Nintendo's decision to carry its Wii and DS branding into the next generation will confuse more consumers than it attracts.
Prior to Nintendo's E3 conference, a number of names floated around for the home console which would be unveiled. Project Cafe, of course, was the development codename for the device. A few ideas were suggested for what the final title would be, including the peculiar but interesting concept that the system itself might just be called "Nintendo". Nobody guessed at "Wii U". Nintendo, unlike its gaming rivals, seems to retain the capability to play its cards close to its chest.
By christening the device using the Wii branding, Nintendo returns to a strategy abandoned long ago. This is the first Nintendo home console to be branded as a continuation of its successor since the venerable Super NES.
Actually, had the company decided to give its older fans a grin of recognition by unveiling a platform called the "Super Wii", it might have been a better move. At least then we'd have avoided the confusion that followed in the wake of the Wii U announcement, which left many observers confused about what was actually being unveiled - with the idea that this was a new controller for the Wii rather than a brand new console being a popular misconception.
At this stage, a few days after the conference and with tons of explanatory coverage appearing across the Web, anyone who frequents gaming sites and is still purporting to be confused over this issue is obviously simply being obtuse. Yet we can't dismiss the confusion that was evident across social networks and comment threads during the conference itself. Many perfectly earnest and intelligent people simply didn't get what Nintendo was trying to tell them - and these are people who are into gaming. What's going to happen when Nintendo tries to explain Wii U to its broader audience?
Part of the problem was that the announcement itself was poorly designed and executed. In their haste to show off the flexibility of the controller, the team writing the scripts failed to set out the basis of what they were presenting from the outset, and then proceeded to bounce around between features and concepts like a giddy child at a birthday party. Contrasted with the measured, explanatory tone of the original Wiimote unveiling at TGS many moons ago, this frenetic and unfocused presentation did its subject few favours.
That, however, is a temporary setback at best. It's just one presentation - an important one, of course, but there'll be plenty more public outings for the Wii U and plenty of chances for the company to get its story straight and its explanations rehearsed, focus tested and rehearsed again. The Wii U desperately needed an elevator pitch this week, and Nintendo didn't seem to have one - but I don't doubt that the company is busy thinking of one right now.
What's more worrying, though, is the second source of confusion - the name. Certainly, some of the audience weren't sure if this was an upgrade to the Wii or a whole new console because the presentation was a bit slapdash - but that idea was reinforced and expanded by the fact that the branding is essentially the same as the previous console.
It's easy to see why Nintendo decided to do that, of course. The Wii is the best-selling home console of the generation, and it doesn't want to abandon the value it's built up in the brand. Throwing away the GameCube branding was easy, but dumping "Wii" would be painful, perhaps even wasteful.
Yet there's a problem with this decision making process - and with the thinking behind it. It's perfectly illustrated by something I've experienced personally a couple of times in the past few weeks, buying new software for my 3DS. I'm not sure when it started, but of late, retailers in Japan have started asking "are you sure you have a 3DS?" when you buy a game for the system. I've heard similar reports from the UK and elsewhere.
In other words, there's enough confusion in the market right now between the DS and the 3DS that it's actually causing consumers to buy the wrong software - and often enough for it to have become a problem for retailers. That's entirely unsurprising, actually, given the nature of many of the responses I've heard to the system in conversations. There's a surprisingly broad perception that the 3DS is a simple upgrade to the DS, adding 3D to the device in the same way that the DS LL added a bigger screen and the DSi added a camera - but still being essentially the same hardware underneath.
"I don't really care about the 3D stuff so I'll just keep playing on my DS" is a common line - followed by genuine surprise at the discovery that they won't be able to put 3DS carts in their existing DS. I should clarify that the lion's share of conversations like this I've had have been with Japanese men in their twenties, so it's not like we're talking about people alien to Nintendo's products here.
Why has this occurred? How has Nintendo allowed the launch of a new console, a successor to one of the most successful pieces of consumer hardware in history, to get so confused that many consumers don't even realise it's happened? The answer is simple - the company, buoyed by the immense success of the DS, wanted to hang on to that brand. Not only did it stick with the DS name, it also stuck with the form factor (almost exactly so), the game packaging, and much of the branding. Here in Japan, it even kept the same celebrities in its advertising campaigns. Who can blame consumers - especially those in the more casual, less engaged audience that the DS so successfully cultivated - for thinking this is just another DSi-esque hardware revision?
Does this litany of problems sound familiar? If so, it's because it's a script which was repeated in Los Angeles this week. The Wii U doesn't just retain the name of its predecessor, it also hangs on to the brand identity. It goes even further than the 3DS, in fact - like 3DS, the console hardware looks very similar to the previous system, but in the case of Wii U, it also uses Wii controller hardware as a core part of its experience. Consumers will see a console called "Wii U", which looks almost exactly like a Wii, and is controlled with Wiimotes, and sports many of the same game franchises - and what will they think, other than "oh, this is a new bolt-on for my Wii"?
Nintendo would argue that this is no different to what Sony and Microsoft do - that they're simply using the DS and Wii brands in the same way that PlayStation and Xbox are used. This isn't the case, however. Each time Sony or Microsoft launch a new system under those brands, they redefine the brand substantially - vastly overhauling the logo and the design of the hardware, and using enormous marketing campaigns to emphasise the difference of the new system from the old, not its similarity.
Besides, the reason why Sony and Microsoft use those brands is simple - it's because they're the only gaming brands they've got. Sony is a consumer electronics brand. Microsoft is a corporate software brand. It was a necessity for them to create separate brands for gaming. Nintendo, on the other hand, already owns one of the most globally recognisable and valuable brands in gaming - "Nintendo". It can retain all of the goodwill and recognition it built with Wii and DS simply through its own corporate name, an advantage which Sony and Microsoft lack.
Yet instead, Nintendo wants to cling to the name and identity of its recent successes. It's an obvious move, but I suspect that it's a very bad one. Spending the first year of its new hardware launches trying to explain to consumers what it's selling is going to be a millstone around the company's neck. It's hard to see how the remaining power of the DS and Wii brands is going to counterbalance that - not when the firm could just be exploiting the power of its own name instead.