Humility is not a trait one often associates with Reggie Fils-Aime, the bombastic and theatrical president of Nintendo of America, but it was on display – to some degree, at least – in his recently published interview with [a]listdaily. Reflecting on what the failure of the Wii U has shown the company it must do to succeed with NX, Fils-Aime highlighted two key problems, namely the failure to communicate what the console was, and the failure to deliver a steady stream of high-quality software. These, he said, are the things Nintendo needs to do better next time; the dash of humility coming when he acknowledged that these aren’t complex insights, but “traditional lessons within the industry”.
Traditional lessons; in other words, lessons that a company that’s been selling games and consoles for the best part of 40 years should not only know, but should have utterly assimilated and integrated deeply into its DNA. Effectively communicating what your platform is and what it does is one of the most crucial skills for a platform holder, while giving consumers major titles to look forward to on a regular basis is not just an essential component of a platform holder’s business, it is literally a description of pretty much their entire business.
Yet there’s no doubt that Fils-Aime is right in his diagnosis of the Wii U’s failure; these things are precisely what Nintendo got wrong. It’s laudable and positive that he acknowledges these failures so openly, rather than making hand-waving excuses about difficult market conditions or similar; acknowledging your failures means you’re on the path to fixing them.
At the same time, it remains genuinely astonishing that Nintendo could have failed so badly at such fundamental, intrinsic parts of the business. It feels like a kind of madness possessed much of the company in the wake of the success of the Wii and the DS; caught in some lunatic trance, Nintendo managed to mess up the market communication and software scheduling of not one but two console launches. 3DS recovered from its desperately flawed and miscommunicated launch after a bold, if embarrassing, about-face only a few months post-launch. Wii U repeated almost exactly the same mistakes and never picked itself up after falling at the first hurdle.
Digging into the substance of those errors is revealing. In terms of communication, both the Wii U and the 3DS failed completely to explain themselves to consumers at the outset. The problems started with their names; the transitions from DS to 3DS and from Wii to Wii U looked to a great many consumers like a mid-cycle refresh of the hardware, not a console launch. The hardware looked the same, the names sounded the same, and the actual advantages of the new consoles were never effectively conveyed. The failure to talk up and explain the new features of the consoles was compounded by Nintendo’s reticence to ever talk about graphical prowess. While the refusal to engage with Sony and Microsoft’s GPU arms race is probably wise, it seemed to lead Nintendo to baulk at actually conveying to consumers that these new consoles were much more graphically powerful than the old ones. Perhaps it believed that the casual consumers who came on board with the Wii and DS would be turned off by such messaging; it would do well to note that Apple, whose iPhones sell in far larger quantity than any game console, sees no such difficulty in making much of the technical prowess of its new chipsets.
Perhaps the biggest problem that both consoles faced in communication terms, however, was an issue that overlapped with their lack of software. Neither system had a software title in the launch window that really functioned as a demonstration of the advantages and possibilities of the new hardware. The Wii, famously, had Wii Sports; the DS, though slower out of the gate (especially in the USA, where it launched first and with a weaker line-up than other territories), had the combination of WarioWare: Touched, Super Mario 64 DS and a handful of other instantly popular titles like Zoo Keeper, which it followed up after just a few months with Brain Age and Nintendogs. Neither 3DS nor Wii U, despite overall solid software line-ups, had any single title or combination of titles at launch that you could point and and say, “here, this is the software that explains and demonstrates why this platform could be great”. Indeed, one could argue that even years after launch, neither platform has any software that makes a watertight case for either the 3DS’ 3D screen or the Wii U’s Gamepad.
Of the two problems Fils-Aime identifies, the issue of communicating and explaining the console is by far the easier to fix and thus the one which NX is least likely to repeat. Although the device sounds like being something of a departure from the form factors and usage cases which consumers are used to, it’s also a clean break from consoles which came before it – meaning that the company will be properly focused on marketing it as a new device rather than trying to warm up the leftovers of a past success, as it did with 3DS and Wii U. Getting good software for the launch window which appropriately and effectively explains the console’s advantages is more art than science, but assuming that Nintendo’s uniquely talented software developers are on board with the console’s functionality, it’s certainly within their competence to deliver that kind of compelling experience early on. At the very least, we can hope that we’re not treated once more to the unedifying spectacle of Shigeru Miyamoto being trotted out to talk about prototyping fun ideas for the console’s main features long after the console itself has launched, as happened with the Wii U – prompting the obvious question, why weren’t you doing that two or three years ago…?
The second of the “traditional lessons” Fils-Aime claims to have taken to heart is going to be a tougher fix. Wii U absolutely suffered from a failure of planning and scheduling in software terms, but also from a simple lack of games. It has some fantastic games and the work of the teams who have been creating Wii U titles has been of generally excellent quality, but the perception that it has been underserved in terms of software is absolutely fair. Wii U has been squeezed on two sides, with an almost complete lack of high quality third party support being compounded by Nintendo’s own focus often seeming to be on the better-performing 3DS, not to mention on new projects like amiibo toys and mobile games.
How can NX fix this problem? There is a limit to Nintendo’s bandwidth as a game developer; if it wants to retain its quality (which is vital, since the strength of its IP is the company’s primary value) then it cannot expand the number of titles in simultaneous development indefinitely. Working with trusted third parties to deliver games like the Wii U’s Bayonetta 2 and Xenoblade Chronicles X (arguably the best of the third-party efforts on the console) is a promising approach that could definitely be upscaled to some degree. Tougher, perhaps, is the question of actually getting third party publishers on board; Nintendo consoles are hostile environments for multi-platform games, and risky gambles for third-party console exclusives. Short of a major expansion of its own third-party publishing efforts that delivers more Nintendo-published games from top studios around the world, it seems eminently likely that NX will run into the same problem.
One interesting possibility comes to mind, though; given the NX’s supposed straddling of handheld and home console roles, might Nintendo intend ultimately to focus all of its development efforts on this single device? The splitting of the company’s limited development resources across two consoles – handheld and home device – has arguably done it no favours in recent years. If we have truly reached the point where a single device can provide both a compelling handheld gaming experience and a good home console experience, it would make a lot of sense to aim for the rationalisation of game development along those lines. Individually, the 3DS and Wii U’s lineups have left something to be desired (though the 3DS has definitely fared better); the combined efforts of the teams working on both platforms, though, could deliver a pretty formidable line-up of first-party software. As yet, Nintendo has given no indication that it views NX as the ultimate successor to the still-successful 3DS, and a new dedicated handheld may also be in the works; if not, though, then Nintendo’s future as a company supporting a single device may be the single biggest step it can take towards fixing its software scheduling problems.
Knowing so little about NX, we can only speculate about the details of how Nintendo will go about applying the “traditional lessons” which Fils-Aime claims it has learned – and on a slightly sour note, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not the first time Nintendo has identified these flaws. Nintendo of America senior VP George Harrison said back in 2006 that the importance of good software scheduling was a lesson learned from the disappointing performance of the GameCube. To see the same mistakes repeated only a few years later was disappointing. Perhaps, given the humility of Fils-Aime’s tone now, we can hope that the mistakes of the 3DS and Wii U launches were made in a genuine state of post-Wii delirium which has now passed.