Nintendo Wii U: Death By Apathy
With no support from Electronic Arts, the Wii U just experienced its Dreamcast moment. Will other publishers now follow suit?
The Wii U just had its Dreamcast moment. With Electronic Arts confirming it doesn't have any games in development for the machine, one of the console industry's biggest players has walked away from the system counting its losses. So that's none of the market-leading sports games for the Wii U in the near term and none of those tantalising new Star Wars games in the mid-term. We weren't looking at a long term solution for the Wii U, but now it seems it won't even get a semi-decent sales pick up at the end of the year. Christmas is cancelled for Nintendo.
"When you can get to number one in the Wii U charts by selling less than 1000 units it's no longer a tragedy, it's an actual farce"
EA doesn't exactly have money to spend anywhere other than on its safest bets at the moment. It's cutting costs, from CEO wages to gun licensing, but the sports games will get it out of the hole its in, or at least keep it afloat in the console market until the installed base of the PS4 and next Xbox allow for some decent sales.
And I'm not saying Electronic Arts has the same pull it did in the console market during the year 2000. It's market share has been overtaken by Activision and is being threatened by a hungry Ubisoft. And if it insists on supporting games like Fuse - a title no one asked for and no one is interested in - it's going to continue to throw money in the direction of the nearest bin.
But EA has pulled out of the Wii U because sales of both hardware and software are dreadful. We're not officially allowed to report sales numbers from Chart Track in the UK but everyone in the publishing business can see them quite clearly. There's no need for pretence. When you can get to number one in the Wii U charts by selling less than 1000 units it's no longer a tragedy, it's an actual farce.
It's not much better in the all-formats chart. Staying at number one in the charts for a second week isn't so much a sign of success, as a sign you're not selling as poorly as everyone else in the top ten. The top ten isn't relevant any more, last year it was only really the top five that counted. And this year it's likely to be only the top three best-selling games that have any impact - and they are going to be multiformat titles like Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed and FIFA. Everything else is fighting for scraps.
The Wii U has been defeated by the most humbling of challengers - consumer apathy. When the inevitable "Nintendo halts Wii U production" stories hit, the majority of those that bought the original Wii won't even notice. The mainstream bought the Wii because it was a fun novelty, they didn't buy it for a new Zelda game. What's the Wii U's novelty? That it does everything a current-gen console does but a little bit slower and with a Fisher Price tablet attached?
Retailers have given up on the Wii U. It's not discounted at the supermarkets because they want to sell more, it's been cut in price so they can get rid of it quickly. Software drives hardware sales. But there are no credible software sales because there are no games being released. Retail is desperate to sell anything, that's why GAME is now selling sci-fi and fantasy books and HMV has cans of Coke and sweets at the till - anything to squeeze a penny out. They aren't going to sit around and make space for a handful of Wii U games near the end of the year. They'll be pushing the Wii U to one side to make more space for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 and hopefully the PS4 and next Xbox.
Is there still hope for the Wii U? Well, there are first-party games on the horizon but with no actual surprises. Nintendo will spend a lot of money in the autumn on ads and marketing for first-party games to try and save face, but the rot set in too quickly. I don't know what this says for the next generation of consoles but they are at least coming out the gate with real noise and hype. That's not enough to sell them of course, but they are having a big impact before they come to market which is exactly as it should be.
"The Wii U isn't discounted at the supermarkets because they want to sell more, it's been cut in price so they can get rid of it quickly"
Nintendo can't compete with Microsoft and Sony, that's why they've pulled out of the E3 pissing contest. That's almost a dignified admission of defeat. If Nintendo shows off new Starfox, Zelda, Mario and Blast Corps titles next month in L.A. it's only going to be preaching to the converted. They will be drowned out by the bombast and great swinging balls of their rivals. What will the LA Times, Reuters, the BBC, Tech Crunch, Joystiq, VentureBeat, GamesIndustry International, Gamasutra and the rest of the media be prioritising during E3? Anything that can lift the console business up off its knees and give it an adrenaline shot. That's the real story here, and the Wii U is a boxout of what went wrong.
There's also today's announcement that Sega is handing publishing duties of Sonic the Hedgehog over to Nintendo, like Sonic the Hedgehog still means something to the games player. It doesn't, it's a tired old mascot who jumped the shark when Sega painted him black and gave him a gun. This deal is Sega begrudgingly admitting it can no longer market and sell kids games, and its last hope in a world of Moshi Monsters and Angry Birds is Nintendo. And if Nintendo can't sell another company's mascot, well, Sega is now prioritising PC gaming anyway.
The new GameCube or the new Dreamcast, it doesn't matter how we hang it. The console market is brutal and Microsoft and Sony may have also left it too late with their own machines, only time will tell. But when Nintendo isn't playing the console wars game, the consumers don't care and the retailer is pushing new hardware to the curb, what are publishers meant to do? There's no EA support now, will Ubisoft be next? Tellingly, Activision hasn't mentioned "Call of Duty: Ghosts" in the same sentence as "Wii U", and as that game is going to be a centrepiece of the next Xbox reveal it's not likely to associate it with a device that isn't generating any excitement. Will these publishers bother with exclusive titles, or even porting existing games with a little touchpad tweak when they're not seeing support anywhere else?
The only sensible move is for Nintendo to take its brands to other formats, but that's an argument we've had so many times. As Rob Fahey argued a few weeks ago, Nintendo can afford to have a failed console around its neck, but it can't afford to damage its most valuable assets, its IP.
The brands will live on. But the Wii U is a dead man walking.