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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