Talking Point: Gamescom Announcements Raise the Stakes for the Wii U and 3DS
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Nintendo yet to reveal its full hand
In a typical year Gamescom is a vibrant show, undoubtedly, but not necessarily one that draws a mini-E3 level of headlines. Yet if you're following Microsoft or Sony, this year's show has certainly delivered. It's all about circumstances, and with the two companies launching new hardware no high-profile opportunity can be missed to build hype, and that's exactly what's happened. Plenty of news has emerged to reveal more about the launches of the PS4 and Xbox One, as well as a price cut for the PS Vita, so it seems like a good time to take stock and consider where the Wii U and 3DS are placed at this moment in time, and how major moves from rivals disrupt or focus their strategies.
To start with the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One reveals in Germany have solidified the details either revealed or guessed upon during E3 2013 and the weeks that followed, with launch lineups, bundles and release dates appearing in one form or another. Both systems now have confirmed launch lineups which, for the most part, reflect what was already known, though both companies used presentations to reveal the odd surprise game beyond launch day. What mattered for many, however, were launch dates, bundles and some exclusives. Microsoft weighed in with a pre-order offer of a free copy of FIFA 14, which offsets its higher retail price in comparison to the PS4, to an extent. While Microsoft also secured other deals on huge franchises — such as dedicated servers for Call of Duty: Ghosts — Sony's approach has been to reinforce its message, while promoting its system's lower cost and emphasizing a larger launch lineup and substantial Indie support. Most notably Sony gave release dates for the PS4, with 15th November in North America and 29th November in Europe being scribbled into some gamer's diaries, while Microsoft didn't reveal its equivalent dates.
So how have these presentations and media blitzes changed the shape of the competition from the Wii U's perspective? One argument is "not much", as it's tempting to look at Nintendo's hardware and software lineup and place it in a category on its own, seeking to recreate the buzz that gave the Wii such an identity with various consumers. There's an element of pessimism to that perspective, perhaps, to suggest that the Wii U isn't going toe-to-toe with its upcoming opponents, but the argument can swing either way — Nintendo's separation in approach, policy and content from its rivals gives it a refreshing edge, or alternatively it can be said that struggles to achieve parity with powerful third-party publishers and games, such as the behemoth that is FIFA 14, means that in economically tough times some may choose systems that have substantial, big-name online experiences.
Here at Nintendo Life we generally prefer the optimistic approach, and Nintendo has shown in recent years, with the DS family, Wii and recently 3DS, that it can carve an identity for its systems into the market, primarily driven by first-party content and supplemented with a dash of major third-parties here and there and, increasingly, Indies. It's been debated endlessly whether the Wii U's concept will be enough of a hook to become a sales success, but Nintendo's giving it an opportunity with a number of exciting exclusives that, once they accumulate on shelves, will play a part in attracting attention.
Nintendo will need to, naturally, placate and charm retailers into giving these games and the console visibility in stores, with the market naturally wary of a system that's endured a poor 2013. The company may have held games back for an impact in the second half of the year and to guarantee quality, but it'll need to ensure that consumers see these products when and where it counts. Nintendo brands thankfully still have clout and recent sales successes to show, so even with PS4 and Xbox One systems on shelves Nintendo's platform will hopefully be visible.
And finally, rumours of a Wind Waker HD hardware bundle look far more convincing this week, and perhaps represent the first shot in the battle for value. Even ignoring the fact that enthusiasts may snap up most or all launch stock of the One and PS4 — pre-orders are already closed in some regions for the PS4 — potentially leaving few systems for those still undecided, the Wii U will need to look like attractive value. In the likely event of the retail price staying the same for the hardware, Nintendo's port of call will surely be bundles, where a hit is taken on some software sales. The Wind Waker bundle will apparently cost $349.99, and our hope is that this will also include Nintendo Land; if Nintendo's generous it should throw in an extra Wii Remote Plus and Nunchuk, too.
That bundle (particularly the extra controllers) is probably over-ambitious, but it's applying irresistable value — to complement the shiny new big-name games — that could be vital, especially with families. To use U.S. prices as examples, the bare-bones PS4 package is $399 and is a system and controller, though there are some free-to-play offerings included such as The Playroom; The Xbox One comes in at the higher price of $499, so we can expect some incentives to accompany that system. The plus for Nintendo is that it can position the Wii U as the more affordable option, especially for those ready to move on from Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360, but the more that's included in the box the better. Quite how far the big N will go with bundles is yet to be seen, but it wouldn't be surprising if more appear in time for the Holidays, while we'd hope that losses on software would be accepted in making a play for a larger userbase.
So where does the 3DS come into the Gamescom discussions? In this case it's all about Sony's moves with the PS Vita, coming in with a fairly meaty price cut to $199 in the U.S., with equivalent reductions hitting other territories. That brings Sony's system in line with a typical 3DS XL / game bundle, and it's anticipated that a Pokémon X & Y offering will arrive with that title in October. While a price-cut and some promising planned releases will likely see a solid increase in sales for the Vita, it's here that we're less convinced of any notable impact on Nintendo's portable. The reasoning is twofold — the 3DS and Vita have very little in common, with very different games libraries, and the second point is that the 3DS is on a roll regardless. While Nintendo will aim to prove that software and brands can drive a substantial increase in hardware sales on the Wii U, it's already proven the point with the 3DS.
To be clear, the 3DS isn't likely to trend at DS family levels over the next 2-3 years, but the comparison is a tough one due to the sea-change in the portable gaming space with tablets and smartphones. Moving beyond like-for-like comparisons, the 3DS is performing strongly, charting at the top in Japan every week, recording the top hardware sales in the U.S. over the past three months and also drawing positive headlines in Europe. On its own terms and in the current market the 3DS is doing an admirable job, while contributing much to keep Nintendo profitable during the Wii U's struggles. With Pokémon X & Y likely to be a sales phenomenon and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds sure to get Nintendo fans rather hot and bothered, Holiday momentum shouldn't be an issue.
We'd also argue that it's in Nintendo's interests for the Vita to get back into the game; two capable portables on the market is arguably healthier than one, especially as the concept of dedicated gaming handhelds will take any reassurance on offer. The target audiences for both platforms also seem far apart — though both are perhaps scrapping over the Indie download game market — and while the same can be said for the Wii U versus its competitors, the home console has two dedicated gaming system rivals, last-gen HD systems and poor momentum to tackle. Succeeding against these challenges, and others, is not beyond the younger Wii U, as we've argued regularly, but is a different scenario to the more established 3DS, regardless.
With its userbase now comfortably beyond 30 million units and a sense of positivity and momentum, Nintendo will surely steel the 3DS against what the Vita throws up with its price drop; yet the challenge isn't so severe. We've spoken about the younger Wii U needing to establish its identity, but that's far less of an issue for the 3DS. Its games library is becoming increasingly unique, and its form factor and focus is far different to the Vita and multi-functional formats. Besides, if the Vita does come into the game with a revival, it will keep Nintendo's teams on their toes, which is often the scenario in which they perform at their best.
Overall, the Gamescom reveals are unlikely to prompt more hand-wringing in Nintendo HQ than was already taking place, as promotions and new game reveals had an air of inevitability. The lack of Nintendo news is unsurprising, either, as the company now prefers, rightly or wrongly, to leave almost all major announcements to Nintendo Direct broadcasts. Rather like at E3, attempting to make noise against two brand new systems in Germany may have been futile, in any case.
The closest thing to a Megaton game changer was the Vita price drop, yet the status of the 3DS positions it well against the additional challenge. The PS4 and Xbox One have some extra incentives that they didn't have before, but the overall task for the Wii U remains the same — capture the imagination with software and increase the value of the system in the eyes of the consumer. Our primitive suggestion for the Wii U this Holiday? Bundles, bundles, bundles.