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NX' first task is to avoid Wii U's pitfalls

Reggie Fils-Aime's diagnosis of Wii U's failures is accurate, but these mistakes reflect deep problems with Nintendo's approach

Humility is not a trait one often associates with Reggie Fils-Aime, the bombastic and theatrical president of Nintendo of America, but it was on display - to some degree, at least - in his recently published interview with [a]listdaily. Reflecting on what the failure of the Wii U has shown the company it must do to succeed with NX, Fils-Aime highlighted two key problems, namely the failure to communicate what the console was, and the failure to deliver a steady stream of high-quality software. These, he said, are the things Nintendo needs to do better next time; the dash of humility coming when he acknowledged that these aren't complex insights, but "traditional lessons within the industry".

Traditional lessons; in other words, lessons that a company that's been selling games and consoles for the best part of 40 years should not only know, but should have utterly assimilated and integrated deeply into its DNA. Effectively communicating what your platform is and what it does is one of the most crucial skills for a platform holder, while giving consumers major titles to look forward to on a regular basis is not just an essential component of a platform holder's business, it is literally a description of pretty much their entire business.

"It remains genuinely astonishing that Nintendo could have failed so badly at such fundamental, intrinsic parts of the business."

Yet there's no doubt that Fils-Aime is right in his diagnosis of the Wii U's failure; these things are precisely what Nintendo got wrong. It's laudable and positive that he acknowledges these failures so openly, rather than making hand-waving excuses about difficult market conditions or similar; acknowledging your failures means you're on the path to fixing them.

At the same time, it remains genuinely astonishing that Nintendo could have failed so badly at such fundamental, intrinsic parts of the business. It feels like a kind of madness possessed much of the company in the wake of the success of the Wii and the DS; caught in some lunatic trance, Nintendo managed to mess up the market communication and software scheduling of not one but two console launches. 3DS recovered from its desperately flawed and miscommunicated launch after a bold, if embarrassing, about-face only a few months post-launch. Wii U repeated almost exactly the same mistakes and never picked itself up after falling at the first hurdle.

Digging into the substance of those errors is revealing. In terms of communication, both the Wii U and the 3DS failed completely to explain themselves to consumers at the outset. The problems started with their names; the transitions from DS to 3DS and from Wii to Wii U looked to a great many consumers like a mid-cycle refresh of the hardware, not a console launch. The hardware looked the same, the names sounded the same, and the actual advantages of the new consoles were never effectively conveyed. The failure to talk up and explain the new features of the consoles was compounded by Nintendo's reticence to ever talk about graphical prowess. While the refusal to engage with Sony and Microsoft's GPU arms race is probably wise, it seemed to lead Nintendo to baulk at actually conveying to consumers that these new consoles were much more graphically powerful than the old ones. Perhaps it believed that the casual consumers who came on board with the Wii and DS would be turned off by such messaging; it would do well to note that Apple, whose iPhones sell in far larger quantity than any game console, sees no such difficulty in making much of the technical prowess of its new chipsets.

Perhaps the biggest problem that both consoles faced in communication terms, however, was an issue that overlapped with their lack of software. Neither system had a software title in the launch window that really functioned as a demonstration of the advantages and possibilities of the new hardware. The Wii, famously, had Wii Sports; the DS, though slower out of the gate (especially in the USA, where it launched first and with a weaker line-up than other territories), had the combination of WarioWare: Touched, Super Mario 64 DS and a handful of other instantly popular titles like Zoo Keeper, which it followed up after just a few months with Brain Age and Nintendogs. Neither 3DS nor Wii U, despite overall solid software line-ups, had any single title or combination of titles at launch that you could point and and say, "here, this is the software that explains and demonstrates why this platform could be great". Indeed, one could argue that even years after launch, neither platform has any software that makes a watertight case for either the 3DS' 3D screen or the Wii U's Gamepad.

"one could argue that even years after launch, neither platform has any software that makes a watertight case for either the 3DS' 3D screen or the Wii U's Gamepad"

Of the two problems Fils-Aime identifies, the issue of communicating and explaining the console is by far the easier to fix and thus the one which NX is least likely to repeat. Although the device sounds like being something of a departure from the form factors and usage cases which consumers are used to, it's also a clean break from consoles which came before it - meaning that the company will be properly focused on marketing it as a new device rather than trying to warm up the leftovers of a past success, as it did with 3DS and Wii U. Getting good software for the launch window which appropriately and effectively explains the console's advantages is more art than science, but assuming that Nintendo's uniquely talented software developers are on board with the console's functionality, it's certainly within their competence to deliver that kind of compelling experience early on. At the very least, we can hope that we're not treated once more to the unedifying spectacle of Shigeru Miyamoto being trotted out to talk about prototyping fun ideas for the console's main features long after the console itself has launched, as happened with the Wii U - prompting the obvious question, why weren't you doing that two or three years ago...?

The second of the "traditional lessons" Fils-Aime claims to have taken to heart is going to be a tougher fix. Wii U absolutely suffered from a failure of planning and scheduling in software terms, but also from a simple lack of games. It has some fantastic games and the work of the teams who have been creating Wii U titles has been of generally excellent quality, but the perception that it has been underserved in terms of software is absolutely fair. Wii U has been squeezed on two sides, with an almost complete lack of high quality third party support being compounded by Nintendo's own focus often seeming to be on the better-performing 3DS, not to mention on new projects like amiibo toys and mobile games.

How can NX fix this problem? There is a limit to Nintendo's bandwidth as a game developer; if it wants to retain its quality (which is vital, since the strength of its IP is the company's primary value) then it cannot expand the number of titles in simultaneous development indefinitely. Working with trusted third parties to deliver games like the Wii U's Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X (arguably the best of the third-party efforts on the console) is a promising approach that could definitely be upscaled to some degree. Tougher, perhaps, is the question of actually getting third party publishers on board; Nintendo consoles are hostile environments for multi-platform games, and risky gambles for third-party console exclusives. Short of a major expansion of its own third-party publishing efforts that delivers more Nintendo-published games from top studios around the world, it seems eminently likely that NX will run into the same problem.

"There is a limit to Nintendo's bandwidth as a game developer; if it wants to retain its quality...then it cannot expand the number of titles in simultaneous development indefinitely"

One interesting possibility comes to mind, though; given the NX's supposed straddling of handheld and home console roles, might Nintendo intend ultimately to focus all of its development efforts on this single device? The splitting of the company's limited development resources across two consoles - handheld and home device - has arguably done it no favours in recent years. If we have truly reached the point where a single device can provide both a compelling handheld gaming experience and a good home console experience, it would make a lot of sense to aim for the rationalisation of game development along those lines. Individually, the 3DS and Wii U's lineups have left something to be desired (though the 3DS has definitely fared better); the combined efforts of the teams working on both platforms, though, could deliver a pretty formidable line-up of first-party software. As yet, Nintendo has given no indication that it views NX as the ultimate successor to the still-successful 3DS, and a new dedicated handheld may also be in the works; if not, though, then Nintendo's future as a company supporting a single device may be the single biggest step it can take towards fixing its software scheduling problems.

Knowing so little about NX, we can only speculate about the details of how Nintendo will go about applying the "traditional lessons" which Fils-Aime claims it has learned - and on a slightly sour note, it's worth pointing out that it's not the first time Nintendo has identified these flaws. Nintendo of America senior VP George Harrison said back in 2006 that the importance of good software scheduling was a lesson learned from the disappointing performance of the GameCube. To see the same mistakes repeated only a few years later was disappointing. Perhaps, given the humility of Fils-Aime's tone now, we can hope that the mistakes of the 3DS and Wii U launches were made in a genuine state of post-Wii delirium which has now passed.

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Latest comments (15)

Emmanuel Dorée Studying Software Engineering, Open University10 months ago
Indeed, one could argue that even years after launch, neither platform has any software that makes a watertight case for either the 3DS' 3D screen or the Wii U's Gamepad.
While I agree that there aren't many still Mario Maker and Splatoon made a pretty good case for the gamepad...
Working with trusted third parties to deliver games like the Wii U's Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X (arguably the best of the third-party efforts on the console)
Xenoblade Chronicles X is made by Monolith Soft which is a first party developer
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João Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom10 months ago
It's easy to say that Nintendo failed do properly communicate what the Wii U was about, but to be fair:

- The average person only needed to watch someone playing Wii Tennis on the Wii for 2 seconds to understand what it was about and want one.

- It is very complicated to explain what the Wii U is about and even in a direct conversation most people won't really feel hyped about it unless they really try some of the games on Nintendoland (a title I would add to Emmanuel's comment).

Still, it could have been handled better by Nintendo. The Wii U is a great console with some unique gaming experiences.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 months ago
The Wii was the one console which was a success because of its gimmick, not despite of it. The DS did not really need two screens, the 3DS did not really need 3D and not that many people really needed a home console to come with its own screen. The next gimmick seemingly being a mobile device you may hook up to your TV. If Nintendo is shifting the conversation towards availability of games even before the device and its gimmick have been shown to the public, you may come to think that even internally the reliance on gimmicks is not where it was 10 years ago.
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João Namorado Project Manager, Portugal Telecom10 months ago
@Klaus
"a home console to come with its own screen"

That's not what the Wii U is about. At all. Q.e.d. :)

The possibility to play some Wii U games on its gamepad, freeing up the TV for other uses, is an added value. The real strength of the console are the games that capitalize on it having two screens with different images on it.

I'd say that the Wii was a success because its "gimmick" (and I don't entirely agree with the term) was so easy to understand and so appealing to so many people.

Cheers!
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 months ago
The DS had that second screen eight years earlier and apart from very short lived second screen initiatives by both Microsoft and Sony, the idea of an additional screen competing for the attention of one player never stuck. It did not stick on the PC either, to this day it is not a typical PC game feature to offer second screen information. With Steam saying 30% of its users have a second screen, you would think second screen game information was more of a thing; except it is not. You are ten times more likely to see somebody program an overlay for a game than a second screen app for use while playing on the first screen.

The trouble of the WiiU could best be observed by the requirement to spin different narratives for different continents. Stories about Japan were all about confirming the prejudice about all the poor Japanese kids, who do not have their own screen to play on, until Nintendo saved them from their parents' TV habits by bundling the WiiU with a screen. In Europe, there was more of a push towards the 'asynchronous multiplayer' thing, which makes sense for a moment, but really doesn't. If asynchronous multiplayer was really that much of a thing, then where are all the bestselling platform establishing titles for it? All other platforms enjoy a giant community of online players. You could easily target them with asynchronous multiplayer every day of the week via online play, you do not need a special console to pull it off locally.

Those were the three angles Nintendo PR heavily leaned in on and all of them were as weak as they could be. It goes without a question that some games on the WiiU did the best they could to leverage that second screen, but all the good games are just as good without it. The WiiU controller is less of a must have with added value and more of something creating overhead costs for everybody. It is a common crime among console manufacturers, Nintendo is far from being the only ones to abuse gimmicks. Microsoft had its own can of worms with the Xone Kinect bundle and someday there might be a PS4 game where the touch pad makes actual sense.
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Andrew Watson Tools Programmer 10 months ago
The DS had that second screen eight years earlier and apart from very short lived second screen initiatives by both Microsoft and Sony, the idea of an additional screen competing for the attention of one player never stuck.
Yes, the (3)DS and Wii U both have two screens, but how the consoles use them is very different, with the main difference between them is that the handheld's screens are right next to each other and the WiiU's are not.

With two screens very close, you don't have to move your eyes very much at all to see what's on the screen and can even just rely on your peripheral vision. You could also make games that treated the two screens as effectively one big tall screen, spreading the game over both. It also let you effectively fold the screen in half, meaning the handheld itself took up less space than if you wanted an equivalently large screen.

On the other hand, the WiiU's two screens are treated very differently. Not only are they different sizes, but they're at two different angles -- in order to look at both, you have to either physically move your head downwards or hold the gamepad up in the air, which effectively relegates the gamepad to something you either never have to look at, or only require the player to use it when there's nothing else on the primary screen that needs their attention. While the gamepad was handy for a few games that could put some extra menus or UI on it, a lot of wiiu games did absolutely nothing with it.

3DS games have also gotten better at the whole "don't split the user's attention between two screens" thing, with most recent games just requiring you to focus on one, or putting all the UI on the bottom screen with big large colorful buttons so you can press them through your peripheral vision.

This is why I think having two screens on the handheld added to its success, while it did nothing for the WiiU.
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David García Abril Localisation Specialist 10 months ago
@Klaus Preisinger: You're overlooking something important here.

The NDS also was successful because of it's "gimmick" (I also hate the word, BTW). But that wasn't the second screen (which didn't hurt either, BTW, and was pretty useful).

It was the touch screen.
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Andrew Mehta Director, United Games Limited10 months ago
@David García Abril: Agree (regarding touch on DS).

I also appreciate touch on the Wii U.
I love my Wii U, because I never bought a tablet, and I use my GamePad, as the tablet in my house. The fact its touch screen makes browsing the eShop a breeze, and web surfing a breeze, and allows indie games designed for mobile and tablets to do okay on the Wii U too.
I watch youtube, channel4 news, and bbc iplayer all through the Wii U Internet Browser [the iPlayer and Youtube apps suck]. You have to switch the user agent over to iPhone for a few websites to load okay, but it's awesome. I can watch Dr Who on Wii U via Daily Motion, with none of the adverts loading, and all of the videos playing fine, =). And unlike the Wii U Netflix app, you can have the video on TV and and the GamePad at the same time, allowing you to place the second screen next to your meal/plate when eating, so you don't miss a thing, when you look down to grab the next bit of food, =).

One thing I hate about the Wii U however, is the slippery d-pad control on Kirby's Adventure. Nintendo invented the D-pad, yet the control is so slippery compared to my standard NES controller. I really hope the classic NES when it launches has the same tight responsive controls as the original NES, and not the looser controls of the Wii U.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Andrew Mehta on 2nd September 2016 7:24pm

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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 10 months ago
@David
you are correct, the touchscreen stands undisputed as being the right addition at the right time. Controller games did not need it, but regardless, the touchscreen opened up the platform for a totally different type of game with a partially different audience. Similarly, when Nintendo transitioned into 3D games, they adapted analog controls, or when they later transitioned into motion imitation games, they came up with the Wii remote. Those were not unknown quantities of games when Nintendo entered into them, those were already successful genres to which Nintendo applied their expertise and brands. The impact of the second screen itself was almost nothing by comparison.There was no transition into games made noticeably better or different enough. There is no lineage of dual screen games to profit from, but for some past trends in gaming, Nintendo was quick to pick them up and throw big IPs at them. Just look at Toys2Life or PokemonGo.

Traditionally, Nintendo's gimmicky additions worked well when the games made sense and worked to a lesser degree when Nintendo tried to be different for the sake of being different. This was often talked down with the blue ocean rhetoric, which has become somewhat of a puzzling argument considering the total percentage of people playing games today; not that much uncharted ocean left really.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 10 months ago
It's all perception. The game lineup, system specs etc all feed into that, but ultimately it's how you present them that shapes how people view it.

Look at how PS4 stormed out of the gates with its focus on core gamers, vs Xbox's TV focused reveal. Or the OUYA's repeated communication fails in the run up to its launch.

Nintendo face losing control of the narrative, ironically because they are trying so desperately to control the information flow. That said, we're in a bit of a hypersensitive industry bubble, and the official reveal will most likely shape perceptions for the majority of people.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University10 months ago
One thing not touched on regarding the Wii U's failure is that its biggest feature was already covered by one of the company's own products - the 3ds.

Here's a company selling you hard on a handheld and the handheld was out 1-2 years before the Wii U with a Super Mario Bros game and a Super Mario 3d game, as well as other games that would appear later on the Wii U. And then the biggest feature of the Wii U is off-tv play.

I thought on paper it was a good idea. But Nintendo already had the 3ds which could be used anywhere.


It wouldn't have been a problem except that the Gamepad made the system more expensive They packed it with features too. So the Wii U had to be a good $100 higher priced than it would have otherwise been.

It's a shame because I like using the Gamepad. For me it plays like a regular controller but can use touchscreen where appropriate. No different to me than Rumble or some other controller feature that doesn't need to be used all the time just because it is there. I liked having a tv remote on the Gamepad. I liked being able to more quickly type in names/passwords. I liked seeing inventory/maps on the Gamepad. I liked a few of the games that used the touchscreen like NintendoLand, and some of the party games.

IF the rumors are true Nintendo still believes in the Gamepad idea, but are improving upon it and combining it with their handheld into 1 platform.

(and thus eliminating the redundancy.)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 7th September 2016 9:29pm

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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee10 months ago
With the WiiU's target market, the idea of the main TV screen being fought for was a bit of a nonsense considering how many households have as many as three TVs.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 10 months ago
Adam it's not nonsense In the slightest, as a single TV is commonplace in Japan, the single market all Nintendo R&D through the WiiU is solely focused on. Nintendo only got worried about mobile when they saw the kids were carrying phones and tablets instead of DS On the Kyoto trains. "What's good for Japan works everywhere" has been the rule Famicom through the WiiU, we'll see if that's changing, I have my doubts it will in any sibstantive way in the near future.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee10 months ago
@Jeff

You've just explained exactly why I believe its a nonsense, because the real market for home consoles is not in that region. I'm well aware of the much talked about single TV situation in Japan. Regardless of Nintendo's inward looking approach (which is still a problem) they tried to market a solution to significantly bigger regions (continents even) that were never going to adopt it.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 10 months ago
@Adam It doesn't matter where the big market is (and actually it's Njntendo's biggest market I believe, not that that's hard) for WiiU.

It's a philosophy, that "what works in Japan works everywhere" that they've held onto since the Fanicom. I guarantee you that if you asked what Netflix is to the top ten people at Nintendo a year ago (prior to the Japanese launch of the service) that 7 would have given you blank stares. In fact is be willing to put down a dollar that 4-5 of them would still have trouble today,

Nintendo is dying. The usual "never count out Nintendo", and the citing of their large bank account aside. Their current "success" is entirely based on nostalgia, mostly from college age and up. The kids have no particular burning affection for the company or their characters, they'd rather play Skyrim than Zelda. Their apathy is going to be deadly for Nintendo a decade plus down the line.

By the time the brass realizes this, they definitely won't have $14 bulbul lion in the bank.
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