I’m a big fan of Nintendo and their stuff but I didn’t pre-order a WiiU. This was partially for money reasons at the time but also because Nintendo’s terrible at pre-release hype. For many years, they’ve consistently held to a strategy of saying and showing very little about their upcoming stuff until very close to launch. This used to work, I don’t think it does any more. Coming out of E3, very little information on the system and its launch games were offered and much of the press and fans were left scratching their heads. I went into E3 ready to pre-order and the lack of information scared me off. As today’s launch approached, more details finally started to trickle out and I got more excited but by then, the window to pre-order had long since passed. My girlfriend and I had to do a bunch of errands in different parts of town so I decided to try to stop in at various retailers to see if I could find a Deluxe set that hadn’t been claimed. I sadly had no luck but my observations in doing so were very telling.
I haven’t had cable TV in years so I admit that I don’t fully know how Nintendo’s been promoting the WiiU to the general public. From what I understand from others, it’s not well and my experiences today would seem to confirm that. At a store, I saw a lady standing at a demo kiosk, starting at the GamePad perplexed as to what to do with it in a gaming context. In another store, I overheard the following exchange between a lady and a sales rep:
Lady: “So let me make sure I have this right. I can play Wii games on the WiiU but I can’t play WiiU games on the Wii? Is that right?”
Sales Rep: “That’s correct. The WiiU’s a new system and it’s games don’t work with the Wii because it’s older.”
Lady: “That’s really confusing.”
Sales Rep: “I agree completely.”
Lady: “Why did they use a name so similar if it’s such a different thing?”
Sales Rep: “I have no idea. It’s a good question.”
I’ve read in several places that many mainstream consumers think the WiiU is just a tablet accessory for the original Wii and not a new system that’s not only sporting an innovative new input method but also substantially better tech than the Wii and possibly even the 360 and PS3. It would appears that Nintendo is at least partially aware of this too because above every WiiU shelf I saw was a promotional banner that had “ALL NEW CONSOLE” prominently printed over the picture of the hardware. I understand that the Wii is a strong brand (though one could argue not so much any more now that the sales have collapsed) but did no one at Nintendo think people would get confused with the new system being markedly different but sharing an almost identical name? Calling it something like the “Wii 2″ implies an obvious and significant change. People knew the 3DS was different than the DS because of the 3. It was clear and obvious. WiiU doesn’t imply anything unless you have it explained and more likely shown to you. If what I saw today is any kind of indicator, Nintendo has dropped the ball there too.
A lot of people not only don’t know what the WiiU is, they don’t even know it exists. Few knew what the Wii was either back in the day but Nintendo did a masterful job of promoting not only its existence but what it did differently and why it was so cool. From what I’ve observed today, it appears that they thought one or both of the following: Firstly, that simply having the Wii branding would draw people in and secondly, that early adoption by hardcore Nintendo faithful would create word of mouth buzz, something that was instrumental in the Wii’s early success. The Wii branding seems to have only caused confusion and while it’s too early to tell on the word of mouth, I think relying on the hardcore gamers (who Nintendo alienated a lot of with the Wii) to do your early PR for you is a very dangerous gamble. Hardcore players can’t carry a platform on their own any more and drawing in the mainstream is vital. Doing something innovative like the GamePad can be a hook to draw them in but it has to be marketed big and smart. It appears they’ve done none of those things so far. If they don’t have a massive PR campaign planned for December to make everyone aware of this before Christmas, I fear this launch weekend may be the only time the system sells out.
They haven’t exactly made things easy for the press either. It wasn’t until less than two week’s from the WiiU’s launch that they even bothered to talk about its online features in any detail, particularly odd considering online and Nintendo usually can’t be said in the same sentence without bursting into laughter. To boot, said features weren’t available to the press until today (in a 5GB system update no less) and most of them seem to be kind of broken right now. The stories we saw on launch day were about how the firmware update took an hour for most people, how someone on NeoGAF tripped over a debug menu, how all the services were laggy and unreliable and how one member of the press seems to have been bit by DRM so obnoxious that his Nintendo ID might forever be bound to his work’s console. None of this had to happen and it’s only given Nintendo bad press among the circle of gamers that they are hoping will drive initial awareness for them.
On the flip side though, a lot of what we’re seeing today is completely typical for a console launch. A couple of good games, a bunch of crappy ones, some weird infrastructure hitches, oddities in the first run of hardware. All of it is normal and you can trace variants of these things to almost every hardware launch since the Super Nintendo, including the Wii. None of it’s a surprise but with a few exceptions, everyone in the press is acting shocked by these things and it’s made more than a few people call the WiiU dead on arrival. Has it been so long since we last had a major console launch that people have forgotten what launches are like? The 360 and PS3 both had largely lacking launch lineups, the 360 had hardware that barely worked and the PS3 was priced higher than most mortgage payments at the time. The Wii had Wii Sports and a bunch of shovelware garbage. The DS had similar software and a terrible hardware design. None of this should surprise anyone who covers games professionally, yet it seems to have very much, including places like Giant Bomb which are among the few enthusiast sites I consider trustworthy these days. I suspect many stories tomorrow will be talking about how down everyone is on it and how this is another sign Nintendo’s doomed and should just start making iOS games. I can appreciate that Nintendo treats the press differently than anyone else and often seems to regard them as a burden. That’s not good but I think it’s both cynical and disingenuous for press people to treat this console launch as if it’s anything other than well…a console launch.
For a company that went from Apple levels of successful to being in a bad way almost overnight, Nintendo can’t afford to screw this up. Whether we like it or not (and I very much do not), casual mainstream consumers are moving away from consoles to crappy mobile games. Many of the people who bought Wiis played Wii Sports and maybe Mario Kart Wii or New Super Mario Bros., then the machines became dust collectors. I think mobile games as they are now are an evolutionary step backwards for the gaming medium but home consoles and dedicated gaming machines in general are under more pressure than ever to stay relevant as tablets quickly approach them in power and fidelity. Nintendo is more capable than most to put up that fight and win it but they have to be smart with their messaging and so far, my impression is that they’ve blown it. The WiiU doesn’t have to (and I would argue never has a chance to) succeed like the Wii did but it can still be a big deal but that requires a lot of mainstream consumers to buy in. A lack of messaging that only ends up being confusing and counting on early adopters to drive it for you is playing with fire and I don’t think Nintendo lives in a world where it can afford to do that any more. On top of that, I think the press needs to take their expectations to a realistic level and understand that all new systems launch with quirks and that’s just the way it is. To expect different is to deny industry history and frankly, it’s just kind of dumb.
I want Nintendo and the WiiU to succeed and based on what I’ve seen, I have every intention to buy one as soon as it becomes available again. The thing is, I knew where to dig to find out what I needed to know to come to that decision. I’m not most consumers, I’m not even most gamers and people like me aren’t nearly enough to make this work. Nintendo needs to get their act together and the enthusiast press needs to remember what the real world is like. And they both need to do it fast.