Nintendo has seen better times. Back in June, the company announced a quarterly loss despite tripling sales of its flagship console, the Wii U. The numbers were bad, but look even worse when looking back with context: if Nintendo sold the Wii U at the same rate as the previous quarter for a year, it would only sell about 2 million units. Sony’s PlayStation 4 has sold five times that since its launch last November.
As a company that sells both hardware and software, a small install base is terrible news for Nintendo. Yes, people love Nintendo’s various franchises, but even if the company can practically be assured that hardcore fans will buy several of its games for the Wii U, with too few consoles out in the wild it can’t profitably sell the games it spends years developing. This small install base also keeps third-party developers from releasing titles on the platform, as it becomes impossible to recoup money invested in porting games over from more successful systems.
Two years of poor sales have led to an equilibrium where the only reason to buy a Wii U is to play Nintendo’s line-up of first-party releases. That would be fine if Nintendo were able to crank out its titles like entries in the Call of Duty franchise, producing games good enough to keep bringing fans back for more. Unfortunately, Nintendo doesn’t work that way.
For example, Mario Kart Wii came out in 2008. Not counting Mario Kart 7, which came out for the handheld Nintendo 3DS in 2011, it took Nintendo six years to release Mario Kart 8 for the Wii U. While those games were best sellers on their respective consoles, that’s a long time between releases — a kid who got Mario Kart Wii for her tenth birthday could drive an actual car by the time she got her hands on its sequel.
While Nintendo is infamously slow at changing the way it does things (even now, Nintendo’s online gaming offerings are pathetic compared to Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network), it’s been showing some willingness to experiment in recent years. Its most recent attempt is to provide what’s known as downloadable content, or DLC, for Mario Kart 8.
Rolling out as two separate packs in November 2014 and May 2015, the Mario Kart 8 content actually seems like a great deal. For $11.99, you get both packs, which include 6 characters (including Link from The Legend of Zelda!), 8 new vehicles, and 16 new tracks. That’s 20% as many characters and 50% as many tracks as come in the complete game for about 1/6 the price. If the main game’s content is any indication, those levels will include remixed classic tracks (Nintendo does fan service better than almost anyone else) and entirely new tracks built to take advantage of the Wii U’s hardware.
If this DLC does well, we can probably expect Nintendo to try to do something similar for the upcoming Super Smash Bros. And who would be upset about that? Nintendo fans have shown that they’re willing to hack their consoles to add more characters to previous Smash Bros. games — Nintendo can keep those fans happy by releasing new characters and combat stages while making some extra money. Everybody wins.
Will that extra revenue make up for the fact that the Wii U is a flop? Probably not, though it might give them some breathing room as they consider their options going forward.
The worst possible outcome would be that paid DLC and new releases are so insufficient that Nintendo is forced to do more sponsored DLC, like the pack of Mercedes-Benz vehicles it made available as a free software update for Mario Kart 8. Advertising for real-world goods in the cartoonish Mushroom Kingdom leaves a bitter aftertaste every time I see it. I hate the idea of Nintendo going under, but to see it happen while the company sells its soul is even worse: