Jun 06 2012

The Console Parity Issue: How a Fair Fight Will Ruin Nintendo.

Alright we saw some important stuff over the last couple of days and after some deep thought about it all I think an editorial is in order. I have made my feelings about Nintendo’s future known in the past but yesterday’s press conference did nothing to help shake my doubts. The fact of the matter is thanks to some of the announcements this year we are very close to a period of console parity where every system has similar capabilities, power, and most likely pricing. Despite this seeming like a good thing for everyone, with no one system having a distinct advantage, the devil is in the details and due to how we got here it could be a major problem for Nintendo. We have a new generation of high quality touchscreen compatible games coming up on the horizon and every system will have the ability to play them which means console dominance just became a tricky proposition.

First lets talk about how alike the systems will be/are in all the major categories. When it comes to power and price for the Wii U only educated guesses can be made however basic logic makes these arguments solid. When it comes to power the system is most likely similar to that of the 360 and PS3. Gameplay footage of Batman: Arkham City shown yesterday did not look to be markedly better in terms of graphical fidelity compared to the other systems; more importantly if it was significantly more powerful than its competitors Nintendo would have mentioned that during the press conference as sign of dominance. When it comes to price nothing has been explicitly stated however if the Wii U was going to be anything below $350 then Nintendo would be yelling it from the mountain tops as the console is expected this holiday, not to mention the fact that an HD Touchscreen the size of that tablet controller is not a cheap thing to include in a console. The novelty of that touch screen is gone now as well thanks to Microsoft’s Smart Glass technology and Sony’s PSVITA controller cross play capability. Both these competitors to the Wii U tablet are going to be implemented within spitting distance of the launch of the Wii U and mimic all the capabilities of the Wii U tablet. This means very soon every system will be on par with each other and we’ll have a level playing field for game development. At its most basic all the systems will be the exact same, a ‘Console box’ with the power of a low to mid range PC and a ‘Touchscreen controller’ that either has additional buttons or works with a controller, this is represented by the first of my bad MS paint diagrams below.

Things look very equal here and-at their most basic-they are but as I said the devil is in the details. We’re now going to start adding layers and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Starting off with the cost things remain fairly equal though Nintendo does start to fall back slightly here. Assuming the Wii U costs a minimum of $350 (before tax), it’s not a bad deal as bundle for the necessary Console box and Touchscreen controller. That said it is a single large purchase which can be intimidating compared to two separate smaller purchases that can be spread out like with the other systems. We can average each portion of the package for Sony and Microsoft being about $200 as you can easily find used and new PS3s360s, and compatible Smart Glass devices for $200 dollars or less. While the VITA is still a minimum of $250, when you add services like Craigslist into the equation that allow deals for all four devices, things even back out. The obvious argument here is that “used sales give nothing back to the console manufacturers meaning the Wii U wins even by selling the same amount” and that’s true assuming they can actually sell those units and continue to sell games afterwards. One of the major reasons the Wii sold so well and got into everyone’s house was that it was cheaper than its competition and it had a higher profit margin per unit, unfortunately that is simply not the case this time. The overall price will most likely be comparable between all three eliminating that advantage right out the gate. It’s important to also note that software sales are just as important to company’s bottom line and if the can’t follow through that way then things can get troublesome.

Where problems will really arise though is with the current install base of the pre-existing devices. While the original Wii sold very well, and is statistically in more homes than there are actual buildings on the planet, the only piece of that technology coming over are the wiimotes and nunchuks which are frankly the cheapest part of the package. This is a problem when you consider the fact that the majority of the gaming consumer base already has a PS3 and/or 360 in their homes while everyone and their dog regardless of demographic has a smart device these days. For the hardcore gamers the cheapest option will most likely be to buy a basic smart device and play these new games on the 360, for the casuals it will be to buy a 360 and to play them with their smart device. We’re still not in an economy where the average consumer can justify doubling down on a completely brand new system when they already have something in their homes that can do the same stuff if they buy something else for half the price. So let’s take another look at my diagram but with another couple of layers added to it to reflect what we’ve talked about.

As you can see things are looking less level and Nintendo is falling behind. There is the other thing that sold the Wii though and that’s novelty. The idea of natural motion controls ignited the public’s imagination; at the time the public had no idea of its limits and no one else was doing it to the degree of Nintendo (seriously, fuck Sixaxis controls). Touchscreens these days are a known quantity though, everyone has played Angry Birds and the tech the other companies are using is generally equivalent to what Nintendo is putting forth. This is not the simple seemingly future magic that the Wii seemed to have, it’s an interface most consumers are either used to or have no interest pursuing. The thing that helped Nintendo so much last time was the novelty of the Wii which is what sold it to gamers and grandmas alike. What the other companies do that Nintendo doesn’t do here is entice with extra functionality, the thing that already sells smart devices. A smart device is a god damn smart device, it can do mountains of stuff when not being used by the 360; The PSVITA is a full on handheld console, you get a second completely separate gaming experience when you turn off your PS3, the Wii U tablet however is just a controller when on its own, sure you can use it as a TV remote but it hasn’t been made clear what if anything it can do once you turn off the Wii U console box. So let’s take one last look at the graph and see the offerings again.

As the diagrams above show Nintendo is in a shaky position so this E3 press conference was when Nintendo needed to make the big sell with the Wii U and that simply didn’t happen. Pikmin 3 looked charmingly wonderful and it’s nice to see third party support finally come back for Nintendo but there was nothing that was truly mind-blowing and could only be done on Wii U. The majority of games shown we’ve either already played (Batman AC), will play before it comes out (Assassin’s Creed 3), or feel like tired retreads of very recent Nintendo franchises (New Super Mario Bros. U). A large amount of time was put towards Nintendo Land which was implied to be the Wii U’s equivalent to Wii Sports. While both are showcases of their respective system’s abilities every place Wii Sports was charming and simple Nintendo Land is confusing and awkward. Most importantly Nintendo didn’t seem to want to sell us on the system; the price, the technical specs, and the release date were all details that were conspicuously absent. The whole conference felt like Nintendo stalling for time it’s does not have to try to become novel again.

This slow panicking death is truly saddening to me and I really do want to love what Nintendo puts out but the package as looks right now simply isn’t attractive. Despite the last 1600 words that I’m sure comments below will call a biased anti-Nintendo nazi hate rant I still have a lot of love for Nintendo, they’ve always been there and were responsible for so many wonderful moments. Every era of my life has a favorite Nintendo game attached to it; I remember the skillful glee of Punch Out, the endless secrets and fun of Super Mario World, the dark thoughtfulness of Majora’s Mask, the elegance and simplicity of Pikmin, and the unprecedented charm of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. I’m not saying Nintendo won’t continue to create fond memories but nothing that was shown this E3 for the Wii U has those qualities. Right now the Wii U is just another console whereas Nintendo has always rightfully been known for something more. I did my best to put forward some cold facts and well explained estimates and possible scenarios here. I’m not trying to disparage the Big N, as someone in the industry I’m just expressing my worry and wondering if they will make it as a console manufacturer past this next generation. Sure they have the 3DS which is finally starting to come around with some really great looking games but having a handheld is a luxury item on top of the luxury item that is a home console. For all intents and purposes the Wii U’s fate will be Nintendo’s and with that I’m sure you can understand both my worries and my skepticism. I mean c’mon, we all have to get a little nervous when the Sony and Ubisoft press conferences are better than Nintendo’s normally ear-to-ear smile inducing wonderfests.

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