Talking Point: The Wii U's Identity Crisis

Muddled messages aren't helping matters

Let's start this with some clear points, to head-off accusations before they're made. No, we don't think Nintendo is doomed and no, we don't think the Wii U is doomed. While critical of some aspects of the Wii U since release, in general we've maintained a line that the system cannot be judged yet, and that until Nintendo plays its full hand with initiatives and the upcoming library of games in the next 12 months, we'll have little idea about its prospects. Let's not forget that the 3DS was doomed once upon a time, and that's now surrounded by happier vibes and some rather decent sales figures. The coming year is going to bring a lot of twists and turns which will do much to lay out the Wii U's road map to success or disappointment; we're only at the beginning.

So, there's that. Onto the point at hand, though, this talking point has ultimately been triggered as a response to the latest Wii U adverts to come out of Nintendo of America. In truth we gave them a miss in the news cycle as, ultimately, they're rather forgettable and cringe-worthy, at least in our opinion; they just weren't a priority. There's arguably a decent message emphasizing that families are upgrading to Wii U — a welcome attempt to clarify that this is a step up from Wii and not an extention of the old hardware — but the execution is problematic. First of all, below are all three (largely similar) trailers.

Accusations that these adverts are rather cheesy and, well, a bit naff are entirely subjective, and we have little doubt that Nintendo has teams of marketing and focus group specialists suggesting that these three adverts can target an audience successfully. The Wii had a significant audience with families, and so this is a direct attempt to address that.

But let's talk about what these adverts ultimately fail to address, and which have been common complaints of Wii U's marketing to date. It shows little of what the system can do in the living room, not least under-selling the GamePad. The new controller is merely a side-presence; we briefly see someone customising a Mii or tapping the screen, and its motion controls make a cameo but, so what? The Wii Remote has motion controls and we've had the DS for many years, so nothing that new there. It's arguably a step back from the launch trailers in the US and UK, below — the latter of which was banned for insufficient messaging on off-TV play restrictions — which at least showed what the GamePad could do in more meaningful ways in games.

US launch trailer:

UK launch trailer:

Now, there's a lot more to Wii U's current below-expectations momentum than the odd advertising misstep, but we feel that all of these commercials, especially the most recent at the top of the article, indicate just why there's consumer confusion that leads some to still genuinely not quite realise there's a new Nintendo system on the market. None of the adverts show any of the following features that are either new or vastly improved over its Wii predecessor:

  • Miiverse - social networks are a big deal in modern life, so is this being highlighted enough as a Nintendo gamer's social network?
  • The Wii U eShop - a huge improvement over the Wii Shop, with retail downloads, regular promotions and more.
  • Multi-tasking - The Wii U allows you to pause a game, jump into the (excellent) web browser for a quick search, or perhaps into Miiverse to post a screenshot or comment.
  • Greater accessibility and power with TV streaming (TV and GamePad) and YouTube apps.

None of these, with the arguable exception of Miiverse, are anything beyond what existing rival systems deliver, but they're a step up from the creaky equivalents (if they existed) on the ageing Wii. These are all features that we know about, as enthusiasts and regular Nintendo Direct viewers here on Nintendo Life, but what about the general public? These may be comments easily shrugged off as armchair criticism, but there does seem to be an awareness issue around the Wii U being a notable step up from its predecessors. Showing people playing a load of games with a new controller has the potential, to plenty of consumers out there, to look like a mere expansion of the system they already have. The upgrade message in the new adverts helps, but as we've already argued achieves little else.

There are wider identity issues that can also be highlighted, even if we feel the arguments against the Wii U's branding are slightly less black and white in this case. The name can cause confusion, while it could be said that the hardware is even too similar to the Wii — it's basically longer with a curvier body, but does look quite similar. This can be countered with the evidence of the 3DS, which had a similarly familiar name to its predecessor and a clam-shell form factor to match; it can be argued these are actually strengths, encouraging brand familiarity and trust.

As we've highlighted before, the fate of the Wii U will likely come down to some key areas; games, price, developer support, games and more — we deliberately mentioned games twice. There's a valid debate to also be had with the branding and appearance of the system being so familiar to Wii, with both sides having reasonable arguments to share. It's in terms of communicating what Wii U is, however — with a focus on its true identity beyond its name and outer shell — where we'd make the case for a change of direction. With 3DS right now its marketing is all about games because, truthfully, its a gaming handheld right through to its graphics chips. It has an eShop, a web browser and the occasional app, but it's really about a DS-style gaming experience with some 3D and greater power thrown in, and considering the poor form of the PlayStation Vita and its reasonable pricing in comparison, it can play that angle. Perhaps future Miiverse integration will mix that up a little bit but, still, its offering is almost all about just playing games.

The Wii U, however, is trying to convince gamers of all types — because we've heard comments of its hardcore credentials from senior figures such as Reggie Fils-Aime — that not only is it a major step up from the Wii, but also a different proposition to the Xbox 360, PS3 and, eventually, PS4 and the new Xbox; it's supposed to be central to the living room, let's not forget. Games will in all likelihood play the most significant role, but Nintendo has other weapons in its armoury with the multi-functionality of the GamePad and the multi-tasking the system offers. The Wii got by with motion controls, killer franchises and software, and perhaps Wii U will do the same, but perhaps gamers need to see that new software, a touch screen and pretty graphics aren't the only differences between the two systems.

Do you think the general public understands that Wii U is a brand new console, and do you think the advertising messaging has made that clear?

Let us know in the poll and comments below.

Has Nintendo done enough to spread the word about Wii U as a brand new console from Wii? (382 votes)

I think most people know it's a new console

8%

The adverts explain it well, but they've not been on TV or visible enough

14%

There's clearly confusion in the general public, so no

73%

I'm not sure

6%

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What do you think of the Wii U messaging (in mainstream advertising) so far? (349 votes)

I think it's covering the features of the system well

1%

Nintendo Direct broadcasts have been useful, but general adverts haven't covered enough

52%

The ads have focused on games a lot, and that's fine by me

3%

I don't agree that Wii U marketing is too focused on games, other features have been advertised

5%

I don't think the messaging has been well balanced

38%

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