Reuters / Dabe Alan
Nintendo has two choices: fix the Wii U marketing, or get screwed
“This is the new thing. This is the new system. You add it to your Wii, or you don't even need to use the Wii… do you need to use the Wii? You can just use it on your own,” Jimmy Fallon said during a confusing opening monologue on Friday's show. He was trying to hype the Wii U as the next big thing in video games, and Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime helped to keep Fallon on message during the main segment, but we're seeing this sort of confusion from the mainstream press and gamers, not to mention confusion about the capabilities of the system itself. You can explain the Nintendo DS in a sentence: it's a portable system with two screens and touch controls. The 3DS is the same: a portable system with two screens, touch controls, and glasses-free 3D. The Wii is a video game console that allows you to play by moving your hands and arms, making it more welcoming to a wide variety of gamers. The Wii U is a system that's like the Wii and uses those controllers but also can use a tablet controller that is either a separate screen or the main screen and you can add a second tablet-style controller later but not at launch. Also some games will use a combination of the tablet, Wii controllers, or the upcoming Pro controller. Good luck with that.
What's at stake
It has been reported that Nintendo cut summer bonuses for employees by 20 percent. Nintendo has also posted its first year in the red ever, due to the weak demand for its existing systems and slower than expected 3DS sales. Nintendo cut the price on the 3DS soon after launch, and that has goosed demand, but the tremendous growth and sales the company relied on during the Wii and DS days is nowhere to be seen. Nintendo needs a new system to pick up the slack, and that system needs to be released soon. Nintendo's strategy only works when it's selling massive amounts of hardware and providing the best games for that hardware. if the Wii U doesn't take off, the entirety of Nintendo's business is at stake. Unlike Microsoft or Sony, Nintendo lacks non-gaming consumer electronics, operating systems, or computers. Confusion about the Wii U and its capabilities began soon after it was revealed at 2011's Electronic Entertainment Expo. “Because we put so much emphasis on the controller, there appeared to be some misunderstandings,” Satoru Iwata, Nintendo's global president, told the Evening Standard last year. “We should have made more effort to explain how it works.” Iwata said that by not leading with a picture of the console, they created the impression that the controller was the system. I attended last year's hardware reveal, and can confirm that the crowd seemed enthusiastic about the reveal, but confused about what exactly we were seeing. Nintendo allowed the press to play with the hardware after the event, but the consoles themselves were locked behind glass, and Nintendo representatives refused to give any details about the hardware. This awkward inability to successfully communicate the strengths of the system continued. At a later event I was able to actually touch the Wii U console, but Nintendo again refused to discuss anything about it. They were coy about the power of the hardware, the ports that will be included, and even noted every aspect of the design could be changed before launch. CNN claimed that the system was a Wii “peripheral” after this year's E3, although the mistake was soon edited out of coverage. I don't bring this up to mock CNN, only to point out how difficult it has proven to communicate what the Wii U is to the mainstream press, as Nintendo seems to be focused on what it isn't. “You need the console for the controller to work,” I heard a Nintendo representative explain during E3. “It's just a controller. It's not like an iPad.” Then there was excitement over the idea of the system supporting the use of two of the tablet-style controllers, but Nintendo later cooled those flames by confirming games supporting two controllers won't be coming at launch. “Games need to be built that can take advantage of the two GamePad controllers,” Fils-Aime told Gamasutra. “It's going to be well after launch for those game experiences to come to life.” Many also don't understand that the controllers don't provide any graphical power, the single Wii U system in the home will have to power the second controller, leading to what could be a dramatic loss in graphical fidelity.That of course brings us to graphics. The Wii U will, based on what I've seen, be able to display games at the quality we've come to expect from the 360 and Playstation 3 but, while that's a step ahead for Nintendo, it means that the system won't be able to compete on graphics. That means that Nintendo will rely on the unique experience provided by that proprietary controller to bring in gamers, and only a few companies have been able to prove that an extra screen brings something of worth to gaming. Without a Wii Sports-level mainstream success pushing hardware sales it's going to be a hard sell to either “core” or “casual” gamers, as silly as those distinctions have become. There is also the fact that Nintendo seems to have completely ceded the world of online gaming to its competitors. Miiverse looks interesting, but Nintendo has nothing that comes close to Sony or MIcrosoft's comprehensive online play or storefronts. “I think that what we see in terms of online gaming networks on existing dedicated gaming platforms is not particularly well suited to the approach Nintendo has taken,” Iwata stated, “Therefore, I can’t sit here and say to you that we can very quickly overcome or catch up to other companies, which began to work in the online field from many years ago and have been building these online networks on other platforms, and I don’t think that would be a smart strategy, either.” There will be options to buy things online, and microtransactions will be supported, but details have been scarce. While its competitors are pushing online in a large way, and buying games online becomes an increasingly popular way to spend money, Nintendo seems willing to bury its head in the sand while hoping the online trend end soon. Here's a hint: Online will be more important in the next generation of consoles, not less.
So where are we now?
Nintendo won't be able to compete on graphics, and those expensive controllers mean that it's going to be hard to compete on price. Nintendo's long-standing policy at breaking even on hardware instead of selling at a loss makes that an even trickier call; I'm not shocked we haven't seen pricing information. Nintendo will be hard pressed to compete with online features as well. That means that the system will live or die based on how well Nintendo and its third parties can leverage the new controller. As the Kinect, Move, and even the Wii have proven, there are only a few developers with the skill necessary to take advantage of new control schemes. Of course, they can just use the newly-announced Wii U “Pro” controller. Because who doesn't want to buy a brand new system in 2012 to play games that look like 360 titles on a controller that feels like a 360 controller? Those aren't the only options, though! “The Wii U console is capable of supporting two Wii U GamePad controllers, up to four Wii Remote (or Wii Remote Plus) controllers or Wii U Pro Controllers, and Wii accessories such as the Nunchuk, Classic Controller and Wii Balance Board,” the official page explains. Seeing a wall of different controllers, with different games supporting each one, is a marketing and retail nightmare. Many writers have spilled gallons of ink underestimating Nintendo, but as the company struggles to give the Wii U a strong identity it becomes clear that the system is already troubled. New systems work when they launch with a strong vision and a clear idea of their identity, and right now the Wii U has neither. If Nintendo can't fix that problem, and create an attractive elevator pitch for the market, the holidays are going to be a bloodbath.