Are Weak Wii U Sales a Bellwether of Shifting Game Demographics?

The Wii U sales aren't performing as well as Nintendo predicted, but what does that mean, really?

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Nintendo expects to sell fewer Wii U and 3DS units than originally claimed, according to reports this morning. The company says it sold 3 million Wii U units through December, but slashed its forecast of 5.5 million Wii U units sold by the end of March to just 4 million in all. On the Wii U software side, Nintendo is now forecasting 16 million units in the same time frame, a number that’s down by roughly a third from original expectations.

The 3DS takes a similar hit in the standings: down from 17.5 million units predicted through March to just 15 million units and a commensurate drop in 3DS software sales.

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You can look at this in any number of ways. From a numbers standpoint, there’s no doubt that the Wii U lags behind its predecessor in raw sales when you contrast launch windows. But the Wii arrived at just the right time: it was the world’s first fully motion-control-driven game system — a system that went on to capture the imaginations of consumers who’d never really engaged with a game console before. Whatever you thought of the Wii, however much you actually played it in the years that followed, it did more to popularize gaming as a mainstream pastime than any gaming-related device in history.

The Wii U, by contrast, is an evolutionary step forward designed to appeal more to traditional gamers. Though lacking the Wii’s novelty, the Wii U GamePad is a far more intrepid technological concoction than, say, either Microsoft or Sony’s imitative motion-control approaches. And suggestions that Nintendo’s just mining Apple territory with the Wii U’s tablet-style controller seem shortsighted: with its two-screen dynamic and hybrid haptic/deterministic controls, the Wii U GamePad couldn’t be less like an iPad. Or, put another way, the Wii U is as much a riff on the iPad as the iPad is just a riff on Nintendo’s original dual-screen DS — a handheld that predated Apple’s tablet by six years.

Another explanation for the Wii U’s slow start could be pricing. The Wii U hardly seems a bargain by Nintendo’s own standards. The GameCube sold for $200 at rollout in 2001 (no pack-in), while the Wii cost $250 at launch and included a game. The Wii U, by comparison, starts at $300 for the stripped-down model sans game, then jumps $50 if you want a decent amount of storage and something to play — a pack-in (Nintendo Land) that frankly lacks the distinctive “so that’s what all the hype’s about” flair of Wii Sports.

But let’s cut to the chase: Whither mobile gaming? Isn’t the Wii U’s sluggish start because, well, hello smart phones and tablets? Not so fast: the data we have on this is inconclusive and potentially misleading.

According to NPD research, of the roughly 212 million people playing games in the U.S. last year, mobile gamers only slightly outranked core gamers. The number of core gamers shrank slightly in 2012 (NPD attributes this in part to the extra-long life cycles of current consoles) while the number of mobile gamers was up a tick, it’s true. But how many people bought a Wii U because they needed a phone? An Xbox 360 to sync with their computer’s day planner? Conversely, how many people bought a smart phone or tablet because all they wanted was to play games like Angry Birds or Temple Run 2?

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How many mobile gamers are buying souped-up phones or tablets just to play games, in other words? Anyone? Or is the mobile-gaming angle more of a perk, like the Philips head or miniscissors in a Swiss Army knife?

I’m not saying mobile gaming isn’t big — because it is. But just as sales of a game like Wii Sports were deceptively high because you couldn’t not buy it when picking up a Wii, talking about the prevalence of mobile gaming in a prefab market gets tricky. Is playing games on phones or tablets siphoning gamers from PCs and consoles? It’s impossible to say at this point because we lack the data.

Nintendo can’t be all things to all people any more than Apple’s been to gamers with its iPhone or iPad. If I want to play a game like Ni no Kuni or Guild Wars 2 or Devil May Cry, I wouldn’t look to my smart phone or tablet. Likewise, I have no interest in playing stuff like Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja or Cut the Rope — the same old increasingly tiresome mobile top sellers for years — on a console or PC. I don’t want to sell the mobile- or tablet-gaming market short, not with titles like Battle of the Bulge and Radiant Defense or others like Space Hulk, Shadowrun Returns and Warhammer Quest on the horizon, but concluding that the Wii U or 3DS’s slightly-lower-than-expected sales can be attributed to a shift in gamer tastes — from core to mobile/tablet gaming — oversimplifies things in my view.

What we may be looking at in these reduced Nintendo sales numbers — and what I’d expect to continue to see with the launch of new systems from Microsoft and Sony — is segmentation of a market that experienced a kind of cross-demographic boom in the mid-to-late 2000s. Before iPhones and iPads, casual gamers had the PC. The Wii was essentially a way to bring that sort of gamer into the living room. But we’d be torturing indulgence to claim the shift that occurred after 2006 was tantamount to a conversion. Casual gamers, if you’ll pardon that label, are by definition uncommitted gamers. And with buyers already spending considerably more for something like the iPad (and considerably less on that platform for games), would it be such a surprise to find a much pickier audience for a system like the Wii U in 2013 than existed in 2006?

I have no idea what sorts of devices the kind of more core-oriented games I like to play are going to live on a decade from now. All it’d take, for instance, is for Apple to flip a few switches and double down on gaming to shake up the market in ways that could make what happened with the Wii seem tame. But that won’t mean the demise of traditional gamers any more than the rise of touchscreens entails the downfall of deterministic interfaces like keyboards, mice and game pads. Core gamers aren’t this tiny minority on the verge of extinction, after all.

Far from it, in fact: revenue contributions from core gamers still outpace all others, reports NPD, which calls the core-gaming demographic “vital to the future of the industry.” From a financial standpoint, in other words, whatever the reasons for the Wii U’s lower-than-expected sales, the ball remains clearly in core gaming’s court.

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15 comments
johnsmith34
johnsmith34

Yet Nintendo gave the middle finger to the core game community by not adopting the acclaimed achievement/trophies system. And now Nintendo fanboys are complaining about poor sales. How surprising.

ChrisBuchanan
ChrisBuchanan

 I own a Wii U & love it. Typing on the Gamepad right now between multiplayer Mass Effect sessions. Launch line-up was great 4 me when compared to other console launches, really, because even though I do own a 360, I was too busy to play any new games last year until X-mas. I literally haven't played any of the Wii-U's ports, and love ZombiU. There's no way I'll finish them b4 the big titles start hitting again in March.
Anyways, if Nintendo meets it's projections, Wii U should be on par with where Xbox 360 was at that point in it's launch, possibly ahead. Wii U could probably stop selling consoles today, & still beat where PS3 was by it's first March. The only reason this is even an issue is because the gaming press loves a good headline, and Nintendo failing is a much bigger story than it continuing to do well. Seriously, they have over a billion dollars in reserves, and headlines saying Nintendo is going out of business dominate Google News searches for Wii U. Let's not even talk about the so-called analyst who predicted the original Wii would finish last, and PS3 first, yet still manages to get quoted and interviewed by every gaming publication.
I actually published my predictions that Nintendo would sell the most handheld and home gaming consoles at the beginning of the last generation. That said, here's my take on what Wii U's worldwide sales mean for it, as well as Durango (the neXtbox) and Orbis (PS4), in the years to come;
Wii U is a more expensive, core gamer focused product than it's predecessor, and will probably perform similarly to it's competitors because of that. With cheap, new, cute mini-Wii's on the way, the casual crowd can get their fix elsewhere for now. With full backwards compatibility and 3DS connectivity, and greater internal (cpu/gpgpu) and external (smart-glass/kinect, PS4 controller/move) similarity to the other consoles of it's generation, Nintendo has positioned the Wii U to be a stable performer. It's a new core gamer focused console, with the just-revolutionary-enough gamepad, a free online service, and plenty of family-friendly features and fare. Nintendo has sold millions of Wii U's already, and will likely draw a few million more faithful fans and hardcore gamers with jobs and the urge to splurge on the first new console of it's generation in it's first year. Over the coming years it will slowly amass millions more word-of-mouth converts and Nintendo fans waiting to upgrade to the Wii's successor in the coming years, and finally every casual consumer that sees Nintendo as gaming's Apple as it matures in it's later years.
Sony and Microsoft will sell a similar number of consoles, but the 360 and PS3 will siphon away sales in their first years. Prices of the HD-ready twins will drop, and new games will continue to trickle out, filling out the large and attractive library of titles that are not compatible with their next gen successors with the final gems in the last generation's twilight.

Stavron
Stavron like.author.displayName 1 Like

Surely there's a possibility being missed here: people just don't like the Wii U's "killer" features? The new controller is even more of a risky innovation than the wand that came with the original Wii, because it's by far the bulkiest controller ever supplied with a console (even the numpad-riddled monstrosity on the Atari Jaguar could be held in one hand!) 

You could blame the marketing folks for not telling us why we want one, or blame the project leads for signing it off in the first place; or congratulate Nintendo on taking the risk but suggest that maybe it isn't paying off. Either way, assuming that the sales of one-of-a-kind products like the Wii U are somehow predictive of the next generation of "traditional" consoles from Microsoft and Sony seems rather odd to me.

peterH
peterH like.author.displayName 1 Like

No, it's the result of weak promotion and a very shallow and poor launch game line-up... 

When a casual gamer that bought your predecessor goes into a game shop and asks for the new "Gamepad accessory for the Wii" (happened) then you only have your marketing department to blame.. 

natost1990
natost1990 like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's no secret that the market is changing.  But Nintendo franchises are cash cows.  They're all critically acclaimed, and they all make substantial profit.  Every console launch faces its challenges.  Let's not jump the gun & call a launch in trouble, or a failure, when it hasn't even been out for 3 months!!! 

DanMan'99
DanMan'99

Oh, yeah. An article on the sales of two pieces of crap.

ElementalShade
ElementalShade like.author.displayName 1 Like

3ds is doing the best of any system OF ALL TIME right now


lower than expect sales when your breaking records doesnt matter. The wii u is also selling great

munkeyjoe
munkeyjoe

Right on, finally an educated view of an industry that drives my hobby from mainstream media. Apple/Android devices are not gaming platforms, they play games, but they were never designed as such. I agree that if Apple got serious and started quality testing their games to ensure that  99% of the the junk games that are on there now weren't then maybe they could put something out that would knock the console market back a bit. The problem there is that Apple has publicly stated that it has no intention of joining the gaming market. Android has the problem of fragmentation, which confuses the market and limits sales of games to people running cheaper, inferior hardware, similar to the PC market now. Also, the 3DS is outpacing the original DS in sales worldwide, the DS is the best selling system of all time, and has a batch of quality titles due out just after the end of Nintendo's fiscal year, March 31. Both the Wii U and 3DS's predicted sales were based on titles that were pushed back until March, meaning they were counting on console sales to increase with the release of those games which will now be released next fiscal year. Thank you for also pointing out that the core gamer consumer base drives the market. I honestly question how much longer people will keep buying games from the app store once they have paid for 5 or 6 games that just don't work due to poor quality control from Apple and greed from developers that abuse the system. For every Angry Birds that has been released on iOS there are 30 more knockoffs looking for a quick cash in that has broken controls and constantly crashes. Meanwhile, Nintendo keeps pumping out quality games from their core franchises that you can only get on Nintendo systems. As a gamer I am going to buy the system that plays the games I want to play, which to me means Playstation and Nintendo, I don't even have a single game installed on my iPhone, just like I wouldn't use my 3DS to surf the web, it has a browser, I wouldn't play games on my phone. 

ScottBerls
ScottBerls

Interesting article - nice job. 

jssk
jssk

I think one of reasons must be they don't sell the full fledged 32GB version in white. As least for me, I would like a white one but 8GB just seems too small to me these days. So I'm actually waiting for the 32GB version to be available in white. And I don't think I'm the only one.

munkeyjoe
munkeyjoe

@jssk Nintendo really needs to communicate better about how the system functions. These is bad PR on their part. I agree that 8GB is small, but you can expand that memory with a SD card or external USB HDD no problem. My advice is, if you want the white one, just add the memory yourself. 

wandmdave
wandmdave

I'm waiting for Zelda.

munkeyjoe
munkeyjoe

@wandmdave Zelda Windwaker HD remake is coming out in Fall 2013. I would think that sales will pick up drastically when that is released. After that a 3D Mario game, Mario Kart, Mario Party, Smash Bros., Star Fox, Fire Emblem, etc... will ensure we will continue to see Nintendo consoles do well for years to come. I bought a launch system, but honestly I should have waited too, and I feel most people are like you and are just waiting for the games.