Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why the Wii has faltered in Japan and what Nintendo can do about it

The Wii has been successful in every region, selling unprecedented numbers of consoles, and in no region was it a hit faster than in Japan. The console was virtually sold out for almost a year and in contrast to the West has not yet had a viable console competitor. It seemed a matter of time before Wii would have PS2 level domination. Now, in late 2009, this has not been the case, and after the launch of the PS3 Slim the Wii’s dominance seems more tenuous than ever. Nintendo profits and hardware projections have dropped. Iwata admitted that Wii sales have stagnated. Where has Nintendo went wrong in its home country?

1. Lack of Strong Third Party Support

This is undoubtedly the most obvious factor, but still crucial when analyzing the Wii‘s troubles in Japan. Whether this is Nintendo’s fault or not, third parties have not given the Wii a steady stream of successful software since its launch in late 2006. Last year, 2008, Wii had three third party titles that sold more than 200,000 units- Tales of Symphonia Knights of Ratatousk, Deca Sports, and Taiko Wii (Joysound Karaoke reached that amount in early 2009). By contrast, for this holiday season, Wii arguably has five third party titles alone that could reach that number (Biohazard:Darkside Chronicles, Samurai Warriors 3, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Crystal Bearers, Taiko Wii 2, and Tales of Graces). Nintendo needed these titles, which can maintain momentum and attract a different type of consumer than the Wii Fit crowd, much later than Holiday 2009. This lineup in 2007 would have quickly established the Wii as a system that the PS2 owners could feel comfortable moving on to. Instead, coming now, this lineup is quite possibly too little too late.
After a respectable Holiday 2008 (approximately 415 thousands units sold in December according to Japanese tracker Media Create), the Wii fell swiftly to unheard of levels during the first half of 2009, flirting with ten thousand units solid weekly. The biggest third party release during that period, by far, was Monster Hunter G, an identical port to the PS2 game pushed out by Capcom to help build the audience for Monster Hunter Tri. Of course, Nintendo itself didn’t help matters with its biggest release prior to Wii Sports Resort being the GCN port Mario Tennis. That is the crux of the matter- possibly the Wii could have better maintained sales with a steadier stream of 3rd party titles despite their own substandard 1st half of 2009 lineup.
The other concern with the lack of strong third party support has been the inability to build a “core” gamer market that supports niche titles such as Arc Rise Fantasia, Fragile, Muramasa and others. This leads to a cycle where smaller titles under-perform leading publishers to refuse to devote more assets towards the platform. In many ways Nintendo and third parties flipped the usual pattern on its head- instead of releasing the big high profile titles first and providing a home for lesser titles, they released the lesser titles first, leading to a weak market for those niche titles. Because of this, for the most part, when third party games are released they do not do well, further exacerbating the perception of the Wii user base not being friendly towards third party games. By contrast, the PS3 has received many PS2 franchise entries that at this point have lead to friendlier eco system for more niche titles such as Demon’s Souls (first party published but third party developed), Bladestorm, Way of the Samurai, Rorona Alterier, and others.
This is not to just put the blame on Nintendo for whatever failings they exhibited by not lining up more significant third party support; All parties share the blame. Third parties absolutely expected the PS3 to dominate and planned many of its franchises accordingly. If you don’t build a market, the market won’t exist. On the other hand, Nintendo, with its vast war chest, undoubtedly could have been and still could be more aggressive in securing major third party franchises that help build a different audience. The only question is whether it is too late, with increasing competition from the PSP, DS, and the PS3. As previously stated, this holiday is the first period where there is a consistent stream of high profile third party software. However, there is currently not much announced for 2010, and if this holiday represents the high water mark for third party franchises on the system then the Wii is in serious trouble in its homeland, no matter what type of impact Nintendo’s first party franchises have.

2. Lack of RPG’s.

Nintendo has done a woeful job building an RPG market on the Wii. Despite having two first party studios who make RPG‘s, Monolith Soft and Intelligent Systems, after 3 years on the market Nintendo has released two- Fire Emblem and Super Paper Mario, which were both in 2007, and are not traditional JRPG‘s. Third party support hasn’t been much better aside from low profile projects like Arc Rise Fantasia and spinoffs like Dragon Quest Swords. In fact, the Wii’s first truly first rate high profile traditional RPG is only coming out this December, Tales of Graces. Square Enix, which has given the portables and the HD systems significant support, still has not given the Wii a high profile traditional RPG. Dragon Quest X is announced, but won’t be arriving for years. Crystal Bearers, which has received positive early impressions, is not a traditional RPG. Chocobo’s Dungeon is probably the closest, but even that genre (rogue like RPG) is relatively niche.

What could Nintendo do? First, increase their own RPG output. This may very well be going on behind the scenes, but it is a point that bears making. Second, and this may be easier said than done, get Square Enix on board with significant support. Dragon Quest 7 remake. More Final Fantasy. Companies follow the leader and the leader is Square Enix. There is no reason PS2 franchises that cannot afford to go HD should not come to Wii. Without legitimate RPG support, the Wii will never enjoy PS2 level success and may cede ground to the PS3, not to mention the handhelds.

3. Lack of consistency in controller output.

Another problem for Nintendo in trying to revitalize Japanese market is the lack of consistency as to what the Wii is supposed to represent to the public in terms of how you control the software. On one hand Nintendo released Wii Sports Resort with Motion Plus to much fanfare this summer and recently released the Balance Board supported Wii Fit Plus. On the other hand, Nintendo is pushing the traditional Classic Controller Pro with 3rd party titles such as Monster Hunter 3, Tales of Graces, Samurai Warriors 3, and even Winning Eleven 2010. Nintendo is essentially engaging in one marketing push towards the new motion based output and another push at the same time to capture the PS2/traditional gaming crowd.
Clearly Nintendo is trying to thread the needle and appeal to both the casual grandmother’s and the traditional teen market, but without a coherent strategy, this seems doomed to fail. If Nintendo really wants to push its machine as for everyone, they need to bundle every single Wii with a Motion Plus and a Classic Controller Pro and market Wii Sports Resort right along side Monster Hunter. That way, right out of the box, both markets have their controller and the parents can play their Wii Sports Resort while the teenager is already equipped to play Monster Hunter or Samurai Warriors. Right now, Nintendo’s marketing in Japan is disjointed and at odds with each other. The gamers who buy Monster Hunter probably aren’t buying Wii Fit Plus, and unless you at least tie the two outputs together in the SKU, The Wii marketing has no real continuity and the two competing messages can possibly harm each other.

4. Lack of continued support for peripherals

Related to the previous point, Nintendo has done a terrible job following through on initially successful peripherals. The Balance Board has an install base nearly equal to the PS3 and yet as of nearly two years after its release in Japan, there has been zero Nintendo games supporting the platform and two third party titles- the two We Ski titles from Namco. For a peripheral with as much success as the Balance Board, to have Nintendo and third parties essentially ignoring that success is inexplicable. Similarly, Wii Sports Resort/Motion Plus has been followed by one announced Nintendo game supporting Motion Plus, Span Smasher, and zero Japanese third party games. Contrast this to the situation in the U.S and across PAL territories where the device actually launched with third party software (EA’s Tiger Woods and Grand Slam Tennis), and a major third party game is launching exclusively with Motion Plus early next year (Ubisoft’s Red Steel 2).
This is a missed opportunity for Nintendo. The Wii sold for nearly a year after Wii Fit and the Balance Board launched, and that impact could have been even larger with immediate and strong support for the balance board. Motion Plus with just the promise of Wii Sports Resort is not going to give consumers confidence to invest in the peripherals. Consumers are more likely to invest in the system and the peripheral if they know it is going to be supported. This again speaks to confusion and the lack of a clear strategy for Nintendo in Japan. Nintendo has to communicate to its consumers what benefit’s the system brings, and the continued introduction of peripherals with no following software undermines the success and appeal of every new piece of white plastic introduced.

5. For core titles, lack of a differentiator

Finally, a fundamental problem with the Wii design is there is no real differentiating factor to spur developing of core games on the system. This is not to say that core games cannot succeed- the argument is that these games succeed based on their own merits, not on any inherent advantages to the Wii system. Compare the Wii to its competitors. The PS3 offers increased graphical capability. For developers and customers, this can be a draw. Compare the DS and PSP- both offer portability, a differentiator to the usual PS2 software. Now, looking at the Wii, it offers very little over the PS2 in terms of traditional, core games. Monster Hunter 3,Tales of Graces and Samurai Warriors 3 could easily have been done on the PS2. There is nothing besides a little bit of graphical capability that distinguishes the two systems. The only “core franchise games on Wii that take advantage of the systems controller is Dragon Quest Swords, the Biohazard Chronicles series, and the upcoming Crystal Bearers. This incongruence makes it less likely for developers to commit to the system and less likely for PS2 games to make the jump to the Wii.

One partial solution is for developers to utilize the pointer functionality, which could provide some interesting mechanics for RPG’s and action games. However, one potential issue is that when you try a different controller output you risk alienating the reliable, core audience. Take Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles the Crystal Bearers; The game uses the pointer technology and from all accounts is not an RPG at all, but rather is being pushed as a pure adventure game. Square Enix is apparently trying to tap into the more casual part of the Wii user base. However, there is a risk- if the title fails to catch on with the casual crowd, the title could flop. It appears (based on lack of retailer preorders), that the traditional RPG and Crystal Chronicles audience is not on board. This illustrates the danger to third parties; if you create a core game that does not use anything unique about the Wii, your software might have a ceiling and sales might not be maximized. On the other hand, if you do use the Wii’s strengths, you risk alienating that core group and not selling at all. There is no easy answer to this issue as it is inherent in the actual design of the Wii hardware. However, this issue can be minimized by solid marketing and fostering of third party relations.


To conclude, there are no easy solutions for the Wii in Japan. It has competition not only from the portables but also as of late from the PS3, and aside from New Super Mario Bros. Wii there is no title on the horizon that could anticipate being a genuine system seller. Some problems can only be solved with a complete retooling in software development, and some problems are so inherent in the actual Wii hardware that they can probably never be satisfactorily dealt with. However, Nintendo could start taking efforts right now to stop the bleeding and at least remain competitive in the market. Essentially, Nintendo needs to streamline and focus in its marketing of the system and its controller outputs; increase support of its peripheral; and improve first and third party software marketing and outreach.


Short Term:

1. Bundle the hardware with CC Pro and Motion Plus and streamline the marketing approach to include the casual and core gamer.

2. More promotion for core titles, even lesser titles such as Dynamic Slash, Monado, etc. Build up hype and promotion in Famitsu and other gaming outlets instead of stealth releasing any title that isn’t expected to be a big seller.

Long Term:

1. More RPG development from Nintendo’s internal studios and invest in third party developed RPG’s.

2. More software support for already existing peripherals.

3. Increased Third Party support through incentives and co-marketing.

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