Andrew Jackson (contributor)

Since its first entry into the home console market in 1983, with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has been at the forefront of console gaming. The company, with a combination of solid hardware, family-friendly focus and some of the most recognisable and awarded gaming franchises in history has consistently been a major player in the home console market.

However, all has not been well with Nintendo over the last year with the release of its new console: the Wii U

For the first time in over three decades, we are beginning to see serious discussions regarding the future of the entire console format, a future that is becoming increasingly difficult to predict. For example, in early 2012 Microsoft revealed that the number one use of the Xbox 360 video game console was no longer playing video games: it was accessing online entertainment.

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In reaction to consumers increasingly using their consoles for purposes other than gaming, Sony (with the PS4) and Microsoft (with the Xbox One) have chosen to gamble on extending the range of online and alternative features/uses of their consoles. Because of user trends, both the Xbox One and PS4 contain features like enhanced online capability, video and music streaming services, video recording/editing/sharing tools and, in the case of Xbox, television integration and high-end voice controls.

Nintendo’s product pipeline reflects a different view of the market and prediction for the future: that the increase in people playing games in a more casual way, such as on smartphones and tablets, means that the console of the future has to be as adaptable and have as broad appeal as possible.

In an interview with Time magazine about creating games for the future, Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s General Manager of Entertainment Analysis and Development and creator of the beloved Mario, Donkey Kong and Legend of Zelda franchises, said that, “The approach that I always take from the outset is that I want my games to appeal to as many different people as possible.

“Certainly many years ago, it was an era where people who were 50 years old or older had never played video games, whereas now, when you’re looking at people in their 40s and 50s, you see people who’ve played video games and have real experience doing so.”

In its first six weeks on the market, Microsoft sold 3 million Xbox One consoles in its 13 launch markets — a “record-setting pace”, the company said — making it the fastest selling console in the United States. Over a similar period but in more regions, Sony sold 4.2 million PlayStation 4s.

While still too early to make a final assessment, these early successes indicate Microsoft and Sony’s similar planning is bearing fruit, at least in the short term. The Wii U, however, is not a recent release: it has been on the market for over a year now. The question is, then, ‘Is Nintendo’s model of console design bearing long-term fruit?’.

To answer this question, we can’t simply look at the Wii U without also exploring the success of its predecessor: the original Wii. Its release brought a new and unparalleled set of intuitive and accurate motion controls. The reliance on movement, as opposed to the complex patterns of button presses present in most console games, meant that almost any offering on the console became very easy to pick up and play. The best-selling game of all time is not Halo, or Call of Duty or even the original Super Mario Bros.. It is Wii Sports: a fun set of mini-games that came packaged with the original Wii, featuring motion controlled but easy to play versions of sports such as Bowling, Boxing and Tennis. It sold over 81 million copies.

It is a testament to this, the company’s family friendly focus, and the continued creation of major titles featuring their most well-known characters and licences (such as Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 and the several Legend of Zelda titles on the platform) that the Wii was the best-selling console of the last generation. It sold over 100 million units, and its broad appeal meant that it was used by everyone from traditional gamers to those in nursing homes and assisted care.

After the runaway success of the Wii’s motion-input gaming, Nintendo decided to add another intuitive, easy-to-use growth technology to its control matrix: a touchscreen tablet. In a continued attempt to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, the main controller for the console (called a gamepad) mimics a tablet in function, something that an audience used to playing Angry Birds on their phone would find easy to handle, alongside more dedicated gamers. Much like the simple and intuitive motion controls of the Wii, Nintendo planned to make the Wii U as easy to pick up and play as possible.

Nintendo designed the Wii U so it could still be played even if the all the TVs in the house were already in use. More tablet use and a reduced emphasis on motion control is Nintendo’s vision of the future: one where games are enjoyed by the whole family, from children to grandparents, with an ease of use and access comparable to the devices we have been using for years.

But Nintendo’s plan isn’t working.

Sales of this latest Nintendo console have been very poor around the world. Not only did the Wii sell more units in its first year of sale than the Wii U — 5.8 million units compared with 3.91 million — but this now six year old console continues to outsell its successor.

A number of factors are to blame for this poor performance. In an interview with Siliconera, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said a lack of ‘must have’ exclusive games available at launch contributed to the sluggish start. Instead of having attractive titles with bankable characters on shelves from Day 1, Nintendo was talking about games — pointing at future releases — instead of selling them.

“When we launched the Wii U, we were pointing to Pikmin, we were pointing to Wii Fit U, and we were pointing to Zelda and Mario,” he said.

In addition to an insufficient amount of Nintendo-made exclusives, the majority of contemporary must-have games made by third developers had already been released on other systems. This further contracted the Wii U’s appeal as demand is low for a console that only plays games consumers already own elsewhere.

Nintendo’s poor sales were also felt by potential game developers for the Wii U, particularly those making games for the multiplayer market. A multiplayer game’s success is measured by how many players it has. The appeal of developing a heavily multiplayer focused game for a console is greatly reduced if sales of that console have been poor, as there would be no one to play the game.

Developers have also come forward in recent months to say that, in their experience, the Wii U has been hard to develop games for due to poor support from Nintendo, along with underpowered hardware and an obtuse online gaming system.

In an anonymous but verified posting to Eurogamer, one developer said that, “We would be lucky to make back all the money that we had invested in making the game in the first place, and although the management publicly supported the Wii U platform, it is unlikely that we would ever release another Wii U title.”

Consumers are naturally hesitant to buy multiplayer games that do not have strong player bases, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where consumers don’t buy Wii U multiplayer games because no one is playing on the console, and developers don’t create new multiplayer games for the Wii U as there are no players on that format who will buy them.

Taking the Wii U version of popular shooting game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 as an example (a game that was also released on established consoles more aligned with ‘hardcore’ gaming, and on PC), a review of the game for IGN gave the game highly favourable scores but added the caveat “…hardly anyone is playing right now”.

Poor sales of the Wii U could also be attributed to the belief that a gamepad based on a tablet would appeal to the current crop of casual gamers. Though the high proliferation of tablet devices has certainly made gaming significantly more common among the general population, the opportunity to gain a slice of the ‘pick up and play’ market has passed. The incentive to purchase a Wii U for touch-screen based gaming is no longer there as those casual gamers have already purchased tablets or smartphones of their own; devices that are significantly more portable. Consumers no longer require a gaming device to play with while half-watching television because Apple and Samsung stole away the market.

This is potentially the reason why Wii sales continue to outstrip sales of the Wii U. To the casual audience, the Wii U is seen as an unnecessary replacement for an already-purchased tablet. The Wii, on the other hand, with its precise motion controls, exceptionally large back catalogue of games and low RRP after six years of price decreases, is the perfect console for a person only interested in the more casual side of gaming.

Though the Wii U set out to appease as many people as possible, it has ended up pleasing no one in particular. For the more dedicated gamer, there is not enough new content on the system to warrant purchase. For the casual gamer, the void the console hopes to fill with the pick up and play gamepad has already been filled. This is only compounded by the fact that right beside it, in almost every store, is a similar console with a unique and easy to understand controller, more games, and a much cheaper pricetag.

Nintendo Australia was invited to comment for this story.