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WiiU is Officially Dead

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By Nelson Schneider - 11/13/16 at 04:00 PM CT

Last Thursday, Nintendo of Japan made official statements regarding the state of their current last home console, the WiiU. Japanese production of the console is coming to an end, and all remaining WiiU hardware available in North America has already been shipped to retail. It’s official: The WiiU is no more.

When MeltedJoystick buried my WiiU in a mock funeral attended by all manner of console dignitaries back in 2013, we did so in a tongue-in-cheek manner. We didn’t want to see the WiiU fail and die. We explicitly ended that video with the WiiU Gamepad lighting up inside its coffin as a symbol of hope, leaving the potential for Nintendo to get it together with the WiiU like they did with the 3DS.

As we all know now, that never happened. The WiiU launched a failure, remained a failure, and died a failure. But why?

The first problem lined up against the WiiU was Nintendo’s split focus on two devices with different games. The 3DS launched as a failure, and in a desperate attempt to shore up their handheld business, Nintendo neglected the WiiU to tragic effect. Never has a Nintendo console had fewer or less impressive first-party titles. At least the company was able to save the 3DS, so it wasn’t a double-fail.

Second, the market has shifted, and Nintendo didn’t notice. “Console” gamers no longer really want and demand “console” games on their “consoles.” These people own PC-likes, and all of the high-demand Western third-party titles that the current Mainstream Gamer wants/needs available on their chosen hardware are PC ports. Japan has, by and large, been left out of this transition, preferring to focus more on mobile and handheld titles. But even Japanese third-parties have shown themselves willing to port their handful of releases to any and all PC-like platforms… including PC itself! The most significant result of this market shift is that platform exclusives, which served as the original foundation for both Nintendo’s and Sony’s business practices, have virtually vanished due to skyrocketing production costs. If a third-party is going to make a game, they need it to appear on every possible platform. Even cheap, no-budget Indie games are doing this simply because artificially limiting your potential market doesn’t make any kind of business sense. Hell, even “games as art” proponents can’t argue that limiting the number of people who are exposed to your “art” is a good idea. With this obsessive need to have every game appear on every platform, the fact that EA, Activision, Ubisoft, and other Western developers felt comfortable in ignoring the WiiU is a testament to both the console’s lack of PC-ness and the trivial size of its user-base.

Third, Nintendo is still building “console” hardware in the PC-like era. Modern PC-like consoles can include powerful innards and sell at a loss because the companies that manage them (Sony and Microsoft) can make up the cost difference and even turn a significant profit by simply milking PC-like owners for perpetual subscription fees. I don’t want to see Nintendo start charging for access to the Nintendo Network or whatever DeNA replaces it with, but it wouldn’t surprise me, especially if the rumored $260 price point for an un-bundled Switch turns out to be true.

So, in the end, the WiiU was killed by a perfect storm of trends actively working against its success. With Japan changing focus from console and PC gaming to handheld and mobile gaming, no third-parties from that country are actively producing large quantities of “system-seller” titles, and when they do, those titles inevitably go multi-platform, like they do in the West. With the West relegating true consoles to the trashbin of history and changing focus to PC titles that appear on multiple PC-like platforms, there is still nobody to prop-up a non-PC-like console’s library. The result was a chronic and perpetual game drought for the WiiU.

With the Nintendo Switch, the company only appears to be actively addressing one of its three biggest problems. By merging console and handheld, Nintendo no longer needs to divide its focus between two hardware platforms. Likewise, by providing a console/handheld hybrid, they can court both Japanese developers who prefer to make handheld games and… whoever it is that still wants to make non-PC-like console games. However, without hardware that is comparably powerful to the current-gen PC-likes, which set all of the target benchmarks for a 5+ year span, I don’t foresee anything changing regarding Nintendo’s relationship with the West. Of course, if you look way, way back to Nintendo’s console origins, the NES didn’t really get a lot of love from Western developers either, as they were – you guessed it – primarily busy working on DOS games for PC.

Nintendo is currently in a no-win situation regarding price/power. If they start charging a subscription, consumers will balk. If they release underpowered hardware, developers/publishers will balk. If the hybrid nature of the Switch allows it to get all of those Japanese handheld exclusives that the WiiU didn’t get along with a mix of Western Indie games and the last few remaining truly console-style games produced across the industry, that looks to be Nintendo’s only possible route to renewed success. If Nintendo has proven anything in the past, it’s that they are quite capable of carving out new and unknown niches in which to place products. And from the looks of things, the company has learned at least something from its mistakes with the WiiU.

I will not remember the WiiU fondly. Next to the N64 and Genesis, it has the smallest number of games that have made their way into my collection. And out of those, only two of them (“Super Mario Maker” and “Xenoblade Chronicles X”) felt like they were really worthwhile experiences. Nintendo is definitely making the right call in ending the WiiU’s life early in order to focus on a new platform in a new niche.

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