How can Nintendo turn Wii U around?
Shigeru Miyamoto has requested patience. Speaking with CNN in early April, he urged consumers to give Wii U a chance, to give Nintendo an opportunity to communicate the usefulness of the console’s second screen and to look forward to the games coming in late 2013. But with low sales in every territory for Nintendo’s latest console, Christmas may be too late.
Wii U’s figures tell an unprecedented story. Nintendo has shifted 3.45 million Wii Us worldwide, with only 390,000 of those sold in 2013. While Nintendo stays tight-lipped on exact monthly sales figures, estimates from NPD Group data state that Wii U sold around 57,000 units in January and 64–75,000 in February in the US, a long way short of 360’s 302,000 and PS3’s 263,000 in February alone. In fact, in no four-week period on record has 360 or PS3 sold as few units as Wii U at its lowest ebb.
While these numbers paint a dismal picture, the future looks darker still. Titles championed by Nintendo at the console’s E3 debut have been delayed or ported to other platforms, and publishers that shared Nintendo’s stage at Wii U’s E3 announcement have drifted away. Rayman Legends has gone multiplatform, Metro: Last Light and Aliens: Colonial Marines have been cancelled for the console, none of EA’s key 2013 titles – Dead Space 3, Crysis 3 and Battlefield 4 – are heading to Wii U, and both Madden and FIFA are running one year behind their PS3 and 360 counterparts. “Imagine a shooter like Battlefield… brought to you on a Nintendo system with that breakthrough controller,” said John Riccitiello at Nintendo’s 2011 E3 conference. Two years on, and imagination is the closest anyone will get to a Wii U version of EA’s FPS series.
EA won’t be bringing Battlefield 4 to Wii U.
“Nintendo always went against the grain,” says EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich. “It’s risky for publishers to jump on revolutionary technology from day one and this puts tremendous pressure on the firstparty studios to lead the charge. With Wii U, a few key firstparty titles were delayed, and without them consumers are still on the fence about the console.”
“Third parties won’t say this on the record, but many have confided in me that they are sceptical about Wii U,” says Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter. “The control scheme is very DS-like, the graphics are comparable to current-generation consoles, and the price point is relatively high. Although Nintendo did a commendable job with launch support, the lack of support from big publishers – Battlefield 4 and GTAV, for example – speaks volumes.”
The clock is ticking on Wii U and the platform’s success now depends on the power of Nintendo’s firstparty titles to revive its fortunes. Mario Kart, Zelda, Super Smash Bros and Mario games have been announced, but with no release date. Pikmin 3, Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101 and an untitled Yoshi platformer have been shown off, but also have no date attached to them. “I suppose the right question is why they didn’t have more firstparty titles available at launch,” says Pachter. “And the answer is likely that they didn’t plan very well.”
E3 will no doubt give shape to some firstparty games – Nintendo still intends to hold a press event, despite shunning the big stage – but the company’s attempt to court hardcore players failed long before the launch of Wii U. The barrage of ‘core’ games for Wii in 2010 was a clear shift in direction. As far back as 2008, Nintendo had set about securing the rights to Monster Hunter, guaranteeing Wii’s ongoing success in Japan, and the 2010/11 years saw it finance and publish Metroid: Other M, Pandora’s Tower, The Last Story and Xenoblade Chronicles at extraordinary expense. All three were costly and underperformed, particularly in the west.
LEGO City Undercover was revealed alongside Wii U.
It was with that new ‘no gamer left behind’ strategy that Nintendo announced Wii U. A new Smash Bros, Lego City: Undercover, and a selection of minigames destined for Nintendo Land were announced alongside Darksiders II, Aliens, Assassin’s Creed III and Batman: Arkham City. Those same thirdparty games were championed with much the same footage 12 months later, and again the signals were mixed. Ubisoft’s Killer Freaks From Outer Space had become ZombiU, Pikmin 3 was a clear play for Nintendo’s most dedicated fans, and Nintendo Land would be the new console’s Wii Sports.
“I think Nintendo thought that Wii U would appeal to everyone the way the Wii did,” says Pachter. “But I don’t think the GamePad is as friendly as the Wii Remote for people who aren’t familiar with consoles, so I’ve always been sceptical about mass-market penetration.”
The problem with Wii U’s GamePad isn’t that it’s tricky to explain, it’s that it needs explaining in the first place. Nintendo’s 2012 E3 conference was almost exclusively about detailing the benefits of asymmetrical play. Compare Wii Sports and Nintendo Land and you have a clear picture of each console’s approach; one is simple and intuitive, while the other is complex and not remarkably good at any one thing.
Come Wii U’s launch, early media coverage focused on the lengthy system update and bricked consoles, but it’s easy to overstate the effect of those reports. In fact, Wii U shifted 3.06 million units worldwide in its first month, and early adopters were eager to spend on their new systems. The console boasted 11.69 million game sales – 3.82 games per console sold – led by Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U.
Those first-month sales, it seems, can be attributed to the Nintendo loyalists. “I think that the biggest reason for the decline is a lack of compelling firstparty software,” says Pachter. “Nintendo have not supported the Wii U with any of their best-known brands and I expect sales will increase when we see a Mario or Zelda title. But if sales don’t pick up, third parties will be reluctant to support the Wii U, and if third parties don’t support it, the Wii U is unlikely to see a rebound in sales. It’s a vicious circle.”
After three months of poor results, the final week of March saw Wii U sales increase by 125 per cent in the UK, with credit shared between Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s release and HMV’s £100 price cut for the Premium hardware bundle. HMV’s experiment proved Wii U’s viability were it to be sold at a lower RRP and backed with quality games. The market has deemed Wii U a more desirable prospect at £200 than £300, but when it’s already the first Nintendo console to be sold at a loss, can the company shoulder such a dramatic cut?
Over in Japan at around the same time, the Wii U version of Dragon Quest X sold just 36,000 copies and boosted weekly sales of the console to 21,000 from the previous week’s 10,000. These are miserable figures for the Dragon Quest series – traditionally one of Japan’s favourite titles -– and for Wii U, which is outsold every week by Sony’s floundering Vita. But that at least is, in a way, a meaningful defeat for Nintendo. Vita’s ability to recover a full year after its Japanese debut offers hope for Wii U, and while Vita is still being outsold two to one by 3DS, it’s a remarkable turnaround from the lows in 2012 where 3DS maintained a six-to-one lead. Vita’s recovery can be attributed to a hefty price cut (down from ¥29,980 for the 3G model to ¥19,980) and a selection of locally appealing games. In the UK, 3DS pulled a similar trick in late 2011 after its price was cut by a third in July and then the double hit of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 drove sales months later.
“Nintendo has yet to release its major firstparty titles on the [Wii U] platform,” says Divnich. “Consumers are waiting for that killer Wii U game before making their decision on whether or not to enter the ecosystem. Right now, the battle in the living room is for the second-screen experience and Nintendo is positioned perfectly to capitalise on this trend. I think it may be fair to give Nintendo through the holiday to see if the current lineup can raise awareness and sales.”
Pachter doesn’t agree: “I’m not sure Nintendo can profitably turn Wii U around. They can certainly sell a lot more if they cut the price dramatically, but that might be too costly to justify. They can pay for thirdparty software exclusives, but that may also be too costly. Of course, they can accelerate development of firstparty software. But a console launching now should have been competitive with the next-generation machines from Sony and Microsoft, and this one isn’t.”
Nintendo will struggle to meet the nine million Wii U sales it has projected for 2013, and the decision to skip its E3 conference in favour of smaller Nintendo Direct-style regional addresses only compounds the problem, since they target the converted, rather than the mass market. Nintendo is rightly proud of its heritage in the console business, but its ageing licensing policies and online strategies have failed, and mistakes made towards the end of Wii’s life have held back Wii U. Patience is Nintendo’s last resort until Zelda, Mario, Metroid and perhaps some new IPs in the style of Wii Fit can turn sales around. Widespread thirdparty support seems unlikely, but if nobody else will support the platform then Nintendo will have to do what only it can and sell the console entirely on its firstparty games.
Nintendo has survived several console generations and two different handhelds by building upon the foundations laid by its firstparty studios and favoured contractors, and Wii U looks to be no different. The question, then, is whether Wii U will be more an N64 or a DS, more a GameCube or a Wii, more a platform for the true believers or a console that can become every living room’s second screen of choice.