May 26th, 2013, 22:32 Posted By: wraggster
An early prototype for the Wii's controller was an accelerometer-equipped disc you gripped in both hands, with a huge star-shaped button in the middle surrounded by smaller buttons. It was made out of orange plastic, so Nintendo's hardware team nicknamed it the cheddar cheese. Surprisingly enough, no-one liked it. Cheddar cheese was simple enough to use, and accurate, but it looked weird - and Nintendo's developers thought it unsuited to the company's own software.Nevertheless cheddar cheese was an important stepping-stone for Nintendo. It demonstrated that innovation is not just about new experiences, but their form factor. Originality had to be matched to simplicity and desirability. Such thinking led to the brilliance of the Wii remote, and a sales phenomenon. With Wii U and its gamepad, there's more than a whiff of cheddar cheese.Nintendo's figures for the Wii U's first months on sale, from November through to March, are terrible. The headline number of 3.45 million units sold worldwide isn't the killer fact, but the split behind it: 3.06 million of those came in the first month. Since that point Wii U has tanked - there's no other way to put it - with even the release of traditional big-hitters like Dragon Quest 10 failing to make a dent in the Japanese market. If you believe certain analysts, April saw things getting even worse in the US with the Wii U shifting under 40,000 units, easily outsold by the 360 and PS3 - and, even more embarrassingly, the Wii.Satoru Iwata recently took on the extra responsibility of being Nintendo of America's CEO, which the company said would make them more “agile.” In other words they want Nintendo of Japan's decisions to be executed faster.
These numbers fall well below Nintendo's original aim to sell 5.5 million units - though even that estimate hints at rather modest ambitions. What happened? It is worth remembering, first of all, what the Wii U had to follow. In the DS and Wii markets Nintendo, through a combination of luck and design genius, created a captive audience that will pay them for years to come, and one the company is still trying to guide upstream. This is a point often missed - Nintendo's unusual devices have an audience that is equally unusual for the games industry, i.e. normal people.Wii U's gamepad is a less obvious sell than the Wii remote was, and not nearly as instantly exciting. The bigger difference is software. Nintendo launched Wii with the greatest pack-in title ever made, and then Wii U came with Nintendo Land - a rather half-hearted run through classic rides of yesteryear. There have been nice uses for the gamepad in a lot of Wii U titles, but the concept hasn't yet been the foundation of anything.This is important because it's the crux of Nintendo's business philosophy: creative hardware drives developers to make creative software. It's something that, with the DS for example, was a spectacular success - though largely because Nintendo themselves led the way. But it comes with one gigantic problem. Many console developers, and particularly the big publishers, are less interested in being creative than they are in following templates. And you have to sympathise with that position. Original or even branded IPs with new takes on interaction are risky business in the mainstream, and can also be deadly - witness THQ's doomed attempt at doing a Nintendo with Udraw. The Wii, outside of a few outlier hits like Carnival Games and Just Dance, was not good for thirdparties.2. One interesting tidbit lost in the brouhaha about sales figures is that, as reported in the Japan Times, Nintendo are making it easy for tablet games to be ported to Wii U. This bleeds nicely into the advent of devices to make the Gamepad portable.
Combine this traditional feature of a Nintendo platform with a low installed base and, as one of EA's Senior Software Engineers employee put it in an unguarded moment, "Nintendo are walking dead at this point.". Third parties become less committed, or even walk. Exclusives like Rayman Legends have been lost and then there's the recent will they/won't they EA saga, with the publisher appearing to confirm it was not supporting Wii U at all, then swiftly rowing back on this.EA's position is terrible news for Nintendo, regardless, because what is clear is that its biggest titles are definitely not coming to Wii U. EA blamed the decision on poor sales of FIFA 13 but this isn't just about sports - or even EA. Wii U is unlikely to see cross-platform versions of games built using the Frosbite tech or Unreal Engine 4, and will undoubtedly lose on this particular front in the next-gen war - though it's one which, in fairness to Nintendo, it was never interested in.The prime turf on which Microsoft and Sony will tussle is often assumed to be the only console market, even though Nintendo created its own shard with Wii. But there's a bigger assumption behind this. It is that PS4 and Xbone are going to launch serenaded by the sound of cash tills, quickly acquiring large installed bases and shifting enough software to keep Peter Moore's goatee nicely trimmed.The idea that the market is desperate for new consoles has widespread currency in the specialist press. Once Microsoft and Sony are on the scene, goes the wisdom, Nintendo are a goner - Christmas 2013 ain't no place for a gamepad. That may be true. But consider this scenario: Microsoft and Sony launch with incremental improvements on the same old software we're used to playing at around £400 apiece. Nintendo, with Wii U officially under £200 by then, crack out the heavy artillery and give us a show: the first high-definition 3D Mario, Mario Kart U, Zelda (all confirmed for this financial year), alongside Autumn releases like Pikmin 3 and the Wonderful 101. That is a real choice for consumers, especially hard-up parents, and not one with a predictable answer.
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