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Wii U is a ‘Crap’ Product, But That’s Not Why It’s Struggling

One of EA Sports’ senior engineers, Bob Summerwill, issued a series of Tweets recently (now removed) that called Wii U “crap,” and went on to say that “Nintendo are walking dead at this point.” It’s a pretty angry rant:

The WiiU is crap. Less powerful than an XBOX360. Poor online/store. Weird tablet. Nintendo are walking dead at this point. Nintendo are still operating like it’s 1990. They should have “done a Sega” and offered Mario/Zelda as PS4/Durango exclusives. Instead they make this awful console, and this [Wii Street U]. Just stop it! Just make great games!

It is an utterly intentional decision to focus our resources on markets which actually matter … like mobile, and Gen4. Nintendo platforms have always been very poor revenue-wise for third parties. Only Mario and Zelda make money.

All right, so I’m a little amused at the “Gen 4″ comment – didn’t this guy just acknowledge that there was a games market in 1990, more than five console generations ago? – and I’m a little insulted that he basically just said that the market to which I belong doesn’t “actually matter,” but… let’s humor his “Wii U is crap” comment for a moment, shall we?

Let’s face it, compared to PS4 and Xbox whatever, Wii U is going to be “crap.” That is, it’s not going to be a box that does all the jobs that hardcore players expect it to do – offer the most “advanced” visuals, the most “competitive” multiplayer, or most importantly play all or even most of the hardcore games. That’s a simple fact, and was true even before third-party publishers decided they weren’t going to make games for it, because it’s been true for every single Nintendo console in history.

How about I repeat that a little louder and a little clearer: Nintendo consoles have never been about hardcore games.

That’s just not where Nintendo’s market is.

wii-sports-systemsellerNintendo’s market is with the people who do not care whether a product is “crap” by industry standards. They do not care about “the most ‘advanced’ visuals.” (At least not enough to spend hundreds of extra dollars.) They do not care about whether their games offer “the most ‘competitive’ multiplayer.” (They more than likely play games to relax, to escape the rat race of daily life rather than virtually reproduce it.) And they care least of all about whether it will “play all the hardcore games.” (They are not even interested in “all the games,” much less “all the hardcore games.”)

A “crap” product is actually the best way to satisfy these customers, because they don’t actually have to deal with the “bullshit” other products bring along with them – “bullshit” as in “stuff they don’t feel like dealing with just to play a freaking game.”

They don’t have to worry about the “bullshit” technological hoops of making sure their TV can handle the console’s visuals without compromise, because the “crap” product is usually designed for the TVs they already have.

They don’t have to deal with the “bullshit” of “competitive” multiplayer that forces them to play their games a certain way to win online, because the “crap” games are designed so that you don’t need to have perfected your skills to the most minute detail to play well.

Call of Duty: Black OpsAnd they don’t have to deal with the “bullshit” of having to find the right title for them in a sea of games all designed to specific “hardcore” tastes that they don’t even subscribe to anyway, because you can always count on “crap” Mario to at least be nothing like the annual FPS or gritty action game.

That’s not to pass judgment on hardcore games as bad or anything like that. I love me some Assassin’s Creed, some Darksiders, and some Monster Hunter any day. But you can see what I mean, can’t you? Even hardcore gamers are beginning to point out that the industry is starting to turn everything into Call of Duty.

Of course, the question is whether or not these “crap” customers actually matter. Mr. Summerwill seems to believe they don’t.

To be honest, these customers are usually not very “good” ones. They don’t go out and buy every game that comes out like hardcore gamers do. They usually don’t care that much. They’re content to consume a few games that stick out to them every generation once it seems like there are enough to justify a console purchase, and that’s about it.

However, in Nintendo’s case, I think it’s pretty obvious that they do matter. How did Nintendo achieve its highest profitability levels ever? It is by embracing these “crap” customers with “crap” products that suit their tastes.

The problem with Wii U is that, while it’s theoretically poised to occupy the “crap” product category, Nintendo hasn’t quite figured out how to satisfy the “crap” customers. Instead, they’ve tried to pull off both “crap” and “bullshit” at the same time by expecting Wii U to be a third version of Xbox 360 or PS3 with “all the hardcore games.” And that’s just silly, because “bullshit” has never been good for Nintendo.

And instead of realizing that 2D Mario being “crap” by industry standards doesn’t mean it shouldn’t actually stand out by Nintendo standards – in other words, that it should broaden its own horizons instead of falling into the Nostalgia Trap – Nintendo put out New Super Mario Bros. U, a game that while well-designed is pretty much a glorified level pack instead of a full-fledged next step like the side-scrolling Marios of yore.

Recall that, being “crap” customers, these customers don’t just go out and buy the newest, most advanced game with a certain label – that’s why you didn’t see them buy 3D Mario. They just buy games that stick out as titles that appeal to them. Even the DS and Wii games could claim that much, being the first 2D Mario games in decades.

just-dance-expanded-marketThey buy games that break the mold, like Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Just Dance, but they don’t have undying brand loyalty to any of those games. And because of that, they’re intolerant of “bullshit” and won’t bother to pay for it – like we’re seeing with Wii U. However, they’ve clearly demonstrated that they’re a much larger bloc of consumers and that it’s possible to capture a lot of value out of them with relatively fewer releases (i.e. lower cost) than the big hardcore franchises require to achieve the same results.

The real problem I think the Industry has with “crap” customers is that they do not want to bother with capturing them, not that they are actually insignificant. The problem they have with Nintendo is not that first-party games sell per se, but that Nintendo’s success proves that the expanded market and record-breaking unit sales can only be effectively reached by making “crap” games that the Industry does not wish to make.

Those who hold such a view constantly express this dissatisfaction in absolutist language. “Nintendo platforms have always been very poor revenue-wise for third parties. Only Mario and Zelda make money.” But Activision’s Skylanders Giant Revenue Stream and Ubisoft’s Give Us Your Money to Just Dance have both achieved incredible visibility and profitability even and especially on Wii. Doesn’t that demonstrate that it’s not that Nintendo is the only company that can possibly succeed in the non-hardcore space or on its own platforms, but that Nintendo is the company most concerned with succeeding?

So Wii U being a “crap” product isn’t its problem. The problem is that Wii U isn’t focused enough on making the kinds of waves that catch the interest of “crap” customers. Instead, Nintendo is trying to cover up its “crap” with “bullshit,” as if it’s ashamed of the Wii brand and wants to change its perception among hardcore gamers while somehow at the same expecting it to capture the same audience it did before, and no one’s falling for it.