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Wii U: Nintendo's day of reckoning

Why neither core nor casual audiences are safe bets for Nintendo's new console

Nintendo lost its core audience at the turn of the century and, after ten extraordinarily successful years in a different market, it now carries a romantic belief that old fans will return in their millions when the Wii U launches.

That's not the biggest of Nintendo's challenges with its new console, however. The company entered the most prosperous passage in its history as a mass of people - often dubbed the 'casual audience' - bought tens of millions of Wii systems.

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Wii U's UK TV campaign clearly outlines the console's unique features

But casual can mean fickle. How the masses react to the Wii U remains up for debate because so far there has been virtually no reaction. Just silence. No feverish excitement across social networks, no mass media coverage (we are now just 100 hours away from US launch) and an advertising campaign far less pervasive than console launches usually employ.

Neither core nor casual audiences are safe bets this time. The Wii U is a large stack of chips hesitantly placed between these two ends of the spectrum. If the 123 year-old Kyoto corporation is not already racked with anxiety, it should be.

On the other hand, the phenomenal successes of both the DS and Wii started with commentators genuinely laughing off Nintendo's chances.

One shouldn't underestimate Nintendo's perceptiveness for market potential - that is essentially how the Wii was envisioned in the first place - but two poorly conducted E3 press conferences in succession has cast doubt on whether even Nintendo's executives fully know what they are doing with Wii U.

Does Nintendo understand why the Wii was a success in the first place? True, the exceptional marketing campaigns and novelty of the system itself helped a great deal, but Wii was a sensation because of Nintendo's conviction in achieving a single idea.

"The original Wii was a sensation because of Nintendo's conviction in achieving a single idea"

Wii was about giving as many people as possible a chance to play games. With this clear vision in mind, Nintendo built an unassuming and inexpensive console with a wonderfully simplified - and innovative - control system.

The trick was to make the console invisible. It was about the child-like bliss of shaking sticks around the living room at Christmas, or moving a plastic steering wheel, or standing on a set of scales. It was unobtrusive, carefree fun, and nearly 100 million people have bought into that idea.

In a sense, the Wii U is a departure of that strategy. The touch-screen controller may open new possibilities, but it also stands between players and their TV sets. Nintendo faces a significant challenge in making a tablet and console combo paint the same picture of hassle-free fun. Controllers are no longer thrown around but handed to others, carefully, with a list of explanations on how things work. Once the instruction was as simple as "just swing your arm". No longer.

And the price is too high for casual audiences. Starting at £250 in the UK and $299 in the US, added with the further complication of two separate SKUs, the RRP has already drawn criticism from Ubisoft - Nintendo's closest third-party partner.

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The 8GB Basic package retails from around 250 GBP or 299 USD

Worse still, the Wii U price is not enough for Nintendo to make a profit on each sale. This is principally because of the complexity of its touch screen controller and that other side of the equation, the core market, which Nintendo wants to lure with a machine capable of, at least for now, high quality graphics.

But again the lack of conviction is telling. Nintendo is at risk of losing the core market, and the publishing world that serves it, because the Wii U's technical specs will still likely be some distance off future PlayStation and Xbox systems. It's not just about the obsession with graphics, though that's a key element, but the diminished options for key development studios.

"Nintendo has carried through a plan to unify audiences and has unknowingly divided them further"

One curse of the original Wii was its reputation of hosting the worst versions of the big multiplatform games like Modern Warfare. Its underpowered hardware put developers off despite the system's market-leading user base, and responsibilities for porting games were delegated to external teams working with less advanced engines. The Wii's low spec fostered a lack of ambition across the development community, and understandably so, because the likes of Activision and EA knew that the core audience's tastes were elsewhere.

To end the curse, the Wii U needed to be capable of hosting the next generation of blockbusters for another five years. That of course would raise the system's price even higher, something that would almost certainly damage Nintendo's chances to capture the casuals.

One market disrupts the other. Nintendo has carried through a plan to unify audiences and has unknowingly divided them further. In such a situation the corporation has very little room for error, but it has made many.

Just days away from the Wii U launch, its online service remains a mystery and its core games are ports of old Unreal Engine 3 titles returning to full price. And while dual-screen gaming is a unique spin on old tricks, only a few games - such as ZombiU - take that very idea to the heart of their gameplay.

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ZombiU makes good use of Wii U's dual screens

Nintendo may extol the virtues of what it calls "asymmetrical gameplay", but in truth it risks isolating itself. Publishers have the dilemma of either building a Wii U game from the ground-up or adding features to their multiplatform titles. The former results in an exclusive game at a time when publishers need to spread bets, the latter is a chore.

It was during the GameCube era when Nintendo lost sight of the core gamer. Tastes moved on and Nintendo struck gold elsewhere. When a company takes a market leading position in less than a year, such inherent problems tend to become invisible.

But the Wii U is Nintendo's day of reckoning. It will return to that core market it parted ways with some ten years ago, whilst trying to maintain a deep relationship with the casual audience from day one.

It may seem damning to suggest that no platform holder has ever succeeded in doing this, but the truth is possibly worse: no company has thought about trying.

For more Wii U launch coverage read Revolution: The story of Wii.

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