The Wii U is struggling. This isn’t a secret. Nintendo itself has acknowledged that sales have been below expectations, and has lowered its early forecasts for the console as a result. From its November launch to the end of the holiday season, the Wii U sold about 3 million units worldwide. It wasn’t a horrible start, but it certainly wasn’t a good one either.
Yesterday, though, things got horrible. The NPD Group reported its January retail sales estimates for the U.S. video games market, and it was revealed that the Wii U only sold somewhere close to 55,000 units last month. Since January was listed as a five-week period this year, that means the Wii U sold around 11,000 units per week throughout the country.
Those are horrid numbers for a new console, no matter how you slice it. They get even worse in context. The Xbox 360, which launched in 2005, led the month’s console sales with over 280,000 units sold. That’s five times as many as the Wii U. Nintendo’s last console, the Wii, sold about 435,000 units in its first January. The PlayStation 3 has never sold less than about 80,000 units in a month, and that’s a machine that once cost $600 large.
So yeah, nobody bought a Wii U last month. That’s not a good thing. There’s absolutely no reason for Nintendo to be happy about the way its flagship machine is performing at retail.
There’s also no reason to call Nintendo “doomed” because of the Wii U’s historically bad month. Yet that’s just what various analysts, gamers, and other members of the Internet peanut gallery are doing. And that’s a perfectly natural decision. But it’s still a misguided one.
I say this because similar judgments have been going on recently with another one of the tech industry’s leading names: Apple. Despite reporting record revenues and profits last quarter, Apple suddenly fell far out of favor with many on Wall Street due to an increasingly nagging perception that it has “peaked.” The Cupertino clan’s trademark forward thinking has eroded with the death of Steve Jobs, the pundits then said, and now Apple is a company troublingly focused more on iteration over innovation. And because its competitors are gaining more and more ground with the public, Apple, like Nintendo, is now “doomed.”
Or so they say.
Apple and Nintendo have both spent years cultivating a fanbase that will live and die by its brand. They don’t just create products, they create states of mind around their brands. Neither has ever cared about building the most powerful or highest-specced machines, and both have succeeded because they have that uncanny ability to make people feel like their products are wholly “needed,” even when they’re not. Both have pioneered new types of technology that went on to shape their markets.
If Apple throws an “i” in front of something, it’s a cultural event. If Nintendo releases a new Mario or Zelda game, the entire gaming world stops what its doing and takes notice. Both have hit rock bottom only to reinvent themselves and take over their respective industries once again. Both are doubted on a regular basis.
Sure, Apple does this on a much larger scale — it’s a leader in many more fields than Nintendo. And sure, the two companies are actively competing with each other within the gaming industry, but many of their core principles are strikingly similar.
So now that both have been declared “doomed” by the public at large, it’s time to use some common sense. Neither are dying anytime soon. Stop it. Just don’t even say it.
I’m not even sure I have to explain this with Apple. Just one mention of a possible “iWatch” has lit the Internet on fire once again, and now millions of users are currently convincing themselves that they’ll “need” a smart watch if and when Apple’s wristband arrives. Don’t even get me started on an Apple HDTV. Tim Cook isn’t Steve Jobs, not at all, but he’s no fool. And he’s still presiding over the most influential name in tech, one that is still right near the top of the smartphone market, and one that is still crushing the ever-growing tablet arena. MacBooks and Mac desktops are still doing their thing too.
The competition is starting to catch up to Apple in some areas, for sure; Android’s “race to the bottom” pricing strategy has put it in millions of pockets, and Samsung has proven a worthy opponent in any field it touches. But to call Apple “doomed” because it isn’t completely strangling its enemies for the first time in a couple years? That’s just silly.
With Nintendo, things are bit more complicated. Yet the central idea remains the same: the Big N isn’t going to “die” anytime soon.
Will the Wii U continue to struggle at retail? Probably for the time being. The mere mention of the (still unconfirmed) future PlayStation or Xbox has taken away attention from the Wii U, helping to spoil the precious, dwindling time it has alone on the next-gen stage. Its $350 price tag — I’m not counting the inferior Basic Wii U model — is still a bit too high for most consumers. Its online and entertainment features are still substandard for the year 2013. The gaming market itself is only going more and more fragmented as newer competitors like the Steam Box, Ouya, GameStick, Project Shield, Wikipad and others enter the fray. And of course, the rise of mobile gaming has cut into that coveted “casual gamer” market that the Wii once had down pat.
But I’m going to borrow a phrase from James Carville on this one: It’s the games, stupid. In the gaming industry, software drives hardware, always and forever. Gamers will not buy a console in large numbers if there are no worthwhile games for it. And right now, there are very few worthwhile games for the Wii U.
New Super Mario Bros. U is classic fun, but far too derivative of past 2D Mario platformers. ZombiU is too difficult and too divisive to catch on with those outside “core” gaming circles. Nintendo Land is a tease, showcasing big names without delivering a compelling whole. Pikmin 3 and Bayonetta 2 aren’t out yet. It goes on and on.
This will change. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo can almost exclusively rely on its first-party IPs to sell its consoles. The very thought of new (3D) Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda, and Super Smash Bros. games whipped that big, faithful Nintendo fanbase into a frenzy last month. When they’re released, more people are guaranteed to buy the system. Nintendo will have to keep the hype going until those games are ready, but if there’s any gaming fanbase that can be called “patient,” it’s Nintendo’s.
The other thing to remember here is that the games industry is not a static entity. It changes with the times like everything else. People can get excited for the PS4 and the next Xbox, but how can anyone guarantee that their first few months will be any better than the Wii U’s? How can we say that those machines will come with games compelling enough to move systems? How can we claim that their price points won’t be too high to the curious consumer? How do we know that mobile gaming hasn’t taken a chunk out of the consoles market for good?
There are simply too many unknown factors at play here, and it’s very much possible that the Wii U’s struggles will be representative of all new gaming hardware in its early stages. To declare gloom and doom for one company is premature, especially since so many people are still buying “last-gen” consoles every week.
Nintendo faced a similar dilemma with its Nintendo 3DS handheld, which was also declared a “dud” in its early days. But a handy price cut soon got players interested again, a more than respectable library of quality titles arrived, and now the device is sufficiently in demand.
If Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles launch this holiday season as expected — and Nintendo happens to release some of its new blockbusters right around the same time, providing the software sales necessary to sell the Wii U at a slightly greater loss — who’s to say that a Wii U price cut won’t swing a good chunk of consumers into Nintendo’s favor?
The Wii U has larger “perception problems” to deal with, namely the fact that many tech-savvy gamers don’t consider it to be a “true” next-gen console, but again, games drive consoles. Not specs. The folks at Nintendo have it in them to create those must-have experiences again. They just need to do it.
That probably won’t make the Wii U the success that the Wii was, and it may not keep it out of the cellar when compared to the rest of this gen’s consoles, but history has shown us that this is how the console race usually works. Remember when the Wii’s predecessor, the GameCube, “doomed” Nintendo? Remember when the Nintendo 64 got spanked by the PlayStation?
Nintendo has a track record of coming out on top, and I’m not about to doubt it again here. And I’m certainly not about to call it dead in the water. These things usually take time. So let’s take a breath and give Nintendo a little bit more. For now.