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Nintendo's Window is Closing

2014 was Wii U's chance in Japan; but Nintendo is at the root of the malaise around all consoles there

Back at the start of June, I wrote a column arguing that 2014 was Nintendo's window of opportunity for the Wii U. With the enormously successful launch of Mario Kart 8 proving that the company's software still has the capacity to ignite enormous demand, it seemed that if only the firm could execute perfectly on its software catalogue for the rest of the year, and get 2015's house visibly in order, it might be able to rescue the Wii U from its thus far miserable performance.

With winter well on the way and the Wii U's rivals - most notably, the wildly successful PS4 - about to enter their first full holiday season on the market, it's an apt time to take score. If the Wii U proved unable to take advantage of this odd in-between year, in which excitement around the new consoles was high but actual must-have software was thin on the ground, then Nintendo's entire home console strategy would seem to be in tatters. So, how did the company do?

There's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that thus far, Nintendo and its partners have indeed managed to do the tough part of what was required; they have executed damn near flawlessly on their software line-up. Following on from Mario Kart 8's stellar reception, we saw a far warmer than expected response to Hyrule Warriors (an odd collaboration title that could have turned out disastrous but ended up being good fun), an absolutely rapturous response to Bayonetta 2, widespread acclaim for the 3DS version of Super Smash Bros building anticipation for the Wii U launch in a month or so, and a reasonably solid series of digital-only releases to fill in the gaps.

"In truth, any consumer who walks into the Wii U section of a major retailer, especially here in Japan but also in Europe and the USA, will find a genuinely compelling offering; yet few consumers, it seems, actually make it that far"

In short, Wii U is still not exactly banging out the hits, but it's done far, far better than either of the other consoles over the past six months, and some of those hits which it has turned out are bona fide classics. If you factor in 3DS releases (which are relevant to the Wii U's success to some degree, in the same sense that the iPod and iPhone created a "halo effect" that helped to drive MacBooks into becoming the most popular high-end laptops in the world), it's hard to think of any publisher in recent times having quite such a fantastic year, in software terms, as Nintendo's 2014 is shaping up to be.

Unfortunately, all of that is rather undermined by the bad news - which is that having gone to the enormous effort required to serve up an extraordinary, delicious bowl of gaming soup, Nintendo promptly tried to eat it with a fork. The Wii U's marketing and PR messaging has completely failed to capitalise on the console's software success and upon the anticipation for future titles. Certainly, there's been plenty of above the line promotion for Mario Kart and Smash Bros individually, but the overall message - that the Wii U is not this generation's Dreamcast, that it is building an amazing library of software and is backed by the industry's biggest publisher (namely Nintendo itself, which remains by far the largest publisher of game software in the world) - that message is simply not getting out there, and Nintendo hasn't got anyone to blame but itself.

This is not to say that messaging, in the sense that it is accomplished by platform holders or major publishers, is an easy job; it is not. In the case of Nintendo, though, it is a job which has been undertaken with singular incompetence. Here we have a company whose in-store displays, where they are actually still displayed, are unparalleled; whose actual offering, in terms of critically acclaimed games on a competitively priced console, is beyond compare. Yet that message is lost. Instead, the Wii U continues to be branded with a Dreamcast-like fatalism. In truth, any consumer who walks into the Wii U section of a major retailer, especially here in Japan but also in Europe and the USA, will find a genuinely compelling offering; yet few consumers, it seems, actually make it that far.

Failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy, after all. Few gamers want to buy the console which will lose the war and end up gathering dust in a cupboard - or at least, that's the prevailing wisdom. The failure of Nintendo's marketing to effectively promote the Wii U console as a device of interest to gamers, as the home to truly compelling exclusive software and as a true alternative to the seemingly dichotomous PS4/XBO pairing in the console war, has resulted in the console consistently under performing expectations - even in its most recent, honestly-not-so-awful figures.

Those most recent figures, truly, are not so awful. Since I wrote about Nintendo's window of opportunity back in June, about a million Wii U consoles have found their way to happy owners - not so far from the 1.3 million Xbox One consoles which have been sold in the same time period. At this rate, it would take several years for Microsoft to catch up to Nintendo's firmly established number two position in the market, and the Wii U would likely turn out to be the generation's second-best performer; but in truth, recent months have seen an Xbox One renaissance and a Wii U decline which will likely result in Nintendo being forced back into a humiliating third place once again.

"The same brutally idiotic thinking insisted upon the retention of the "Wii" name for the Wii U console, and has utterly undermined both sales of the console (which is assumed to be a new controller for existing Wii hardware by many consumers) and Nintendo's overall brand identity"

This is not the fault of the Wii U's software, nor even of its oft-criticised hardware. It is, rather, the fault of Nintendo's poorly conceived and implemented marketing strategy; the fault, in fact, of a marketing approach whose failures date back to the launch of the 3DS and reflect a genuine collapse of imagination and creative ability at the highest levels of Nintendo's marketing management team. The 3DS, bluntly, should never have been called the 3DS; this attempt to ape the naming conventions of Nintendo's most successful recent handheld console backfired horribly, ensuring that a price-drop and relaunch would be essential within the console's early lifespan. The same brutally idiotic thinking insisted upon the retention of the "Wii" name for the Wii U console, and has utterly undermined both sales of the console (which is assumed to be a new controller for existing Wii hardware by many consumers) and Nintendo's overall brand identity.

Such dreadful misses in Nintendo's marketing strategy continue unchecked both in Japan and abroad. How can a company incapable of figuring out an effective name and marketing strategy for a new console be expected to entice a broad audience with a campaign for a single game? In truth, Xbox One's fightback since its difficult launch has been vastly more impressive than Nintendo's campaign for Wii U over the same period. Microsoft, at least, shows some evidence of knowing that it is the underdog and must impress a hostile audience to make back the ground which it has lost. Its efforts in this regard thus far are far from perfect and certainly not sufficient to regain the lead; but they are enough to impress, enough to convince "swing voters" that Xbox One is worthy of consideration, at least.

The enormous task facing Nintendo's marketing is not to convince the world that Mario Kart 8 is great; we already know that. It's not to convince the world that Bayonetta 2 rocks; we know that too. It's not even to convince the world that Smash Bros is going to be great; nobody truly believes anything different. Rather, Nintendo's challenging task is to show the world that Wii U is a truly appealing console for the next few years' entertainment needs. It's to show that even in the era of the PS4, the Wii U offers something unique and different which justifies a space under your TV and one of your HDMI sockets. In light of recent and upcoming software launches, that shouldn't be a hard sell - yet it seems to be too hard for Nintendo to manage.

This is the awful tragedy of the modern games market; it's not just about games, it's also about the market. Nintendo is making some of the best games it has ever created, but today's market demands more; it demands relevance and confidence and a deep degree of belief, not just in the game but in its creator. Nintendo seems to have lost that belief; worse, it seems not to know how to get it back. As long as it continues to turn out games at its present quality, a hardcore of fans will remain, but the firm truly risks losing the love and affection of the generation that brought it to prominence in the first place, and it remains to be seen how they might rescue themselves from such a situation of creative bankruptcy.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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