The twin launch announcements for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were clearly highlights of E3 this year, and the noise surrounding those platforms has overwhelmed the future prospects for Nintendo's Wii U. Just three weeks before the company presents the results for the first quarter of its fiscal year, the situation is looking ever more grim.
The Wii U's problem is twofold: Both hardware and software sales are failing to gain traction. Nintendo has seen not only its hardware and software sales sag in the past few months, but also its prospects for new software, especially from third party publishers. Without any visible catalyst for a turnaround right now, the Wii U faces a short, unhappy life as a stunted platform, one known for exceptional Nintendo-branded software and little else.
To get an idea of just how exceptional the Wii U is, relative to historical precedent, let's look at a few data points. First, let's look at the installed hardware base in the U.S. compared to the figures from last generation's consoles.
I could have added one more generation back, with the PlayStation 2 and GameCube and Xbox, and the basic picture would not have changed. Even the GameCube, considered a bit of a black sheep here in the U.S., had sales of 1.6 million systems by the comparable point in its lifetime.
In terms of software, the lack of a stronger installed base is profoundly hobbling sales.
According to my estimates, the Wii U has sold $130-$140 million in software at retail in the U.S. since it launched last November. That would mean that each Wii U owner in America has purchased an average of fewer than three software titles since launch. At comparable times after launch, the Xbox 360 had moved approximately 4.5 titles per console while the Wii had moved just over three titles. The closest comparison is the PlayStation 3, whose tie ratio in the summer of 2007 was approximately the same as the Wii U has now.
On top of this, Nintendo's own software is surely responsible for a great deal of the software sold. It's possible that nearly 20 percent of the Wii U software sold so far was New Super Mario Bros. U
. That means that the revenue and unit figures for third party titles on the Wii U are even lower than the figures above suggest.
We can get an upper bound on how many units of software the average Wii U game has moved. Assume that total Wii U retail software is around $140 million (an overestimate), and deduct a very conservative $25 million contributed by New Super Mario Bros. U
sales. That leaves $115 million for all the other titles on the market. Through May of this year there were 47 other Wii U titles on the market, and that works out to an average of $2.4 million per title or 56,000 units sold at retail for $45.
That's using figures at every step that are optimistic for Nintendo, in the sense that I believe these are upper limits for average units per title. The real values, I suspect, are lower – perhaps 10 percent lower. (To generate more revenue per title than I've listed above, the average price would have to go up and the units would come down. You can't have them both high.)
The historical data I have available suggests that the Xbox 360, as an example, had average software sales of over 200,000 units and $10 million per title at the same point in its lifetime. Given the larger install base of the PlayStation 3 at the end of May 2007, after seven months on the market, it also appears to have had significantly higher unit sales and revenue per software title than the Wii U currently has.
In other words, by the most recent console precedents, the Wii U is far out of the norm.
That explains a lot, including recent comments from Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot
, that ZombiU
, a key Wii U launch title, wasn't profitable – not even close – and that a sequel is neither planned nor even desired.
Of course, there is a huge asterisk beside all of the Wii U software figures, since it is the first major console to launch with a majority of its retail software titles also launching simultaneously on the system's digital download service. So the final Wii U software figures (units and revenue) are surely higher than what I've said above, but I doubt that the difference is enough to make the Wii U competitive with the volume of sales seen when the Xbox 360 and PS3 launched.
The digital front is one where Nintendo has stepped up recently, as shown by the figure below. (Hybrid releases are those that appear both on the eShop and at retail.) The majority of eShop releases in the past few weeks have been emulations of games on older systems, but Nintendo has also pushed out some titles like Mutant Mudds
and Zen Pinball
The figure above makes clear just how painful the drought of retail software in the first half of 2013 has been for the Wii U: There were only 12 total releases. In the entire month of July, the Wii U release list is just two movie tie-in games. In August, things will get better, and through the end of the year there are lots of games to look forward to. However, I remain dubious on how well Nintendo is doing at convincing third parties to stick with the Wii U past the end of this year.
For example, the lack of Madden NFL 25
this year is a tremendous black eye for the platform. EA's Frank Gibeau told Joystiq
that his company would increase support for the Wii U when “it becomes a viable platform from an audience standpoint.” Outside of the U.S. the loss of a Wii U version of FIFA 14
will be just as painful.
On the other hand, several other key third parties are still putting out software for Nintendo's console. For example, Ubisoft still has Splinter Cell: Blacklist
, Just Dance 2014
, and Assassin's Creed 4
all slated for the Wii U this year. Disney is putting its movie and TV games on the Wii U, like Planes
and Phineas and Ferb
, but has also gone all-in with Disney Infinity
in August. And then there are titles from Warner Bros. like Scribblenauts Unmasked
and LEGO Marvel Super Heroes
But where are the titles beyond this year? Where is Tom Clancy's The Division
, from Ubisoft? Where is Mad Max
from Warner? In fact, with the transcript of the recent Q&A that shareholders had with Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, the company posted the following slide to accompany a question about concerns for third-party support.
Not a single 2014 title in sight, and as far as I know practically no important third-party titles are yet announced for the Wii U past the end of 2013. The company has taken responsibility for the state of sales so far, with Iwata saying clearly that they are “to blame” for the poor state of Wii U sales
. But Iwata also just told shareholders
that publishers without “concrete plans to develop Wii U software” will “swiftly change their minds when they see the successful examples from others.”
Frankly, that seems optimistic nearly to the point of delusional. Those third-party games that are announced for the Wii U were probably planned over a year ago, long before the reality of Wii U sales became apparent. And over the next twelve months every one of those publishers will also be caring for their Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles, since that will be the focus through the launch and first half of 2014.
When is this turning point that developers and publishers are going to look backward to the Wii U? Who is going to make them take notice?
Nintendo had its chance, a whole year without even a rival platform named, much less announced. By their own admission
, they still have “been unsuccessful in coming up with one single software with which people can understand” what makes the Wii U different and desirable. And, honestly, eight years into the Xbox 360 lifetime is a bit late to realize the scale required to develop for modern HD consoles
Hopefully Nintendo will begin to clear this up when it holds its first quarter briefing at the end of this month. Stay tuned.