I’ve noticed something lately; or rather the lack of something. Nintendo announced a release date for the Wii U on September 13 of this year, and ever since then barely a whisper has been uttered by the game journalism corps about the potential success or failure of Nintendo’s new console. You’d expect a lot of talk, a lot of rumor, and all the buzz that normally surrounds the release of a new console. But, every time someone does talk about it, be it on a podcast or YouTube commentary, it seems to be within the context of “I don’t know.” The lack of solid information has done nothing but drive the game journalism corps crazy. People placed their preorders for the Wii U and have been more than happy to continue on in their discussions about Halo 4, Hitman: Absolution, and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royal. It concerns me that upcoming releases for current-gen consoles are getting more airtime than Nintendo’s next-gen console that releases in just a few weeks.
A lot is riding on the success of the Wii U. What ultimately happens after November 18 is important because it will likely determine the console landscape of the next decade. What I’m not saying is that the Wii U should be getting more media coverage. What I am saying is that we need to talk about why the Wii U isn’t being talked about, because I’m willing to bet that there are some pretty good reasons that are revealing of several issues Nintendo will confront going forward.
The company had its E3 event and then a release event in September. Since then, Nintendo has been pretty mute. Advertisements are scarce, studio heads are quiet, and Nintendo’s front-man, Reggie Fils-Aime, has been decidedly low-key in his efforts to promote the product at events outside of large press conferences. Nintendo is banking that the digital integration that is a focus of the Wii U will allow them to compete with Microsoft’s and Sony’s next console. But the company hasn’t shifted the mindset of the consumer-base. In our minds, Nintendo is still the Nintendo of the 90s. Nintendo is still the Nintendo that cares about games, just games, only games. A Nintendo that is focusing on the technology rat-race is foreign to us. It makes us uncomfortable. That being said, consumers also have yet to reconcile what they think Nintendo to be with their expectations for what a modern gaming console should be. There are other kids on the block now, and Microsoft and Sony have proven themselves strong competitors with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. These aren’t the days of the Sega Genesis, or the unsure days of the 90s when Sony staked its future success on the PlayStation.
Online gaming wasn’t Nintendo’s MO this generation, and the console itself does not get near the support Microsoft and Sony give to their consoles, respectively. With the Wii U Nintendo is hoping to change some of this. There is clearly a focus on the online component of gaming, although we know little about Nintendo’s intentions and plans, and what we do know serves only to confuse. The controller is a very interesting prospect, but it’s not clear how it will be put to use by developers. The development of a digital distribution platform and various app and streaming choices is smart, but it is coming too late.
And there is the point of it all, I think. Nintendo thinks it is innovating (or it is trying to convince you that it is innovating), but what it is actually doing is playing catch-up. We already have consoles with strong online components, and that support great applications. We already have consoles with Mass Effect 3 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. The Wii U is a current gen console with new first-party titles and an innovative and interesting controller (that better not cost half of what the console does). Perhaps the reason we aren’t talking about the Wii U is because it’s already out. It’s a PlayStation 3. It’s an Xbox 360. Even with all of the improvements to how the online components work and the focus on digital integration, the Wii U still comes off as Nintendo’s perfected version of the Wii. When Microsoft and Sony release their next consoles, Nintendo will find themselves playing short-stack again; at least, that’s my concern.
Once you take away the diehard Nintendo supporters and the equally as devoted Nintendo naysayers, you are left with the proverbial silent majority. These are the people who will buy the Wii U with a clear vision as to what they hope to get out of the console. The people who will—just like they did with the Wii—buy a Wii U for the six or seven Nintendo titles they want to play and then return to their Sony or Microsoft console to fulfill the rest of their gaming needs. These are the people who sincerely hope the Wii U becomes a commercial and critical success, but who also have a cloud of concern hanging over their hopes.
And that’s something Nintendo hasn’t addressed: the cloud of concern. People—consumers—are less invested in the notion that any hardware Nintendo puts out will be an instant success. The responsible thing for Nintendo to do is to address the concern by convincing people that this is a product that they want. But, Nintendo hasn’t done that. Just being Nintendo isn’t enough anymore, and Nintendo seems to be less realistic about coming to terms with the fact that brand confidence among consumers is significantly lower than it used to be. You no longer look at a Nintendo console and say, “Well, I know that’s going to be good. Check is in the mail.”
I do, however, see hope for the Wii U. I happen to agree with Jim Sterling and his assessment that the digital integration movement that is sure to be a large part of Microsoft’s and Sony’s next consoles, gives Nintendo the chance to appeal to those gamers who want their console to do and be nothing more than just a gaming console. But, that doesn’t seem to be the direction that Nintendo is heading, and I’m not sure that we, as gamers, necessarily want a piece of hardware that is just a gaming console. Think about the convenience of having Netflix on your console; the convenience of having a web browser; the convenience of being able to download your games without having to go to the store. Those are all things we expect now. Consoles aren’t just gaming machines anymore. Nintendo has created two sets of expectations among its fans: one where we expect the King of Console’s that we all knew and loved in the 80s and 90s, and one where we expect consoles to be more than just a gaming machine. These are two expectations that Nintendo doesn’t seem to be in a position to be able to fill. We want Nintendo to be an innovator, but we want it to be within the parameters of convention that we, as a consumer-base, have set. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario that Nintendo can’t fulfill, and that’s created a trust-deficit between the company and gamers.
For me, it’s a timing issue. Too soon, too little, too late. It sounds oxymoronic, I know. The Wii U should have waited and been timed with the release of Sony’s and Microsoft’s next consoles, because by the time the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 come out, the Wii U will be old news with old components and old hardware. It will be the “less” console. It will do less. Nintendo’s tragic misstep is that it is trying to be the same at a time when Sony and Microsoft are about to move on to the next big thing.
Article by Jon Hamlin
Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Articles by Jon.