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Wii U Has an Identity Problem

With almost every Nintendo console, it’s been pretty easy to describe the platform’s core identity. NES was the “Mario machine,” and offered a kind of Renaissance for arcade-style gaming after the great North American Video Game Crash of 1983. SNES was pretty easy to peg as a next-gen successor to NES, since most of the major first-party games were significantly advanced sequels to NES games. N64 was the 3D machine. GameCube was designed as Nintendo’s effort to dip its feet in the more “hardcore” market. Wii was a return to the simplicity of NES, with motion controls helping to make games more accessible to more people.

What is Wii U’s core identity? Right now, the only thing I can really point to is the Wii U GamePad, which is a whole bunch of things. It’s a separate screen that you can use to interact with the TV in new ways or to play games without using the TV at all. It’s got a touch screen that can be used for DS-style play. It’s a motion controller that can do many of the same things as the Wii Remote.

How does this make gaming better, though? Truth be told… we still haven’t seen any games that truly prove Wii U is a must-have system, either for Nintendo fans or multi-platform gamers.

Is Wii U really “How U Will Play Next”?

Truth be told, for most dedicated gamers, the Wii U really isn’t a game-changer. Sure, the GamePad lets you pull your gameplay off the big TV if something else is on, it offers a second screen to use for menus or even multi-screen multiplayer, and it offers some limited motion control… but these are superficial, convenience-driven additions, not a significant improvement to the fundamentals of play.

wiiu-off-tv-playThat’s not to say that there’s something wrong with convenience. I’ve grown so used to the Wii U GamePad that it’s actually kind of hard to adjust back to games that don’t use it, and a bit annoying when I can’t pull games Off-TV. I like these options. I want them to stick around. But when it comes to the vast majority of games, it would be wrong to call Wii U a step into the future. It’s more like a side-step into territories that Nintendo hasn’t been able to fully explore in the past.

Two-screen gameplay? Nintendo started it with GameBoy-GameCube connectivity, brought it to life with the DS, and Wii U seems to be their effort at fully realizing its potential. More games with Wii MotionPlus? I’m sure fans of motion controls aren’t complaining for a chance to actually put their MotionPlus controllers to good use, but MotionPlus is hardly the next big thing at this point. HD graphics? It will be nice to see Nintendo games in high-definition, but if people are expecting Nintendo to be ahead of the curve in this area, they’re bound to be disappointed.

If there’s anywhere that Wii U really offers gameplay innovation, it’s in the realm of asymmetric multiplayer. I hadn’t played anything like Nintendo Land before, and I wound up loving it. But Nintendo’s other major effort in this area so far – New Super Mario Bros. U‘s Boost Mode – didn’t really do much to make Mario better, and aside from Game & Wario, I don’t see anything else on the horizon that looks like it’s poised to carry the idea forward.

So far, Nintendo’s hinged Wii U on what it has to bring to gaming… but so far, Wii U’s been more of an evolutionary step than a revolutionary one. And without a clear picture of where Wii U is going in terms of evolving their upcoming games, even that’s debatable. If Nintendo’s next-gen offer mostly boils down to some superficial enhancements to the current gen controller, it’s no wonder the “How U Will Play Next” message failed.

Who is Wii U for? (Put another way: does Wii U have the games for me?)

With Wii, it was easy to see who it was meant for. Wii Sports was meant to draw in people who normally were turned off by games, and Twilight Princess was meant to marry the “better way to play” concept with one of the most hotly-anticipated games ever. For that reason, Nintendo seems to have gotten the whole pie: they attracted both the non-gamers they were looking to convert into game customers, as well as most of their current fans.

deus-ex-human-revolution-gamepadWith Wii U, however, it’s not so clear. On the one hand, there seems to be a big focus on its ability to take on HD multi-platform titles, something Wii couldn’t do, and that means titles designed to appeal to “core gamers.” We certainly saw third-party developers attempt to reach out to those core gamers… with ports of or sequels to games they probably already own on other platforms.

For that reason, it was great for people like me who didn’t really own HD platforms last-gen… but I think what Nintendo really wanted was to bring over the people who did so Wii U would become their new system of choice for future games, and that means the bulk of the upcoming multi-platform lineup need to include Wii U. Clearly that isn’t happening.

Meanwhile, it’s clear the Wii audience isn’t going after it. Part of the appeal of Nintendo platforms is that you aren’t shelling out tons of money for a bunch of extra stuff under the hood – all of the consumer cost went toward getting access to the games or more controllers to play them with. Wii U’s overshooting that audience by adding a bunch of cost up front for extra features and services and the super-expensive GamePad. Sure, it’ll probably still be cheaper than the competition. But it won’t be as affordable as past Nintendo platforms – and with money tighter than ever for most people, that kills its ability to capture its usual market.

And Wii was looking to bring new people to gaming by offering experiences made to serve the underserved non-traditional crowd of players. Wii U isn’t. It’s just bringing more of the same – even Nintendo Land is packaging itself in Nintendo’s IP catalog, something Nintendo specifically avoided with Wii Sports so it could serve as a fresh start. Wii was bold and exciting and new; Wii U is more like the GameCube: filled with quirky takes on the past.

zelda-hd-experienceWhat about Nintendo fans? New Super Mario Bros. seems to be leading the system at the moment, but it’s not the super-hot driving force Mario games have traditionally been in the past. Usually Mario has been a pretty good template for the direction Nintendo’s heading – and while New Super Mario Bros. U is definitely the best game in the New sub-series, it’s a disappointment compared to the kinds of strides forward people really want to see out of the franchise.

That’s a bad sign for Nintendo fans hoping to have their minds blown with Wii U’s upcoming lineup, and with nothing to show so far for the new Mario Kart, Zelda, or Smash Bros., it’s unlikely that we’ll see that situation improve at least until E3. In the meantime, picking up a Wii U is more of a risk than a guarantee, even for the most dedicated Nintendo fan – and at a higher price, it’s no wonder it isn’t selling yet.

Is Wii U made with gamers in mind, or is it made for Nintendo’s developers?

One of the most important rules of good marketing is that your products have to be made for your customers. You can’t just make what you want to make and expect people to buy it when you try to sell it to them – you have to really be in tune with what your customers want and focus your efforts on fulfilling their desires. Do that well enough, and they come to expect that level of satisfaction from you in the future.

That even I, an actually fairly-satisfied Wii U owner and major Wii U apologist, am having a hard time figuring out how to explain what Wii U is – and more importantly who Wii U is for – is a pretty alarming sign. If Nintendo really has studied the needs and wants of its customers in designing the system and its games, it should be pretty easy to say “here’s why Wii U is a better system for you than what the competition’s got.” They should already have that part figured out, and should have all the tangible proofs lined up to show for it.

With Wii, the focus was on finding games and features to meet unmet needs. With Wii U, it seems to be more about developers having the necessary hardware and games developers want to make.