Enter the Family

How the changing demographic of the gamer could loom large for Wii U.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 08/19/2013 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

Wii U Advert Still

In a previous op-ed I argued that Wii U stood at crossroads, with 2014 being the defining moment for the console and perhaps the company. I also argued that Nintendo has sought to position Wii U as something other than a direct competitor with Microsoft and Sony. The first point, I think, is reasonably debatable, since none of us really has a crystal ball. As for the second… well, here’s the president of Nintendo Satoru Iwata, speaking for himself:

“Even when we were going to launch the Wii system, there were a lot of voices saying ‘Nintendo should stop making hardware’,” he says. “The reasoning behind that was Nintendo would not have any chance against Microsoft and Sony. The fact of the matter was: I did not think Nintendo should compete against these companies with the same message and same entertainment options for people.

This, I believe, reflects an evolution for Nintendo with respect to home consoles. The company had learned some hard lessons from Nintendo 64 and lost part of its market share to the upstart PlayStation. GameCube sought to remedy some of those problems while creating a system whose graphical capabilities stacked up favorably to PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Nintendo even tried to compete on the “hardcore” software front, too, bringing in second parties Silicon Knights and Retro to craft the likes of Eternal Darkness and Metroid Prime, respectively, and wooing Capcom to bring in Resident Evil 4.

Despite these efforts, though, GameCube was a distant third in hardware sales in its generation. But the system did have one success: like its predecessor, it was a great family console. Although criticized for looking like a cute purple lunch box, GameCube had a core of great games that could be played by adults and kids alike, particularly along the Mario franchise. Bringing over the four controller port design from N64, a family could easily gather together around the system and play Mario Kart, Mario Party 5, or (depending on your tolerance for a bit of violence) Super Smash Bros. Melee.

GameCube also hinted at Nintendo’s capacity to not directly compete with other systems. Nintendo had to realize through its own data that while few people owned just a GameCube, the purple box was an ideal choice as a second system. I’m sure some gamers out there had only an Xbox and a PlayStation 2, but I knew many more who had one of those two consoles and a GameCube. From a business perspective, and in an era where people own multiple forms of technology, Nintendo had to see this as an opportunity to approach market saturation in a novel way: to get into millions of homes as the complementary system. Nintendo would never say this out loud, of course, but it would certainly shape the way they strategically marketed their consoles.

In fact, I have to wonder if it has. For better or worse, the themes of family and non-competition continues to be the resonant theme with Nintendo consoles. Wii and Wii U have lineups loaded with family appeal. They have lower graphical specs compared to their generational counterparts, which marginalizes them among the hardcore crowd but also gives Wii and Wii U a more attractive price point for families. The systems have controllers so easy to use even my five year old daughter and my wife’s octogenarian grandparents can decipher them.

And they are loaded with family games. Granted, Nintendo and third parties will throw hardcore gamers the occasional bone (which may or may not sell), but most of the titles are designed to be kid and familiy-friendly. This doesn’t mean the games are bad: many of Nintendo’s own titles are still quite awesome, and some, like Super Mario Galaxy, have elements that are steeply difficult. The fact remains, though, that Nintendo puts out very little M-rated content and not even all that much T-rated content. Third parties, seeing the money, have followed suit, fleshing out games that let grandpa bowl, mom do cardio, and everyone play New Super Mario Bros. Wii or its current incarnation on Wii U.

This has all been a bit irritating for core gamers, especially when it seemed Nintendo was going to purposely refuse to publish some prime hardcore titles. Nevertheless, it has crafted a reputation for Nintendo that, if not always sexy, has been successful: namely, that Nintendo consoles not only put out some high-quality games, but they are safe for people with children to keep in their living rooms.

I was recently reminded of this when a friend of mine asked me for my opinion on Wii U. He is an avid PC gamer whose interests run the gamut, but he was interested in a Wii U because he wanted something “family friendly” he could play with his gradeschool and preschool-aged children. He epitomizes Nintendo’s gamble that hardcore gamers with families will see Nintendo as the go-to console for their own children, even if they already have one of the “hardcore” systems like Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or in my friend’s case, a high-end gaming PC.

And let’s face it– more and more hardcore gamers now have families. Depending on the methodology, the average gamer is somewhere between 30 and 37 years old. Many of the kids who grew up on NES and SNES years ago are now fathers and mothers with sons and daughters. Even the unmarried among them are liable to find themselves drafted into the ranks of unclehood and aunthood, either by blood or through friendship. That’s what happens when people get older.

In the end, I’m not sure the hardcore gamer will be the pivotal factor in Wii U’s fate. Don’t get me wrong, they won’t be a non-factor, and Nintendo’s fanbase needs at least a bit of core service to keep engaged, but it will be Wii U’s ability to replicate Wii’s broad cross-generational appeal– including lifelong gamers and their families– and sustain that with genuinely good games that will be key to Wii U being a fixture in living rooms down the road.

Even if it ends up being the perennial second console.

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