Following Footsteps: Part 3 – How the Wii Influenced the Wii U

Wii and Wii U consoles
Wii (left) and Wii U

This is the third in a series of three articles examining how the successes and failures of the 7th generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) impacted their respective 8th generation successors (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U).  This article takes a look at the Nintendo Wii and Wii U.   The first article dealt with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the second article discussed the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

In the early 2000s, Nintendo’s Gamecube console was struggling.  Sony was running away with its hit PlayStation 2, and even the newcomer Microsoft was outpacing them with the Xbox.  Nintendo decided to shake things up, and focus its next console (codenamed “Revolution”) on a radical new innovation that could bring new people to gaming and change the landscape of the industry.  This new console was the Wii, and the incredible success of this system throughout its lifespan convinced Nintendo to bank on innovation once again with what is now their newest console, the Wii U.  Unfortunately, Nintendo would find out the hard way that not all innovations are created equal.

When Nintendo unleashed the Wii upon the world in November 2006, they introduced the public to its innovative new controller, the Wii Remote, which not only had buttons like a normal controller but could also detect motion as players moved the remote around through the air.  The Nintendo Wii and its motion controls attracted not only curious gamers but also wide swaths of people who normally didn’t play games, such as middle-class moms and the elderly in nursing homes.  It became a worldwide phenomenon, quickly jumping ahead of its competitors in sales.

Senior Citizen playing Wii in a nursing home

Spearheading this early success were a few select games that showcased the capabilities of the Wii Remote, and the biggest hit was Wii Sports, a game bundled with every Wii console.  This simple collection of sports-themed minigames required players to perform simple actions with the Wii Remote to control the characters onscreen, such as swinging the remote like a tennis racket or a baseball bat.

A game of tennis in Wii Sports

Nintendo clearly had the successes of the Wii in mind as they developed their next console, the Wii U.  Another new innovation became the focus: adding a large touch screen to a traditional controller.  This new controller, simply called the Wii U Gamepad, became the focus of Nintendo’s marketing, as Nintendo sought to win people over by showing off all the new things this controller could do, such as playing an entire game on the Gamepad while someone else uses the TV, or how certain objects could only be seen on the touchscreen as you point the controller in different directions.  Furthermore, Nintendo pushed the concept of asymmetric multiplayer, a type of gameplay in which those using the gamepad would have a different perspective on the touchscreen to those playing with other controllers and watching the TV.

Just as Nintendo developed Wii Sports to win people over to motion controls, a game for the Wii U was designed to convince people that the Gamepad and asymmetric gameplay would be the next big thing.  This game, announced at the end of their E3 2012 press conference, was called Nintendo Land, a minigame collection that focused on innovative uses of the Gamepad, particularly the aforementioned asymmetric multiplayer (one such minigame, Metroid Blast, is pictured below; in this game, the player with the Gamepad flies a spaceship and attacks the other two players, who are watching the TV and using Wii Remotes to control characters on the ground).

Asymmetric multiplayer on Wii U

While using this minigame collection to attract a wide range of demographics to their new platform, Nintendo also reached out to core gamers by discussing how hard they had been working to improve relationships with third-party developers and publishers.  Winning over the support of these outside developers had been a problem for Nintendo since the mid-1990s; the Wii in particular had seen many highly popular and critically acclaimed games from Activision, Ubisoft, and others pass it by in favor of the Xbox 360 and PS3.  Now Nintendo boasted that they had finally put together the right system and built the right partnerships to bring these developers back into the fold.  They dedicated a chunk of time during their E3 2011 press conference playing up their support with a variety of publishers, with well-known developer Ken Levine stating that Nintendo had “heard the voices of the hardcore gamer,” and culminating when then-CEO of Electronic Arts John Riccitiello stood up on stage and declared that an “unprecedented partnership” had been formed between EA and Nintendo.

In sum, Nintendo tried to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time, capturing the public’s imagination with another wild innovation.  But after a decent holiday launch at the end of 2012, Wii U sales plummeted, and Nintendo has yet to build any strong momentum behind their new platform.  So what happened?

Wii Remote, Wii Balance Board, Wii Nunchuck, Wii U Gamepad, Wii U Classic Controller…

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes Nintendo made with the Wii U was its name.  While the Wii brand was familiar to the general public, Nintendo had a habit of selling accessories that incorporated the Wii name, such as the Wii Balance Board (used for the hit game Wii Fit) and the Wii Wheel (for Mario Kart Wii).  This caused confusion amongst the general public when Nintendo started to advertise its new console. With most of Nintendo’s marketing focused around the console’s controller, many people who didn’t keep up with gaming on a regular basis thought that the Gamepad was an accessory for the old Wii, and that Wii U games could be played on the Wii as long as you had the Gamepad!  Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata admitted as much during a financial meeting in April 2013, five months after the release of the Wii U: “Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii.  We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product.”

Nintendo message to Wii owners about Wii U
Message sent to Wii owners, to clarify the nature of the Wii U

Nintendo Land also ultimately failed to do for the Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii.  Motion controls were simple to describe and advertise to the general public; anyone can imagine themselves swinging a Wii Remote like a sword, just like they used twigs in the front yard when playing outside with their friends.  And since the Wii system only cost $250, many people were willing to take the dive, especially if they had already tried it at someone else’s house.  Asymmetric multiplayer, on the other hand, is a much more abstract concept that didn’t easily lend itself to a strong marketing campaign.

Finally, the promised support from third parties never really materialized.  Outside of a few exclusive titles like ZombiU, Rabbids Land, and Scribblenauts Unlimited, most of the third party games available at the Wii U’s launch in November 2012 were ports of games that were also available on other consoles, and support tapered off from there.  Major titles on the Xbox One and PS4 either arrived late to the Wii U (such as Watch_Dogs) or skipped the Wii U entirely (such as Activision’s new hit shooter Destiny).  The “unprecedented partnership” with EA produced only a few sports games and a couple of other ports, and less than two years after Riccitiello spoke on stage, EA announced that they had no more games in development for the platform.  Core gamers, who had long ago grown wary of Nintendo and quickly saw that the Wii U would not have much more third party support than its predecessor, opted to wait for Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles rather than invest in Nintendo’s new system.  Having failed to win back these customers (and having lost the more casual gamers that flocked to the Wii), the only audience left picking up the Wii U are Nintendo’s most dedicated fans; while these fans faithfully pick up Nintendo’s biggest games, there simply aren’t enough of them for the Wii U to keep pace with Sony or Microsoft’s surging new consoles.

John Riccitiello at Nintendo’s E3 2011 Press Conference 

In the end, Nintendo found that what works for one console, with one set of wild innovations, doesn’t necessarily work for another console with its own strengths and weaknesses.  What made the Wii such a success…

+ A simple, accessible new controller that almost anyone could learn.

+ A game (Wii Sports) that successfully showcased the controller.

…was not easily repeated with the Wii U, which was already hampered by other poor decisions that Nintendo had made.  Altogether, these problems…

– A new controller that didn’t naturally attract either casual audiences or core gamers.

– Nintendo Land’s failure to win many people over to the gamepad.

– The confusing name and marketing, which led people to believe that the Wii U was just an add-on to the Wii.

– The empty promise of renewed third party support, and the subsequent failure to bring core gamers back into the fold.

…have set Nintendo back to where they were with the Gamecube, struggling to find an audience and keep pace with their competitors.  While new technology can help a company stand out, Nintendo may want to avoid betting the farm on just one key innovation for future consoles.