I had an epiphany today which compelled me to write this article. Many people have questioned Nintendo’s decisions – both in the past (with the Wii) and currently with the Wii U. We know how it turned out for the Wii (best selling console, printing money, etc.) – and most people have finally gotten a hold of the reasoning behind the original Wii; don’t compete in an existing market – create a new one. You can’t argue with the facts – the Wii did what it was supposed to do (and made Nintendo a mint in the process). It didn’t gain market supremacy by taking users away from Microsoft and Sony – it created a new market of soccer moms and accountants who bought up Wii Sports, Wii Fit and other “common consumer” gaming products.
Bottom line: it worked. They won the fight against BOTH competitors.
But what about the Wii U? What is its purpose in the grand scheme of things? If the Wii created a new market to unseat the competitors – what is the Wii U’s secret plans?
The answer to that lies in a story.
My Personal Gaming Transition
My own history of gaming goes something like this … console (2600, Colecovision), computer (C64, Amiga), console (PS1, Gamecube, Dreamcast), computer (Windows), console (360, Wii) and finally handhelds (DS, GP2x, tablet). That’s the nutshell version, of course. Oddly enough, a little analysis is needed to understand my progression.
When I was in my youth, consoles plugged into anything. The South Park joke about Kenny still having a Colecovision hooked up to a 13″ B&W TV hit home to me. No matter how poor we were, there was always a cast off TV somewhere in the house. Someone had ALWAYS just traded up to the next console, so there was always a cheap (or free) hand me down. The Game Crash of the early 80’s drove me to computers – where I was quite content to game. Oh sure, I missed Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt – but in my teens, I preferred to be holed up in my room, head down over a computer (to be fair, I coded more than I gamed). The computer was a perfect companion to my adolescent years (remember, no internet yet).
Once I got married, I suddenly wanted to share gaming with my wife. We would crowd around the PC and play stuff like Hyper 3D Pinball (“Ammo .. hehheheheheheheh”) but that wasn’t the social aspect of gaming we wanted. We wanted to play on the big TV. That led us to the PS1 where we played CTR, Super Puzzle Fighter – she fell in love with Muppet Monster Adventure and I enjoyed my first real taste of 3D gaming (as in 3D graphics, not 3D display).
But time moves on. You have kids. You have a CAREER (not just a job). Time becomes a premium. The wife suddenly wants to watch CSI, not play CTR with you anymore. Much like the early days, there is still a cast off TV in the house – but you don’t want to pigeon-hole yourself away in the back room alone. Besides, you can’t spend 18 hours straight playing Champions of Norrath anymore; you have Stuff To Do(tm).
Suddenly the PC makes a good gaming device. No TV required. Flash games and “casual” games were showing up – making it easy to hop into something, play a bit and get out (remember those Desktop Adventures from LucasArts?) so if the wife has a honey-do for you, you hit pause and come back.
Modern consoles became a huge draw – not only could you get PC graphics without paying $3000 for a computer you upgraded every six months, but you could play with your friends online! And chat! Pac-Man CE single-handed got me to buy a 360 – and the leader-boards kept the score attack between my friends and I going for weeks. It was fun, new and exciting to play again. The social aspect of previous iterations of gaming were back – (sort of) and the graphics and depth of games made a big TV with 5.1 surround sound an important aspect of the game.
Unfortunately, while this new world is fun and exciting – especially if you’re a kid or are a 35 year old dude living in your mom’s basement with no commitments – once the initial romance is over, Real Life(tm) sets in and you’re back to the console days of yore. The wife wants the TV. The KIDS want the TV. You’re on opposing work schedules. Whatever. For some reason, the TV is considerably less accessible – and even if it was, you are Older Now(tm) and your gaming time is limited.
Handheld gaming matured. Suddenly, the DS, PSP, GP2x and other handhelds were once again compelling (sorry, I liked the GBA, but it wasn’t as compelling to me). The DS brought something new and fresh, the PSP brought a near-PS1 in your palm and the GP2x revitalized my love of classics – with MAME, C64 emulation and more. Even more – my love of Android led me to select gaming on my phone and -more importantly- my tablet. These solutions are fantastic – not because playing games on my tablet is better than a console. Or because the 3DS blows away the 360. But because it is ACCESSIBLE. The reliance on the centerpiece of American culture – the TV – is no longer needed.
Portable Gaming Today
At the time of writing, we’re in the fourth or fifth generation of portable gaming (depending on how you slice it up). The current handheld market consists of the Nintendo 3DS, the Sony PSVita, the smart phone and the tablet. Sure, there are some ancillary devices out there – the Leapsters, the wanna-be’s, etc. but for the most part – that’s what we got.
Each portable game platform has it’s perks and shortcomings – but in the end, you can play them anywhere, anytime and they all offer up something that traditional console and PC gaming do not; bite-sized gaming snacks. No TV is required. You don’t piss off the wife playing them on the couch. If the kids get needy, you can hit pause and take care of it (most of the time).
They remove accessibility limitations for EVERYONE; not just core gamers but casual gamers too. When it comes to portable gaming – there really is a solution for everyone. When push comes to shove, though – core gamers want big, meaty powerful consoles on giant TVs with 7.1 EX Dolby with a headset connected through a jack in the back of their head.
Despite the Doom and Gloom and media frenzy over consoles losing ground to portables, this “big penis” gaming market isn’t going away.
The Wii U Connection
When the “next gen” Wii U showed up with “about the same” graphical technology as the current generation of consoles, it made people scratch their heads. How can this be competitive? You KNOW in a year, Microsoft and Sony will whip out their penises and try to see who has the biggest one – touting insane graphical specifications, ultra-fast memory and crazy storage mediums. The stuff that makes the core gamers glassy-eyed with exstacy. How can Nintendo compete with THAT???
The answer is quite clear at this point; they can’t. They didn’t compete in that arena with the Wii. They didn’t compete in that arena with the DS or 3DS. Why start now? They know that the secret isn’t waging war on the front lines, but rather like Joshua’s conclusion at the end of WarGames (re Global Thermo Nuclear War) – the only winning move is NOT to play.
Nintendo is going after their REAL enemy – the ones they JUST won with the Wii; the non-core gamer. This time, instead of taking the casual gamer courting approach – they are doing something even far more brilliant – they are going after TWO markets at the same time; the tablet/cell (which technically is the old Wii market; they are protecting) AND a brand new market; the No-TV market. I’ll explain.
The No TV Market
The obvious members of the No TV market are the mobile device users; the “ULTRA casual” gamers that won’t even play casual games on a console or PC – but WILL drop .99 to shoot a bird at some pigs. For these people, the TV is for … watching TV. They won’t own a console, or if they do – most of the time spent on it is watching Netflix or Hulu because the No TV crowd is also forming from the “cut the Cable” crowd (ever growing in popularity).
There is another demographic here; me – the forgotten Gen Xer. Middle aged dads that have been gaming all their lives, but for whatever reason, the TV has become something nearly forbidden (namely for the reasons mentioned earlier). SOMEONE else is always using it or the use of it would bother or annoy others. Gen X is a HUGE market for gaming – and we’re spread around everywhere; some still playing consoles, some giving up and playing on PCs and many turning to handhelds to get our fix. The Baby Boomers are getting tablets that their Gen X kids are buying for them. The Gen Y/Millenials can’t make up their damn minds WHAT they want; flitting from platform to platform as the media dictates to them what is “cool” and trendy.
Nintendo has their sights on the stable crowd; Gen Xers have disposible income, they have brand loyalty – plus, half of them are jumping to these portable devices that Nintendo considers the real enemy. It’s perfect.
More importantly, there is an emerging demographic Nintendo is shooting at; the new Millenials that don’t know what it’s like to exist without some electronic entertainment in their hands. You know, the 6 year olds that parents are buying iPads for (rolling eyes). These kids demand entertainment 24/7 – and parents ain’t giving up the TV for them anymore. These “newb Millenials” have a new name. The “No TV Generation”. Nintendo wants them. Badly.
The Wii U Connection
This is pretty obvious by now, right?
Nintendo figured out the ultimate game system. They upped the game enough to keep the initial pixel counters happy and engage the overwhelming HDTV market – but (and this is why you never see the Wii U box – always the controller) it has the biggest ace in the hole; a tablet with physical controls on it that plays the EXACT same game on the screen that is played on the TV.
Why is this so brilliant even though so BLATANTLY obvious? Because the devil is in the details – and this is why things like Microsoft Glass and Sony’s PS3/Vita connection stuff will never compete.
First off, the Gamepad – while usable as an ancillary device in gaming (see my article here), the real power is that it can act as a lag-free mirror of the TV. This means it isn’t like the second screen on a DS (although it can be). It is a TV. A personal TV. One you don’t have to share. One that you can sit on the couch and consume without pissing off your spouse. This allows “No TV Generation” the ability to play – without the TV. You will NEVER EVER get this with a marriage of disparate technology. You will never hook an Android tablet or an iPad up to an Xbox 360 and get this. You will never get this with a PS3 + Vita. Wi-fi will never get lag-free enough to make this a reality without proprietary connectivity. THAT is what Nintendo’s been working on for the last couple of years; not over the counter HD video gaming chips. That’s why the distance is so short. That’s why placement is so important. A lag free mirror GamePad.
Second, the game you play on the pad isn’t a “scaled down” or “lite” version of the game. It’s the REAL GAME. Just like you had a TV. What’s more, developers have little-to-no-work to add the feature to their game – proven by the fact that almost all Wii U games can be played either on the TV or the GamePad.
Third, it’s the same controls. Exactly the same, physical excellently built controls you use when you play on the TV. No learning to play the game again. No sacrifice of real controls to play on your tablet. All the benefits of a tablet backed with the power of a modern console – with the same controls you use on the TV.
Finally, say good-bye to one of the most annoying “features” in modern gaming; split-screen play. I don’t care how big your TV is, split screen gaming with local friends SUCKS. Poor visibility, drop in frame-rate – tons of sucky things about split-screen. The Wii U removes the barrier of Split Screen Suckiness (patent pending) and gives both people their own screen to play on. Being a dad with a gamer son? This is possibly one of the greatest things EVER.
As a big Nintendo fan (I wasn’t always), I’ve learned not to question Nintendo’s ways – but even I didn’t understand what they were up to until I actually put the Wii U in my house and started using it and harnessing the lag-free GamePad.
The Ugly Secret
You want to know the secret no one will admit to? The Wii U GamePad rocks because most of us can sit on the toilet with it. There you go – the dark secret of the ages. Your 40 year old drinking buddy will make an off-handed comment about dropping a deuce while you were in the middle of a killer round of zombies on Call of Duty Black Ops 2 last night, but look for a commercial article out there (other than this one) that will admit that one of the “killer app” features of the Wii U is being able to play on the crapper.
We’ve had some fun here – but this really is a factor for a lot of gamers; especially gamers that play multiplayer deathmatch type games where “hitting pause” isn’t an option. The ability to leave the TV and do something between rounds (or even during rounds) is one major feature no one will ask for. The older you get as a gamer, the more distractions there are – and being able to hop off the couch and literally “take the game with you” is huge.
Don’t worry about Nintendo. They know what they are doing. My tablet game play time is almost down to ZERO since I got the Wii U. I’ve had more gaming time on the Wii U in the last month than I’ve had ALL YEAR on the 360, PS3 and 3DS combined. My son and I game more together. My son can game alone – but still be with us in the living room (he’s a sensative kid, ok?).
Whether it looks that way or not, Nintendo has proven once again it understands the gaming market (and the potential gaming market) far better than any of us do. They aren’t waiting around to lose former Wii ultra casual gamers to tablets. They found a new market, the No TV Generation – and they are going to take millions of people that DON’T game and turn them into Wii U owners.
Just like the Wii before it, the Wii U will struggle a bit at first – not as Nintendo learns who its market is – but as the market figures out the solution they’ve been looking for has been there all along.