How Nintendo Turned the Wii U’s Failure into the Switch’s Success

The Nintendo Switch’s success is breathing life back into the Japanese video game company. After the Wii U’s failure to sell commercially, 2014 served as one of the worst years financially for Nintendo. However, the company’s ability to learn from its mistakes has led to incredible sales figures for the Switch.

According to Nintendo’s latest report, the company sold nearly 2 million Switch units worldwide from the start of April to the end of June. Total sales of the young console are now nearing 5 million, with Nintendo on pace to sell 10 million Switch consoles in the first year of its availability. This is a remarkable feat in comparison to the Wii U, which has sold about 14 million units in just under 5 years.

There are a number of reasons why the Switch has been so successful. In comparison to the Wii U, the Switch and its features have been much more clearly explained by Nintendo. The Wii U’s name, its backwards compatibility with Wii controllers and games, and the console design’s similarity to the Wii all aided in creating confusion among consumers. Many wondered whether the Wii U was an upgrade to the Wii, in the vein of yearly versions of popular smartphones. Nintendo also did a poor job of marketing the Wii U’s features in a transparent way, namely the value of the tablet controller, with many consumers unclear as to what exactly the peripheral allowed them to do. This resulted in poor brand awareness for the Wii U name and general apathy from consumers.

On the other hand, the Switch’s features have been communicated relatively effectively by Nintendo and the console’s marketing clearly describes the Switch as a brand new console. A natural side-effect of Nintendo dropping the “Wii” prefix and not including backwards compatibility of games nor peripherals is better brand recognition for the Switch. Nintendo has also gone out of its way to explicitly show the Switch’s features and how its tablet controller can be used for true portability.

This portability is a huge reason for the Switch’s success, but it also speaks to the technological brilliance of the system. The Switch’s portability is thanks to the fact that the tablet controller and the system are the same thing. This is a noteworthy engineering success, especially when you take the elegant Switch and stand it next to the comparatively massive PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. While the Switch does fail to match the processing power of the PS4 or Xbox One, it makes up for that lack of power by delivering features and experiences that its competitors aren’t able to, most notably its portability.

Nintendo has been consistently non-conformist when it comes to its systems and games. Examples include the Wii’s motion controls and the DS’ dual-screen presentation. These unique features not only give consumers unique experiences, they also help Nintendo create a new market where they stand mostly alone. The Switch is no different. While Sony and Microsoft are competing head-to-head by releasing newer, more powerful versions of their systems, Nintendo seems content in its belief that the Switch’s features and popularity will naturally lead to exclusive games for the system.

And that’s one of the biggest question marks around the Switch: it’s current and future game selection. Nintendo’s Wii U was a massive failure as far as both first and third party support goes. When it was initially released, a number of popular but older third-party titles were available for the Wii U but both the system’s and the games’ poor sales scared off future development from third-parties. As for first party titles, the Wii U’s first year saw the release of basically one game featuring a main Nintendo character (New Super Mario Bros U) and Nintendo was never able to saturate the market as much as they needed to with strong first party games.

There are a few reasons, however, to be cautiously optimistic about the Switch’s library of games. The first reasons are concrete: high profile games that have been released or announced. These include The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, three massive titles that will see releases in 2017. A number of games have been announced for the Switch in 2018 and while the system is by no means drowning in releases, its first year is already miles ahead of the WiiU.

Another reason for optimism are statements made around Nintendo’s philosophy concerning its library, namely that they are more conforming to the needs of third-party developers and are actively working to get games developed for the Switch. With the Wii U, third-party developers had to conform their games to the two screen set-up (TV and tablet controller), and poor Wii U sales meant that third-parties simply didn’t see enough value in that conformity. With the Switch, Nintendo has abandoned the two screen philosophy, theoretically making it easier for developers to port games to their systems.

Of course, no console will succeed if its library is filled with games available for other systems, and Nintendo has countered this by meeting with and seeking the support of numerous third-party developers before releasing the Switch. Nintendo also has stated that it hopes the Switch will be home to a number of games from independent studios. This two prong attack should allow for both ported and exclusive games from third-party developers to be played on the Switch, while also bringing smaller, but creative, indie titles to the system. For the past decade, indie titles have consistently brought fresh experiences that deliver charm and innovation that many blockbuster titles lack, and if the Switch can be home to a long library of exclusive indie titles, it will be a massive victory for Nintendo.

Aside from the difficulties involved in creating a vast library of games, Nintendo has other concerns that it will need to address sooner rather than later. The first is its online model and features, an aspect of gaming that Nintendo is still relatively inexperienced with. Here, Nintendo non-conformity to industry norms has resulted in weak infrastructure. While the PS4 and Xbox One allow for in-game chat and group invitations, Nintendo has opted for an online infrastructure whose features and commands are presented through a mobile phone application. Whatever the reasoning behind this, the reaction to the application has been mixed, with some notable concerns being described by users. One massive functionality restriction of the phone application is that opening up another app on the phone during a Switch game chat ends that game chat. This means that players can’t check Twitter or send texts while they are in the middle of in-game chat. Considering that this restriction doesn’t apply to other chatting applications such as Skype or Discord, it’s a large and inexplicable misstep by Nintendo. Online gaming was long ago proven to increase the amount of time a gamer invested into a title, while also serving as a viable revenue stream for developers, and so Nintendo will drastically need to restructure and update its online functionality as time goes by and feedback comes in. Online functionality will directly affect game sales as well as the willingness for developers to make games for the Switch.

A final concern for Nintendo is keeping its momentum going. Right now, demand for the system is high, but Nintendo are currently unable to produce enough Switches to match that interest. Switches are sold as quickly as they show up online or in stores, and with the Christmas season coming, the demand for the console is unlikely to decline. However, once 2018 rolls around, Nintendo won’t be able to rely solely on Zelda or Mario, nor the holiday season, to sell their systems. Releasing a Zelda title and a Mario 3D title so early in the system’s life makes for a strong introduction to the market, but since Nintendo is unlikely to release sequels to those games for another 2 to 4 years, the need for lesser known titles that will be commercially and critically successful becomes imperative.

Nintendo dodged a bullet with the Wii U and came out stronger for it. Very few companies have the personnel and the resources to create a home video game console and even fewer can experience a failure like the Wii U and continue on in the market. For Nintendo, their successes prior to the Wii U’s release laid out a safety net that saved them from complete defeat. So far, Nintendo has taken the lessons they learned from the Wii U and made better on them with the Switch. It will be up to the Japanese company to continue to learn from its past and current mistakes in order to allow the Switch to realize its full potential as both a commercial and artistic success.

Daniel Podborochynski

A Canadian who loves video games, soccer, sandwiches, reading, cats, dogs, Aphex Twin, bike rides, Fallout, Daft Punk, barbecue, and beer.
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