Nintendo in the Firing Line
As PS4 and XB1 enjoy successful launches, comparisons with Wii U look stark - but Nintendo has a track record of confounding the doomsayers
With the PS4 and Xbox One now both launched in North America and Europe, and solid sales reported by both camps, we can expect something of a change in the whole narrative around games consoles. Certainly, there's going to be the usual tit-for-tat that we expect from a console war, with Microsoft in particular having much to prove in this round of the battle, but one thing that is likely to quieten down is the "consoles are doomed" line of argument - which has been heavily promoted over the past few years by people whose core point may have carried some validity, but who vastly overstated their position because they failed to understand the difference between an entire sector in decline, and a simple slowdown at the end of an exceptionally long hardware cycle.
Of course, the arguments that game consoles are ultimately doomed won't go away - but as 2014 progresses and Sony and Microsoft's devices rack up impressive installed bases of consumers paying high prices for game software, it's going to be pretty hard to defend a position that decries the console market as being on course for economic oblivion. Not to worry, though - the hand-waving prophets of doom aren't going anywhere. They've got a new target - or rather, they've brought back an old target and pinned it back over their rhetorical dartboards. Nintendo's back in the line of fire.
"let's face it, launching Super Mario 3D World against the arrival of the PS4 wasn't bold and brazen, it was myopic and dumb, as a worrying number of the company's decisions in recent years have been"
Yes, no sooner had PS4 hopped off the shelves into the welcoming arms of early adopters than Nintendo's rough time with the Wii U was being lamented by supposedly concerned individuals who could scarcely contain their glee. The next-gen systems, barely a week old, are already exceeding the Wii U's installed base. In the UK, much-derided PS4 launch title Knack outsold the critically acclaimed Super Mario 3D World. Publications around the world - even outside the specialist games press - rushed to publish their musings on Nintendo's future, or lack of same, and the seemingly inevitable demise of the ill-fated Wii U.
I'm no apologist for Nintendo - let's face it, launching Super Mario 3D World against the arrival of the PS4 wasn't bold and brazen, it was myopic and dumb, as a worrying number of the company's decisions in recent years have been - but I do try to put their actions and results into a meaningful context and understand them on their own terms. As I've argued before, Nintendo is a rather different kettle of fish to its rivals. It has no designs on owning the living room or dominating your media experiences. It relies remarkably little on third-party games, tending to work closely with partners on a small number of key third-party titles while largely focusing on first-party software.
As a consequence of these things, Nintendo can continue to act and think like a toy company - a huge installed base is desirable, of course, because it makes the firm more profitable, but a smaller yet still profitable installed base is also fine. If Microsoft fails to get Xbox One into a huge number of households, it'll be a major problem, since part of the reason for the system's existence is to extend Microsoft's dominance in the living room; if Sony can't sell tens of millions of PS4 units pretty rapidly, that'll also be a problem, since Sony (like Microsoft) relies heavily on third-party publishers supporting its console, and they won't develop games for a system without a large addressable market. Yet Nintendo cares little about either of those factors, and could be reasonably satisfied with a "third-place finish" that still makes a handsome profit for the firm.
This is not to say that the Wii U isn't in trouble - it is. The console is still spreading red ink on Nintendo's financials, although assessments of the current situation do need to take into account the remarkable success of the 3DS, which continues to ramp up an impressive installed base thanks to the launch of several huge software titles in the past few months, and should end 2013 on a very high note indeed. One successful product covering for the losses of another product isn't an ideal situation by any means, though, and Nintendo will need to take stock of its situation at some point - but not for a while.
Right now, it's the least successful home console the company has ever launched, but sales are still comparable with the GameCube, a system which eventually limped home to about 25 million sales but continued to be supported pretty robustly by first-party software (and even some third-party classics) right through to the bitter end. Like the Wii U, the Cube also found itself marketed alongside a much more successful handheld - the GBA - and there's even an argument that Nintendo is being consistent in its priorities, with the GBA getting the lion's share of attention in software development terms while the Cube struggled through its early years, similar to the situation now with the Wii U and the 3DS.
In short, we've been here before - or at least, in a very similar place to here - and the notion of Nintendo abandoning ship and letting a home console die off prematurely, as Sega did with the late lamented Dreamcast, simply didn't arise. With Nintendo still incredibly cash-rich, expert at wringing profit from its systems (Wii U probably won't spew red ink for long, even if sales remain slow) and selling 3DS systems and software at a rate of knots, there's little reason to believe that the Wii U faces a Dreamcast-like fate. More likely is that the system will continue to get several major first-party releases every year, bolstered by a stream of third-party games that will improve as the installed base inches towards respectability; then the company will move to launch a replacement console after four or five years, while Microsoft and Sony seek to eke out seven or eight years from their new systems. Not a long and prosperous life for a system, but by no means an ignominious end either, and enough to ensure that Wii U owners don't feel betrayed by Nintendo and wary about buying another new console from the firm.
"It's terribly sad, I think, that people who describe themselves as gamers or who work within or around the games business would take such pleasure in imagining the downfall of a company whose products are so squarely focused on the experience and joy of games"
As for Mario and Knack, I wouldn't lose any sleep over those figures. They make for a great headline in the short term (as did the fact that Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns outsold Mario in Japan during the week when both games launched - a blindingly obvious outcome given the relative installed bases of PS2 and Wii U) but the comparison is apples and oranges. Knack is an apparently rather underwhelming launch title for a new system (I say apparently, as I've only played a brief but rather enjoyable demo, PS4 still being some months off over here); Super Mario 3D World is one of the most critically acclaimed games of the year and, in common with Nintendo's key titles in all systems, will enjoy significant long-tail sales for months and perhaps even years. Come back in three months time and see how sales compare - even given the enormous gulf that will have opened up between PS4 sales and Wii U sales in that time, SM3DW's sales will be impressive by any standards.
It's perhaps odd for me, whose personal tastes veered towards Xbox 360 in the past generation and PS2 in the generation previous, to find myself going to bat for Nintendo - although I do now own a 3DS, and enjoy it hugely - but the motivation I genuinely cannot fathom is that which drives the company's gleeful critics, who seem to dance around with thinly veiled joy at the prospect of this long-standing, hugely creative and entirely game-focused company being in dire straits. To its critics, Nintendo's extraordinary track record of innovation and creativity within the context of its core franchises means nothing, and "ugh, Mario again!" is a rallying cry as commonplace as it is devoid of any meaning or substance.
It's terribly sad, I think, that people who describe themselves as gamers or who work within or around the games business would take such pleasure in imagining the downfall of a company whose products are so squarely focused on the experience and joy of games - even to the extent where they will distort reality and wilfully forget history in order to "prove" the accuracy of their claims. Nintendo and its consoles aren't in the dominant position they enjoyed a few years ago, but they've been here before and they aren't going anywhere; why that fact seems to distress some people so much, I will never quite understand.