Consider this an addendum to my last post about Yooka-Laylee being cancelled for the Wii U.
I said in it two things that I think need clarification; the first being that the Wii U is effectively dead in the water, which I don’t think in itself is a controversial statement. The second was that Nintendo, as a company, was eager to shift development of a variety of games towards the Switch, largely to maximise Switch sales and third-party profit margins but also to effectively close the casket on the Wii U as an actual piece of hardware, something which is harder to do when you still have games in the wings waiting to be released on the console in question.
On the first – no, it’s not controversial to suggest the Wii U, as a console, is now effectively dead. Nintendo themselves have been limiting the amount of games launched on the platform this year, with very little of any actual note gaining any real traction in the market. Virtual Console games too have been surprisingly light on the ground, and then you have the confirmation that all Wii U console production has now ceased. What is left on the market, and in warehouses, is effectively all there is now. With an estimated 14 million units sold across four years – with close to three million of those in the first month or so of launch – it’s statistically Nintendo’s worst-selling home console to date, and one of the worst selling home consoles ever released to market.
And from what I understand, much of this has to do with Nintendo themselves. You see, for all the talk about Nintendo hardware, the consoles were never that difficult to develop games for – the Wii, for all its lack of power, was still a simple beast to understand and much of the nonsensical complication with its software was not because of any significant console hardware limitation, but rather the Wii Remote itself. A device which was unique in its setup and lacking the kind of button formation that developers and gamers had grown accustomed to, the Wii Remote had certain strengths – as seen in Metroid Prime Trilogy and Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition, where the controls were simple, functional and surprisingly accurate to the point of dramatically improving gameplay. It also had notable limitations, as was evidenced in a multitude of RPG titles and fighting games where one needed a more traditional, basic controller setup.
The Wii U, from what we’ve gleaned over the years, is not a simple beast. It is, in actuality, quite complex and whilst few have said exactly why this is, my grasp of technological barriers is solid enough that I can once again wheel out the Wii U Gamepad, or U-Pad, as a likely cause of potential problems.
You see, the Gamepad had some of its own hardware innards, but it is primarily a display and output device. To run and render two concurrent images, the brunt of that is being done by the console unit on its own back – rendering two distinct images, sending signals to the TV and to the Gamepad, and receiving a signal back from the Gamepad and its touchscreen. In hardware terms, this is akin to rubbing your belly and the top of your head whilst trying to recite the alphabet backwards. It’s quite the undertaking – and considering that it got any games at all with this is quite impressive, let alone games of the quality it has got like Splatoon, or Hyrule Warriors, or Super Mario 3D World. Like the Kinect before it, this complex design likely consumed system resources that otherwise would have – and perhaps should have – been utilised for the video games themselves.
Unlike Microsoft, however, Nintendo didn’t backpedal on the Gamepad; they effectively continued to double down, even when the likes of EA, UbiSoft and Capcom were running away as fast as they could from the hardware. If the hardware setup was complex, then the software engineering required to utilise the system to its fullest must have been immense. Now, I’m not going to let EA or UbiSoft off the hook here – it’s their job to make games, after all, and the Wii U has been an open market for a long time. But to defend them – it likely needed more time and money than they were willing to spend actively making proper use of the hardware. This is fine for a bunch of 2D games, or simple games which don’t require much actual hardware power (see Minecraft). But the more complex the game, the more complex and intricate the software code needs to be, and there’s a tipping point when it’s just not fiscally viable to support a platform.
My assumption is that the Wii U Gamepad, itself, as a component of the Wii U, was fundamentally the Achilles Heel of the Wii U.
And it’s not as if Nintendo was not aware of the complications of a multi-screen layout on such limited hardware. The Nintendo 3DS had launched before the Wii U, and it too had similar problems. Whilst the DS was simple enough to grasp and develop for, Nintendo’s gambit with glasses-free Stereoscopic 3D images required a three-screen design. The 3D screen at the top requires two distinct images on two layers of screen to be drawn to render to the eye what amounts to a three-dimensional image; and then you also have the machine having to run images on, and receive information from, the touchscreen at the bottom. After a while, there were distinct murmurings from the development community that Nintendo should no longer force 3DS games to utilise the 3D – arguing, likely rightly, that such a thing was consuming system resources and making development harder in the long term for them. And since, many indie games have neglected the 3D aspect.
It’s easy to say that Nintendo could have dropped the Gamepad and just started shifting Wii U consoles with a basic Pro Controller to fix the issue. But then the Unique Selling Point of the Wii U would be lost; Nintendo, for good and for bad, will ride an idea or a concept as far as it will go and sadly for the Gamepad and the Wii U itself, this kind of backfired on them. Too complex, too unwieldy and too much for developers and publishers to handle, it’s no real surprise that the Wii U was abandoned so wholesale by the industry. With the Switch getting such strong support – and the Switch going back to a more typical design format (though with the Hybrid quirk which actually makes a lot of sense for a company whose success has largely been in handheld consoles the last thirty years), I’m guessing that the industry is coming back because, ultimately, Nintendo learned their lesson from the Wii U. They didn’t abandon the Wii U because Nintendoomed or anything like that – hell, many companies made Gamecube games despite its inherent limitations and limited sales, after all (and EA supported the NGage to the bitter end). They did it because it was too much, too complex, and to remind Nintendo that simplicity is where it shines. The Wii U was not simple… and it suffered for it. It could have had more power, but that would have meant little if it remained such an unwieldy beast to work with. Ask Sony how that worked out for the PlayStation 3… no do, I enjoy a few Sony-related tears from time to time. Mmm. Salty.
So, having said my piece on that (whew), the second clarification.
Nintendo does seem to have been shifting development of its own games quietly to the Nintendo Switch the last eighteen months – and one might even suggest before that too. But in the wake of the Yooka-Laylee thing, I took the time to go to the source – the Playtonic Forums – where AndyR, Site Admin, talked about the decision to cancel the Wii U version of the game. And I quote;
We’re all huge Nintendo fans here with a big Nintendo heritage, so of course we’re disappointed and now want to do our best to make sure fans on Nintendo platforms are looked after the best they can be. We’re working very closely with Nintendo on Switch and hopefully, in the long run, we’ll do Nintendo fans proud.
The post iterates also a bit of what I said about the hardware setup – “We spent many months trying to overcome very unusual technical difficulties that sadly eventually proved impossible to overcome.” – but the bit in bold is what I noticed almost immediately. They’re working very closely with Nintendo on the Switch… does that mean they have a Switch devkit? Nintendo is in active communication with them, has known about the difficulties with the Wii U version and… they still cancelled the Wii U version?
Don’t misunderstand – I still believe that Playtonic Games let the PC version get ahead of them over the Wii U version (a bad idea when we’ve already established that the Wii U is a complex and unwieldy beast that needs special treatment at all times), and that’s on them. However, it also suggests that Nintendo themselves have likely concluded, alongside Playtonic, that the Wii U cannot functionally run the game they have made and have… ahem… ‘encouraged’ the shift to Switch development, likely to the point of giving this small indie team of ex-Rare employees a Switch devkit in order to facilitate the transition. In short – Nintendo knows, and has made peace with it.
And it’s not the only project; The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could have been out by now – or very soon – but Nintendo themselves are waiting to co-release both Switch and Wii U versions, likely and correctly assuming that the majority of new Switch buyers will invariably buy the new Zelda game to go with it. Nintendo has waited with arguably its biggest and most anticipated game in years not to shift the last dregs of Wii U stock, but to shift new Switch stock. Nintendo itself knows the Wii U is dead and sure, the Wii U version is still there (and will still be released). But Nintendo knows the new Zelda is more likely to shift new consoles – which they learned when they did a similar thing with Twilight Princess, where the Wii version outsold the Gamecube version by quite a margin. It’s not their strongest console seller – but for many, it is a big enough deal that they’ll buy a new console for it.
When Nintendo showcases the Switch line-up on January 12th/13th (depending on your timezone), keep an eye out for things like Donkey Kong and Metroid, Wave Race and F-Zero. I’d put good money that some of these games were absolutely in the pipeline for the Wii U; but have, quietly, been transitioned to the Switch. Because Nintendo hopes to equal or better 3DS sales of 60+ million with this device… rather than limit to 14 million Wii U owners (also why Nintendo pushed Federation Force on the 3DS; it wasn’t personal, it’s just where the market was).
Nintendo knows – and has known for some time – the Wii U is dead. And it’s been waiting a good eighteen months, almost two years from Iwata’s original revelation of the “NX”, to finally close the lid on the Wii U’s coffin. Nintendo wants to move on.
And it’s fair to say we should all accept this and move on too. I lament the Wii U – it was a difficult console, and not always easy to love. But it was certainly special and unique in what it did, and it has laid the groundwork for the Switch.
I am letting go. But don’t think for a second I’m going to go easy on the Switch – Nintendo has got a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it…