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Who's to Blame for Wii U's Dismal Sales?

Recent sales figures for Nintendo's new console aren't looking good. Should we be worried?

Article by Pete Davison, .

160,000 consoles sold, 1.3 million units of software sold.

Those are the dismal Wii U sales figures Nintendo reported for the last three months, suggesting that the perceived problems with the console are legitimately something of an issue for the gaming giant. By comparison, in the same time period, the 3DS sold 1.4 million units and 11 million games, and even the Wii sold 210,000 units and 3.67 million games.

The 160,000 Wii U consoles sold were obviously split by territory: 90,000 in Japan, 60,000 in the US and just 10,000 in Europe and Australia, leading one grocery store giant in the UK to cease selling the system and its games altogether.

Despite this, our sister site GamesIndustry International reports, Nintendo is sticking with its full-year estimates of 9 million hardware units sold and 38 million game sales for Wii U. This will be a tough target to beat, but it's not out of the question if titles like Pikmin 3 and the upcoming Super Mario 3D World prove to be popular.

So What's the Problem?

The most obvious problem with the Wii U is its severe lack of "essential purchase" games. While the system launched with a strong lineup that included a new Mario game, a multiplayer party game in the form of Nintendo Land and a strong catalog of ports from PS3 and Xbox 360, the system has struggled to convince people that it's worthwhile since. Since launch, there have been relatively few games that have got people stirred with excitement -- Monster Hunter was one, Pikmin 3 is another, and Super Mario 3D Land will doubtless be another in the future.

There's a lot riding on the upcoming new Mario game.

Nintendo is aware that a lack of strong first-party releases in particular has hurt the console's sales, but this is something that it appears to be focusing on as we head towards the holiday season. Hopefully the number of times we hear that recognizably Nintendo phrase of remorse -- "Please understand" -- will be kept to a minimum in the coming months, otherwise the platform will continue to struggle.

However, the system's woes can't be blamed simply on a lack of software. After all, despite the slow pace of releases, there's still a respectable number of quality games available for the platform -- including a number of rather good exclusives such as Lego City Undercover, ZombiU and the other titles we've already mentioned. Not only that, but the Wii U's eShop plays host to one of the most-requested retro rereleases of all time: Earthbound -- a title that commands very high prices in its original Super NES incarnation, and one which never came out in Europe at all until now.

No, the Wii U's problems are somewhat more complex than that.

The Rise and Fall of the Casuals

One of the most commonly-cited criticisms of the Wii U is that its name is too similar to the Wii, which will cause confusion among casual players -- the sort of people who bought an original Wii to play "lifestyle" games such as Wii Fit, or party games such as Wii Sports and its spinoffs. Well-informed gamers who follow every happening in the industry will be well aware of the fact that the Wii U is a completely different platform, of course, but there's an assumption that more casual purchasers might not make that distinction.

I'm not entirely convinced by this argument, though it's something that's very difficult to prove one way or the other. The Wii U is obviously distinct from the Wii -- it has differently colored packaging both for the system and its software; all new Nintendo game boxes have a checklist on the back noting whether it can be played on Wii, Wii U or both (though admittedly in tiny, tiny print); and Nintendo has even gone so far as to release notes on the Wii and 3DS message services as well as TV commercials to point out that Wii U is, in fact, a new platform. It's difficult to say what else they can do in this regard at this point.

Will friendly games like Wii Party U be enough to draw the casuals back from FarmVille?

No, for me, a more convincing argument is that those casual players who picked up a Wii to enjoy something lightweight and undemanding have gravitated to alternative platforms in the intervening years since the Wii's 2006 launch. Since that time, we've seen the rise of the App Store (launched in 2008) and Android equivalents; we've also seen the appearance of tablet devices such as the iPad (launched in 2010); and the growing popularity of Facebook gaming.

The latter in particular is significant; while many social games are little more than exploitative garbage when viewed from the perspective of an experienced gamer, their simple gameplay and "dip in, dip out" nature are ideal for those who just want an idle diversion for a few minutes at a time. By these experiences being easily accessible via the Web and not requiring any additional hardware, they can capture audiences pretty much anywhere they are -- which might go some distance to explaining why a game as terrible as Candy Crush Saga can consistently pull in upwards of 15 million users every day.

There's also the convenience factor of mobile devices to consider, too; where once you'd have to connect a dedicated game-playing device to your TV, find all the controllers and sit in front of it, now you can simply flip on your phone or tablet and be playing a game -- or, for that matter, making use of a lifestyle app -- within a matter of seconds.

In short, that casual market for the Wii and its successors is gone; perhaps it can be won back in the future if and when the masses wake up to the exploitative nature of many mobile games, but I'm not holding my breath.

So why aren't self-professed "hardcore gamers" (how I hate that phrase) buying the Wii U?

Snark Pit

If we turn to those who do follow gaming news, criticism and journalism as much as you, dear reader, we see something not altogether surprising in 2013: cynicism and snark.

This is nothing new for the games industry, of course -- it's something that has grown as people have become more resentful of the medium becoming more business-focused as the years have passed. Endless iterations on a theme; annualized franchises; nickel-and-dime DLC -- all have contributed to a sense of discontent and restlessness, and this has led many to react cynically when new things are announced.

The Wii U's reveal was no exception. Despite the fact that the Wii had done extremely well as a standard-definition console at the dawn of the high-definition age, once again the question of Nintendo's inferior technology raised its head. The Wii U wasn't significantly more powerful than a PS3 and 360, therefore it's not "next-gen" enough, ran the popular opinion -- an opinion that, in many cases, was backed up by the press.

Bayonetta 2 was one of the few Wii U announcements that wasn't immediately met with cynicism.

In fact, Wii U coverage from across the Internet -- both from press and enthusiasts alike -- has been decidedly lopsided since the console's launch. We don't hear a lot about upcoming new Wii U games -- admittedly, partly because there aren't that many of them compared to other platforms -- and those which do get coverage tend to see little more than a news story or two and maybe a review, whereas something like BioShock Infinite gets showered with hundreds of articles on everything about the game, its development, the setting and Ken Levine's beard care routine.

What I'm saying here is that the negative attitude towards the Wii U has caused people to hesitate away from buying it -- and the fact that people aren't buying it has continued to feed this negative attitude, creating a vicious cycle. Although some people are taking a risk on the new machine on the understanding that they'll get to play Bayonetta 2, Smash Bros and other excellent-looking titles at some point in the future, just as many are looking at the current state of the machine and walking away. And that's unfortunate, because the Wii U has a ton of potential.

Party Play

When I have friends over, Nintendo Land comes out, every single time. Said friends are largely PC gamers at heart, raised on a diet of Civilization, XCOM and, more recently (thanks in part to my enthusing) Euro Truck Simulator 2. "Mature" games, in short -- games for "grown-ups," whatever that means. And yet the moment they come into my living room and we start a game of Mario Chase or that Animal Crossing game I've forgotten the name of where you have to eat all the sweets, we're laughing, joking and trash-talking one another like we're teenagers again. It's magical.

Nintendo Land is one of the best same-room multiplayer experiences you can have in 2013.

I bought Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed (which is wonderful, by the way) with my Wii U when I first got it, intending it to be the main focus of any local multiplayer gaming we did, but Nintendo Land is the one that's always picked instead. The short, snappy, easy-to-understand challenges of Nintendo Land make for an ideal "social" game to play with friends, and if the Wii U can continue to leverage that particular audience with some exciting new games, there's plenty of hope.

On the horizon, there's Mario Kart and Smash Bros; more recently, we've had Game & Wario, which admittedly received somewhat mixed reviews. There's also Wii Party U on the way, which actually looks like being a lot of fun, and you can probably count on there being some Mario sports games along the way, too. Nintendo needs to actually announce, promote and, most importantly, release these games, though; some are already concerned it'll be too little, too late by the time Mario Kart and Smash Bros arrive in 2014, but I like to remain a little more positive.

Should We Be Worried About Nintendo?

No. The company is comfortably held up by the 3DS at present, and with strong first-party titles like Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem and Luigi's Mansion alongside excellent third-party releases like Shin Megami Tensei IV, that's plenty to keep that situation afloat for now -- not to mention the fact that Nintendo is also sitting on over $5 billion in cash, with almost that much again in short-term investments. The company has only ever reported one year-end loss in its entire history -- that was last year -- and is more than well-equipped to deal with a "failed" console, if indeed the Wii U ends up being that way.

And yet, despite these dismal sales figures we're seeing now, it's no failure yet; Nintendo can still turn this around. We've seen the Vita go from the laughingstock of the handheld market to a powerhouse in its own right over the last year, for example; there's no reason Nintendo can't do the same with the Wii U if it continues to do what it's always done: completely ignore what Sony and Microsoft are up to, and continue to provide unique experiences you can't get on any other platform.

Perhaps we -- and by that I mean both press and public -- should stop focusing on all the things the Wii U isn't and all the things it can't do, and instead celebrate the things it does do well, and the things that show promise. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the platform, and I sincerely hope that this is but a bump in the road on the way to greater things. I guess we'll have to wait and see how things pan out, one way or another.

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Comments 18

  • Avatar for retr0gamer #1 retr0gamer 4 years ago
    I really don't think the low sales has anything to do with the lack of high profile games. The first year of a console launch is almost always pretty sparse and to be honest the WiiU has a decent amount of good games in comparison to most launches.

    In my opinion the real problem is communicating to the average customer that the WiiU is out and it's a new console. Anyone I've talked to about the next gen that isn't a clued in gamer doesn't even realise Nintendo has a new console out and when I explain it to them they usually respond saying that they thought the WiiU was just a controller preipheral for the Wii. Clued in gamers make up a tiny amount of the customers for any console and with the WiiU it's aimed not at the majority of them. Nitendo really needs to communicate that their console is out but I think the big problem is the name, WiiU just isn't communicating that with the average person.

    A price cut would help as well.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #2 AxiomVerge 4 years ago
    It'll likely take a new Zelda or Metroid for me to get one.
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  • Avatar for superpatrick #3 superpatrick 4 years ago
    Nintendoland will never be the killer app that Wii Sports and Wii Fit were. I think that's a big problem. I feel like a Wii Sports U and Wii Fit U are games that could have been easily improved past their Wii versions and made quickly yet they are not here yet. Then again, the world's soccer moms may have gotten their fill of the Wii-ness type games.

    I also think the confusion between Wii and Wii U names / consoles is a valid concern and that Nintendo was incredibly short sighted to not see this being an issue. Even the systems hardware-wise look too much alike. It seems like they were banking on the carry-over success of the original Wii a bit too much. That wave has long passed and they should have focused even harder on making the system feel totally new.

    I have a Wii U because I know there are games I'm not willing to miss and it's the first HD Nintendo console. Stuff will be happening on this system that as a long time gamer I will appreciate. The Platinum Games titles coming out will justify the price of the console alone. UNITE HAND!Edited July 2013 by superpatrick
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  • Avatar for Thusian #4 Thusian 4 years ago
    Thanks for a well reasoned and fair article on the subject. I personally wish that the sales and business side of reading about games could be more separated from reading previews, retrospectives, analysis of game mechanics and reviews. No matter what we are talking about be it phone, movie, TV show or car, I just seem to always be on with the least popular thing. Problem is its not for any other reason than that thing suited my needs. So while I recognize the sales reality of the Wii U, it still fits my life style better than any console before it. Switching to Off TV and back has made it so I can play 3X as many games as before without sacrificing being around my loved ones. Rather than running to another room I can play right there and pause when my wife wants to ask me something.

    And sometimes even if I follow the horse race I get bit too. I look at the big games coming to the PS4 and XBONE and, while I am sure they will be of a high quality, they are built for a different audience with different taste. So I feel like I am either left with the doomed console or stuck with a console everybody says I should love but don't.

    I was a lapsed gamer, I got back into it one day when I picked up a GC at a garage sale. I got playing MP and Kart with friends and enjoying it. Then one came around all the time saying the GC was shit why were we playing it? We needed to get in with the PS2. So I bought it and played Final Fantasy which was good enough, and then people told me I should care about GTA, and I just couldn't get into it. Ultimately I never had as much fun as I was told I would have. Never had an experience to match a good game of Double Dash.

    After that I swore I would just go with my taste and not worry about what the cool kids were playing. So if the Wii U is a flop, so be it, its still a fun flop for me.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #5 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @Thusian That's a great point, and one often forgotten: just because something is a "flop" or a "failure" in terms of sales doesn't make it any less valid to those who purchased one. I have a Wii U, like it and will keep it even if it fails in the long term; I was a relatively early adopter of the Vita, too, and stuck with it -- now look how fondly that system is regarded.

    The Wii U's story is going to be an interesting one, however it turns out, I feel.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #6 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I think the system will turn around. i believe in it.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #7 Thusian 4 years ago
    @pjedavison thanks, fun side note when the Wii came out I assumed it would flop, because everyone was so down on the GC. Still I wanted one for my own reasons so I strolled into an EB on launch day assuming I would be able to get one hooo boy did they have a laugh at me.
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #8 Neifirst 4 years ago
    At the risk of being cynical or snarky, how exactly has the Vita gone from being a laughingstock to a powerhouse? What evidence can you point to that backs up this statement?

    I love my Wii U, but thank goodness I've had quality 3DS releases to play because there's been nothing for me on the console since LEGO City. The next few months will be good, but I'm worried 2014 will be a repeat: a couple titles in March and then nothing until the fall.

    Also, it's "years have passed" not "years have past"
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @Neifirst I don't know that I'd characterize Vita as a powerhouse, but this year's influx of indie games has done it a world of good. And the system is guaranteed to have long legs thanks to the Vita hooks Sony has built into PS4.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #10 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @Neifirst Whoops, typo! Thank you for spotting that.

    The Vita has undergone a huge turnaround in the course of the last year. While it's still not where it "should" be, it's certainly doing a lot more respectably than it was, and you can tell just from the buzz on social media -- whereas once it was snark about the Vita not having any games, now people are talking excitedly about upcoming titles like Dragon's Crown, and being very positive about Sony's indie push.

    Jeremy's right, too; it's going to be a system with a long tail thanks to PS4.
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe 4 years ago
    I think the current fortunes of the Wii U are a result of an overall poorly planned strategy on Nintendo’s part:

    - The name and physical appearance of the console is too similar to its predecessor, many people initially thought it was merely and add-on (it didn’t help that Nintendo released too many accessories for its previous home console with the naming scheme “Wii something”)

    - Nintendo also made initially a lot of buzz about once again targeting the “core gaming demographic” of the PS3 and X360… but offered a console with specs merely on par with the X360 and PS3 at the end of the current generation, when most people in that demographic were expecting a leap in power more akin to the PS4 and XBOne.

    - The initial wave of games didn’t help on that regard. True, most of them belonged to popular franchises, but many also had been available in the market on the PS3 and X360 for months (and in some cases, even a year) already.

    - Nintendo also didn’t make enough efforts to expand their development capabilities to tackle HD development back when the original Wii was still thriving. As a result, games like Pikmin 3 were delayed, games that could turn the fortunes of the console around like Mario Kart 8 won’t appear until 2014, and the resulting drought of games between January and August, with very few worthwhile releases like Monster Hunter or Lego City, has only compounded the problem.

    - The price, which honestly is too high when one considers the specs and current gallery of games and compares it, not only to the other next gen consoles (the PS4 is going to be only $50.00 more expensive) but even to current gen consoles.

    - The Gamepad has proved to be a very difficult concept to describe and entice people with. People in general don’t understand yet the benefits of asymmetrical multiplayer, off-tv play or just second screen gaming at all.

    - There hasn’t been any clear killer app launched so far, and as a result, not only gamers in general but many long time Nintendo fans like me still don’t have any conclusive reason to buy a Wii U. Games that could prove to be killer apps for the system, like Mario Kart 8, Smash Bros., Bayonetta 2 and “X” won’t arrive until 2014.

    Now, I don’t want to sound overtly negative. Nintendo is finally going to start releasing 1st party games from popular franchises on a constant basis starting from August until the end of the year, and there are still a few 3rd party games and indie games on road to the system that look promising, like Rayman Legends and Sonic Lost World. So, provided they apply a price cut to the system at the most late on October, it’s possible they might increase the momentum of the consoles to a moderate degree, but even then things won’t be easy considering the launch of the PS4 and XBOne are guaranteed to dominate the end of the year.

    All in all, at this rate it really looks that the best prospects for the system are to achieve Gamecube levels of sales. Although, like you mention Pete, the company is in no danger of going under neither will go out of the console race if the Wii U flops.

    And you make some good points: Even if the console fails in terms of sales, that doesn’t make it any less valid to the people who purchased one. The Saturn, the Dreamcast, the Gamecube, the Turbographx and similar are still fondly remembered by their fans due to their unique games, many of which were not available in any other platform. Maybe you are right in that we have indeed focused too much on what the Wii U doesn’t have, rather than on the attractive unique elements and games that it has or will receive in the oncoming months.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #12 weevilo 4 years ago
    The last console I've owned was probably an N64; as a PC gamer I'm always baffled as to why gamers are so supportive and desirous of console exclusive games. Is it just confirmation bias? People want to be assured that their hardware purchase was a good idea since they can only play X or Y game on it? There's absolutely no other benefit to the consumer unless I'm missing something, but plenty of downsides.

    I want to say I don't wish Nintendo ill, but if the Wii U failing to move units means that eventually Zelda and Mario games finally start making their way to other platforms, then yes, I hope it fails.Edited 2 times. Last edited July 2013 by weevilo
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  • Avatar for Spazgadget #13 Spazgadget 4 years ago
    Interesting article.

    Wii U's problems, from my perspective, are manifold.

    Their positioning in the market was, to be frank, confusing. In a gaming landscape where there is a Wii, Wii Fit, Wii Remote Plus, Wii Sports, Wii Racing Wheel, Wii Music, and Wii Balance Board, I'm not sure why anyone would hear "Wii U", see a gamepad, and think it was anything more than another add-on. The industrial design of the new console looked precisely like another Wii model. I absolutely think they should have differentiated the new machine with a bolder, new design and a new name. Even "Wii 2" would have alerted consumers that this was a successor, not an evolution, of the original Wii.

    While the "lack of software" issue is valid, I don't think it's as responsible for the Wii's troubles as many think. As other's mentioned, slow software releases in a console's first year are both common and surmountable. At some point in the console's life, there will be enough quality titles to make the library an enticing selling point. At the moment however, it's merely passable.

    With the combination of no "must-have" title a year into its lifespan and a price tag that's only $50 lower than the much more powerful PS4, it's hard to make a value proposition for upgrading from a Wii. HD gaming isn't novel in 2013, meanwhile the "2nd screen" experience that all the big 3 seem to be touting as the next "innovation" in gaming remains an unproven selling point that no consumers really seem to be clamoring for or utilizing.

    This leaves the Wii U feeling like a solid, but unremarkable console that continues to rely on its excellent (but very well-worn) franchises to convince consumers of its worth. And to me, considering its price point, it's just not worth it for me.

    But talk to me again when Mario Kart 8 comes out.
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #14 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    Vita is not a powerhouse.......It has to sell above last place levels to be called that I think.

    Wii u will look very different with more games by years end
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #15 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    @weevilo I definitely agree with you that counting console exclusives is idiotic, I have no clue why people that aren't involved in the business side of console manufacturing care so much about how much their favorite console sells, they should only care if they're happy with it or not. But the PC landscape - at least from a consumer perspective - isn't much different. PC owners have their own biases (I know because my brother is almost exclusively a PC guy) and PC always had and always will have its own special exclusives or reasons that will make someone invest in video cards and various upgrades at massive cost. If you're not giving Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft your money, you're giving it to AMD or Nvedia and probably Valve, and want to get the most out of it.

    During the 90s and early 00s I wanted Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games (and still do), I wanted SEGA consoles for SEGA games, and I wanted a PC for adventure games I couldn't play anywhere else. It wasn't much different, especially then. My cousin just bought a new PC for about $1,300, and you're goddamn right he wants to feel good about it.

    And if that nightmare happens and Nintendo stops making home consoles, they will most likely only release games on their handhelds. Call me a fanboy if you want, but the thought of Mario and Zelda made for any other system outside of Nintendo's is a heartbreaking one. A big reason why their games tend to be so polished and different from the norm is because they design their systems for their own creative needs (something that many 3rd parties tend to hate). If they'll lose that, they may lose some of the spark and ingenuity that made them what they are.

    But hey, at least the PC crowd can play all those spiffy emulators, right?

    -------

    I'm not gonna pretend to know why the Wii U is struggling. All I can say is that I'm currently happy I own one and that it has all the potential in the world to be truly great. But as we all know, being great doesn't guarantee sales. The Dreamcast had a fantastic library practically from day one and a creative force at their peak making unique games, many of which are still one of a kind (the only company I ever felt was a creative match for Nintendo was SEGA during the Dreamcast days). It didn't sell. GameCube had an outstanding library, and was offered for practically nothing, It didn't sell.

    I can say that as a consumer I'm tired of having to buy 2 Nintendo systems every 5-6 years so I can play all their games. If possible, I'm hoping for the next Nintendo system to be some sort of handheld-console hybrid. A handheld you can connect to the TV, let's say. The Wii U is a step in that direction. Either that or better yet: stick with what they got. Same goes to Sony.

    What does irritate me is Nintendo tends to be the punching bag for much of the media. When they're up, there's people wanting to diss them at every opportunity. When they're down they're painted as doomed regardless of the reality. Vita's struggles didn't seem to make nearly as many headlines as 3DS' first problematic year. They're being blamed for sticking with their franchises, even though they release a good amount of new IPs. "Xenoblade? Doesn't count, Why? 'Cause. Pullblox? Doesn't count. The Last Story? Nope. Freakyform? The heck is that? Hotel Dusk? Adventure games are dead. Wii Fit? I don't like it, so no." It doesn't make sense to me.

    Remember the PS3, though? Man, that was a train wreck, huh? Or at least it was for about 18 months. Now Sony is praised from ear to ear. Who even remembers that horrible hack anymore?
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  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #16 Captain-Gonru 4 years ago
    Let me get this out of the way first: Vita is still not a mainstream powerhouse. I work at a major U.S. retailer, in the electronics department. We were out of stock on the Vita for almost four months. No, they weren't selling out. We just didn't receive any replenishment. Our numbers in the system were off, so corporate thought we had some and, as such, didn't send more (a downside of an electronic inventory system, but that's a topic for another time). Yet the problem would have been resolved, had someone noticed it at the store level. So how, you ask, did no one notice? Because no one asked for one. From Easter until a couple weeks ago, not one person came in to buy a Vita. During the same period, PSPs were selling regularly, as were Wii's, Wii U's, and 3DS's (360's are up and down, and PS3's are mostly non-sellers, despite the major releases for that period). I'm not speaking to the Vita's merits, only to the reaction it receives "in the trenches".
    On topic (yes, I didn't forget this was a Wii U article), there is some confusion in the marketplace regarding the Wii U. Many parents thought it was an add-on controller, though that has lessened since the playable demo units arrived. But most have held off because they don't have the money to buy a new console so soon after they "just" bought a Wii. The same thing happened (and to a degree, is still happening) with the DS and 3DS. It hasn't been until the recent surge in 3DS-only games that these parents are at least grasping that this isn't just a 3D DS (say that five times fast).
    My bold prediction is that, outside "hardcore gamers", the PS4 and XBox One are going to face similar struggles, as the mainstream audience (parents) try to justify several hundred dollars for a new system that mostly does the same thing the last one did, and doesn't even play the games they already have.
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  • Avatar for smug43 #17 smug43 4 years ago
    It's simple really.. long winded console cycles stifled creativity and interest.. Thank MS and Sony.

    Nintendo rode into this market climate with poor marketing and and a price bump of games from $49 to $59...

    Android and iOS.. if you seriously think this isn't the biggest disruptor.. well, then you might as well bury your head in the sand. This is killing the perceived "value" of games.. especially $60 games... hands down, this is the #1 factor.. add in the timing of the Wii U release and the other issues I mentioned. There you have it.. it's pretty simple.. it has even less to do with all the supposed "must have games" that doesn't happen for a good couple years into a console life cycle.. I believe ALL console manufacturers are going to struggle BIG TIME.
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