By now it’s no secret that Nintendo claims to be going after the core gamer with the Wii U, which means that it wants to find customers who will reliably spend money on systems, software, and peripherals before they’ll buy groceries or sock some cash away for that shiny new liver they’ve been eyeballing. Once the periphery-skirting, trend-hopping Milquetoasts lose interest and stop hurling their Wii Remotes at their television screens during drunken matches of Wii Sports Bowling, the core gamer will still be around, even when the only games your company has released in the last seven months contain the words “Lego” and “Wario” in the title. Essentially, core gamers are the Woodstock of the gaming industry; they’re loyal, they know their stuff, and they can’t be swayed by the urgent, range-of-the-moment immediacy of social proof in their buying decisions. In spite of this it comes as a mild surprise to see Satoru Iwata claim that the Wii U’s problem isn’t its industry-high price, but its lack of software.
There’s no question that the Wii U needs more games; while it launched with an impressive array of inter-console ports such as Darksiders II, Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Ninja Gaiden III, the dearth of quality first-party titles (aside from New Super Mario Bros. U) and continued support for third-party software has contributed to the system’s lackluster quarterly global sales of just 160,000 units. What’s noteworthy about Iwata’s quotes is that they reveal a disconcerting amount of rationalization.
Let’s say you’re not making game consoles, but cars. You produce one model with two trim levels, which for the sake of verisimilitude and waffles we’ll refer to as the Basic and Deluxe trim packages. With the Basic package you get a steering wheel, four seats (wood, no upholstery), a 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine, and a four-gallon gas tank for $2990. With the Deluxe trim package you get a steering wheel, cloth seats, a two-speaker cassette stereo system, a spare tire and a jack, the same 1.8 liter 4-cylinder engine, and a 32-gallon gas tank for $3490. Almost a year into your automotive manufacture and sales endeavor, you’ve moved exactly four cars: three Deluxes and one Basic. Because of the fact that the more expensive Deluxe package has outsold the Basic by a margin of three-to-one, you proffer that the cars are not overpriced, but that there simply aren’t enough places for people to go. This is akin to stating “Price is not an issue because people are unwilling to spend $2990 on a shitty deal; since they’re willing to spend $3490 in order to go nowhere, though, our stuff is priced just right and so there.”
Iwata’s mistake — if it truly is a mistake and not simply corporate subterfuge — lies in the out-of-context claim that price isn’t the issue because more people have purchased the Wii U Deluxe than have purchased the Wii U Basic. First, “more” does not signify “many”; you don’t have to be Ludwig von Mises to figure out that the Wii U Basic set is a bad value, not only when compared with the Wii U Deluxe set, but against every other console on the market. Break it down with me… (Links are for reference only.)
For $299 the Xbox 360 Spring Value Bundle offers a 250 GB Xbox 360, along with Darksiders II and Batman: Arkham City, a headset, and a library of almost 1000 games to choose from.
For $299 the PlayStation 3 God of War Ascension Legacy Bundle offers a 500 GB PlayStation 3, along with God of War Ascension, God of War 1, 2, and 3, Chains of Olympus, Ghost of Sparta, and a library of almost 800 games to choose from.
For $299 the Wii U Basic set offers an 8 GB Wii U and an HDMI cable, which must be purchased separately with the above deals, and almost 150 games to choose from.
Yes, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have been in production far longer than the Wii U, and as such employ greater economies of scale, but that does not diminish the dollar-for-dollar value that those systems provide with their larger hard drive space, comparable (better, in some cases) performance, and an average of nine times as many games to choose from than the Wii U. Based on these standards alone, it’s difficult to recommend a Wii U to someone who doesn’t already own an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, and it’s even more difficult to recommend it to someone who does.
So exactly where do core gamers fit into Nintendo’s plans? The short answer is that they don’t. At least not in the way that Nintendo had hoped.
Nintendo has their share of core gamers, but they’re Nintendo-core. They’ll buy Mario Kart 8, Mario Party 9, New Super Luigi U, Super Smash Bros., Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD without thinking twice about it, and that’s a very good thing. The trouble is that this core, while ferociously loyal, is far too small to keep a struggling system alive; even though these games represent the foundation of Nintendo’s first-party software business, I don’t think these titles are likely to sell enough consoles to pull the Wii U out of its sales doldrums.
What is the probable percentage of people who are interested in one or more of the aforementioned games, but don’t yet own a Wii U? I don’t know, but if you’re a Nintendo devotee, you’re well aware that these games are coming, and chances are you’ve already bought a Wii U. If you’re not a Nintendo devotee, are you going to spend $349 to play Mario Party 9 and Mario Kart 8, or The Wind Waker HD, which was originally released on the GameCube ten years ago? If you’re not a Nintendo devotee, are you going to spend $349 to play any game on the Wii U when, come November, you can get a PlayStation 4 for $50 more?
For anyone with only a passing interest in Nintendo’s first-party software lineup, once the new consoles are released the Wii U’s appeal will plummet like Anthony’s Weiner’s poll numbers. So while today’s problem is indeed the fact that there is little compelling software for the Wii U, the problem three months from now will be that there’s still little compelling software and the Wii U costs too damned much. Unfortunately these problems compound each other; there won’t be a reason for publishers to produce games for the Wii U unless there’s a chance that they might sell more than 100,000 copies, and that won’t happen unless there are more systems in people’s hands. And you won’t see more systems in people’s hands until the price comes down by at least $100. If that doesn’t happen by this holiday season, I don’t see how the Wii U can survive against the approaching Banshee-Brute combo of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4.
Any circle of core gamers must have something to be loyal to. (The Nintendo-core has that already, but they simply cannot purchase enough games in sufficient numbers to boost the Wii U’s sales.) To claim to want these people on your side, and then to design a system with a feature that renders it, if not prohibitively, then reasonably too expensive, is mind-bogglingly daft. Instead of eschewing the gimmick and producing a machine that appeals not only to the Nintendo faithful, but also to people like me, who wouldn’t know a Goomba from a gonad, Nintendo chose the route of non-essentials, and the Wii U is suffering for it.
As much as I’m rooting for it to make contact with that football and send it sailing through the goalposts, I’m going to call this game right now; at least a $100 price drop on all remaining Wii U inventory by mid-November, or Nintendo goes home 1-3 since 1996.