In the three years since it first launched, the Nintendo Wii has sailed past competing systems from Sony and Microsoft to consistently claim the top spot in the console war.
But if a recent rash of troubling stories about the Wii is a vision of things to come, the tide might be turning for the seemingly unbeatable machine.
Kinks in the system’s shiny white armor starting showing last month. Despite steady success in Japan, the Wii fell into second place in March as the underdog Playstation 3 clambered atop the region’s sales charts for the first time in 16 months. That was enough to garner some uncharacteristically somber comments from Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, who deemed the climate in Japan “unhealthy” for the Wii.
But to Cowan & Company analyst Doug Creutz, the U.S. market isn’t necessarily any healthier, at least if you’re thinking of investing in a console game. In an interview with Gamasutra, Creutz called the Wii “fool’s gold” for third-party game developers.
“The choice here is really between investing for the Xbox 360 and PS3 — since their capabilities are fairly similar — or the Wii,” he said. “I would caution investors and developers that the larger installed base of the Wii is really a bit of a red herring.”
Crueutz goes on to point out that while the 19 million Wiis in North America trounce competing consoles individually, combined sales of the 360 and PS3 actually top 22 million. That represents a larger chunk of the pie for game developers who can more easily port games back and forth from the two systems. Additionally, Creutz notes that Nintendo’s first-party games and the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises account for nearly one-half of all Wii software sales, a far larger percentage than what’s found on the other consoles. Comparatively, the Wii is simply a tougher nut to crack for third-party developers.
Peter Moore, president of enormous third-party game maker EA Sports, echoed Creutz’s concerns while speaking at a recent conference.
“You simply can’t take what you’re doing on the PS3 and Xbox and port – that’s a dirty word – down to the Wii,” he said, insisting that instead you have to build Wii games “from the ground up.”
He’s not the only one at EA with issues. Earlier in the month, an EA producer confessed to having trouble incorporating Nintendo’s upcoming Wii MotionPlus control attachment into its Grand Slam Tennis game, raising questions about when the tech would be ready for consumers. Nintendo answered that by officially announcing a release date only to curiously push back the release of the game they’ve repeatedly used to show off the new technology, surefire smash sequel Wii Sports: Resort.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. NPD Group reports that the Wii again led the way in March 2009, outselling both the 360 and PS3 by a wide margin. Nintendo is also enjoying strong numbers for its newly released DSi handheld, with the company reporting first-week sales of over 600,000 units in the U.S. and Europe. Mario’s checking account won’t run out of funds any time soon.
The question is, will gamers run out of interest? The last two major first-party Wii games, Wii Music and Animal Crossing: City Folk, failed to generate the kind of excitement (and, in turn, sales) that Nintendo is accustomed to, a fact that analyst Ed Barton of Screen Digest believes is a big reason why the Wii is struggling. While older blockbusters like Wii Fit and Mario Kart Wii are still selling well, Barton points out that the company needs new experiences to drive new sales.
Nintendo hopes to deliver exactly that with upcoming high-profile games like the aforementioned Wii Sports sequel and a remake of classic boxing game Punch Out!, but that still leaves plenty of wiggle room for the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 to continue closing the gap. And if Japan is any indication (and it usually is), that gap can disappear in a heartbeat.
So what do you think? Is the Wii destined for a downfall, or is this just a mid-life crisis?
by Ben Silverman