What went wrong with the Nintendo Wii U?

With sales of more than 100 million, Nintendo’s original Wii easily won the last round of the console wars. Like Mario jumping over a man-eating flower, the Wii’s sales leapfrogged both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, ushering in a golden age of mainstream gaming. Key to this success was the revolutionary Wii remote, a gesture-based controller that removed the complex controls of other consoles. Combined with a family-friendly range of games, it captured the imagination of the masses, from six-year-old girls to 60-year-old grandfathers. So how did Nintendo get it so wrong with the Wii’s successor, the Wii U, which has crashed and burned like an out-of-control Mario Kart?

Released in November 2012, early sales of the Wii U were strong despite a relatively soft range of launch titles. The first shipments quickly sold out, but the happy story ended there with sales rapidly declining. The Wii U sold a mere 2.8 million units in the whole of 2013 – less than the new Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One sold in just two months. It’s also a fraction of the number of original Wiis sold over the same length of time when it was first released.

As a result, Nintendo’s share price has taken a beating, profit fell 30 per cent, and top company executives have taken major pay cuts. The Wii U is in dire straits. Even Nintendo’s president Satoru Iwata – whose salary has been halved – hasn’t beaten about the bush, admitting the company’s sales suffered ”a huge gap from their targets”.

Issues have included the Wii U’s name, which sounds very similar to Nintendo’s earlier console, and an advertising campaign that failed to convey the Wii U was actually a new console. Many gamers mistakenly believed the Wii U was just a new controller for the older Wii.

According to Marla Fitzsimmons, marketing manager at Nintendo Australia, the company quickly realised this. “One of the challenges was to explain to consumers that Wii U was a new console and new controller, and not just a controller for Wii.”

The biggest physical difference is the new gamepad, which combines a standard control pad with a large touchscreen. While the Wii U still uses the Wii remotes, the new gamepad is central to the Wii U experience and requires the dexterity of an experienced gamer on twin control sticks and buttons. Many see this as the biggest flaw of Wii U, reintroducing the barrier the original Wii successfully removed.

But Nintendo doesn’t see it that way. When asked if upcoming games would place emphasis on the remotes instead of the gamepad, Fitzsimmons says: “Our job continues to be to get out there to consumers and show them the entertainment and fun that the Wii U offers, and that includes showing them all the great things you can do with the gamepad.”

It appears mainstream gamers will need to adapt to the gamepad if they hope to enjoy upcoming games, but with so few Wii U consoles out there, software publishers are loathe to invest. Electronic Arts announced an “unprecedented relationship” with Nintendo at the launch of the Wii U, but a year later had no Wii U titles in development. Key 2013 titles from other publishers, such as BioShock Infinite, Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider, all skipped the Wii U. This leaves Nintendo relying on its internal studios to deliver the bulk of Wii U games. But based on known releases for 2014, it seems Nintendo plans on releasing fewer games than it did in 2013.

Despite this, Fitzsimmons claims 2014 will see a resurgence in sales resulting from games sales, saying that “we feel there’s more momentum with the upcoming line-up”. Australia’s top physical gaming retailer EB Games echoed this, saying “Nintendo is definitely stepping up to the plate when it comes to the software on offer”.

Now that the Playstation 4 and Xbox One are available – both delivering raw performance exponentially more powerful than the Wii U, and both selling like hot cakes – Nintendo faces an even tougher time as casual gamers flock to the increasingly high quality games offered on smartphones and tablets.

Nintendo HQ in Japan is responding with a management shake-up and share buy-back, while Nintendo Australia remains slightly more optimistic. ”Our upcoming line-up is incredibly strong,” Fitzsimmons says. ”We feel that the Wii U is in a much better position in 2014.”

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