What Games Are: Where Did Wii U Go Wrong?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Two years ago I was very excited by the possibilities of the Wii U. I instantly fell in love with the idea of the tablet/joypad game controller and saw all sorts of possible uses. It seemed like it might well be the console that could do it all, from first-person shooters to real-time strategy, and also lots of funky stuff like drawing games, things to do with cameras and so on. I also loved the notion that I might finally be able to play Call of Duty without having to fight over TV time with my wife.

I wondered aloud whether this play for an Ultimate Platform could be both the start and the end of something, and privately hoped that it would overcome some of its initial confusion and become interesting. Having largely mined the casual market to death with wibbly-wobbly party games and yoga simulators, it felt like a good time for Nintendo to start talking to its fans again and regenerating the marketing story that had got it so far. Concerns had long been raised among gamers that Nintendo had turned its back on them, and they felt that the company was not interested in them anymore. So Wii U seemed to be all about Nintendo finding its way back to them, but also dragging all of its newfound casual friends along for the ride.

But it seems the fans have already decided that for themselves, and Nintendo’s attempt to reignite the old flame is falling on deaf ears. Not only are sales of the platform very weak, it just has no buzz. Aside from the usual anticipation of a new Zelda, all the column inches about Wii U these days are about how poorly it’s selling, how shoddy some of the technology in it is, and how the premium games that it’s trying to attract all look cut-down in comparison to “proper” versions. Nobody, it seems, thinks that the controller is a big enough deal to really get excited. And to make matters worse, the casual market of Wii isn’t particularly interested either.

Like that other recent dud, the PS Vita, you know it’s all gone wrong when a platform is just not featuring in any conversations. Nobody’s thinking of making games for it, fans are generally not getting excited for it, and folks forget that it exists. Oh that, they say. Did that ever come out? What I find myself wondering, however, is why this has happened so fast to Wii U.

The console has only been available for three months and its first titles were mostly well-received. ZombiU was interesting, and many a Twitterite noted how Nintendoland was perhaps a little odd but full of user-created art and other neat stuff. The prospect of games on the horizon was also welcome. Then in the wake of Christmas it was all very silent. Sony started rumbling about PS4, Microsoft about Xbox, and the whole microconsole idea started to gain traction. Somewhere along the way we just kind of forgot about Nintendo entirely. Outside of the usual fan circle, nobody seems to be factoring the system into their thinking.

It’s possible that this is all because of the Wii/Wii U brand mixup. Six years ago the Wii was the hot ticket, and you could not buy one without sacrificing your firstborn. It was based on a very simple yet compelling idea (wave hand, something happens on screen) and extended this idea out with some very smart accessories like the Wii Fit. And yet three years ago, developers were already grumbling that Wii felt like it had peaked. Third-party games didn’t really sell well, and the technology was more limited than it initially appeared. Worse, the scuttlebutt around the campfire had it that most users who were buying Wiis were really only playing them for a week or two and then shelving them until birthdays and Christmas rolled around.

In many ways then, Wii may have already been a dead brand to most players, and selling them something that connected to that brand may have felt quaint. What certainly didn’t help was that the system seemed like (and still seems like) an add-on for your Wii. When the console was first announced in June 2011 there was mass confusion over what it actually was. At first it seemed to be a peripheral, much as Wii Fit had been. Then it slowly came to light that, no, it was a console. But not exactly a successor to the Wii, as it was aiming for a much more sophisticated kind of gamer. So we had the vision of the Wii brand trying to be all about fighters and shooters, and yet hold onto its casual roots.

Wii U is not the first Nintendo system in recent memory to try and fail to extend an existing audience. The 3DS tried much the same trick, building on all that DS love and hoping to convince the world that 3D was going to be the next big thing. The world remains unconvinced about that and is not inclined to pay a premium to find out. However Nintendo was able to backtrack via a large price cut and save the DS market. With Wii U, though, it feels different. Pivoting toward the core was probably a decision made from knowing what the attach rate and margins of casual games tend to be compared to fanfare, and yet still. Perhaps the Wii brand had already aged so much that the new system just needed a new story to tell.

Then there’s the technology. Although Apple and Nintendo are similar in many respects one of the big differences between the companies is that Apple has always tended to build sweet systems for the upper end of the market, so their devices are more expensive but also of better quality. Nintendo, on the other hand, tends to be cheap. In areas such as battery life, the number of gamepads the system can support, the slapped-together feeling of its online offering, difficulties with transferring saved games and so on, Nintendo created an air of ineptitude around the Wii U launch that refuses to go away.

There’s also the sensation that the competition has passed Nintendo by. While Sony’s recent conference may have produced mixed impressions (from those who think it was a great console launch, to others like me who think it showed a stark failure of vision), there’s a sense that the game is now Microsoft’s to lose. For all its woes, Kinect largely became the more interesting peripheral story, and many expect Microsoft to make a big announcement that will win the next generation soon. Nintendo, perhaps, needs to be bolder than it has been with Wii U. Perhaps it should have cut the console chord entirely and been a purely portable system (with better battery life). Perhaps Nintendo should not have worried so much about backwards compatibility (does anyone use their Wii Fit any more?) and instead focused on one core verb to define the new system.

Or perhaps it’s because Nintendo didn’t think small enough. Those pesky iDevices are becoming near universal, with their free games and such, and the taste for gaming, which is even more portable, is only growing. Likewise, microconsoles are emerging as a potential super cheap console with all the fun games you could imagine for cheap. Perhaps Wii U needed to be that simplistic and inexpensive.

It feels as though Wii U is the result of a company becoming trapped in a box of its own making. Nobody seems to want an ultimate console, or if they do they don’t want Nintendo’s version. The question before the company is whether the system can, or should, be saved. With only three months on the market, it is extremely unlikely that Wii U will be shelved, but it certainly needs adjustment. Whether in terms of a large drop in price or a revision of the technology, something big needs to be done.