It's been a little over a week since E3 2015, the shared temperature of frustrated Nintendo fans has simmered down a little, and we can reflect on both what the big N showed and kept behind the scenes. Both tell us much, and also indicate that the Wii U seems to be heading for a short lifespan - focus on major projects appears to be moving onto the 'NX' platform, which will be shown in 2016.
The Wii U, lest we forget, will only celebrate its third Birthday this year. It's a young system, but it's also been - so far - Nintendo's biggest major global hardware failure, excluding the Virtual Boy which never even made it to all territories. That's not us saying the system is a failure in itself, as despite its flaws we'll defend its merits, highlight its strengths and praise its small but distinguished library until the end of the gaming ages. Yet that's somewhat reminiscent of the Dreamcast, which is beloved by fans but holds the distinction of being a flop in the mainstream market.
The Wii U will more than likely get ahead of the Dreamcast in the coming months - SEGA's system shipped about 10.6 million units - but let's give some numbers to reinforce the realities of the Nintendo console's situation out in the wider world.
- Wii U hardware sales up to 31st March 2015 - 9.54 million
- Projected sales for financial year (up to 31st March 2016) - 3.4 million
- Total projected lifetime sales up to 31st March 2016 - 12.96 million units
- GameCube total (lifetime) hardware sales - 21.74 million units
Let's assume Nintendo hits its sales target for this year and gets close to 13 million units by 1st April 2016, or be optimists and tip games like Super Mario Maker and Star Fox Zero to blow Nintendo's conservative estimates away and shift more hardware - it's possible in the case of the former. Even in the best case scenario, it does seem that the Wii U is past a certain red line - recovery is possible to a degree, but when it can only aspire to match Nintendo's least successful console you can safely assume that the company's senior management has taken notice, with strategic choices taken long before now.
Let's consider some key realities of producing major home console games, in particular. At a push a Nintendo Wii U game can be turned around in 12-18 months once conceptualised and agreed upon, but the early stages of design will take that timeline - even for relatively rapid projects - to at least two years. Splatoon was a quick turnaround, with the bulk of the game evidently produced after E3 2014, but that doesn't include all of the concept work beforehand, and we have the drip-feed of modes after release. For larger, more technically challenging projects, you can go beyond two years - sometimes well beyond to 3-5 years - even when progress is smooth and impeccably organised. Major Wii U games for 2016 and beyond would have started in in early 2015 for quick projects, or previous years for more challenging titles.
There's clearly a sense that Nintendo's making strategic decisions to divert some major projects to its NX hardware; the new system, be it a dedicated home console or a hybrid of that and a portable platform, will be revealed in 2016. Let's consider the continuing silence around Retro Studios as one example, for it's surely working on a major 'triple-A' Nintendo project. If that's the case, most rational business minds would have decided - when looking at the toils of the Wii U in the marketplace - to direct one of its finest studios to the future platform. When 2014 included titles such as Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U but still only delivered modest improved momentum, the Nintendo board's hand was likely forced.
Moving onto the E3 reveals, even accounting for a focus on 2015 and early 2016, what did we see? We saw Star Fox Zero, which despite its potential and a partnership with PlatinumGames does seem slightly rushed, while also banking on nostalgia. Then we have Animal Crossing amiibo Festival, a spin-off board game more interested in plugging amiibo based on the demo shown in LA. Yoshi's Woolly World - long in development. Xenoblade Chronicles X - long in development, already released in Japan. Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem (AKA Genei Ibun Roku #FE) - long in development and, frankly, looking like a title that's been in development hell. Super Mario Maker - the star of the show, looking fantastic but also long in development. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash - a fresh reveal but, arguably, a relatively easy low-risk project. Fatal Frame: The Black Haired Shrine Maiden - released in Japan in Fall 2014. Devil's Third - ignored at E3 but very long in development overall, and due this Fall on Wii U.
Now, there are some absolute gems there, but looking at the long-term picture there's an undeniable sense that Nintendo is now taking sensible, low cost options through localisation, spin-offs, B-list franchises and wrapping up high-profile projects. In past E3 years Nintendo has been happy to show medium to long term Wii U projects, like it did last year, but decided that wasn't its 'approach' this year. Frankly, we suspect that to be PR spin, as the only confirmed long-term project not shown was The Legend of Zelda for Wii U - that's still confirmed for the system, but that doesn't mean it won't get the Twilight Princess treatment as a launch title on NX, too.
In truth there are similar trends, albeit less pronounced, with the 3DS family of systems. It's arguably heading towards its natural end in 2016/2017 in any case, and has been a mainstream commercial success for Nintendo relative to the testing times in which it found itself. If the original 3DS XL and New Nintendo 3DS releases are following the pattern - with tweaks to the formula - of the DS family, then it's a portable generation that'll naturally draw to a close in the next couple of years, which will be a 6 year-ish lifespan overall.
Like with the Wii U the 3DS has some spin-offs, localisations and B-list IPs coming (along with Hyrule Warriors Legends as a port), though its release slate is healthier courtesy of higher third-party support, its strong market position and the quicker turnaround on handheld projects. Titles like Fire Emblem Fates and Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam will be meaty releases for committed fans in Q1 / Q2 in 2016, and Nintendo will no doubt push Metroid Prime: Federation Force hard in marketing, despite the reaction of committed Prime enthusiasts.
Back to the Wii U, though, and the perception that Nintendo's 'ditched' the system is arguably an exaggeration, but there's an element of truth to it nevertheless. We're likely to see some smaller, experimental projects that are yet to be announced, but it's telling that a lot of fan hopes for hefty, big-name / big-budget releases were unfulfilled at E3. The signs are there that, perhaps as far back as last year, Nintendo looked at sales and projections and came to the sensible conclusion that, actually, the Wii U simply wasn't going to take off.
Nintendo's relatively sanguine, at least on the surface, with that increasing reality. Just recently Shigeru Miyamoto highlighted how various factors damaged the Wii U when trying to win over the public and sell substantial units.
Unfortunately with our latest system, the Wii U, the price point was one that ended up getting a little higher than we wanted. I don't think it's just price, because if the system is appealing enough, people will buy it even if the price is a little bit high. I think with Wii U, our challenge was that perhaps people didn't understand the system.
I think unfortunately what ended up happening was that tablets themselves appeared in the marketplace and evolved very, very rapidly, and unfortunately the Wii [U] system launched at a time where the uniqueness of those features were perhaps not as strong as they were when we had first begun developing them.
So what I think is unique about Nintendo is we're constantly trying to do unique and different things. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they're not as big of a hit as we would like to hope.
After Wii U, we're hoping that next time it will be a very big hit. But really what's most important to us is, how do we create a system that is both unique and affordable so that everyone can afford it and everyone can enjoy it.
A natural reaction to Nintendo evidently scaling back its Wii U efforts - which is only analysis, not definitively proven without seeing Nintendo's internal schedules - is frustration. For Wii U advocates and fans there can be a sense of disappointment at the prospect that a system is being slowly considered in the past tense, though Nintendo does seem intent to at least keep the library ticking over at the retail scene, with DLC for the likes of Smash Bros. and Splatoon playing their part. The big N also seems as active as ever with the system's eShop, with the E3 [email protected] promotion being the latest example of continuing commitment to download content.
In addition, we're big believers that, despite its ongoing struggles to gain any kind of mainstream success, the Wii U has delivered a solid batch of excellent games - for newcomers or those that haven't been keeping up there's a very decent back-catalogue to enjoy. As the numbers early in this article hopefully demonstrate, Nintendo's not got much choic, in any case - the system has not hit a tipping point and taken off, so prioritising it would be a foolish business move.
Nintendo has - up to now - certainly made mistakes with the Wii U that it's failed to rectify. Miyamoto-san admitted that pricing has been an issue (a sharper price drop should have come before now), and the concept as a whole simply has not connected with the desired audience - that's Nintendo's fault. It may be a wonderful system in the eyes of many reading these words, but the wider world has largely shrugged its shoulders and will see whether Nintendo has another Wii / DS style breakthrough next time out.
Even if we - and many others - are right with this assumption that the Wii U is being steadily pushed aside within Nintendo's development studios, there are still some enticing Wii U games on the way. If some blockbusters and top-notch creators such as Retro Studios are held back for the NX, meanwhile, that's certainly not a bad thing for Nintendo's next tilt at the market.