Thursday, October 10, 2013

Blog Post; My frustrations with the Wii U and its bleak future ahead

Without a doubt, Nintendo's first HD home console has had a rough time of it these past few months.

There was some excitement around the industry for the Wii U before its November launch; as the first next gen video game console since 2006, there was interest building among the gaming community for the chance to experience Nintendo's vision of the future of gaming. The system has a sleek look, with a high tech controller featuring all sorts of crazy gadgets. It had a launch lineup made up of many of the year's best-reviewed games, including Assassin's Creed III, Call of Duty Black Ops II, and Mass Effect III. It even had, for the first time since the N64, a Mario game available at launch, though it was of the 2D variety.

The anticipation for a next gen video game system, coupled with Nintendo's built in fanbase rushing out to nab one, resulted in a great launch; not one on par with some of the more ridiculous expectations and certainly not one that reached the heights of the Wii. But a great launch.

And then, well...what followed can only be described as a disaster. Wii U sales didn't just decrease, but took a figurative nosedive off a cliff into nothingness. The game drought which we were promised again and again wouldn't happen took place, and with no games and seemingly no effort on Nintendo's part to market their console beyond its launch window, any momentum the Wii U may have had evaporated almost instantly. When the PS4 and Xbox One were then revealed (as they were widely expected to be) last Spring/Summer, it all but sealed the deal.

It's frustrating to me, not only because I've paid $350 (plus tax) for a system that at this point seems to be dead in the water, but because it's a system that I genuinely like. While it's likely not ever going to become a game-changer, I do think that it has a great controller, and I have a lot of fun using it. I think Miiverse has an appealingly quirky Japanese sensibility about it and I enjoy messing around on it. Removing friend codes from the online equation was a much needed and much appreciated step into the 21st century, and of course it's awesome to finally get to see Nintendo's excellent artwork displayed in HD.

And what I find even more frustrating is that many of Nintendo's mistakes are nothing but repeats of mistakes they've made in the past. The Wii was widely criticized for its lack of graphical ability and as a result it missed out on many of last generation's biggest games. The Wii U, as we've seen from the reveals of the PS4 and the Xbox One, will be in exactly the same boat. The system may very well be slightly more powerful than the PS3 and Xbox 360, but with the far more powerful PS4 and Xbox One so close to launch, the difference that it will make in the long term is reduced to almost nothing.

Already, and keep in mind that the system hasn't even been out for a year yet, we're seeing games shipping on the Wii U with missing features, or games which are cancelled entirely. Already we're seeing third party developers and publishers complaining about low game sales and pulling their support. And already Nintendo's had to cut the price, though the difference that a small $50 price cut will make remains to be seen; the system's been available for $300 since launch, and remains $300 today.

Where Nintendo's missed the boat entirely, and where they've committed their biggest mistake with the Wii U, is that they've once again targeted the wrong audience. Declining Wii sales over the past couple of years should have been as big an indicator as any to Nintendo that their new casual gaming audience wasn't sticking around, but with the Wii U they seem to have been expected to come roaring back. And for what, yet another Mario game?

The system touts its new HD resolution, but actual gamers have been gaming in HD since 2006, and even many casual gamers have since been enjoying High Definition Kinect games on their Xbox 360s. On the other side of the coin, Nintendo seemed to hope that having ports of popular HD games like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed available would entice the hardcore gamers, but the hardcore gamers continued to play those games on their 360s and PS3s; that's where their Achievements/Trophies (features conspicuously absent from the Wii U) are stored, and that's where all their friends are gaming online.

The Wii U needed exclusives targeting the hardcore gamer, and not just the same Nintendo fans who have been buying their systems for decades. Nintendo needs to expand their audience, and to their credit they realize that. The problem is, Nintendo with the Wii U was attempting to expand it the wrong way. 3rd party developers were eager for next gen hardware; they didn't want to keep making games on a slightly enhanced Xbox 360. Gamers were eager for a system that brought with it more next gen opportunities than simply playing current gen games with a controller display. And the casual audiences who made games like Just Dance and Wii Fit such a hit on the Wii have moved elsewhere.

It's tough to say, looking at the Wii U's future, whether there's any hope of recovery. Things may get better with the releases of big Nintendo IP like Zelda and Super Smash Bros. And I'm sure that down the road they'll give the system a proper price cut. But I have to say, and I hate to say it, I don't see the Wii U as ever becoming a serious competitor. The Wii was a huge success for Nintendo despite its technical issues because it offered a new way to play that felt revolutionary and truly caught on.

But the problem with relying on a gimmick (and I don't mean to use that term in a negative way) to sell your hardware is that sometimes gimmicks don't catch on. And in the case of the Wii U, that's exactly what happened. The system's dated visuals and lack of features such as USB 3.0 jacks, its sub-par storage space, the omission of cross-game voice chat, along with its small amount of RAM, will seem even more limited when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One than it already does now.

And it's too bad, because I like the Wii U. I like its interface, I like its Miiverse features, I like the Dashboard, and I like the controller. But I don't think there's any hope for it to find a big audience outside the die-hard Nintendo community, and much of that has possibly even been burnt off by the game droughts of the Wii's last few years. And while discontinuing a home console is essentially marketing suicide, how's this thing going to compete for 10 years against the Xbox One and PS4 when it can't compete now?

Nintendo's best bet is to drop the price and sell the Wii U as a budget HD Nintendo Gaming machine. Give it a great 1st party lineup, and try to be the "2nd console that people want to own." That much is at least possible. But for their next system, if Nintendo ever wants to do this right again, they need to take a good hard look at the gaming landscape, and they need to develop a console that fits in with it, not one that's 10 years behind. Do that, and get hardcore gamers to jump onboard, and they may have something.

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