Feature: The Magic of Console Launches

It’s all about day one

In the coming weeks, as we build up to the excitement and madness of E3 2012, we’re going to reflect on some major Nintendo console launches from the past. We won’t necessarily cover them all in this series, but we’ll be looking at some notable console arrivals and thinking about why these system launches were exciting, disappointing or somewhere in-between. One thing is obvious: there’s arguably nothing quite as exciting for a gamer as a brand new console being booted up for the first time. It’s new, it’s better, and it’s full of potential.

With more details of Wii U on the way, and hopefully news on what launch titles are definitely going to be available on day one, we’re hoping that it will be a console launch to remember. Let’s break down a few key areas that contribute to the best console launches, though we should say that Nintendo hasn’t always successfully delivered on all of these: we’re looking at you, 3DS.

At least one ‘killer app’ that everyone wants

This is easier said than done, it must be said, but having a must-have launch title is one of, if not the most important part of a new console making an impact. It can be a title with a familiar mascot or even an interesting new IP, with enough innovation and improvement over its predecessors to show off the capabilities of the system. It’s rare that a launch title achieves both of these targets, simply because early releases on a new console have often had a limited development time and possibly haven’t had the opportunity to make full use of the device’s capabilities. Video game development is a complex business, and it’s a tough demand to make the most of a system before its potential has been fully realised.

Often, a launch day smash hit is a compromise of innovation, working within limitations and finding a definitive hook to grab attention. Super Mario Bros. is one example, though some may argue that its U.S. release date is a mystery, but assuming it was a launch title in some form it did meet all three criteria. It represented, arguably, a leap forward in the side-scrolling platforming genre, grabbed attention with stellar gameplay, but also ultimately didn’t make the most of the hardware, with relatively modest graphics and an inability to move left. The NES was technically capable of so much more, yet Super Mario Bros. did enough to convince consumers of that potential.

Two other examples of killer launch titles are Super Mario 64 and Wii Sports. Both titles were revolutionary for their time: Super Mario 64 – though its console suffered from issues such as high retail prices on games — brought an unprecedented 3D experience into the home, setting the bar high for a transition from 2D sprites to 3D polygons. Wii Sports, in comparison, was remarkably low-tech in terms of presentation, but delivered a gaming experience that introduced the concept of motion controls to the mainstream. With all of these titles there was a wow factor due to exceptional game design, a revolution in graphics and game engine, or a new age of gaming controls and interaction.

Of course, it’s not always possible to make such an effective day one impression, with gamers sometimes having to settle for titles that are excellent in their own right but not necessarily memorable enough to capture the imagination. That is surely one of the greatest challenges facing Wii U.

Getting the price right

The price-point of a new console is always important, as it’s vital for Nintendo to do well financially, but equally crucial that consumers are willing to pay the necessary amount. It’s a tough balance to find, as early life-cycle manufacturing costs make a high retail price likely, but flat sales mean that, ultimately, a console is in danger of failing.

Nintendo’s two most recent consoles provide the perfect examples of the importance of value and pricing. The Wii was modest technologically, but utilised its strengths to grab attention while being priced lower than its powerful HD rivals. On paper it couldn’t compete with Xbox 360 or PS3, but its concept won through, while consumers were no doubt attracted by the lower burden on their wallets. For Nintendo fans keen to wield – or waggle – a sword in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, they could do so at a reasonable price. For the large group of less experienced gamers intrigued by Wii Sports, meanwhile, it was a low entry-cost into a gaming hobby. Whatever gaming demographic you were in it was cheaper and, arguably, more interesting and exciting to invest in Wii when it launched.

Whatever gaming demographic you were in it was cheaper and, arguably, more interesting and exciting to invest in Wii when it launched.

As for 3DS, most are now familiar with the woes of its launch. A strong start quickly tailed off to an appalling return of 750,000 worldwide sales in a three month period. There were a number of issues, including the lack of a ‘killer app’, but the biggest problem was, in all likelihood, the price. Outside of loyal and enthusiastic day one buyers, the common consumer seemed to look at the 3DS and question whether it offered sufficient value at $250; perhaps a sign of changing times as Wii had launched at that same price. Much has been done to reverse its fortunes, but the most headline grabbing action was a drastic price cut. On day one it was expensive, under-cooked in terms of features and lacking must-have games: it was poor value. That’s now changed with improvements in all areas, but with these lessons and the current global economy Nintendo may be wise to price the Wii U competitively, to draw attention from rivals and convince gamers that it’s offering a price worth paying.

Showing what the system can do

The final area we’d like to highlight as vital to a console launch is also the one that we, as gamers, possibly enjoy the most: hype. As gaming enthusiasts here at Nintendo Life we will happily watch trailers and read details of upcoming releases all day long. Not only do these tidbits of information raise excitement for what’s on the way, but they're also an important way to show the public why they should be paying attention.

E3 plays a big part in this due to its role as a pivotal annual event in the gaming industry. Nintendo has often used its own conference to unveil consoles, big-name titles and future plans, all designed to excite fans and interest onlookers. The major challenge is not only showing off and making the upcoming console and its games look good, but also clearly communicating what it is that makes it special. The Wii U unveiling at E3 2011 seemed to provoke a mixed response, for example, with some briefly confused about whether the tablet controller itself was the console. It's not all about E3, of course, and Nintendo can utilise various outlets in the media to spread the message and make sure that its next big launch is on people's minds.

We’ll touch on the marketing and build-up to other consoles in the features over the coming weeks, but in the case of Wii U it’s important that Nintendo uses the next few months to give gamers of all kinds a clear view of why they should want the console. Trailers, press releases and advertisements should all make it clear what the system is capable of doing, why it’s different from its competitors and why we should care.

Console launches come along every five to six years, depending on whether you count the various DS iterations or not, but when they do arrive they have a unique power to hype up millions of gamers all at once. Time will tell whether the launch of Wii U will be accompanied by frenzied media coverage and midnight queues, but we look forward to being there when it happens.