Nintendo. What does that name mean to you? Mario, fond childhood memories, the N64, friends won… and lost over Smash Brothers, even motion gaming perhaps? Regardless of whether it’s one, none, or all of those things, Nintendo is synonymous with gaming. This entertainment medium might not be here today if it wasn’t for the success of the NES. With that being said, what exactly happened to the Wii U? How did it arrive at its present predicament and what does Nintendo need to do to save its struggling console?
I don’t want to dig too deep into Nintendo’s history, but for those who are interested I recommend David Sheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World (1994). I want to mainly focus on the Wii and Wii U with some tidbits of past generations thrown in. The main focus of this series is to figure out what is happening to the Wii U. I put together various reasons the Wii U struggles. Yes there are many. Nintendo’s problem cannot be boiled down to a single reason.
However the Wii U will have to wait. To understand the Wii U we must attempt to understand the Wii’s incredible success in comparison. It’s possible to write a much longer article, so I’m going to limit writing to the key aspect of the Wii’s success. For a bit of context take a look at the following table. What do you notice?
|Top Selling Consoles of Each Generation with a Nintendo Console (in Millions)|
|3rd Generation||Units||4th Generation||Units||5th Generation||Units|
|Sega Master System||~14||Sega Genesis||40||Nintendo 64||32.93|
|Atari 7800||~3.77||TurboGrafx-16||10||Sega Saturn||9.5|
|6th Generation||Units||7th Generation||Units||8th Generation||Units|
|PlayStation 2||155||Wii||101.15||PlayStation 4||10|
|Xbox||24||Xbox 360||84||Wii U||6.68|
|Nintendo GameCube||21.74||PlayStation 3||80+||Xbox One||5.1|
|Breakdown of Hardware sales on Nintendo Consoles (in millions)|
|NES / Super Famicom||61.91|
|SNES / Super Famicom||49.10|
|Game Boy Advance||81.51|
|To see where I got the numbers, click here|
Disregarding the Wii, Nintendo hasn’t been at the top of the home console market for a long time. The Wii was the anomaly in this new trend. For a bit of context, I grew up in the 1990s. I was able to play the NES and SNES at relatives’ houses. In the mid to late 90’s there was this perception that all of my friends had Nintendo 64 consoles. Now I say “perception”, but I cannot remember one of my friends who didn’t have an N64. When writing this article, I realized that this was not the case. I was unaware that the PlayStation outsold the N64 by about 70 million units. I’ve always had this impression that the console sales were much closer. Not in the sense that PlayStation sold less, but that Nintendo sold more. In terms of sales numbers, PlayStation “won” the 5th generation. That result would hold for 12 years, until Nintendo’s release of the Wii in 2006.
Based on the current figures the Wii U has moved more units than the Xbox One. However it released one year ahead of its competition. The PS4 has surpassed the Wii U within a year and it’s only a matter of time before Xbox overtakes Wii U sales. That will likely happen when Microsoft launches the Xbox in China. These sales numbers are the latest I’ve come across, but I’m sure the sales numbers are actually higher for all three consoles. In Japan last week (September 15th – 21st) the 3DS LL sold the most units (35,522) followed by the Vita, PS4, and then Wii U. The Wii U and the PS4 are selling pretty close in Japan; 8,939 and 8,396 respectively. This helps paint the picture on Nintendo’s current Wii U sales. In comparison the Wii was crushing the home console competition in generation 7. In generation 6, Nintendo found itself behind yet another new competitor, the Xbox. The GameCube didn’t work, it didn’t attract consumers. Nintendo had to do something to change that.
During the transition between the Nintendo GameCube and the Wii’s release, it was obvious that Nintendo had to find a way to win back consumers. Regardless of individual opinions about companies and their business practices, the bottom line is sales matter. For companies that don’t sell enough units, there might not be another console (i.e. Sega Dreamcast). I can only speculate on the development process, but the end result was a new way to play. The general concept wasn’t new per say, but it hadn’t been done well before this point. Nintendo introduced a console with a concept at its core that went against all prior consoles. However, I am not highlighting this different way to play, but rather how accessible the console was to everyone. Young, old, gamers, non-gamers, it was a console for everyone. It was also a gamble, one that paid off.
This accessibility of the Wii’s controller and motion-gaming concept opened the doors for anyone to play games. When I say “anyone” I’m inadvertently, but purposely asserting there were people with doors closed to them. A barrier does exist to gaming that often gets ignored: the controller. As fans of video games we have grown used to using controllers, it is an experience so natural for us. Keeping that in mind, have you ever seen someone new to gaming use a modern day controller? Heck, even a 5th generation controller would achieve the same results. Players become lost and confused with the button options and they don’t have the feel for analog sticks. For example, I had a non-gaming friend who was assigned to play Bioshock: Infinite for a class assignment (lucky, I know). The result wasn’t stellar. Not being able to perform even the simplest of tasks really hindered her ability to enjoy the game. The frustration was visible.
To expand on and clarify the above concept, I want to compare learning to use a controller to learning to read. Why? Well for one, it can help in understanding why gaming controllers are a barrier. If you’re reading this, that means you’ve learned to read (congratulations) and are probably familiar with controllers. Try to recall if you’ve ever helped someone learn to read? I have, and let me tell you, there are two striking similarities to that and learning to use a controller. Please keep in mind these are aspects to learning I’ve noticed in both situations. As I do not have factual data to back it up, they are my opinions but I hope my explanations resonate with you.
People reading or using a controller with little or no prior experience do not usually enjoy the experience. The learning process is not fun. Human beings tend to enjoy things we are inherently good at. We do not enjoy being wrong or struggling. Yes, there are people who view learning as a challenge. A computer programmer may find a rewarding challenge in learning a new computing language. However, he/she may not find a rewarding challenge in learning calculus. It can come down to individual perception on the situation. From what I’ve seen the learning process is met with frustration. This frustration can be amplified by the fact that an individual learning how to use a controller is staring at a screen showing a visual representation of their repeated failures.
The other similarity of learning deals with the content of what is being learned. Most likely those learning to read are children. You weren’t taught to read by having Harry Potter slammed down on the table before you. It was most likely Dr. Seuss or some equivalent. It’s a little tough for to draw comparisons between children learning to read via Dr. Seuss and people learning to use a controller as they are probably older. Children learning Dr. Seuss will find those books entertaining, adults learning to read will probably not. Those adults will find something along the lines of Harry Potter more interesting. The same can be said for people learning how to use a modern day controller. Those simpler games may be easier to learn, but they might not capture the attention of the people playing the game. Those games might not provide enough motivation for someone to become proficient with a controller. The games that do interest them, in concept, narrative, characters etc. might be too difficult. Giving a new gamer The Last of Us is the same thing as giving a learning adult reader Harry Potter over Dr. Seuss. Both will be more interesting, but both are much harder to use for learning.
At the same time they cannot enjoy the experience if they can’t progress in the book/game. New gamers have one of two options. They can push forward through the frustration and learn though trial and error how to become proficient enough or they can do so by playing simpler games. Someone taking the latter route might not be interested in playing simpler games (i.e. contributing nostalgia factor, they’re older, etc). The Last of Us might be too hard for someone to learn. It might be worse for an adult to fail or struggle with a game they perceive to be very simple. Again, it may come down to personal perspective on the matter. For my friend, playing Bioshock Infinite (on the easiest setting), illustrates this. It didn’t matter how critically acclaimed the game was. It didn’t matter how good the gameplay mechanics were or even it’s interesting premise and setting. She did not have fun playing the game, not because it wasn’t interesting (she enjoyed the premise)… but because she couldn’t play it.
The Wii’s controller completely circumvented this process. Motion gaming is simple, it’s easy to learn and makes sense to use. You drive a vehicle; you understand how to use the wheel controller accessory for Mario Kart. If you’ve gone bowling, you can translate that experience to the Wii. Even if you’ve never golfed in your life, the concept of swinging a club is easy to learn. People who have never golfed could still do so on the Wii (performance may vary). Yes, these could be considered “simpler games,” but there is no learning process to play these games.
I do admit that to play the game itself, a player technically has to learn what to do. It also doesn’t mean that watching golf will make someone perform well in Wii golf. However, players do not have to memorize what the 12+ buttons on a controller do. They don’t have switch back from pressing a button to the analog stick or try to understand using two analog sticks at once. They don’t have to keep looking from the TV screen, to the controller, and back to the TV again because they don’t know where a particular button is located. The Wii’s controller and motion avoids these struggles and as a result, there is no frustration at losing to less complex games. They can be enjoyed immediately, even by someone who has never held a controller. The elderly, non-gaming adults, and children were all able to enjoy the same games without this learning curve. In doing so Nintendo even built them a foundation to tackle the tougher and more complex games it offers. Wii motion gaming broke down the accessibility barrier for a lot of people: it opened the door for a large consumer market
The success of the Wii can be attributed to multiple factors: its new way to play game; thus its accessibility that cornered a market, Nintendo’s historic name and legacy, the Wii’s launch price, and the aggressive marketing campaign Nintendo did before the its release. I decided to delve into accessibility specifically, as the Wii’s innovative motion concept was the most prominent reason for the Wii’s success. Make no mistake; these other factors were crucial to the Wii in their own right.
The Wii put Nintendo back on top, they had achieved their goal. Shifting their vision and won over a market that didn’t quite exist before this point; the “casual gamer.” However, technology is a faced paced and ever evolving field. A lot can change over six years. Nintendo’s motion gaming concept was both a blessing and a curse. For the Wii it was a blessing, for the Wii U a curse. During the Wii’s development Nintendo either wasn’t aware or refused to acknowledge the way gaming and its competitors were going in. The Wii provided a new way to play, but did so with a traditional mindset. It was built around a philosophy that consoles are created for the sole purpose of playing games. In a sense the Wii was the last console created for that purpose. Both Sony and Microsoft better understood where to take their new consoles. When looking back at the 7th generation of consoles they very well might be seen as the turning point for console gaming. Nintendo finished in first, but I don’t think it knew what race it was running.