Nintendo, it seems, is a company in danger of disappearing. If not from the games world as a whole, at least from its place as one of the top hardware manufacturers. The problem? The Wii U is simply not selling enough.
Cowen & Company analyst Doug Creutz has warned investors that, after seven months on the market, the Wii U – which has officially sold 3.45 million units – is “struggling mightily.” He said Nintendo has “abandoned the field to Microsoft and Sony” at this year’s E3 by choosing not to hold a press conference, but believes a price cut for the Wii U could be announced in an attempt to draw attention away from the other manufacturers.
Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities and frequent commenter on the games industry, also weighed in, saying the second half of 2013 is crucial to the Wii U’s very future: “If the Wii U’s popularity does not improve by the end of the year, many third-party publishers may pass on producing games for the console.”
In fact, Pachter predicted that there could be a case where all third-party publishers give up on the Wii U in favour of other platforms, leaving the console with nothing but first-party (i.e. Nintendo-published) games.
EA already appears to have shifted its focus away from the Wii U. While the company released a statement claiming to have a “strong partnership and active agreement” with Nintendo to develop games for the console, it won’t put its money where its mouth is: there are currently zero EA games in development for Wii U. FIFA 13, in other words, will not be followed by FIFA 14.
Contrast that with Microsoft’s Xbox One launch a couple of weeks ago, in which EA was trotted out to parade a series of sports titles for the upcoming console. None of these games will, it seems, make it on to Nintendo’s platform.
The reasons for this are financial; EA clearly doesn’t see developing and releasing games for the Wii U as worth the investment. In a Twitter rant (since deleted), EA Sports Canada software engineer Bob Summerwill suggested the Wii U technology may be a factor too. “The Wii U is crap. Less powerful than an Xbox 360. Poor online/store. Weird tablet. Nintendo are walking dead at this point.”
Summerwill suggested that Nintendo should have ditched making hardware and instead concentrated on developing its beloved first-party games like Mario, Metroid and The Legend of Zelda for other consoles.
Nintendo also has the 3DS, of course, but it’s hard to see that thriving in a handheld gaming market where tablets and smartphones look set to dominate in the coming years.
Given all this gloom you might think Nintendo is doomed to the same fate as Sega: a fall from major console manufacturer to games publisher and developer. But the company has a weapon no other manufacturer can offer: the aforementioned first-party titles. On the way is a new 3D Super Mario game, a Super Smash Bros. game, a Legend of Zelda game, a new Mario Kart game – heck, even a new Wii Fit game. And it’s these that really matter to Nintendo – not the EA Sports titles and gritty first-person shooters.
“The bottom line is that Nintendo doesn’t need saving,” says games writer Steve Hogarty, former deputy editor of Official Nintendo Magazine. “It’s one of the richest companies in the world, with literally billions of dollars stashed away in a vault somewhere; if every one of their consoles for the next two decades flopped they’d still be in fine health.”
Hogarty concedes that the Wii U has endured “a grinding start” but believes the first-party titles, always the company’s best sellers, will change that: “The same achingly slow uptake was seen with the 3DS, which is now selling well globally thanks to a glut of popular releases.”
But what if all those third-party developers join EA in abandoning Wii U? “It’s no great loss, simply because that’s a front they could never have hoped to win on. Nobody was ever going to buy Battlefield 4 on Wii U. Nintendo isn’t trying to take on Microsoft and Sony, it just has to be the second choice of console for customers of either competitor.”
So there you have it: Nintendo isn’t panicking because there’s no need to panic. It may not be top dog in the console world, or even dog number two – but it’s still in the game and will be stay there as long as it wants to.