18 November 2012

As The WiiU Launches What Are Its Prospects?

Last night, at midnight, the WiiU launched in North America. The reviews were soon to follow yet the system's online operations are not fully functional and frankly to review a console at this stage is simply disingenuous.

However, we can garner some impressions and offer some expectations even before the console launches in Europe on November 30th.

Nintendo intends to proposition the WiiU as a console for everyone, from the most casual of players to the most dedicated segments of the core market. If Sony can take credit for opening gaming to the mainstream with the first PlayStation - and to a greater extent - with the PlayStation 2 than Nintendo can surely be praised for expanding the market to demographics which would never before have purchased videogames.

Undoubtedly the Wii reached family audiences in a way gaming never had but to carry that audience forward is an entirely different proposition. The WiiU has enormous potential in the social space with MiiVerse and there are the staples of Nintendo's formidable first-party lineup to encourage casual gamers to part with their cash however the market is radically different than it was when the Wii first launched, in more ways than one.

While many families purchased the Wii for the novelty factor of motion control in all probability those the consoles have been left to gather dust. Even those casual gamers which continue to use the Wii for titles like Wii Fit and Wii Sports will likely be unaware of the WiiU. There are a number of reasons for this, firstly by their very definition casual gamers cannot, and should not, be expected to keep themselves appraised of the latest trends and technologies in the gaming world.

The second reason is that the Wii offered something intrinsically new and was a distinct departure from the GameCube. It had a new name, new marketing, new logo and of course motion control. The WiiU keeps all of these aspects none of which are new today. Of course Sony and Microsoft kept the name for their consoles the same with each generation (there is even some speculation that Microsoft will simply call the next Xbox Xbox).

What differentiates Sony and Microsoft however is that they not primarily game companies. Sony is a consumer electronics maker (though under Kaz Hirai gaming is set to form a pillar of Sony's business) while Microsoft is principally a computer software giant.

Nintendo only makes games, though organically they produced cards and toys, and so with Nintendo the name of the console matters less than the company behind it. The Wii illustrated that nicely. Each time Sony launches a new PlayStation or Microsoft reveals a new Xbox there is a concerted marketing campaign to clarify to the gaming, as well as the general, public that here is a shiny new system for you to spend your money on.

When the WiiU was originally revealed at E3 2010 many in the audience were unaware whether Nintendo was showing them a new console or simply a new controller. While I gathered quickly that was in fact the Wii's successor (not intended as a boast by any means) some of the journalists and industry insiders present at the event were confounded. Even by E3 2011 CNN's technology correspondent at the event thought the WiiU controller was simply an update for the Wii.

And while that journalist was not specifically a game reporter one would expect him keep on top of such things. If Nintendo has that kind of trouble with the initial reaction of the E3 press and industry figures it is surely not a stretch to say they'll have significantly greater trouble with the casual market. This is hampered, in Europe at least, by the seeming absence of any concerted marketing campaign. The WiiU launches on the continent in just 12 days.

It would be interesting to know what percentage of the Wii's ownership are even aware of the WiiU's existence. At a guess I would hazard about a third and certainly less than half.

For the other sector of the market, the core gamer demographic, Nintendo has other methods to try and illicit interest in their new system.

First and foremost of course are the games. Nintendo, as stated previously, has a formidable first party collection to choose from and while making titles such as Bayonetta 2 an exclusive was in theory a good idea  as it essentially says "we're taking core gaming seriously again."

In practice Bayonetta was not a particularly successful title commercially and while it has an avid fan-base it's difficult to determine how may players will fork over €300 to play the followup. Other titles such as Batman: Arkham City, Mass Effect 3 and Assassin's Creed 3 - while great for Nintendo gamers - are unlikely to sway anyone either. All of these titles have of course already been released on other platforms.

Of course there are new IPs for the system as well. Ubisoft's ZombiU for instance is a launch title, initial reviews have been somewhat mediocre however while Nintendo Land is a mixed bag by all accounts. In effect there are no must buy titles for the system announced to date. A console's launch lineup does not, by any means, reflect the eventual success of the system.

The 3DS is widely considered to have had Nintendo's weakest ever array of launch window titles while the PlayStation Vita had the strongest in Sony's history. The 3DS has since had a remarkable change in fortunes while the Vita has undeservedly sunk.

Yet for the moment at least, Nintendo has failed to offer a compelling reason to buy a Wii U beyond the early adapters. As with the 3DS this might in time change and certainly given supply problems, which seems likely, there will be a high sell through which is likely to last for some months although this period of extremely high sales will almost certainly be shorter than it was for the Wii.

The market has changed since 2006, Nintendo is selling for €50 more than the Wii and while the €300 pricetag is far from the highest launch price it will certainly be a deterrent for the casual market and, given the limited advances over existing systems, will likely prove a difficult buy for core gamers conscious that the next Xbox and PlayStation are likely 12 - 18 months away at most.

Casual gamers are likely satisfied with their Androids and iPads and propositioning a €50 game compared to €0.99 apps is almost certainly a non-starter. The bulk of the casual market is lost to the console business and this will be reflected in the sales of all three next generation systems. Nintendo, which so carefully cultivated this segment, will bear the brunt of this decline.

This is not to say consoles are doomed, not by any means, they will likely continue to play an important role in gaming for many years to come but it will be a significantly reduced one.

This generation of home consoles has, to date, seen combined sales of around 230 million (made up of about 95 million Wiis, 70 millions Xbox 360s and 67 million PS3s). It would be astounding if the fourth generation replicated those numbers given the proliferation of smartphones and tables as alternative game playing devices. The overwhelming majority of iPad owners use the system for gaming after all.

Similarly the economy will have eaten away at the spending power of all sectors of the market. €300 may be half the cost of the PlayStation 3 when it launched but the Wii U is being sent into an economy racked by years of redundancies and austerity. €300 is a significant investment in those circumstances for a luxury product which Nintendo have failed to compellingly sell up to this point.

There are other matters to consider. The WiiU's online capabilities will not likely be known fully until there are title's available to take advantage of the Nintendo Network. However we can make some guesses as to how Nintendo's position has evolved. Firstly the fact that games will be available in retail and digitally at the same time is to welcomed, it is the inevitable progression of the industry.

Yet the 8GB WiiU model has a mere 3GB of space for downloads after mandatory system installs. This coupled with fact that the console does not support system wide achievements, a staple on virtually all rival platforms and not just consoles, indicates that though Nintendo has made some progress it has not yet fully grasped online gaming. The absence of achievements are unlikely to deter those interested in the consoles yet early games with the accolades on both Xbox 360 and PS3 boasted enhanced sales for certain titles for some time.

Initial reports also say that players can do nothing during firmware downloads and in that regard it seems Nintendo have not learnt from Sony's mistake with the PlayStation Network either.

Then there is the GamePad controller. This is the WiiU's unique selling point and yet, for that, it is not all that unique. Apple to some degree provide that capability iPad and Apple TV whill Sony have for years offered remote play for both the PSP and the PS Vita and even Nintendo has offered a similar experience with the GameBoy and GameCube in the past.

And personally the best use of the 'WiiU's technology' I've seen was at Sony's gamescom media briefing where they demoed LittleBigPlanet 2 using the Vita as the controller.

I have not personally used a WiiU though I remain doubtful as to the ease with which gamers will determine which screen they're supposed to look at. While the Pro Controller, once again Nintendo's way of demonstrating their commitment to the core market has a serious flaw. The sticks are in the 'wrong' place.

By moving the sticks above the buttons on the Pro Controller Nintendo have replicated the layout of the GamePad disrupted years of accepted controller layout and done so unnecessarily at that. A second can be enough to see you die in some games and if you've been playing Call of Duty on Xbox all these years a misstep like that won't encourage you to play on WiiU instead. Perseverance would no doubt lead to familiarity but Nintendo's efforts to fix something that wasn't broken is somewhat questionable.

Ultimately it is too early to determine what success the WiiU might have however I submit for the record my belief that the WiiU will not share the Wii's success, in the long term, at least and shall shift around half of its predecessors numbers. That's still a very respectable 35-50 million and certainly better than the GameCube performed.

I also stand by my assessment - which I have held since the console was first revealed - that the WiiU is a gimmick, attempting to be all things to all people, and one again purporting to revolutionise gaming. The WiiU cannot do these things though Nintendo should never be discounted and they might pull off another winner in this new generation though I do not think this is likely.

I'd like to be surprised by Nintendo. I really would.

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