The next couple of years are going to be interesting in the gaming space. We’ve got a new but relatively underpowered console from Nintendo, Sony has announced what is, on paper anyway, an incredibly powerful and connected gaming experience and everyone expects Microsoft to announce something by the end of the year. Nintendo’s 3DS is rebounding nicely from a slow start as is Sony’s Vita.
On the opposite end of the spectrum we have game makers and casual game players increasingly concentrating on the mobile space where specs are fairly low and development costs much more manageable. Mobile games have eaten away at handheld gaming console market share by giving casual gamers exactly what they want. Something to pass the time without costing much on a device they carry with them everywhere. Who wants to bring a dedicated handheld console that costs as much as an on contract phone with games that $30 and up?
In 2013 home consoles are starting to get a bit long in the tooth and all the major players are just about ready to get their next console in consumer hands. If we define console generations by the time they were released then Nintendo is the first of the major players to release a next generation home console to follow up the Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 generation. Released in 2012, Nintendo’s Wii U Nintendo’s latest offering with HD graphics, a tablet based controller, improved online functionality and maintains compatibility with the old motion based Wii controllers.
It’s nearly everything the Wii should have been in 2006.
When the Wii launched in 2006 it was the only console not to offer HD graphics or elaborate online functionality. Nintendo didn’t believe that most consumers had HD flat panel TVs, needed or even wanted HD graphics and failed to understand the growing importance and expectation of competitive and cooperative online based play and matchmaking. By nearly all measures it was merely adequate at the time but years later woefully out of date. While the Wii was a roaring success in terms of sales it did little to push gaming forward as an art form contrary to what a number of game studios attempt to do each and every generation.
Nintendo saw great success initially delivering their usual mix of first party titles but due to, I believe, the underpowered nature of the Wii preventing game developers from creating the same kind of cutting edge games they were making for competing consoles, the Wii became a casual and party game kiosk. Many 3rd party developers skipped the Wii when creating their latest AAA titles because it didn’t offer the power and online capabilities of its competitors. The Wii’s major innovation in 2006 was also its biggest achilles heal, the unorthodox motion based control scheme which also seemed to turn off developers. By 2009 Nintendo’s Wii sales were starting to fall and they chalked it up to competition from the Playstation and the Xbox while ignoring the growing threat of mobile gaming. By 2009 the Wii’s reputation as a casual gamers paradise was well established but with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, iPod and (especially) the iPad along with Android based phones casual gamers had a plethora of casual games that cost far less while looking just as good if not better than anything the Wii could do.
At the time, Nintendo needed a hit and they took a chance by creating a console that didn’t try to compete with other consoles with performance. Instead they went after the market with an innovative and accessible control scheme at a price lower than any of the other consoles could compete with. Looking back, Nintendo made the right move but they reacted too slowly to the changing market and didn’t think long term enough. In the end, their attempt to grab and grow the casual market that was so successful initially was also their down fall. It turns out that when given a choice, casual gamers will go with ever cheaper offerings.
So here we are in 2013 and it seems that Nintendo is attempting to do it again. They’ve released a new console that is basically adequate for today but will not be able to compete from a performance standpoint with consoles from Sony and Microsoft years from now. Developers are already dismissing Wii U as underpowered and not worth their time. So does this mean Wii U and Nintendo are doomed?
There are a few things that might work out in Nintendo’s favor in this generation. For one, game development costs are beginning to skyrocket. It turns out that in order to push gaming forward and to make games for these next generation consoles it takes incredible financial resources. The cost of creating games for true, next generation hardware could simply surpass what game studios can recoup and it is this potential problem that could make Wii U a more attractive console. If game developers can deliver games that are even slightly better than “current generation” while keeping costs down it could be a big win for Nintendo.
Another recent shift in gaming that could be helpful for Nintendo is the renewed interest in indie level games. Nintendo has been doing everything it can to court indie developers and encourage them to release their titles on Wii U. The tablet based controller also makes it easier for developers of mobile games to port their game to Wii U and keep a similar playing style, despite Nintendo’s biggest oversight by not including a multitouch capacitive display.
While the next Playstation and Xbox console will no doubt also have many of the same indie offerings but the best thing Nintendo could do today is to cut the price of Wii U slightly to ensure more consoles are sold before Sony and Microsoft’s offerings are available so that Wii U has a strong foothold in the market with a device that is cheaper to develop games for and is indie friendly (read: casual gamer paradise). Failure to do so will be the demise of Wii U this generation and may very well be Nintendo’s last chance to regain the throne it once held rather than being looked back at nostalgically.