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Why The Wii U Has An Extra Life Left
It’s no secret: the Wii U had fallen on hard times. From lackluster software sales to a disappearing consumer base, the console represents what could be Nintendo’s most testing time yet. There are plenty of options and enough time to experiment with what potential the still young Wii U has left for its generation. There are questions to be asked and there still may be answers to those questions going forward into the new year, for Nintendo is and has always been able to meet them head on.
Even without having released December sales numbers for the Wii U, Nintendo is expected to see its third annual loss in a row. The news is being attributed to a variety of factors, from the Wii U’s price drop last year to struggling software and hardware sales alike. Couple that with an operating loss of 35 billion yen ($335.2 million) for the fiscal year ending in March. It’s also slashing its sales forecast from 9 million to 2.8 million with a discrepancy of 6.2 million. The numbers are displeasing to say the least and they further speak to the dilemma of a console that’s having more than its share of trouble finding its way.
Nintendo has long struggled to reach American audiences since the console’s release for a variety of well-documented causes. The Wii U’s name itself has been notably blamed for causing confusion among previous Wii owners as to whether or not the console itself is a mere add-on or a new system. The system’s been further cited for its still small collection of games since release, with little third-party support on the horizon to bolster its library. The console is also consistently blamed for being underpowered compared to its rivals of the PlayStation 4 and X-Box One, both of which have sold terrifically in their system launches.
At the company’s helm amidst this financial storm is Nintendo’s very own Satoru Iwata. President since 2002 and its acting CEO as of just this last year, Iwata has been an undeniably powerful force in the company that he now manages. His resume is nothing short of impressive, being instrumental in the development of the company’s leading franchises from Mario and The Legend of Zelda to creating cult hits like Ballon Fight, Earthbound, and Kirby alongside Super Smash Bros. designer Masahiro Sakurai and HAL Laboratories, of which he additionally served as president of for a time. Between his dual back-rounds of game design and business, Iwata’s illustrious career has allowed him to wear plenty of hats, further making him a kind of renaissance man uniquely suited for a diverse company of very distinct tastes. In light of the spreadsheets, more than a few critics have questioned his abilities and called for his resignation following the Wii U’s dim forecasts. While openly denying the possibility of such anytime soon, Iwata himself is as much of an enigma as Nintendo itself. The company has undoubtedly become even further reserved and secretive under his present guidance and signs of success are often unapparent. Yet he deserves the chance to be taken seriously when considering his importance to defining what may be his most difficult years.
In many ways, Iwata can be considered a rebel in the business environment he governs. Akin to the still very conservative Japanese market, Nintendo has always been quick to stockpile and slow to spend when its come to expensive hardware and quick software releases. As the first non-member of the fabled Yamauchi family by marriage or by blood to lead the company in decades, Iwata is very much fresh blood in a still old guard concerned with the same conservative leadership that’s maintained Nintendo throughout its gaming history, often to its benefit as well as its detriment. Coming into his term as President and eventually CEO, Iwata came at a time when the “safe” bets of the N64 and the overpowered, third-party laced Gamecube stagnated a then complacent console company. It was Iwata himself that championed the Wii, a console that shouldn’t have worked on paper and defied what it traditionally meant to be a console. It forced imagination over tech to a broader audience and Iwata further turned around the 3DS’s own sales figures through stabilizing its software library and hyping its handheld-to-handheld abilities in a part of the world challenged by mobile. Iwata’s historically looked to international waters at a time when the company could have (and still might threaten) to close up shop and retreat to its more lucrative Japanese homeland. Firing Iwata now would not only mean a return to more conservative trappings but it might also mean Nintendo abandoning its tough-to-win battlegrounds and perhaps never return.
While the Wii U may have unwisely assumed its success while resting on the laurels of the Wii, it’s further worth recognizing Nintendo’s financial preparation for such difficulties. Whereas Sony is still seeing red from the commercial failings of its Playstation 3, having raked in $14 billion in debt, Nintendo still boasts a war chest of over $15 billion in liquid currency and with a mere $2 million in debt to its name. That’s not to take into account the 3DS’s winning battle in the handheld market against the PS Vita and growing mobile market. Clearly, Nintendo’s survival is not a factor at stake so much as its relations with its fans. In meticulously planning the long-term, Iwata’s administration has fallen victim to ignoring the short term battles all too often and the time is long overdue to address and face them.
Theories are abound as to where Nintendo can and must take the Wii U to save its lingering consumer base and market appeal, yet all of them deserve to include Iwata in the picture. Such critical decision points would be made worse in effectively making itself a chicken with its own head cut-off at a time when levelheaded management is needed the most. Iwata may be no more guilty than any other chairman in taking an ill-fated gamble and history has proven he’s capable of learning in transitioning the company’s fortunes from the ill-fated Gamecube to the successful Wii. Nintendo is nevertheless in no position not to consider changes if not implement a few of them for its future and present momentum.
Some of the most popular pieces online advise everything as radical as Nintendo’s departure from the console market entirely or distributing its games by way of mobile devices. The former suggests it to effectively becoming a third-party akin to SEGA, either selling its properties to rival publishers or operating on a freelance level. While it may seem easy to draw up the comparisons between the two, it’s worth remembering the latter’s differing history. It’s hard to imagine Nintendo willfully losing the creative input into its beloved franchises and maintaining its games’ integrity, making such proposals improbable unless it was otherwise forced to do so. Regarding the latter, mobile games are unlikely to technologically support the kind of quality expected of traditionally console level games, and with the stigma attached to them, few gamers would accept the idea of micro-transactions for every mushroom and star in a Mario title.
All of these assume that Nintendo would also not consider envisioning a new console in just the next few years. A mainstream console, with 1080p resolutions, greater third-party support, a classic controller, and better online functionality would push Nintendo into the modern day at last on par with Sony and Microsoft’s best tech. That notion isn’t far fetched and it’s undeniably something that Nintendo could very well afford with its surplus of capital. It is, however, something that wouldn’t grant it any immediate victories. Assuming it was done competently on short notice, the Wii U’s successor would have next to no games ready at launch in such a small timeframe, putting it at a worse disadvantage than the Wii U itself. Dropping everything at a time when their still loyal fanbase is more important than ever, would be nothing short of a PR nightmare. Worse, the backlash could be spur mass exodus from the brand entirely. In spite of the rumors to the contrary, it’s doubtful Nintendo is designing a new console for anytime short of when they would naturally release one 6-7 years down the road.
In short, Nintendo is simply best left to harvesting what success they can from the Wii U rather than devote its resources to the more costly prospect of replacing it too soon. The Wii U itself is a great piece of hardware with multiple strengths its rivals can’t match. Playing a game on the GamePad while your family watches or even plays something else on the television is a boon to parents. Having a system you can plug into your bedroom next to the bed without even bothering to attach it to a television or even while flying on a plane is a fine sale indeed. Nintendo Land was filled with interesting multiplayer ideas that only worked because the player with the GamePad had information no one else could see and it was more immersive because of it. Rather, its best bet is to continue its marathon pace rather than go blindly into a sprint and simply change their hardware from within as opposed to dumping it willy nilly.
Nintendo’s overriding concern has always been software, yet it could benefit from welcome allies. Third party supporters like 2K and EA have long gone on to the PS4 and X-Box One and the rare support from Activision and Ubisoft is likely not going to cut it. Though first-party exclusivity has always sold its systems, managing so much software alone is a taxing strategy. Why not tap into the resources of 2nd parties? Round up more Retros and Monolith Softs of the world and amass a first-party/second party empire of games while maintaining their quality in collaboration. Nintendo wields billions in assets and literally has money to burn before it could think of going bankrupt. Namco Bandai and Platinum Games are attractive partners worth cozying up to or outright buying with the money Nintendo’s sitting on in light of their collaborative Wii U projects of Super Smash Bros. U and Bayonetta 2. Both SEGA and Capcom now share a system history with Nintendo with Sonic Lost World and Phoenix Wright as well and the closer Nintendo becomes with more potential partners the better. Snatching up the small fish could prove a keen strategy in amassing a slower yet surer plan in creating a more efficient development cycle while bringing in like-minded developers with series and licenses accustomed to the company.
Like the PS4, the Wii U could also benefit from the model offered by Netflix’s services for your own back catalog. Players not willing to pay $5 for one game may be willing to pay $15 a month for every game. Combine that with an increased rate of release for classic games, along with possible graphical updates done in software, and Nintendo could gain some motivated players.
Price points are just as vital. Nintendo’s past success has been in championing reliable and affordable in the same sentence and keeping quality high and pricing down the average customer are critical. While the 360 and PS3 bundles are at all-time discounts of just $250-$300, the similarly powered Wii U remains at a steady $300. Cut it to a perfectly attractive $250, keeping it low enough to be attractive and high enough to justify quality. Don’t let the Wii U feel restricted by the Gamepad. Complement it akin to Super Mario 3D World with people’s Wii-motes and classic controllers to aid the price-cut.
Above all, Nintendo can and must realize the value of online multiplayer in both making and selling its games. Nintendo’s most crucial misstep in its hardware has been its inattention to its customers’ evolving digital lives. The company’s emphasis on traditional gaming and social interaction has always been attractive, but it’s safe to say that the social world has changed drastically from the one in 2006. In a world where local co-op has already come and gone in favor of next-gen’s upcoming multiplayer games like TitanFall and Destiny, fewer matches are played from the couch as they are on the Internet. The fact that software titles are locked to each machine and not to a single log-in across the Wii U and 3DS line of products looks odd in a time when Sony and Microsoft have made it simple to take your games and account to other connected systems. The Miiverse still remains confusing to the initiated and while the learning curve is worth it, the same can’t be said for its often empty multiplayer communities. The world is more virtual than it ever has been in the time that the Wii ruled the charts and Nintendo’s more the victim of trends rather than a lack of talent. Integrate greater online functionality and features in the ways that Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. lobby systems are taking. Bring us cross connectivity with the 3DS. Realize the potential that virtual connectivity can bring.
It’s still easy to say that Nintendo’s weathered worse storms in the past. The Virtual Boy, the N64, the Gamecube: all of them tested Nintendo’s mettle and it survived in spite of them. Instead of failing it opened the doors to ages 8 to 80 with the casual crowd of the Wii. It’ll be impossible to judge its success before its game is over so much as it is to say whether the PS4 or X-Box One’s sales could stagnate within a few years time. What matters now is Nintendo’s continued survival and ability to promote and develop the games its fans want and love. Historical narratives more often view a gaming system by the very games it justifies its existence by and sales don’t often factor into fans’ nostalgia or memories. The Wii U still has an extra life left this generation. Let’s hope it uses it well.