Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why the Wii-U is Destined for Failure...

...And what Nintendo can do to prevent it


Following this year’s E3, it’s apparent that Nintendo is making a giant gamble with its upcoming Wii U hardware. As the first “next-gen” console out the gate, Nintendo is yet again banking on the appeal of non-traditional gaming markets as opposed to “hardcore” gamer demographics, a strategy that, obviously, proved very, very successful with the Wii.

However, Nintendo’s Wii U has several problematic aspects, which, combined, could result in the system seriously underperforming in the “next-gen” market. There are five very apparent reasons why the Wii-U could be destined for failure…and five equally apparent solutions the “Big N” would be wise to look into before the product gets launched later this year.

CAUSES FOR CONCERN

Factor Number One - THE PRICE

While we North American gamers will not likely know the MSRP of Nintendo’s new console until later this year, there have been some leaked numbers as it pertains to other markets. Nikkei reports that the unit will cost about 30,000 yen, which equals out to about $383 USD. Meanwhile, EuroGamer estimates the unit will drop at 280 pounds in the UK, which translates to about $435 in U.S. dollars.

Simply put, the launch price of the Wii U could potentially be double that of the Wii’s launch price, and that’s not factoring other components, such as the price of additional controllers, let alone standalone games (which, according to Amazon, are estimated to be about $60 a pop.) Feasibly, a Wii-U unit, with an extra Wii U ControlPad, two “Pro Controllers” and two games, could cost launch day consumers anywhere from $700 - $1,000. Although just about everything regarding the console’s price is mere speculation at this point, it’s almost certain to be a costlier system than the Wii - a console whose success can be attributed, quite largely, to its reduced marketplace cost.

The Wii U's online service emphasizes social networking elements over multiplayer, a move which could alienate a sizable "hardcore" gaming audience.

Factor Number Two - THE TECHNICAL SPECS

The potential problematic areas with the Wii U are twofold. First, it’s an absolute guarantee that the machine will be the “weakest” of the next generation gaming consoles, with current tech specs that are less powerful than Sony and Microsoft’s current-gen consoles. The secondary problem arises when considering the Wii-U ControlPad, which Nintendo claims has a battery life of 3-5 hours.

Combined, these two problems could result in massive problems for gamers, as well as alienate third party developers that may feel “limited” by the technical restraints of the hardware. The graphical capabilities of the system - coupled with the control schematics of the hardware - could keep many “traditional” gaming franchises off the system, and severely hamper the variety of games that arrive on the console. This could mean that while PS4 and XB720 owners enjoy next-gen Madden and Call of Duty, Wii-U owners could be stuck playing watered down ports and rehashes of current-gen titles - a crisis exacerbated by Nintendo’s inability to strike up deals with prolific developers and publishers, such as “Grand Theft Auto” maestros Rockstar Games.

"Non-games" like "SiNG" may make up a bulk of the Wii U's expected launch titles - and this time, Nintendo may not have the same "casual market" appeal that it had with its last console release. 

Factor Number Three - THE LACK OF QUALITY THIRD PARTY SUPPORT

Since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has relied a tremendous deal on consistent third-party support, with companies like Square-Enix and Rare Studios providing the “Big N” with stellar, console-exclusive material for the Super NES and Nintendo 64. Since the release of the GameCube, however, the company has seemed to be drifting away from this model, instead focusing on first-party titles and outsourcing franchising rights to other developers. As a result, the Wii received scant “console exclusive” titles from third parties that were commercially successful - a trend that could very much continue with the Wii U.

While Nintendo executives have “guaranteed” a greater emphasis on so-called “hardcore” games with the upcoming console, the company has announced very little to back up their claims, as a majority of the third party titles shown off for the upcoming system at E3 this year where either non-exclusive, multi-platform games, or “original” IPs that hardly looked like killer apps in any regard. It’s extremely unlikely that Nintendo will gain the support of third party publishers and developers that ignored the Wii with its latest console - in fact, at this point, it’s looking quite likely that the company will actually lose third party support in the next generation of console gaming.

Factor Number Four - THE ONLINE INTEGRATION COMPONENTS

It’s not exactly breaking news that Nintendo’s online gaming network is considerably less impressive than those promoted by Microsoft and Sony. And instead of remedying the myriad online gaming problems the Wii had, it seems as if Nintendo is moving towards even more integration of that same experience for the Wii U.

Nintendo’s far-reaching online network - debuted at E3 earlier this year - is more or less a visualized Facebook application, which allows gamers to hop in and out of centralized experiences, such as chatting and playing mini-games. The one thing the new network doesn’t seem to do, however, is rectify its predecessor’s many online gaming difficulties, including a clunky user-interface that requires “friend codes” in order to play over an Internet connection. Ominously, a number of supposed “launch titles” have been announced without online integration compatibility - perhaps portending some major, major R&D problems even this late into the console testing cycle.

So far, the third -party titles announced for the Wii U have been rather lacking , consisting mostly of ports and very unpolished I.P.s, such as the underwhelming "ZombiU" from Ubisoft. 

Factor Number Five - THE EMPHASIS ON CASUAL GAMES

The single biggest complaint lobbed against the Wii was its overabundance of “casual games” - in other words, titles catering to mostly “non-gamer” audiences and small children. Taking this complaint to heart, Nintendo executives promised that the Wii U would have a greater emphasis on more traditional, “hardcore” gaming experiences, but when the console was demonstrated at E3 this year…well, the results were a whole lot more “casual” than “hardcore.”

Lego City?

SiNG

Wii Fit U?

No matter what the suits at Nintendo may be saying, this much is evident; the company is still centralizing its market strategy around games that appeal to “non-gaming” audiences. Their may be more of a focus on “hardcore” titles, but it is quite apparent that the company’s primary target demographic is still a decisively “non-hardcore” demographic.

Clearly, there are some major areas of concern regarding the Wii U, but the company still has ample time to rectify some of these issues in time for the product launch. If Nintendo wants to counteract a lot of first-year woes, they would be wise to mull over my five recommendations for their marketing of the Wii U.

PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

Nintendo's attempt to lure in a "casual" gaming market (such as those that play Farmville)  may end up backfiring on the company.

Step One - ENSURE QUALITY THIRD-PARTY TITLES LAND ON THE CONSOLE

Unless Nintendo can secure a healthy number of quality, third-party exclusives, the console is in deep, deep trouble.

The “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto” and EA Sports series have made billions upon billions of dollars over the last five years, and these gargantuan series - in a “proper” iteration - have been MIA on the Wii. As fun and entertaining as “Mario U” and “Pikmin 3” may turn out, it’s quite clear that neither of those games have the sheer, instant-revenue appeal of a “Black Ops II” or a “Halo 4” or even a “FIFA 13.” As such, it is absolutely imperative that Nintendo does what it can to make certain that major franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Need for Speed” and “Bioshock”  end up on the console, if not in iterations comparable to the PS4/Xbox720 offerings, then at least in quality, console-specific editions that don’t sacrifice game play for novelty (if you’ve ever tried playing a Madden game on the Wii, you will know precisely what I’m talking about.)

And even if the “Big N” can’t get GTA V or “Watch Dogs,” they can at least strive to secure console-exclusive titles from those big name publishers. Maybe the Wii U isn’t powerful enough to host the next GTA or the next Final Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean Nintendo can’t get Rock Star or Square-Enix to get their B-houses working on miniature, Wii-U exclusive titles. It really goes without saying here, but it’s oh-so important: the Wii U needs awesome, third-party games, and it needs them very, very badly.

Step Two - IMPROVE ONLINE GAMING EXPERIENCES

It’s pretty much a given that Nintendo has the worst online integration components of the big three. While Sony and Microsoft have given gamers robust and reliable online gaming networks, Nintendo has struggled to provide Wii and 3DS owners with a halfway manageable online-play system, and the results have fluctuated from just merely passable to downright pathetic.

Nintendo has already said that the Wii U will once again feature “friend codes” for online play, with a centralized focus on social networking in non-gaming online play. We all remember the ZombiU trailer - apparently, Nintendo’s idea of online gaming is the ability to access Twitter and look up cheat codes while playing a single-player title….not actually playing against and with other people via the Internet. Clearly, this is something that needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

It’s very unlikely that Nintendo will ever foster an online gaming system as versatile and dependable as what MS and Sony offers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to fix what they currently have. My advice would be to abandon the whole “Nintendo Land” / “Waru Waru” interface and hire some third party firm (boy, wouldn’t an Apple or a Google love to capitalize on such an opportunity?) to reconstruct the console’s online program. More multiplayer games are a given, but first things first: if the Wii U doesn’t have an online network at least twice as consistent as what the 3DS currently has, they are really shooting themselves in the foot from the get-go.

Titles like "Wii Fit U" are expected to capitalize on largely non-gaming audiences, but are consumers willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for mildly re-tuned experiences of the like?

Step Three - REFOCUS TARGET DEMOGRAPHICS

Nintendo made a ton of money off casual gamers with the Wii. Unfortunately, that’s an audience that has grown tired of “Wii Sports,” and it’s quite apparent that the “Big N” isn’t going to be able to strike gold with the same kind of players again.

Simply put, Nintendo will have to place a greater emphasis on the traditional gaming market - 18-34 year old males - if it wants to remain in the next gen console race. Yes, eight year old kids and their shovel ware-purchasing mothers may appear to be a more lucrative demographic, but it’s the traditional gamers that are the greatest “bulk” consumers of video games. Seeing as how they have more disposable income than most other demographics, it would be very, very unwise to ignore their wants out of the Wii U - in fact, the system’s very survival may hinge on the support of the traditional gaming demographics.

Step Four - ABANDON THE “ALL IN ONE” MEDIA MACHINE AMBITIONS

If I want to send a text to someone, I will send them a text. If I want to send them an e-mail, I will send them an e-mail. If I want to watch a YouTube video, I will log onto YouTube. While the emergence of smartphones have coalesced a lot of electronic communications together, it’s a fairly unwise move to assume that a gaming console - a stationary thing connected to a television set - requires the same “all-in-one” versatility that a phone or a tablet provides. Obviously, it’s not just Nintendo that’s trying to merge all of the electronic mediums together, but in the case of the Wii U - a system that’s already underpowered - pursuing “the Swiss army knife” approach could be a downright fatal move.

The major appeal of the Wii-U should be games, not social networking. Yes, people like to multitask, but gaming experiences - like movies and books - have always been experiences centered on a single, uninterrupted event and the individual reacting to that same event. Multiplayer gaming (and certainly, online gaming) has made that a more social experience, but the core appeal of games really hasn’t changed since the days of “Asteroids” and “Pac-Man.” By throwing in all of these secondary applications, the core appeal of the gaming experience gets diluted, and when your console can’t provide solid gaming experiences…well, history hasn’t exactly been kind to such consoles.

The Wii U ControlPad is supposed to be the big selling point of Nintendo's new console - and inadvertently, it may also lead to the system's under-performance in the marketplace. 
Step Five - PUT THE SPOTLIGHT ON GAMEPLAY, NOT GIMMICKS

Really, it’s the simplest - and most executable - idea imaginable; instead of making games centered around proprietary technologies and gimmick-anchored gameplay, just use the technology you have to make better, more enjoyable and more nuanced games. Think of the leap from “A Link to the Past” to “Ocarina of Time” - Nintendo harnessed the power of a new console to create a more in-depth, more engrossing and more immersive experience than the previous franchise offering. With the Wii U, Nintendo seems to be eschewing this idea for rehashes and re-releases that just simply integrate new hardware controls instead of giving gamers more intricate and complex experiences. In other words, instead of giving us the natural progression of gaming - as they did with “Ocarina” - it’s as if they feel that just giving us what we’ve already experienced, with some funky new control set-up - is good enough.

Look, I love Mario and Link and Samus as much as the next guy, but those franchises really haven’t done all that much evolving since the days of the Nintendo 64. “Super Mario Galaxy 2” and “Skyward Sword” may have been terrific games, but they really weren’t groundbreaking games in the least - and most definitely, they weren’t titles that pushed the technological boundaries of what gaming could be. The likelihood of the Wii U getting games like “Bioshock: Infinite,” “Watch Dogs,” or “The Last of Us” is very unlikely, because of the technological limitations of the hardware. While there’s very much a chance that some terrific games land on the Wii U, it’s much, much likelier that the system will be glutted with crappy, casual games, spat out by companies that know people will buy what’s formulaic and widely available.

Certainly, great first party titles like "Pikmin 3" will make it to the Wii U - but unless Nintendo makes some major changes to its marketing strategy, its execs may not be smiling for much longer. 
Because of the Wii-U control set-up, it’s very unlikely that the console will ever see a quality simulation racer like “Forza,” or a quality sports game like “FIFA,” or a technical fighting game like “Virtua Fighter,” or a straight-up shooter like “Half-Life” or “Deus Ex.” While the Wii U ControlPad could lead to some interesting experiences, it is more likely that the controller will just hinder developers from making quality titles. For the console to excel, Nintendo will ultimately have to move away from the gimmick-based gaming experience, and focus more on creating complex, immersive gaming experiences, like “Skyrim” or “Diablo III.”

And if Nintendo can’t accomplish that?

They’re going to be enjoying a third-place spot in the console wars for a long time to come.

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