The Nintendo Wii 10 Years On: What Was And Could Have Been

wii

The original Nintendo Wii turned 10 over the weekend, I haven’t seen many retrospective articles about it but I haven’t really been looking. Maybe they’ll be up this week. In any case I don’t think I’ve ever shared my thoughts here on what the Wii accomplished and why it failed to follow that up.

I think we can at least agree that the Wii was the first major proof of the existence of the audience that would eventually cause the mobile game market to explode — that enormous-but-fickle mainstream audience that never really cared about PlayStation and Xbox, the audience that never really cared about video games in the same way the most hardcore console users might. I remember around 2004 or 2005 Nintendo figures like Shigeru Miyamoto and Reggie Fils-Aime were warning the industry that the console audience growth was becoming stagnant in comparison, and they’ve pretty much been proven right if you compare the market growth of consoles, PC, and mobile. To be honest the Wii is still an effective family entertainment device. My oldest nephew still plays Wii Sports.

The fact that he mainly plays the original Wii Sports (and sometimes Wii Sports Resort) also shows how little Nintendo and other developers capitalized on the potential the Wii initially suggested. Games like ResortMario Kart WiiWii Fit, and the New Super Mario Bros. games reached historic sales numbers, but Nintendo never really proved that it could turn that new market into a lasting one for consoles. Third party publishers offered a few big contributions to Nintendo’s dream like Just Dance from Ubisoft or EA Sports Active from Electronic Arts, but by and large even the Wii’s massive sales didn’t turn around Nintendo’s difficulties with third parties. After 2010 or so the Apple sort of out-Wii’d the Wii by taking away its audience.

The Wii’s biggest problem, was the same problem the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube had — developers. Nintendo has held up all these consoles almost on its own in a two-decade struggle to regain the trust of third party publishers and developers it lost after the Super NES years. One big reason for this is because Nintendo has a tendency to go its own way when planning out its products and platforms, doing things most third parties aren’t willing to roll with.

And I’m not just talking about how weak the Wii’s hardware was compared to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Really, the entire concept of motion controls was out of left field for publishers like EA, Ubisoft, Activision, Take-Two, Bethesda, Square Enix, or whoever else Nintendo was trying to get to support its platforms. When all those publishers were comfortable (mostly) with making bigger and prettier games using the same control interface as before and targeting the same audience as before, Nintendo asked them to drop all that and try something completely new. Even after the Wii amassed shocking hardware sales the established big third party developers for the most part couldn’t scramble to come aboard.

I actually think what happened in the mobile game market afterward is a sign of what could have been with the Wii. Perhaps Nintendo’s biggest mistake with that system was how unprepared it was for the world of digital distribution and small developers.

When mobile blew up it didn’t blow up off the back of established developers. Instead, a whole new generation of developers and publishers grew up in that market — nimble companies not constrained to EA’s or Ubisoft’s way of thinking. Even now the old big guys never really took over mobile, they were eventually just forced to participate in it. What’s ironic about this is that one of the main reasons Nintendo kept the Wii’s hardware weak was to stave off the massive budgets that killed so many developers working on the PS3 and 360. Combined with the new motion controls, Nintendo wanted to provide a platform where the big idea could prevail over the big budget. You know where that actually ended up happening? Mobile. Not just mobile, but in the world of digital distribution in general.

On consoles the march of the small developer was spearheaded not by Nintendo but by Microsoft with Xbox Live Arcade. Nintendo’s WiiWare in comparison looked like it was built by a company that didn’t understand how digital distribution and independent developers worked. The restrictions on the Wii’s storage space, The Wii’s online infrastructure, and the rules Nintendo set for developers strangled what could have been a good source of the innovative third party games Nintendo was looking for.

If Nintendo had been doing something closer to XBLA on the Wii, perhaps indies could have been the source of cool new ideas for motion controls. Perhaps if Nintendo had the foresight to create a more open channel for developers like Apple did (sort of unintentionally) with iOS we could have seen a whole new generation of developers and publishers grow up around the Wii. Basically I’m saying that with the Wii, Nintendo relied too much on the big old retail game makers and didn’t see the coming wave of new small digital game makers that could have been perfect for it.

Ubisoft thinks the upcoming Nintendo Switch can bring back the Wii audience but I honestly don’t think it’s happening. Who’s to say if that mainstream audience will ever return to consoles. Some games might have a uniquely mainstream appeal, but as a platform I think today’s world has revealed the console has little appeal for people who aren’t already playing consoles.

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