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The Way Forward for Nintendo

Despite what is now a relatively healthy library on Wii U (after a pretty bleak launch window), both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 have surpassed the Nintendo console’s install base with relative ease. VGChartz lists the Wii U as having sold 9.1M units, compared to the Xbox One with 11.3M and PS4 with 19.1M. Even more troubling is that the Wii U has been out longer a year longer than both Microsoft’s and Sony’s offerings.

I don’t think Nintendo is necessarily trying to sell the most units, as though that were its singular measure of success, but I also don’t think the company wants to be a far distant third at the end of the cycle, as Strategy Analytics now predicts. The firm expects that by 2018, Sony will have sold 80M units, Microsoft 57M units, and Wii U 17M units. That is a mere 11% share for the house of Mario and Zelda. The saving grace for Nintendo is its strong software sales and the seemingly unstoppable 3DS, to say nothing of its enormous war chest funded by huge Wii profits in the previous generation.

There are a lot of articles out there that dissect the mistakes Nintendo has made with Wii U and attempt to explain why the console seems destined to turn in an even poorer performance than the GameCube (which was a cult hit but only sold 21.7M units), but I would summarize my feelings thus:

Underpowered hardware

The Wii U features hardware that’s not too dissimilar from the Xbox 360 and PS3. It is certainly more powerful than those 8-to-9 year-old machines, but it’s nestled somewhere between last generation and its new contemporaries. This is reminiscent of the Sega Dreamcast, which similarly came to market too early. The net result of this is that the Wii U is positioned well to receive game ports from last-generation consoles, but porting a current-generation title would be daunting and require so much downscaling that the investment in man hours would be difficult to justify. As development dwindles for those last-gen consoles, so will third-party titles for Wii U, I fear. A similar fate befell the Wii ultimately, but the long legs of the PS2 (which saw its last game released in September 2013) helped sustain it, so by then, Nintendo had sold north of a hundred million units.

Wii U Gamepad

The Gamepad is certainly a unique idea in gaming: it essentially offers a second screen to allow for a level of multitasking never exploited in console gaming. (GameBoy Advance to GameCube interactivity was interesting but never fully realized.) Problematically, however, is the fact that only one Gamepad packs in with the console, and worse still, the console will never support more than two of those simultaneously — if ever at all. Shigeru Miyamoto admitted last year that adding dual-GamePad functionality wasn’t even a part of Nintendo’s near-term goals. Instead, Nintendo envisioned that one player would operate the GamePad while the others used Wii remotes, which are themselves 9-years old now, presenting developers with the challenges of designing to accommodate asymmetric gameplay. It doesn’t help that the GamePad itself feels more like a toy than high technology. It also does not feature multitouch, an unfortunate oversight in a smartphone and tablet world.

Poor online support

Nintendo’s online multiplayer efforts have always felt timid and begrudging to me. In truth, I think that Nintendo would rather see players interact face-to-face in couch co-op rather than through the Internet — which old-time gamers like me can appreciate, actually. The problem is that some of the biggest third-party titles are designed with online gameplay in mind, so this strategy really only works well for Nintendo as a software developer, not companies like Ubisoft, Activision, or Electronic Arts. The future doesn’t look particularly bright on this front either. After all, we’re talking about a company that has consistently resisted technological progress if it wasn’t invested by itself: optical media in the fifth generation of consoles, full-sized DVDs in the sixth generation, and HD in the seventh generation. Even with Wii U, Nintendo opted for proprietary discs that cannot hold as much data as Blu-ray, which both the PS4 and Xbox One employ.

Poor third-party developer support

All of these things have led to poor support from third-party developers. Nintendo has long alienated these companies through various strong-arm tactics anyway, but these uneasy relationships have really damaged its ability to stay relevant in any generation with actual competition from other hardware manufacturers. New, envelope-pushing games won’t run on the Wii U’s hardware without serious compromise, the GamePad is something that developers are completely ignoring (instead hoping you’ve purchased the Pro Controllers instead — even Nintendo has relented to start focusing on these), and without strong online support, even DLC opportunities are bleak for these developers.

A solution

My idea would probably anger long-time Nintendo stalwarts, especially those loyalists who early-adopted the Wii U, but I don’t see another solution otherwise — reasonably, anyway1. That starts with completely abandoning the Wii U; I know that would be seen a deep betrayal, but there has to come a time when you admit defeat rather than continuing to beat your head against the wall.

What I would do is abandon attempts to embrace unusual input methods or gimmicks of any sort. While the company deserves a lot of credit for hardware innovation over the years (the ability to save progress in a game, the basic layout of the modern controller, triggers, analog sticks, and rumble among them), they’ve whiffed on motion controls and this faux tablet. (Despite Wii’s incredible sales figures, motion gaming never garnered enough hardcore-gamer interest to matter in the long term. Microsoft and Sony’s attempts to answer the Wii, in the form of Kinect and Move, seem pointless in retrospect, don’t they?) Even the 3D technology found in Nintendo’s handheld is mostly superfluous.

I would recommend that Nintendo release a new home console that is largely based on the Xbox One’s specifications. I suggest this because chasing the PS4 would be likely too expensive. Instead, Nintendo could simply match the Xbox One’s hard drive space, processor, GPU, and RAM, and probably price this hypothetical console at $299. By embracing x86-64 based processor architecture and Open-GL graphics standards, developers could easily port current-generation titles to work on Nintendo’s new system. Further, the existing Pro Controller for the Wii U should serve as a model for the next generation’s, as it is largely held in good esteem. I also believe that this generation will last for more than five years, so there is still time to capitalize on it. Further still, omit the media functionality altogether: smart TVs and set-top boxes are obviating the need for this, anyway. This would be a gamer’s machine.

The complaint from Nintendo employees and fans alike will be, “Well, how would this console differentiate itself from the competition?” The answer, of course, is that Nintendo produces some of the best games in the world, and they’re only available on Nintendo hardware. That’s the hallmark. What I want Nintendo to realize is that its contributions to the world of gaming no longer lie in zany sensors or strange peripherals; Nintendo’s most important contribution is its software library. This company shepherds some of the greatest and most historic franchises in history, all of which ooze with clever ideas and fine craftsmanship. For all the problems AAA games have had in the last year or so, with so many broken at launch, Nintendo deserves credit for consistently releasing games that WORK. The few games Nintendo releases each year is the only thing sustaining the Wii U right now, but these titles are keeping the system alive. And let us not forget the incredible breadth the Virtual Console spans.

This hypothetical console (which I would love if Nintendo named something that harkens back to its history, like NES Ultra) would not be the best-selling one by a long shot, but it would appeal to gamers who love Nintendo games but still offer them access to third-party titles. Nintendo’s online efforts would never compare to Xbox Live or PSN, admittedly, but there are enough gamers for whom that wouldn’t be a deal breaker, so long as they could at least play those multi-platform games without having to own multiple consoles.

With some measure of longing, I admit that the last Nintendo console I loved was the GameCube, even with all of its shortcomings and poor sales. I want to love another one — a piece of hardware that is more concerned with fostering amazing game development rather than trying to define itself with gimmicks.


1. The most prominent idea I’ve heard involves focusing all hardware and software efforts on a new handheld that can stream its content to TV.  This would be like an inverse Wii U, where the GamePad holds all the console’s intelligence and streams its content to a TV-attached receiver.  This would be clever, but I feel that handheld consoles are destined to lose to smartphones, especially as time spent playing mobile games continues to increase.  Moreover, the kind of technological miniaturization required to stand toe-to-toe with iOS or Android devices would be challenging to do in terms of engineering as well as in manufacturing scale.

Alternatively, the other idea I’ve heard is that Nintendo should abandon hardware development altogether and create games for PS4 and Xbox One.  This is an intriguing notion to be sure, and one that I would selfishly enjoy given my current investment in console hardware, but I really believe that Nintendo should give one more crack at this.  The home console space was dead and buried after the Video Game Crash of 1983, but the NES single-handledly resurrected it.  Seriously, long live Nintendo — if for nothing else.

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Written by Michael

24 February 2015 at 11:51 pm

Posted in Games, Musings

Tagged with , , , , , , ,