major flaws and plugs into a Wii remote.  So, it’s a GameCube controller for the Wii U that requires a Wii controller to function, and confusingly sits on the shelf right next to the new, Smash-branded actual GameCube controllers that Nintendo started manufacturing again for this game.)

And good luck finding that GameCube adapter, by the way.  They sold out almost immediately when Smash Bros. came out and are still, six months later, hard to find.  And that’s Nintendo in a nutshell.  They make a new game for their new console, but realize that many fans would prefer to play it using a controller from two generations ago – which should have been their first sign that something’s wrong – but instead of saying, “No, you have to use the new controller, because the new controller is fundamental to our new console and its games, and it transforms gameplay in a significant and positive way, and we believe in it,” they decide instead to support the old controller.  But instead of making a new version of this controller that works with the Wii U and all its games – and instead of having made that the default controller for their system in the first place, because, hey, people like it! – they resume manufacturing the original 2001 GameCube controller, complete with a plug that fits into a GameCube, which is not the system for which this controller is being made, necessitating the production of a GameCube controller adapter for the Wii U, which will only work with this one game and which Nintendo proceeds to not make enough of, while, at the same time, they work with another company to produce a nearly identical GameCube-style controller that is also designed explicitly for use with the Wii U but, mind-bogglingly, also doesn’t directly interact with the console, and must be plugged into a Wii remote, which is sold separately.  Was that sentence confusing?  Well, understanding Nintendo is not for the faint of heart.

So, the Wii U and its myriad control options are confusing.  Maybe Nintendo should have just focused on the Wii U gamepad.  But the gamepad itself has the same problem as the Wii U and Nintendo as a whole: lack of focus.  The gamepad’s main selling point – and, therefore, the Wii U’s – is its touchscreen, which allows you to do two things: play games with unique, two-screen features, and play games on the gamepad’s screen while someone else is using the TV.  But these two features are completely at cross-purposes.  If a game has genuinely transformative dual-screen functionality – the kind of controls that realize the Wii U’s potential, that make its gamepad feel necessary rather than gimmicky, that are essential to the game – then off-TV play won’t be possible for this game, because off-TV play would deny the game its necessary second screen.  If, on the other hand, a game allows off-TV play, then it can’t incorporate any really significant second screen features.  In other words, the Wii U gamepad undermines itself.  That the system only supports one gamepad also demands that any game with local multiplayer – long a focus of Nintendo’s games and marketing – can’t be designed around touch controls.

One criticism of many Wii games was that they didn’t really incorporate motion controls into their design; they just mapped a haphazard shake of the Wii remote to an action that otherwise would have been mapped to the X button, because the Wii didn’t have an X button.  Before the Wii U was released, a lot of people wondered if most developers would simply take the easy route and just throw the world map or in-game menus onto the touchscreen.  But off-TV play means you don’t even have to do that; you can develop a game as if the gamepad’s screen doesn’t even exist, and then just mirror the TV’s display on the gamepad screen, and call it a feature.

Don’t get me wrong, off-TV play can be cool in some cases.  For a while, I had my Wii U in my bedroom and my room arranged so I couldn’t see the TV from the bed.  At night, though, I could still play Wii U games in bed by using off-TV play.  It was convenient.  But it’s hardly the type of convenience that warrants the extra cost that such a complex controller adds to the Wii U.  And it’s an odd feature to tout when you consider that Nintendo already has a very successful device designed to play games without a TV.  So the Wii U not only undermines itself, but it also competes with another one of Nintendo’s products.

Oh yeah, this thing.
Oh yeah, this thing.

And the Wii U gamepad also suffers from the same problem that plagued the Wii’s motion controls: lack of full-throated first-party support.  The Wii U launched with a mainline Mario game, New Super Mario Bros. U, which does essentially nothing with the gamepad.  Ditto Super Mario 3D World.  Ditto Smash Bros.  Ditto Mario Kart 8.  Ditto Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, which actually turns the touchscreen off if you’re using a TV.  Not gonna need this!

Nintendo did release one game at launch that makes good use of the Wii U gamepad: Nintendo Land, which was bundled with the more expensive of the console’s two SKUs.  Nintendo Land is a minigame collection intended, a la Wii Sports, to show off the new controller’s potential.  A number of the minigames are not only fun, but fun in an only-possible-with-Wii-U way.  Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, for example, has up to four players using the TV to hunt for and/or hide from an invisible ghost, which is controlled by another player using the gamepad and its second screen.  It makes for a fun, light game to play with a few friends for a little while; it’s a minigame, so there’s not a lot of depth nor any options to choose other than the four maps, but it does demonstrate the potential of this 4v1, asymmetrical gameplay.  So where is the full, Nintendo-developed game built around this mechanic?  Where’s the game that takes this idea – or any of Nintendo Land’s best ideas – and expands on it?  Nowhere, that’s where.

Once again, Nintendo has introduced a console built around a radical new controller concept, released a handful of minigames that demonstrate some of the new types of gameplay that this controller makes possible, and then left it to hypothetical third-party developers to actually make games that use these mechanics.  Or not, as it turns out.  Third-party support for Wii U is virtually nonexistent.

The Wii U is a confusing piece of hardware, packed with supposedly revolutionary features that few games make much use of.  How did it even get beyond the drawing board?  Again, we need to look to the Wii.  One of the Wii U’s biggest impediments may have actually been the Wii’s enormous success.  Nintendo tried to reinvent gaming with the Wii’s motion controllers, and ended up selling over 100 million units.  You might, therefore, conclude that the Wii sold so well because it was so different from everything else out there.  This is a classic Hollywood mistake.  Hollywood studio execs have an almost comical tendency to extrapolate from a single movie’s success or failure to draw ridiculous inferences, such as: people don’t like movies with ladies in them.  You can similarly imagine Nintendo execs sitting in a conference room saying, “Listen, we iterated on traditional controllers for years to steadily declining sales, and then we reinvented the wheel and it sold like gangbusters.  We need to reinvent the wheel every single time!

Apparently, no one stood up in the Wii U’s planning meetings and suggested that maybe, maybe the Wii’s success had more to do with the specifics of that console’s control scheme and less to do with its vague newness.  No one stood up and said, “This Wii thing is really doing well, let’s stick with it!”  No, everyone just put on their “Reinvent the Wheel” t-shirts and got busy ironing out the Wii U’s finer points, like how many years to wait before making any kind of use of the gamepad’s built-in NFC reader.

"Amiibo" is Japanese for "should have been launched sooner."
“Amiibo” is Japanese for “should have been launched sooner.”

The problem with reinventing the wheel is that it’s hard, and it usually doesn’t work – that’s why we still use actual wheels.  And even if you manage to come up with a great new idea, it takes time for customers to figure out how to use it, and for developers to figure out how to design games for it.  It’s probably not a great idea to ask everyone to do that much work every five years or so.  But, of course, with the Wii a thing of the past, the Wii U an unqualified failure, and the core gamer market largely out of reach, Nintendo is in a position where they might actually have to reinvent the wheel again.

What the Wii U Could Have Been

So what could Nintendo have done instead?  As I’ve pointed out, some of the Wii U’s failure was probably baked in.  They failed to convert Wii owners into more reliable customers, and the long term trend at Nintendo has been steadily downward, Wii notwithstanding.  But things still could have been different.

For one thing, as I already said, the Wii U should have come out earlier – 2011 or maybe even 2010.  Nintendo seems to hold its next console back until the previous one has breathed its last breath, which is an odd strategic choice.  It ensures that you’re starting from zero every time, reintroducing yourself to the world.  The Xbox 360 and PS3, on the other hand, were still selling strong when their successors were released.  Microsoft and Sony are perfectly content to have a year or more of overlap between one generation and the next.  Consider how few games so far, especially in the first year of this generation, have been next-gen exclusives.  Or that Black Ops III will be the third Call of Duty game released on both current and last-gen consoles.  That year or more of overlap hasn’t stopped each of those consoles from outselling the Wii U, despite Nintendo’s year head start.

Microsoft and Sony seem to understand that overlap isn’t bad, that sales of a five-, six-, or seven-year-old console don’t cut into sales of a brand new console, or vice versa.  The people who were on the fence about buying an Xbox 360 in 2013 were never going to buy an Xbox One at launch.  It wouldn’t make sense to wait until everyone who owns an Xbox 360 has already stopped playing it – and probably moved on to something else – before releasing the Xbox One.  “Strike while the iron is hot,” is how the phrase goes, not, “Does anyone remember where I put the iron?”

Second, it might have been a good idea to double down on the Wii.  To some extent, Nintendo tried this.  They kept the Wii branding and Wii remote compatibility, but the Wii U doesn’t feel like a sequel to the Wii so much as a hybrid between the old Wii and this new, other thing.  The Wii U should have been a direct successor to the Wii, not some weird Frankenstein console.

With the Wii, Nintendo hit on something that resonated with consumers, so why pivot away from it?  With the Wii Motion Plus, Nintendo made the tech work a lot better than it did it launch; surely, another iteration on the Wii remote and nunchuk concept would have worked even better, right?  While many developers had abandoned the Wii by the end, those who stuck around were really starting to nail motion controls.  Nintendo could have rewarded their loyalty by giving them an even better version of the Wii remote to work with, along with some more horsepower in the console.  Instead, Nintendo pulled the rug out from under everyone and said, “Here’s a weird gamepad; figure it out.”

Wii-U-gamepad-web-001

I would like to have seen a more direct successor to the Wii.  Call it the Wii 2 or the Wii HD: a system with more horsepower and the second generation of Wii controllers.  The Wii 2 controller should have been to the Wii remote what the SNES controller was to the NES controller.  If Nintendo felt that there was still potential for more and better games with the Wii remote, they should have iterated on it and improved it.  If they felt that Wii motion controls had run their course, then the Wii remote should never have been part of the Wii U at all.

Third, the Wii U gamepad, if it ever saw the light of day, should have been a peripheral.  The cost it adds to the Wii U – or the budget it takes away from increased horsepower – is just too great to justify its inclusion with the console.  Even if developers were making more use of it, it would still probably only be useful for certain types of games.  There’s a lot of (unrealized) potential for local 4v1 games designed around the second screen, but for a lot of other games it just ends up being a place to put the map.  Because the Wii U only supports one gamepad – two, hypothetically – and additional gamepads would likely be very expensive, the gamepad was never going to be the console’s primary controller.  Its features were always going to be optional for most games.  So it should have actually been optional.  Nintendo probably could have delivered a system that was both more powerful and less expensive than the Wii U if they ditched the gamepad.  Maybe they could have built gamepad compatibility into the console and saved it for a rainy day, or they could have included some kind of expansion slot.  Then, when (or if) Nintendo had some genuinely good ideas for gamepad-centric games, and the Wii 2 had a decent install base, they could have released the gamepad as a peripheral, bundled with its own killer app, similar to the way they handled the Wii Balance Board.

And finally, the Wii U should never have had the off-TV play feature.  Streaming hi-res video from console to controller with imperceptible latency might be one of the most technically impressive things the Wii U does; it’s also the least useful.  The ability to play your Wii U without using the TV is hardly worth the cost of a gamepad; it is, at best, a nifty bonus feature.  But it’s a nifty bonus feature that not only allows but kind of encourages developers to not make better use of the gamepad, and it competes with the 3DS.  If developers or fans asked for it, Nintendo could have added the feature after the fact, but their main priority should have been finding ways to use the gamepad creatively.  Off-TV play undermines that goal.

Would any of this made a difference?  It’s hard to say.  Nintendo’s long-term decline might overwhelm any short-term moves they make.  But the Wii U is a confusing, confused machine.  It tried to be everything to everyone, and ended up being nothing to no one.  Nintendo could have – and should have – done a lot of things differently.  But that’s easy to say in retrospect.  What matters now is what Nintendo does going forward, what they do with the NX, whatever it is.  So what should Nintendo do – and not do – with the NX?  I’ll take a look at that in part 4.

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