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Wii U: Half-Step or Jump Start?

Steve Watts | 4 Dec 2012 18:00
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The Wii U launched into the long shadow of impending console generations. While Microsoft and Sony have not made any formal announcements, many analysts and industry-watchers are expecting to hear word on the next generation sometime next year. We've even heard some purportedly leaked (and predictably impressive) specifications for the new systems. When they launch, Nintendo's latest console will be comparatively underpowered. Whether a half-step late by today's standards or a half-step early by tomorrow's, the company seems destined to find itself in an awkward position at this time next year.

After waiting an unprecedented period for another generation of consoles, the market seems primed for something shiny and new.

"Nintendo has always operated at their own pace," said Jesse Divnich, an analyst at Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR). "They decide the timing of their releases - not their competitors, and in some cases not even to the demands of the market."

Those demands can be fickle. After waiting an unprecedented period for another generation of consoles, the market seems primed for something shiny and new. But this isn't the first time a company has positioned itself between generations. It's not even the first time Nintendo has done it. By learning from the history of its own systems and those of its competitors, Nintendo can start to form a healthy blueprint for how to make sure the Wii U doesn't suffer from the pitfalls of its predecessors.

The industry started to take shape in the 8-bit era, as the concept of generational hardware began to form. Nintendo broke onto the scene in this period, as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) competed against Sega's Master System. But NEC's TurboGrafx-16 took a head start, making a small jump past both technologies before Nintendo could introduce its Super NES or Sega could launch the Genesis. It was the first significant example of console half-steps. Despite its relative power, though, the TG-16 failed to gain a foothold in North America.

"TG-16 just never had Western or third-party support, I think the only reason Genesis took off was lots and lots of marketing dollars," said game historian and Gamasutra editor Frank Cifaldi. "It looked fresh, it looked just like arcades, it just didn't have any marketing muscle or software support."

Third-parties are the lifeblood of a console, and have historically been a struggle for Nintendo to capture. It's too early to say for sure if the Wii U will gain third-party support, but it does have the advantage of matching its competitors - at least for the time being. Nintendo was very frank in its intentions to capture existing franchises, and we've already seen that strategy showing from ports of games like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 and Assassin's Creed 3. Meanwhile, marketing dollars certainly shouldn't be a problem. Nintendo's war chest was estimated at $13.7 billion last year. That number may have been reduced by R&D and other assorted launch costs for the Wii U, but the company still certainly has money to spend if it needs to.

Plus, the TG-16 suffered largely because people were satisfied with their existing gaming options. "People weren't avoiding it waiting for the next big thing, they were avoiding it because they had Nintendo already," said Cifaldi. "I don't think the Wii U has that problem. I think people are ready for a new console. It's been pretty much the longest cycle ever." On the other hand, he says the Wii U feels like a "spinoff" and wonders if people will see it as "the next big thing."

Divnich similarly noted that both the TG-16 and Sega's Dreamcast "tried to compete with the core gaming market where there already existed clear market leaders." The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 already have captured the core market, which seems likely to balk at the idea of buying Batman: Arkham City again just to play with its second-screen functionality. Simply offering equivalent experiences won't be enough.

As Cifaldi noted, the Dreamcast's main obstacle wasn't its competitors at launch, but rather a system that hadn't yet been released. "Dreamcast had this huge PlayStation 2-shaped shadow over it," he said. "Everyone was waiting for PS2, just as 'hardcore' gamers are all waiting for the Durango and Orbis." Those two code names allegedly belong to the next Xbox and PlayStation system, respectively.

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