Wiinning with Wii U: How Nintendo Can Win its Core Over Again
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 04:02pm 02/11/12 | Comments
We explore what Nintendo needs to do post-release to keep solid momentum up and to ignite their fanbase with Wii U...
Wii U’s ever-approaching global release is being met with excitement and trepidation everywhere I look.
Eons ago I was a self-professed Nintendo fanboy and was even Editor of this country’s N64 Gamer and Nintendo Gamer magazines for a collective three years before GameCube’s slump left us gasping for air, and the publisher at the time pulled the pin.
Obviously since then I’ve expanded my horizons to include every gaming platform, but there’s still a little Nintendophile hidden somewhere inside me, and with Nintendo’s new (allegedly) “core-focused” home-console just around the corner, this inner person is trying to get out and jump for joy. The problem for the common sense side of me though, is I’m telling him to keep calm and wait. After all, we were both pretty burnt by Wii in the end, and despite some excitement for 3DS, even that platform has slipped from my periphery.
The funny thing is when I was staunchly supporting, and defending, every little thing Nintendo did, there was one argument against The Big N that would get my blood boiling, and that’s that their games and consoles were for kids. Now, however, I couldn’t agree with that statement more. And it’s in my own growth as a gamer, and a person, that I see where others came to that conclusion, and where Nintendo could misstep with Wii U and any sentiment that they’re “thinking about” hardcore gamers this time around. Let me explain.
The Nintendo Elite has never changed its mind about what Nintendo means. Mario, Link, Samus et al are Gods to them and this is where the problems begin, because Nintendo is a company who has never followed trends. When Wii launched, they decided to remain at SD and offer relatively little online love. This, they argued, was to keep costs low for “families” and because they weren’t convinced online security (for said families), or online gaming was going to be widely adopted -- the same thought process they also had for household adoption of HD. This, in my opinion, was one of their biggest mistakes with Wii.
I played the shit out of my Wii for the first year, but when first-party titles dropped and the waggle gimmick waned, my Wii just started collecting dust. And the more I played Xbox 360 or PS3 in HD, the harder it was to want to even fire up Nintendo’s console. Third-parties began to drop off Wii support, and despite a mammoth install-base worldwide, murmurings among my peers, publishers and developers alike was simply that the Wii had had its run.
I’d argue it was the aforementioned “Nintendo Elite” who sparked (or at least liberally spread) the first wave of rumours surrounding Wii U and Nintendo’s renewed focus on regaining the core gamers they began to recognise they’d lost, or were losing. I know this, because I was once them. It’s not so much a lie in so much as it’s a hope -- hope that Nintendo will take us back to those glory years of the N64 and its myriad groundbreaking titles, or even GameCube and its heyday, despite its lacking sales or market penetration. I mean Metroid Prime, man. Seriously, Metroid Prime.
Imagine that sinking feeling the fans must have felt at E3 in 2011 when Wii U was shown for the first time. It’s signature, sterile white casing was the least intimidating thing I’d ever seen. And there was no new Mario, no new Samus and what little of Link was shown barely gave an indication of the machine’s power, only that if they were to render out a new Zelda game, it would at least be as shiny as the current-gen of consoles.
Hands-on was also a mixed affair for those of us who were still on the fence. Everything offered up was a basic tech-demo of “possibilities” for developers, and as happened with the exact same demonstration scenario with Wii, most of said tech-demos are now part of a list of party games for Wii U. Moreover, the potential for that touch-screen controller just hasn’t been exposed yet. There are obvious utilities, such as active in-game maps, interactive inventories or secondary cameras, but the same thing can currently be done between PS3 and the Vita, or soon on Xbox 360 with SmartGlass.
So we’re left with Nintendo seemingly at a crossroads where their core gamer snubbery and inability to take into account trends or consumer requests could leave them high and dry or, adopting “Wii” into their new console’s name and combining what they did so well with non-core gamers, mainstream and families with the original Wii, will pay off. Ahead of this though, I have a list of things they need to do to maintain momentum post-launch taken from both a Nintendophile perspective, and the viewpoint of someone who grew out of their blinder, separatist antics.
Games -- A Steady Stream of Games
There’s no denying Nintendo has some of the best franchises in the business, or at least some of the most recognisable. But we saw with Nintendo 3DS and Wii that without a steady stream of games post-launch people start to get antsy. Staggering big-name A-List Nintendo franchises with top third-party titles is going to be key -- this is a no-brainer. There’s nothing doing in have 50+ titles at launch, all that does is spread everyone too thin and takes away focus from games that could deserve just that.
At the moment there isn’t a significant Nintendo franchise at launch of the single-player, innovative variety, just fun family-oriented party games. They really needed a Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Smash Bros, Star Fox, Kid Icarus (etc) title to launch with, and at the moment there’s nothing like it, which already bodes poorly from the outset. And before the Elite cry out "Pikmin!" I’m going to cut you off with “Pikmin? Really? C’mon...”.
Online -- Connecting Gamers in Ways they Want and Understand
I already mentioned Nintendo’s ability to block out what the rest of world is doing, but in the online space this is something they simply can’t do. Innovation in online gaming is a tough nut to crack, because we all already have expectations for our online gaming experiences and Friend Codes is not a palatable part of that expectation. Moreover, as games move ever-online, gaming in that space becomes more and more sophisticated and Nintendo needs to recognise a place for people to exist there, without some sort of barcode-esque identity.
Thankfully they appear to be on the right track with Nintendo Network. Obviously the rub here is it’s difficult to know the extent of their service without trying it out first-hand, but all signs point to a notable mash-up of the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, which bodes well. Being able to utilise the same online space for both 3DS and Wii U is also a huge boon for their step into a better connected experience for Nintendo peeps, but just how well it stacks up in departments of digital delivery (considering there’s murmurings we’ll be seeing GameCube games added to the Virtual Console service), peer-to-peer gaming and beyond, remains to be seen.
Controller Innovation -- Making it Stand-Out Amongst Already Similar Tech
It may have been something Nintendo thought was innovative, but their new Tablet Controller is actually nothing new in the current tablet-happy landscape of tech and gaming. In fact, it’s only real stand-out is that it comes with NFC (Near Field Communication) baked in. Otherwise, it’s resolution and display capabilities are actually less than a lot of budget tablets out there.
I know what you’re screaming though -- “that’s not the point!”, and you’re right. The Wii U’s controller isn’t a stand-alone tablet and has been designed to function specifically as a controller for their new console, meaning it has all the regular features as a standard controller, with the added bonus of a 6.2 inch 16:9 resistive touchscreen. How Nintendo utilise this unique marriage now, is going to be one of their most important differentiators moving forward, and to be honest, we haven’t seen anything that hooks the product into our imagination. Yet.
Games Part 2 -- Three’s a Party, Invite them on in
Again, this one really is a no-brainer, but the Wii U needs continued third-party support. But where the differentiator comes is in whether or not third-parties choose to simply port their wares across all platforms, or if they choose to adapt their titles to the Wii U GamePad. The latter could prove a financial risk, or time-sink, and may not occur enough to warrant a shift from a current-gen platform to Nintendo Wii U.
This brings the Controller Innovation point to the fore, because unless a developer or publisher is actively seeking out new ways to innovate with the platform, it’s up to Nintendo to lead the way on possibilities, and again, we really just haven’t seen enough to have us thinking third-parties are going to want to utilise it. Thankfully, with a step into the HD world though, there’s a solid chance porting games across regardless is going to be easy enough, so there should be a steady stream of titles, however, this in itself could become problematic once Microsoft inevitably shows off their next console which will likely be followed closely by Sony -- both of which we predict will far outpower the Wii U and therefore leave Nintendo once again in the power dust. It’s a somewhat vicious circle where, without innovation in the controller space, they’re going to be left behind, but leaving innovation up to competing and strapped third-parties is going to be an uphill battle. Nintendo needs to lead the way here.
Transparency -- Stop Pretending You’re Alone in Videogames, Nintendo
Reggie’s presentation of Wii U for North America a while back was almost insulting. Not only did they spend more time showing how Wii U can now stream Modern Family, but they acted as if this were some groundbreaking thing in videogames that no one had done before. This is where my Nintendo philosophy of “blinders” stems from, and it’s something they need to stop doing.
There’s no question Nintendo is an innovator. Glasses-free 3D for 3DS, the Wii Remote (read: motion control), analogue gaming, true 3D vertices gaming, the 16-bit revolution... it goes on and on. And proof of the fruits of this innovation can be seen in how the competitors follow suit -- Sony Move, for example. But technologies are converging and power is beginning to take root as a main driver for the next-gen. There’s also my aforementioned point of PS3 to Vita connectivity and Microsoft’s SmartGlass innovation -- both of which are on par with the Wii U’s biggest draw in the eyes of the average punter, so now is the time for Nintendo to drive how these technologies are best used and to stop pretending they’re at the front of all this, because for the first time in a long time, they’re not, and it comes off as pompous and out-of-touch when they do.
There’s nothing wrong with competition in technology, especially when that technology drives entertainment, and acknowledgement of this would be a grounding, humble position for Nintendo, and one I feel would resonate within the industry and among consumers worldwide.
Hardcore -- Ignite the Fanbase that Ignited You
This last point is almost more wishful thinking than an active point of post-release success for the Wii U, but given the high expectations of my peers and all the now-in-the-closet Ninty fanboys at E3 2011 over that rumour, it could end up being Nintendo’s biggest trump card moving forward.
During the N64 and GameCube eras, Nintendo had a stable of second-party developers working to bolster their first-party releases, and these guys used to be the best in the biz. The likes of Rare, Silicon Knights and Retro Studios come to mind (two of those three are shells of their former selves now), while within the walls of Nintendo itself there was a lot of fan support and transparency for development divisions such as EAD and Intelligent Systems. In more recent times it feels like a lot of this development fanfare has subsided and Nintendo looks and acts as a single entity (though we know it doesn’t).
In an effort to return to an age where the company’s innovative development teams are actively followed and given the spotlight, Nintendo could generate a massive shift in the perception of their core gaming interests. This would need to be a matured effort though, similar to that of the GameCube era where we had titles like Eternal Darkness from Silicon Knights or Metroid Prime from Retro Studios. It would seem like a bit of a misstep to just have third-parties fleshing out this side of games for their new console, when it was the exclusive stuff in the past that garnered so much fan support.
Of course I know that support didn’t translate well enough in sales, but as a combination of the mainstream reach they have and their party-game flair alongside mature, core games, we could have a result likely in line with what Nintendo originally wanted all those years ago on GameCube.
Two Cents -- That’s Mine
A lot of you might disagree with all of the above, but as an old Nintendo fan, and having followed them since the NES days (yep, I’m old) I feel this would be at least the right path. A lot of the above is also common sense, at least, but there’s an element to Nintendo these days that just seems like they keep missing these basic, no-brainer points.
At the moment they have a big uphill battle with me and many others, especially those of us who used to believe, but the foundation and potential is there. All that’s left is for us to wait and see - with great power (gloves), comes great responsibility, Nintendo. Remember that.