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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?

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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