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Wii U won't make it to Christmas, so what's next?

By Rob Fahey

Wii U won't make it to Christmas, so what's next?

Fri 25 Mar 2016 1:50pm GMT / 9:50am EDT / 6:50am PDT
Hardware

Newspaper reports of Wii U production ending are substantiated by Japanese retail shortages - indicating an NX announcement sooner rather than later

The Wii U is on the way out, according to Japan's leading business newspaper (and recently proud owners of Britain's venerable Financial Times), the Nihon Keizai Shimbun. It's a story about the details, of course; the dogs on the street know that the Wii U, still drastically underperforming even the GameCube, is on the way out. What's interesting about the Nikkei's story is that it claims that Nintendo is tapering off production of the console already, with production of some components of the console by third-party manufacturers already suspended, and remaining inventory likely to run dry some time this year. The Nikkei report highlights how unusual it is for a console manufacturer to start the process of shutting down production in this way before even announcing its next-generation system, and it's not wrong; even the GameCube, Nintendo's previous worst performer, didn't suffer this particular indignity.

Nintendo responded to the Nikkei's story with a statement which has been widely reported as a denial, but isn't; it was a "we didn't say that", which isn't the same thing at all. That their response is so careful about not outright denying anything is interesting in itself; Nintendo has a sulky, deeply adversarial relationship with the Nikkei, and has rarely let the truth get in the way of a good denial of a Nikkei story in the past. The newspaper for its part seems to have pretty good sources within Nintendo and regularly gets wind of major developments ahead of time, which might explain why Nintendo hates it so much; it had early details of the 3D screen of the company's Nintendo DS successor, and of the firm's partnership to make smartphone games. On both occasions Nintendo vehemently denied the stories, only to announce the same details within a matter of weeks. The lack of the same vehemence in this instance suggests that the Nikkei is on to something, and perhaps that Nintendo thinks this week, with Miitomo floating high in the download charts, is a good one to bury a little bad news.

"In the console's most successful market, though, it's disappeared from the shelves despite outstanding consumer demand - an extremely unusual and irregular situation for a console at this late stage in its lifespan"

Here's a little extra context for you, which makes the Nikkei's story both even more plausible, and more unusual. In Japan, the only market where the Wii U has been performing reasonably strongly, the console's sales nose-dived early this year and have hit rock bottom in recent weeks - trailing along at a few thousand units a week, an absolutely miserable rate. The problem isn't demand, though - the console has been supply-constrained for six weeks. It hasn't been in stock consistently at major electronics retailers or at online stores like Amazon for weeks, although there are plenty of third-party sellers on Amazon happy to take advantage of the shortage by gouging you for as much as $200 over the console's normal retail price.

It's a different story overseas, of course - the Wii U is genuinely flatlining in other territories, and I've heard of no supply constraints anywhere outside Japan. In the console's most successful market, though, it's disappeared from the shelves despite outstanding consumer demand - an extremely unusual and irregular situation for a console at this late stage in its lifespan.

What does it mean? To me, it suggests that Nintendo is being hyper-cautious about inventory of the console. Taking a "better safe than sorry" approach, it is severely limiting the number of Wii U consoles it puts into the channel in order to avoid leaving retailers and distributors with large amounts of unwanted stock on their hands should demand for the Wii U plummet abruptly. The Nikkei article, although it didn't mention the current shortages, did suggest that part of the company's reason for tapering off manufacturing is an attempt to avoid such inventory problems.

Why, though, would Nintendo be anticipating a major drop in demand for the Wii U in the near future? There are still games in development for the console, though it's almost certain that the biggest title on the slate, Zelda, will appear on the NX as well. All the same, in Japan at least, games like Splatoon and Mario Maker were still doing pretty well and appeared to have the stamina to sustain console sales at a decent level for some time. Could it be that Nintendo anticipates something else happening soon that would make the public suddenly decide not to bother with the Wii U after all? If so, the only thing I can imagine that would have that effect is the unveiling of the NX.

The timing makes sense, in many regards. If the NX is unveiled in the next month or so, it will be after Miitomo is already on the market around the world - which gives Nintendo some breathing room for its mobile ambitions, and allows it to turn back to consoles without being accused of losing focus. Assuming Miitomo and the network functionality it uses are also part of the NX experience, that would also feed into the console announcement. Announced soon, the system would presumably be ready to show off in some form, with software, at E3 - though we don't know if Nintendo even considers E3 to be terribly relevant any more, some form of digital announcement broadcast seems very likely. With Wii U production tapering, the company would be able to move smoothly to promoting the new system, avoiding the spectre of large amounts of Wii U hardware left in the channel and cluttering up its financials; and of course, an announcement in the imminent future would also make that much-rumoured late 2016 launch possible. (I reckon the Nikkei's report shortens the odds on a 2016 NX launch from about 6/1 to about 3/1, for what it's worth; still not the most likely scenario, but getting there.)

"Either Nintendo is going to announce and bring a console to market in the space of about six months, or it's going to completely bow out of the home console market for an entire holiday season, for the first time in decades"

Would the announcement of the NX really kill interest in the Wii U so dramatically that Nintendo needs to manage its inventory in such a miserly way? Perhaps so. Bear in mind that the Wii U is still a very expensive console - most consoles are far cheaper (and thus opened up to new markets) by the time their replacements are announced. The NX price point is likely to be within spitting distance of what you buy a Wii U for today, so it will instantly cannibalise a lot of interest in its older sibling. That's probably the most likely reason that Nintendo is concerned for Wii U demand in the wake of an NX announcement - but there are other possibilities. It may, for example, transpire that NX is backwards compatible with Wii U games, in which case the most basic raison d'Ítre of the current console will evaporate when it is announced - though that would also mean the NX is doubling down on the Wii U's dual-screen approach to games, which would be interesting and gutsy on the firm's part.

Whatever the rationale at Nintendo may be (and of course, we shouldn't discount the possibility that they've just royally messed up their supply chain somehow - though this seems vanishingly unlikely), we'll find out sooner rather than later. It's now very clear that the Wii U isn't going to make it to Christmas, which means we're getting one of two equally dramatic things happening - either Nintendo is going to announce and bring a console to market in the space of about six months, or it's going to completely bow out of the home console market for an entire holiday season, for the first time in decades. We'll almost certainly know which of those remarkable new chapters in Nintendo's history is going to be written within a matter of weeks.

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8 Comments

Carl Hudson Studying Computer Science, University of Adelaide

72 87 1.2
For the NX to come out in the prime release months/year of VR would be commercial suicide.

*Unless* they have something even better than VR (doubtful).

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Carl Hudson on 27th March 2016 4:56pm

Posted:4 months ago

#1

Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,577 1,614 0.6
Popular Comment
"For the NX to come it in the prime release months/year of VR would be commercial suicide."
Hmmmm. How so when VR isn't at all *guaranteed* to be on everyone's wish list despite all the hype and marketing dollars spent?

Not including the PC (or in the case of PS VR, console) to run games, the cost of the goggles alone is going to be daunting to some budget-minded games while others will see the launch lineups as not so hot (even if they're wrong) . That and that new tech will need to run the gauntlet of skeptics, medical professionals and so-called tech gurus warning against too much VR time. Add in network/cable news media frenzy warnings (they love to overdo those "is THIS new tech SAFE?" stories) and YouTubers making joke videos about seizures and so forth and so on and it'll be a bit wacky watching VR get to market under so much pressure.

Of course, Nintendo playing the NX so close to their vest isn't helping them either. But I'd say once it's revealed and IF they can convey properly what it is (unlike how they mucked up the Wii U's announcement), it might do well enough to surprise even the most fervent anti-Nintendo analysts.

If the NX does ship for Xmas, it'll be a less expensive alternative (hopefully) for Nintendo fans and families who might want something not so delicate for the kids to mess around with. I can't see VR being recommended for children under a certain age, but whatever Nintendo has planned will be seen as for anyone who can hold whatever controller they come up with.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Greg Wilcox on 28th March 2016 6:30pm

Posted:4 months ago

#2

Carl Hudson Studying Computer Science, University of Adelaide

72 87 1.2
Because "all the hype and marketing dollars spent" .

Even though the hype and marketing hasn't even started yet, but it will soon.

It's going to be everywhere, vying for every single gamers attention. Just seems like dumb time to launch a new console as well.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Carl Hudson on 27th March 2016 5:02pm

Posted:4 months ago

#3

Joel Hruska Analyst/Journalist

41 160 3.9
I'm not at all sure that's true.

Nintendo made big money on the Wii by betting that gamers would rather have something new/interesting as opposed to hardware that required an HDTV. VR is just as expensive as HDTV was at the time, and it's very new. If you don't own a PS4, the buy-in const for VR is around $900, and that's the *cheapest* option.

With VR running $900 - $1800 for all-in cost (depending on your platform and the power of your existing PC), the NX has plenty of pricing room to maneuver.

Posted:4 months ago

#4

James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada

313 426 1.4
The standard Nintendo market and the enthusiast-VR market are not going to have a lot of overlap for a while. Nintendo has always banked on kids, adults who grew up with their brands, and broad-market appeal games. I've got a Vive pre-ordered, cleared most of a room in my condo, and upgraded my PC, so I'm entirely, fully in the VR camp, but I'm not expecting Nintendo to join me there for a long, long time :)

Posted:4 months ago

#5

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University

38 72 1.9
I'm not sold the Wii U won't be around this xmas. I wouldn't be surprised if that happens, but I'm not sold. It would be a short turn around for Nintendo between announcement and release. They do have a Zelda Wii U game promised. They have a paper Mario game in the latter half. Plus a 2nd wave of Nintendo Selects. Wouldn't doubt if they have another minor title to release. And while sales are worse than the Gamecube, they have held steady YoY in the US. Plus would seem weird to launch a new system that supposedly is combining the handheld and console OS and launch a new Pokemon on the 3ds at least to me. Not to mention there should be at least a 2nd if not 3rd smartphone game from Nintendo by then.

But I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Posted:4 months ago

#6

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

617 704 1.1
Nintendo made big money on the Wii by betting that gamers would rather have something new/interesting as opposed to hardware that required an HDTV
The big difference between an HDTV and VR is that HDTV is relevant to all the familyand is pretty much a guaranteed purchase so it's not comparable.

Posted:4 months ago

#7

Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.

2,515 3,200 1.3
Keldon, that bodes even better in their favor as HDTV adoption was inevitable if just slowly. Where as VR will not become so ubiquitous anytime soon.

Posted:4 months ago

#8

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