This is far from the first post I’ve devoted to speculating on the future of Nintendo’s performance in the console arena, and definitely not the first I’ve devoted to speculating on the Wii U’s future in particular. Now that we know probably almost as much as we’ll ever know about the new console’s raw hardware numbers, I think it’s time to focus on what will really decide its fate.
We know that he Wii U has more but slower RAM than the Xbox 360. We know that its graphics card is about as fast as the 360’s but probably has more and newer features. We also now know that the Wii U’s CPU clocks in far slower than the 360’s… at least on paper. The original source of the Wii U’s CPU numbers has already tried to explain how differences in architecture partly negate the meaning of raw numbers, and several articles out there have corroborated the claims.
If you ask me, I think it’s pretty dumb to buy or not buy a console purely based on hardware and spec numbers. It make sense when buying a computer or other appliance that plays universal media. All PCs rum most of the same software that runs at a quality determined by the hardware. Video game consoles on the other hand only run the software and media specifically built for it, and that content runs at a quality determined as much by the developer as by the hardware. Basically, with consoles the hardware has mattered much less than the games actually available on that hardware. In every console generation it’s always been the platform with the best game library that has won the market share, not the most powerful one. Just look at the PS2 compared to the original Xbox and Gamecube.
I understand where many pixel counters and tech heads might be worried though: how the developers will treat the Wii U. After all, third parties left the original Wii behind largely due to its hardware which was a generation behind the PS3 and 360. People are worried things will play out the same way during the next console cycle because of the Wii U’s specs. It’s even struggling to run ports of current generation games.
Generally speaking, the theories on next generation console hardware suggest that the Wii U’s architecture is built in a way probably very similar to what Microsoft and Sony will likely do with their next machines, just with a major difference in raw power. This is a huge difference from the current generation. The Wii couldn’t run most PS3 and 360 games no matter how much you downgraded the graphics because its hardware lacked basic features like the shaders which define current generation game development. It’s looking like the Wii U’s architecture and feature set may be much more similar to that of PS4 and next Xbox, but probably with smaller raw numbers. Basically, ports between all three of those consoles will be much more feasible. The reason so many multiplatform games are having problems on the Wii U right now is because, well it’s new hardware that developers haven’t had any real time with, but also because all those games are designed for older architecture and not around the Wii U’s unique bottlenecks.
Still, all of this ignores the main factor that will decide whether or not developers actually make games for the Wii U: the consumer market.
Third party publishers didn’t ignore Nintendo consoles in the past because they were weak (they weren’t before the Wii), but because they didn’t think they could make money on the systems. Borderlands 2 developer Gearbox recently laid this out pretty clearly. “It’s one of those problems of the Wii: the only people who have ever made a lot of money on the Wii is Nintendo,” said Brian Martel, adding that they were releasing Aliens: Colonial Marines as a test subject (personally I think Borderlands 2 should’ve been that test subject).
All Nintendo really has to do is convince third parties like 2K that there is an audience for games like Borderlands 2 on the Wii U. Nintendo’s problem is that right now, none of their first party Intellectual Properties really do that. They invested a lot into first party with the Wii and put out some excellent games. They even invested in new IPs that sold 40 million copies like Wii Fit. They introduced Mario and Mario Kart to new (or returning) mass market consumers who bought them in unprecedented numbers, but none of it really did enough for the core audience — the audience Nintendo wants to get back with the Wii U. This logic leads me to believe that Nintendo needs to try to do the same thing but with more core-focused IPs. I don’t know how they would do that but there’s more than one possibility.
Nintendo kind of already demonstrated one way by subsidizing the development of Bayonetta 2, making it exclusive to the Wii U which caused many fans to begrudgingly accept that they’ll eventually need to get one. Technically they could do that again but perhaps with an IP from a western developer (those who read Wednesday’s blog are probably thinking TimeSplitters right now), similar to how Microsoft has continually published Epic’s Gears of War series. As I’ve said previously on this site, Nintendo kind of already demonstrated their ability and willingness to do this when they got Capcom to develop the next couple Monster Hunter games on the 3DS, pretty much putting the Japanese market on lock and possibly dooming the PlayStation Vita in that region.
The other way is for Nintendo to develop their own new IP like they developed Wii Sports and Wii Fit, but to attract the core segment. Again, as I’ve mentioned before, we still don’t know what Retro Studios is working on.
Whatever Nintendo does though, that core gamer killer app(s) would definitely have to be a surefire hit — a 5-10 million-seller. It would have to get millions of people to buy a Wii U for a core game, showing the publishers that the market does exist. I think that in order to do that it would have to be seen as new and innovative. I think that’s part of the reason games like Gears and Halo took off (even if they weren’t really innovative, they seemed so to the mass market at the time). Nintendo does probably have the ability, with some of the most talented game designers in the industry. It’s just a question of whether they’re willing to risk it.
Nintendo has made and still makes some of the best games around, but at face value they don’t attract the audience to which today’s dominant publishers sell their games. You can talk about hardware and spec numbers all you want, but what really counts is the games, and those games come from publishers who go where the market is. I think Nintendo seems to have the rest of their baseline ducks in a row: an online infrastructure that’s good enough for modern console gaming (but could still improve a lot), an interface that feels new but isn’t alienating, and possibly hardware architecture in-line with what the competition will be doing in the coming year (about which we know nothing). All they really need to do is show publishers that the install base and market for games is there. I think the average Joe isn’t gonna look at the Wii and complain that the CPU and RAM are too slow, he’s only gonna care if the game he wants is on that system.
- Yasumi Matsuno’s little game Crimson Shroud is coming out in English on December 13th: http://t.co/65pLT5k7
- Grand Theft Auto IV is $10 on Xbox Live Games on Demand for Gold members as of this writing.