Red flags a-plenty heading into Wii U’s launch | 10 Years Ago This Month

Historically speaking, Nintendo had not really been a big believer in the early mover advantage.

The Super Nintendo trailed the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive into stores. The Nintendo 64 arrived fashionably late to the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn generation. The GameCube arrived a year after the PlayStation 2 and two years after Sega’s Dreamcast. The Wii hit stores alongside the PlayStation 3, but a year after Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Nintendo’s track record of releasing systems whenever it was good and ready rather than feeling rushed by the competition felt very in character for a company with a track record of doing its own thing, from sticking with cartridges after others switched to CD-ROMs to adding a second screen to a handheld to reinventing the fundamental user interface with the Wii Remote.

The Wii U was going to be the first new console on shelves in six years

But things were different 10 years ago this month. Nintendo was readying the Wii U for a holiday release, when it would be the first new console on shelves in six years.

People were desperate for something new, as we saw a couple months prior with the unbridled enthusiasm around the Ouya. But that microconsole wasn’t supposed to launch until March of 2013, and Sony and Microsoft hadn’t even announced their next systems, suggesting they wouldn’t arrive until roughly a year after Wii U hit shelves. GameStop and Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter were saying the industry scuttlebutt even had one of those consoles slipping into 2014.

For the first time since the NES, Nintendo had the opportunity to set the pace for a console generation. September of 2012 was when it dropped the launch plans for the system.

The Wii U would launch in November in both the US and Europe, borrowing the multiple SKU strategy that Microsoft and Sony had embraced the prior generation. It would be $300 for the basic white Wii U, or $350 for a black Deluxe model with more internal memory and a copy of the minigame collection Nintendo Land.

Nintendo Land had nods to numerous franchises people might have preferred to see at launch

The system price was a little high for some people’s liking, but Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime dismissed such concerns out of hand.

“We think $299 is a really strong value, and it’s a value that’s going to be strong for a long time,” Fils-Aime said, making it clear the company had no intention of repeating its 3DS launch debacle, where it slashed the price drastically half a year after launch.

He added, “We don’t believe in pricing a product and then having to reduce the price some short time later. When we had to do that for 3DS, it was a very painful proposition for us. And what we did with the Wii at $249 and leaving it there for, I think, about three and a half years is very much consistent with our pricing philosophy.”

Beyond Nintendo Land, Nintendo had planned a software lineup led by first-party titles like New Super Mario Bros. U, Pikmin 3, and Wii Fit U on the way in the first half year after launch. There was some question about whether those titles could carry a launch in the same way games like Wii Sports, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, or Super Mario 64 could, but customers and industry watchers alike generally understood that when it came to first-party games, Nintendo would follow through with quality releases.

A bigger question (and point of concern) was the third-party picture, which you can get a sense of from this story about the launch window lineup. After dealing with a generation of hearing that “only Nintendo games sell on Wii,” the company was spotlighting its efforts with third-parties. It enlisted Platinum Games to make exclusives like Bayonetta 2 and The Wonderful 101, and convinced Ubisoft and WB Games to create original titles for the system like ZombiU and Lego City Undercover.

Those were a good start, but there was a clear pattern in the rest of the third-party picture. While there was a wide swath of games from major publishers, many of them had already been released on the Xbox 360 and PS3 (Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Ninja Gaiden 3), or would be released there by the time the Wii U launched (Call of Duty Black Ops, Assassin’s Creed 3, Madden NFL 13).

Making matters worse, there was usually little to recommend those Wii U versions over their counterparts for seven- and eight-year-old hardware, aside from touchscreen inventory selection or an in-game map on the second screen. (Perhaps the only exception to this was the Wii U edition of Tekken Tag Tournament 2, which let players dress characters up in Nintendo-themed costumes.)

Tekken Tag Tournament 2 for Wii U
Tekken Tag 2 for Wii U should have been Game of the Year, exhibit 1.

In the wake of the launch plans announcement, analysts were guardedly optimistic about the system, but raised concerns that would prove to be well-founded.

“The success of the Wii U comes down to third-party support,” EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich said. “We feel confident that Nintendo will develop its own compelling software that will drive initial sales; however, any long-term success will come from third-party developers creating unique and compelling content for the Wii U. Simply ‘porting’ over an existing Xbox 360 titles and slapping on some exclusive Wii U features will not cut it.”

RW Baird’s Colin Sebastian was similarly concerned about software support.

“One of my lingering concerns is that it is not obvious to me what the ‘killer app’ will be, which would help drive momentum into next year,” Sebastian said.

Despite Fils-Aime’s emphasis on sticking with the hardware’s initial price point for a while, both Pachter and DFC Intelligence’s David Cole predicted a price drop for the system within a year, which would turn out to be a Good Call.

One area where there was agreement among analysts and Nintendo itself was that the system would do well that holiday season, selling out based on early adopter demand.

Fils-Aime said the preorder demand from retailers was “extremely strong,” and GameStop backed him up, halting reservations in the US due to “overwhelming demand” and opening up a wait list.

Despite that initial wave of expected enthusiasm, there were signs of rough waters to come.

The Wii had been Nintendo’s most successful home console to that point, and a major factor in its success was that it became a cultural phenomenon, with mainstream media wholeheartedly embracing it, putting it in places games had traditional never been given much spotlight, and introducing them to heretofore untapped audiences. But by the time the Wii U was announced, untold number of Wiis had been relegated to closets, and the shiny new tech of the moment was Apple’s iPhone.

If that sounds weird to you, it should. The original iPhone debuted half a year after the Wii hit shelves. But while the Wii burned bright for a few years then faded fast, the iPhone and its annual iterations only seemed to be gaining steam. We surveyed the social media chatter and mainstream coverage of the Wii U in the wake of the launch details announcements and found them vastly overshadowed by the iPhone 5 unveiling from the day before (with a bit of controversy over how its new Lightning connector would require people to buy yet more pricey new accessories).

The Wall Street Journal covered the Wii U news, but it was pushed down beneath 10 separate iPhone headlines

Time’s Techland blog had four top story slots, and the Wii U couldn’t push Apple’s event out of even one of them. The Wall Street Journal covered the Wii U news, but it was pushed down beneath 10 separate iPhone-related headlines. The New York Times didn’t seem to cover it at all. USA Today went from putting the original Wii announcement on its front page to ignoring the Wii U’s launch announcement entirely. Perhaps most concerning at all is that the iPhone 5 was commanding so much more attention and emphasis despite the actual event containing, as a Daily Telegraph headline explained, “no surprises.”

A week later, another red flag went up. In an interview at the Tokyo Game Show, Koei Tecmo’s Akihiro Suzuki explained that the poor frame rate of the Wii U version of the game was due to the system having a weaker CPU than Microsoft and Sony’s systems. The third-party ports lined up for the Wii U were already fairly underwhelming, but the idea that the Wii U struggled to match the older systems’ performance had dire implications for what third-party support would look like once the next PlayStation and Xbox came out and publishers moved on to systems that would presumably have significantly more horsepower.

Sure enough, third-party support quickly became a problem for the Wii U. EA dropped support for the system in mid-2013 with just four games released, all of them ports that trailed release on other systems. Activision did well with Skylanders on the system, but it only did two tours with Call of Duty before dropping Wii U support for the franchise after the release of Ghosts. The positively ancient Xbox 360 and PS3 would each receive two more years of Call of Duty beyond that with Advanced Warfare and Black Ops 3.

Once the Wii U actually launched in November, the guarded optimism had faded. Retailers were running promotions on Wii U game software where customers could buy one game and get a second for 40% off.

“This is certainly a first in history, and it points to the state of the retail and set-top console market,” Scott Steinberg of TechSavvy Global told us at the time. “In the past you would never see retailers discounting premium launch software for a console system. In most cases it’s an opportunity to mark prices up. But I struggle to remember the last time a console launch had so much software available.”

“Nintendo has set up the Wii U for failure”GamesBeat’s Dan Hsu

Early reviewers were also largely unimpressed with the software lineup, saying it didn’t fully show off what the system could be capable of. It didn’t help that some features – like the of-the-moment TVii service – were unavailable until weeks after launch. There were exceptions – Time Magazine’s reviewer said it showed even more promise than the Wii did in 2006 – but the larger reaction was not terribly positive.

“Nintendo has set up the Wii U for failure,” said GamesBeat’s Dan Hsu.

Engadget wasn’t much kinder, saying, “Without Nintendo Network, Miiverse, Nintendo TVii, or any streaming/on-demand video content – not to mention promised backwards compatibility – the Wii U doesn’t compete at all with even last-gen consoles.”

Polygon was marginally more diplomatic, saying, “We are cautious and indeed, somewhat pessimistic, about what the future holds for Nintendo’s new system. The Wii U is poised to deliver the same thing Nintendo always has, but we’re still waiting to see if it can deliver more.”

When asked by investors about the somewhat thin first-party lineup available for launch, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata explained that the company had intentionally throttled it back, saying, “Nintendo tends to release too many titles at the launch of a hardware system and as a result suffers a drop in new games for quite some time after launch, and for the Wii U launch, we are being very careful not to let it happen.”

They probably could have been less careful about that, seeing as post-launch first-party titles like Pikmin 3, Wii Fit U, The Wonderful 101, and Game & Wario were all delayed out of the system’s first six months on shelves. Iwata would end up apologizing for the post-launch drought, reassuring investors and fans that new Mario Kart and 3D Mario games were on the way, but adding that the first original Zelda title for Wii U (which would turn out to be 2017’s Breath of the Wild) was still a ways off.

Pikmin 3
Reinforcements for the Wii U launch were slow to arrive

Nintendo had already suffered one rocky launch with the 3DS, but salvaged that on the back of a painfully deep early price cut and a strong first holiday season with Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land. There would be no deep early price cut this time; just the aforementioned $50 trimming almost a year after launch. The lineup also improved considerably by the end of its first year of release, with Super Mario 3D World moving systems, but perhaps not moving the needle the way the plumber’s 3DS efforts had.

The Wii U was barely on shelves for two months when Nintendo announced plans to merge its handheld and console hardware divisions

The Wii U was barely on shelves for two months when Nintendo announced plans to merge its handheld and console hardware divisions, with our initial report even saying, “It’s thought that, as well as working on new technology for and possible iterations of current platforms, the new facility could work on future hardware which could seek to combine the potential of home and handheld systems in a single device.”

In retrospect it seems Nintendo understood the problem facing its traditional businesses, and was already smartly preparing for the Switch. The struggles of the 3DS and the faceplant of the Vita seemed to back up assertions that the handheld market was evaporating as people turned to smartphones and tablets. Competing with Microsoft and Sony at the bleeding edge of technology for a hardcore audience is a fight Nintendo realized it wouldn’t be able to win after the GameCube, and big third-parties who so often rely on that tech to sell their games were never going to give their full support to a system that didn’t show off their strengths.

The only way Nintendo would have been able to survive in the traditional console market would be with a series of moonshots like the original Wii, innovative successes that could likely be easily copied (and possibly surpassed) by competitors within a few years, much like the Kinect and PlayStation Move did to the Wii. While the Switch could also be copied, the horsepower one can fit in a handheld form factor will trail what can be done in a box the size of the PS5, and to this point Microsoft and Sony haven’t shown any appetite to follow suit. (Although I fully expect this to change if/when cloud streaming takes off or the diminishing returns on advanced console hardware make for negligible differences between the handheld and living room experiences.)

Ultimately, the Wii U’s legacy is that it wound up keeping Nintendo’s seat warm, something to fill the gap until a true hybrid platform was ready, something to keep retailers from reallocating all that Nintendo shelf space to other companies’ offerings.

It’s still a great systmem with a load of great games that stand the test of time – I’ve played it more in the past two years than in the eight before that combined – but it was also a commercial disappointment, representing another low in Nintendo history that would be followed by the now-traditional return to glory.

What else happened in September 2012?

● BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk announce their retirements from the games industry six months after the Mass Effect 3 ending served as a canary in the coalmine for abusive fandoms and player entitlement. The pair were so closely associated with the studio’s output that EA sought to reassure fans about the studio’s future by announcing a new Mass Effect game and a new IP. Those new projects would be less reassuring when they turned out to be Mass Effect Andromeda and Anthem, respectively.

● Ubisoft was ramping up its efforts for free-to-play and mobile, following up the previous month’s launch of the free-to-play Ghost Recon Online with news of Assassin’s Creed and Rayman mobile games and more information on free-to-play games like Anno Online and Silent Hunter Online.

A decade later, Ubisoft is still trying to establish itself in free-to-play and mobile with spotty success. The Division: Heartland still hasn’t launched, Hyper Scape shut down earlier this year, and Roller Champions is in such a state that Ubisoft had to deny rumors it was being shut down. It’s not giving up yet though; when Tencent recently upped its investment in the company, Ubisoft emphasized the Chinese firm’s ability to make mobile offerings out of its AAA franchises.

● Steam Greenlight launched in late August and the flaws with a crowdsourced curation process for a digital storefront were painfully clear by early September. People were launching Greenlight campaigns for games they didn’t own the rights to — Mass Effect 3, Need for Speed, Command and Conquer, Half-Life 3, and Left 4 Dead 3 – and that’s to say nothing of the deliberately offensive and tasteless joke titles people fabricated.

Valve quickly added a $100 filing fee for Greenlight applications, figuring it was better to have a bit more gatekeeping of poor developers if it allowed them to keep out some trolls.

Along with those titles, Valve also booted the erotic game Seduce Me. The developers said they received a generic email saying they had violated the terms of Greenlight and no other word from Valve.

Contrast that with what happened two years later, when Valve pulled the Greenlight campaign for killing spree game Hatred and Valve head Gabe Newell came down from on high to overturn the game’s Greenlight removal.

“Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that,” Newell told the Hatred developer, according to their Facebook page. “It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers. Good luck with your game, Gabe.”

● In less appalling Valve news, the company also revealed 10 years ago this month that it was getting into hardware with a job posting apparently looking for people to help realize the Steam Controller.

● Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki doomed us to a decade of Difficulty Discourse when he said he was thinking about putting an easier difficulty mode into the Souls games.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was unfailingly optimistic about Windows 8, the soon-to-launch operating system intended to bring desktops more in line with the design language of tablets and mobile devices, saying, “Windows 8 is going to do great. I’m not paid to have doubts. I don’t have any. It’s a fantastic product…”

Perhaps if having doubts were part of Ballmer’s job duties, the company wouldn’t have spent $1.5 billion on launching a hideous new OS that would need a massive rethink some six months after launch, and that was so poorly received Microsoft didn’t just announce it’s successor in less than two years, it skipped Windows 9 entirely and went straight to 10 to put some distance between the products.

BAD CALL: EA Labels president Frank Gibeau told us “The time to launch an IP is at the front-end of the hardware cycle, and if you look historically the majority of new IPS are introduced within the first 24 months of each cycle of hardware platforms. Right now, we’re working on three to five new IPs for the next gen, and in this cycle we’ve been directing our innovation into existing franchises.”

Without getting into whether or not new IP really does work best at the beginning of a cycle, we can at least say EA didn’t really execute on the strategy Gibeau outlined. Even if we omit the Wii U and say the next generation began in 2013, EA only managed to release on new IP outside of its EA Originals indie partnerships by the end of 2015: Titanfall. (We’re not counting UFC and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare for obvious reasons, even though we’ve heard executives count spin-offs and new licenses as original IP before.) EA actually ended the generation with a stronger lineup of original IP, with Apex Legends and Anthem arriving in 2019, followed by Knockout City in 2021.

BETTER CALL: Gibeau ended the interview with a prediction about free-to-play, saying, “I actually think that free-to-play is going to be the dominant business model in this industry before the end of the decade. It will be the model that most people are used to.”

That certainly helps explain why he would leave EA – which still charges for FIFA despite running an Ultimate Team casino that seems tailor-made for free-to-play – to take up a role with Zynga partway through the decade.

We can argue over what constitutes “dominant,” but when the massively free-to-play-driven mobile market made up essentially half of all consumer spending on games worldwide in 2020 while free-to-play games like League of Legend, Fortnite, Apex Legends, Dota 2, Genshin Impact, and numerous others were among the most popular games on console or PC, it’s tough to say Gibeau was wrong. There’s still a significant market for premium games, but I think it’s significantly outweighed by free-to-play at this point, and I don’t expect it to swing back the other way any time soon.

BAD CALL: Assassin’s Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson believed massive AAA games’ days were numbered, saying, “We’re the last of the dinosaurs. We’re still the monster triple-A game with very large teams [and] multiple studios helping out on different bits. There are fewer and fewer of these games being made, especially as the middle has fallen out.”

He went on to say many of the developers on the team thought it would be a once-in-a-career opportunity to work on a title that big because industry conditions just wouldn’t allow for more to be made.

I agree the AAA arms race is ultimately unsustainable, but Assassin’s Creed 3 was by no means the last of the dinosaurs. We’ve had seven AAA blockbuster-scale Assassin’s Creed games in the decade since, not to mention the rest of Ubisoft’s catalog and those of its competitors. As for the opportunity to work on a game like that being rare, I have to wonder if the smaller quantity of AAA games of that size to work on is being offset (and then some) by how many more developers and studios each new blockbuster requires.

According to MobyGames, Assassin’s Creed 3 on PS3 had 2,627 people listed in the credits. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla on PS4 more than doubled that with 5,911.

BAD CALL: In announcing that the “annualized” NBA Live franchise would miss its third straight year, EA Sports executive VP Andrew Wilson said, “This decision puts us on the right track for success well into the future in a rapidly changing industry.”

NBA Live would ship to mediocre reviews for the next three years, skip 2016, ship to more middling reviews in 2017 and 2018, and hasn’t been seen on consoles since.

GOOD CALL: Sony marketing VP John Koller said the problem with the PSP was that it was “overrun with ports”, and pledged that the Vita would be different, which it definitely was.

Weirdly enough, this wasn’t one of those “be careful what you wish for” things where the good-sounding thing winds up being bad. It was already bad. A month before Koller’s comments, Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida publicly acknowledged the company was having a hard time getting third-party support for the system.

BAD CALL: US cable channel G4 was reportedly going to receive a “sophisticated” rebrand in 2013. Instead, the network cancelled its long-running studio programming including X-Play and Attack of the Show a month later and decided to play out the string airing American Ninja Warrior and Cops reruns before going off the air in 2014. The brand was dusted off and returned to service last year.

GOOD CALL: GamesIndustry.biz hired me. Whether or not you think that was a good call might come down to how you feel about overly long and self-indulgent features where who was wrong and who was right comes down to a subjective and sometimes snarky call made by me with the enormous benefit of hindsight. As you may have guessed, I’m in favor of them.

If you disagree, I’ll just note that the first 10 Years Ago This Month column was in August of 2015, so perhaps in a few years this snake will eat its own tail and you’ll get to watch me reckon with everything I’ve been wrong about. Something to look forward to!

(Crosses fingers real hard that consoles don’t die in the next three years.)

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