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Designing the Wii U
by Jools Watsham on 04/26/13 03:58:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[Original Post]

I love Nintendo. I really do. In my opinion, they have the best understanding of game design in the industry. By that, I mean the nuts and bolts type of game design that delves into the nuances of visual communication, psychology, and many other aspects that are not always readily apparent to the player. I would go as far to say they are masters of it.

With this in mind, how did Nintendo make so many missteps with the launch of the Wii U? I have already stated that I love Nintendo, so it pains me to see them make so many seemingly obvious blunders. Especially when they are some of the same blunders they’ve been guilty of in the past. But, I would like to look at one of the new mistakes Nintendo has made with the Wii U.

Putting the lack of Wii U killer-apps aside, how did Nintendo fail to communicate what the Wii U is to the public? This, honestly, blows my mind. In a recent explanation session Mr. Iwata had with investors he admitted that, “Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii. We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product.”

I realize that the game development team is different than the hardware design team, but perhaps they need to cross-pollinate a bit. I understand how they wanted to keep the “Wii” brand and so decided upon the name, Wii U. It may not have been the best idea, but it has logic behind it. The visual design of the console itself, however, has no excuse. The Wii U is essentially a smoother looking version of the Wii – and that is only apparent if you’re really paying attention. At a quick glance, most people could easily mistake a Wii U for a Wii.

This is something the game development group would have avoided. Let’s take the New Super Mario Bros. games, for example. They contain some new power-ups. Even when a new power-up is a variation on an existing theme, it presents itself clearly as something new and different.

 

Fire Flower

 

Gold Flower

The new Gold Flower communicates that it is related somehow to the Fire Flower. However, it also makes it very clear that the Gold Flower has unique properties.

Let’s pretend we’re designing the Wii U visual design for a second. Considering the Wii U is a completely new console, and not just a variation on the Wii, you would think a logical conclusion would be to make sure the audience realizes it is a brand new console – especially considering how peripheral-happy the Wii era was. OK, we’ve decided to call our new console Wii U, which is already a little dicey, but we should be able to make this work, right? Afterall, we managed to communicate that sometimes things can produce dramatically different results with mushrooms.

 

Mini Mushroom

 

Mega Mushroom


If we look at the way in which the game development department chose to communicate the differences between the flower and the mushroom power-ups we can see that both size and color can be used to dramatic effect.

So, with this in mind it baffles me that Nintendo did not radically redesign the Wii in some way to help communicate that the Wii U is not just a GamePad peripheral for the Wii. When you look at the previous consoles in Nintendo’s history, you can see they are not afraid of being adventurous. Both the Nintendo 64 and GameCube were very unique designs.

Even if there were 100 great reasons to go with the simple design of the Wii U, in spite of it looking practically identical to the Wii, you would at least assume then color could be used to differentiate it from the Wii. Perhaps one of these could have worked...

 

Toy Blue

 

Trendy Green

 

Executive Silver / Gray


I have faith that Nintendo will get the Wii U back on track with the amazing line up of games they have planned for this year, but perhaps some of the heart-ache could have been avoided by looking at their game design team for inspiration and direction.


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Comments


Chris Hendricks
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That's an interesting take on it. It occurs to me that this is the first time Nintendo has put out a console that is so similar to the previous ones:

- It's only the second console with backwards compatibility.
- It's the first console that uses a similar-looking storage medium (the discs both look like DVDs, rather than the previous mini-disc and cartridges)
- It uses the previous gen controller as a major part of its design. (The GameCube controller had limited use on the Wii.)

I wonder if Nintendo kind of fooled itself into thinking it was just making an upgraded version of the same console, and it got reflected in the design and presentation of the device.

Benjamin Quintero
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If that's the case then they could have just called it Super Wii even. That would have at least told people "oh this is the 'Super' model" which might not be exactly accurate given the drastic difference in hardware but at least people would have seen it the next iteration of the Wii brand. The "U" is just dumb and confusing, still.

I think it's probably too late to rebrand it now. They will just have to make lemonade out of lemons for the next 5 or 6 years until they can justify another console release.

Chris Clogg
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Yeah I think a big blunder was even calling it the Wii-U. It makes your brain keep thinking that it's just a peripheral for the Wii, not a new console that should rock the world.

Nick McKergow
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Omg, I would buy a toy blue Wii U in a second. I don't think many other people would though.

Nick Harris
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Nintendo should have called the Wii the Mii and the Wii U the Wii.

Mii - "me" - it captures my motion with wand & nunchuck

Wii - "we" - new support for 'asymetrical gameplay' - i.e. cooperative play on TV & Pad

Greg Bemis
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I don't know for sure if this was what Nintendo was thinking with the name, but I kind of figured "Wii U" was meant to illustrate the push towards asymetrical gameplay showcased in Nintendoland and ZombieU.

Wii versus U.

Still, the fact that no one really understands the name proves that there is a serious problem here.

Ryan Leonski
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I don't think the design is too much of the problem, I believe its the communication with PR and advertising that failed. Let's take a look at a company that has many products that may look similar but are able to differentiate their products effectively. Apple.

Apple recently came out with the retina display mac book pro. To a consumer they will just call it a mac book pro but when they describe it to someone who asks they will bring up the major features of it being thinner and with a fancy new high resolution screen. Apple drove these two points to the consumer with effective advertising. You could also say this between the original iPad and iPad 2 (or pretty much any other iPad but these have the major differences) where they let the consumer know it was thinner, faster, and now had the addition of cameras. They even threw in a gyroscope in the upgrade but this was not as big of a selling point but still marketed to a point.

I know many people are saying that Nintendo needs to do port their games to mobile and that will help them in the market of consoles but I personally do not hold that view. They need to take note of their competition with their relations to third parties and be able to drive an effective message with their ad campaigns that serve their console and software, both first and third parties. Third party exclusives are a must and the indie scene is growing so make it easy to develop for.

These are all problems that Nintendo has had in the past though and they are slow to change in terms of business strategy.

Melanie Struthers
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I do agree that this is something that Nintendo can and should do. But they have to go one step further. A reason why Apple's simple and clear explanations in their ads are effective is that those consumers are very much familiar with smartphones, tablets and laptops. Those are products that they are knowledgeable about and consume more regularly than gaming consoles.

The expanded audience that Nintendo seeks to sell to needs an added motivation to purchase a Wii U other than a simple, sleek differentiation from the Wii. Such motivation already exists or is more easily cultivated when considering a smartphone, tablet or laptop purchase.

Ian Fisch
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I think your suggestion is great. The color change seems like such an obvious good idea.

Also, why not just call it the Wii 2?

Michael Kolb
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Exactly how I felt when Nintendo revealed Wii U at the previous E3. I was like why not call it Wii 2 and not have such the confusion from even gamers.

Don't think the color thing would suffice because systems get different colors all the time so people would still think it's a Wii, just green.

Sean Francis-Lyon
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I was guessing it would be the "Wii Too" before they announced the name

Eric Schwarz
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I think the Wii U's retail failing is less a problem with its design and more with the market it was targeted towards. The Wii was a fad, plain and simple, and getting lightning to strike twice would be near-impossible given that so few of the people who bought Wiis really fit into the gaming demographic to begin with.

Furthermore, putting out a console whose main differentiating factor is basically an ugly-looking tablet doesn't do much to inspire confidence when people are now buying iPads and other sleeker devices by the truckload. If there is a design problem, it really comes down to the clunkiness of the Wii U gamepad itself, and the fact that it comes across as your little brother's toy tablet instead of something intended for adults.

Ian Uniacke
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I can only speak from personal experience in confirming that it is a common misconception that the wii u is a peripheral and not a new console. Even from some mid core gamers. Even after you tell them that it's a new console.

Phil Maxey
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I find it very odd all the "mystery" surrounding the Wii U's failing at retail. The reasons are obvious.

1) They released a supposedly "next gen" console which has games that look like current gen games (whether technically they are or not is not the point, that's how they look).

2) They released it for a high price (compared to current consoles).

3) They released it a year before new MS/Sony machines were to be launched, meaning that most people will just wait for the new MS/Sony consoles.

4) They launched it without most of their major game franchises.

5) They launched a machine that is perceived to be (rightly or wrongly) not one thing or another, it's not a full blown tablet but looks like one. This confusion over exactly what it's main selling point is, I think is one of it's biggest problems. People knew what was different about the Wii, it was clear, the Wii U not so much.

6) They didn't seem to realise that their main competitor was mobile, i'e Apple and Google, not MS/Sony anymore.

So again, the way forward is to drop the price drastically and get all their major games out as soon as possible, together with their next console being a true console/tablet.

If they dropped the price to $199, bundled with Mario Kart I'm sure it will sell fine, but as things are people are just going to put that $300 towards a new MS/Sony console.

warren blyth
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I only agree with #5.

1) I don't think John Q. Public knows what WiiU games look like, or that PS4's press conference (or unreal tech demos) showed a slightly higher res to be coming soon.
2) if it was the new hot thing, then costing about $100 more than current things isn't that high. (i think the problem is their ability to convince the public it's hot new thing - not the price)
3) only hardcore gamers are aware of timelines for next gen systems. Nintendo doesn't fail if they they don't steal every single xbox360 and ps3 gamer away - they fail if they can't convince even half of the current Wii install base to upgrade.
4) They launched with a new mario game. (and they had several top franchises, from Asscreed3 to CallofDuty to JustDance)
6) i think they HAVE TO refuse to compete with apple and android. they can't win that one. Their play is to settle in, and offer their much loved franchises on a system you can't get anywhere else - with a gameplay innovation you're excited about to draw you in.

i think "a gameplay innovation you're excited about" is the only place they failed.

And there are plenty of people noting ways in which the gamepad offers novel gameplay. So Nintendo just totally fumbled spreading this key core message.

Phil Maxey
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@Warren

1) The public follow certain influencers, whether it be the national press or games industry press, and you don't see those influencers shouting from the rooftops about how ground breaking or "next gen" the Wii U is.

2) The price is a huge problem, especially when taking into conjunction with everything else. People already have consoles that give them great games with great graphics, games on these consoles are $40-$60. They look at the Wii U and don't see anything which looks that different to what they are have, then they see the price and that seals the deal, i'e no purchase. If however it was cheaper then a lot cheaper people might be willing to take a risk.

3) Who are the Wii users? where are they? I would suggest there are practically none anymore, at least not in the sense that the Wii is the main device they play games on, I suspect if you asked that group what device they play games on these days, it would probably be 1) Mobile 2) Facebook 3)Xbox 4)3DS/Vita.

4) Yes, but you know what franchises I'm referring to. The games they have and do better then everyone else.

6) Refuse to compete? you're joking right? They have no choice in the matter, it's the public that decide that, and Nintendo's audience who were usually the more casual gamer have all gone to other formats/platforms. It's not a question of winning against Apple/Google it's a question of keeping their audience or drawing them back.

You often hear that when something goes wrong, "It's not the product/service that has failed just the msg about how great it is!".

Stephen Shores
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I think Phil M. nailed it above. 'Wii U' is a stupid name, it's underpowered, and there are no must-have titles yet. As for myself, I'll skip this console and wait for Nintendo to (hopefully) get their act together on the next one. In the meantime, if I get a console, it'll be Microsoft or Sony.

Craudimir Ascorno
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The problem with Wii U is that it can't replicate the environment that made Wii a success. Wii succeeded not because gamers suddenly discovered how Nintendo games are brilliant, but because its low price compared to the new Microsoft and Sony consoles, and the novelty of the motion sensing controllers made the consumers see a product with a high-value in the new Nintendo console. The lack of power was compensated by a new way of playing games, and its low price left the consumer with the decision of buying a Wii or not regardless if he or she would buy a XBox 360 or a Playstation 3 as well.

Wii U has nothing of that. Despite all the attempts of Nintendo marketing the Wii U gamepad, it failed to convince the consumers that playing games with a tablet in your hands provide a great benefit to the gaming experience. Besides, it is not cheap for an underpowered console, and soon all the third-part support will vanish. Nintendo has to find a way to convince the consumers that Wii U has a value on its own, otherwise people will either stick to their Wiis for casual games with motion sensor controllers or will move to Sony and Microsoft new consoles for something different.

warren blyth
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I think it will be interesting to see if WiiU struggles to come into it's own right up UNTIL when the next gen consoles finally come out. Because that would be a good time to drop the WiiU price, yes? At that point, i kind of guess we'll see WiiU hitting it's stride with a good library of unique games, while the other systems are struggling with high price points, launch probs, and low select of games.

- I think you make a good point that as of today: WiiU doesn't offer more value than current gen systems, yet costs a lot more than them. (it seems like Nintendo doesn't think they're competing with current gen systems. like they think they're competing with next gen sysems that haven't come out yet).

- I think the gamepad does in fact offer exciting new novelty and unprecedented gameplay, but they've sure failed to explain it to the general public. so far.

John Gordon
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I totally agree about calling it a Wii 2, but I think there is a more important underlying reason why the Wii U has not been taking off.

People buy new consoles to play exciting new types of games. People bought a generation 5 console, because they had never experienced anything like Final Fantasy 7 or Ocarina of Time. People bought a PS2, because GTA was exciting and unlike anything that had come before. People bought the Wii, because Wii Sports looked so fun and was unlike anything that had come before.

The "unique" game on the Wii U is Nintendoland, and it is not exciting people at all. The new Mario game is more interesting to consumers, but you can look at it and think, "they could have just made this for the Wii." It the end it is hard for anyone to justify the purchase of this new console.

That is why I also expect the next Sony and Microsoft consoles to have disappointing sales. HD graphics and engaging online gameplay were last generation's selling points. I don't expect these new consoles to sell unless they can release a game that looks completely new. Instead the console games look like they are becoming more and more conservative in their designs.

Eric Pobirs
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I don't think the problem is failed marketing here. It isn't that Nintendo has failed to get the story out. It's that Nintendo has failed to obscure the reality. They could have named it 'New Super Wii 2 HD: Blood Avenger' and the situation would scarcely be any different.

The Wii U is a rehash of a rehash. That isn't necessarily cause for failure. The arc of the GameCube to the Wii U can seen as very similar to that of the common PC, a device that continues to sell vast numbers, although it finally has real competition for marketshare from smartphones and tablets. The problem for the Wii U is it feels like it is playing catch-up rather than breaking new ground as they did with the Wii.

The Wii motion controller started out as an add-on device for the GameCube. Nintendo assessed the situation and saw there was a lot that needed improving on the GameCube if it were to grab more market share but it was getting late in the generation and all of this was better done as a new platform rather than enhancements to an existing platform. This also meant they could use the already scheduled die shrink, which otherwise would have been used solely for cost reduction, to add some RAM and bump up the clock rate. This more than compensated for the added overhead the motion controller added to processing requirements. Add in some formerly optional communications functionality, a lot more firmware capacity and internal storage, and you've got a new machine built around the old one.

If this were pitched as a more powerful GameCube it would have been a loser. But it wasn't. Marketing centered around the new input method, which was new to most people. The added benefit to developers of working with an improved version of a machine they already knew well was of value too but not something to be touted to the public. The motion controller didn't really work very well and few developers used them well but Nintendo had something new and different. More importantly, they had something that caught the interest of those outside the demographic the competition dominated.

They had a good ride for a few years but when the end came, it came fast. New unit sales fell off a cliff, those who had bought the console who wouldn't otherwise have gotten a game system unsurprisingly turned out not to be big software shoppers. A large portion of them never bought anything beyond the bundled games and activities. So there was a LOT of second-hand Wiis in the market.

None of this was unexpected to Nintendo, other than the speed of the decline. The next act was in the works but needed to hit the market sooner than originally planned. (I don't have authoritative info on that last item but it would go a long way towards explaining the wretched state of the Wii U firmware.) Once again, Nintendo chose not to compete on processing horsepower and intended to repeat their success with pushing novelty instead.

The only problem was that they didn't have a novelty to offer. Instead they had the GamePad, a combination of their own DS product and the Apple iPad and its would-be competitors. It wasn't a bad idea in general but public was already very well acquainted with touchscreens and tablets. Worse, it meant a feature set that could easily replicated by competitors with mere software. It is only software that separates a Sony Vita from solely being a handheld game system and also being a interactive touchscreen for use with the PS3. And as for the Xbox, it comes down to two words: SmartGlass. They haven't pushed it for gaming yet but it's still early days. (If the PS3 and Xbox versions of Rayman Legends use the Vita and SmartGlass respectively to replicate the asymmetric multi-player of the Wii U version, it'll be a big loss for Nintendo in pitching the Wii U.)

Another problem, possibly due to being rushed, is the horrible execution. The Wii U is painfully slow to use outside of the games. The big update I installed a few days ago hasn't changed that significantly. I strongly suspect Nintendo simply doesn't have the right personnel for this level of complex system software. If every Wii U on store shelves were magically updated tot he current firmware, it would eliminated the tedious hug update required before one can do ANYTHING with the system but the firmware would still be awful.

So now I have the Virtual Console on the Wii U. $5 for an NES game? A 128 kilobyte game requires a 24 megabyte download and storage on my console? I could understand that price if it were an HD remake of the original game that required a significant investment but no. This is existing code that just requires an NES emulator for PowerPC, something that has been around for 15 years.

Leaving aside the other problems, the biggest albatross around the Wii U's neck is also its core feature, the GamePad controller. Unlike the Wii, this should have been an optional item. Instead, the base package of the Wii U should have come with a MotionPlus controller, a nunchuk, and a low cost conventional controller that plugged into the Wiimote for its wireless communication with the console. (A transmitter and battery pack to turn it into a standalone wireless controller could be offered as an accessory.) If the price for the GamePad as a separate item in Japan is any indication, Nintendo could have sold the Wii U without the GamePad for around $200 without taking a loss per unit.

That would have gone a long toward making it a frictionless upgrade for existing Wii owners with HDTVs. What would have been lost? Not much. There is scarcely anything on the platform that truly makes the GamePad essential in single player mode. A gimmick at best. Where the potential really appears to lie is in asymmetric multi-player, allowing the GamePad user to act as a Dungeon Master or similar role to the other players. And that should have moved a lot of GamePad add-ons at $100 retail.

Bob Johnson
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Apple doesn't have a problem selling new phones that look like the previous one. They do number them though. And yet customers sometimes don't know the difference unless it is pointed out to them. Still they sell.

They didn't number the latest iPad. They named it the new iPad. Sold like hotcakes.

I would say Nintendo's problem is lack of marketing. I think Nintendo wasn't going to spend to market this thing until they needed too. That is until they could get the price down. Until they had games available for it. In other words until the early adopter phase is over.

That and it isn't attracting the CoD or Madden or Skyrim crowd because that group is less interested in new gaming input methods while power wise the Wii U is the same as the 360 or PS3 that they have and AAA western developers aren't making their games specifically for or to take advantage of the Wii U.

Nintendo also hasn't grabbed the casual customer like they did with the Wii. NintendoLand is no Wii Sports.


warren blyth
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I think you nail a core problem with Watsham's blog post.

IMO, nobody cares what the console looks like. It's just some beast you want to hide out of the way, so it doesn't distract you from what's on the tv.

+ If the gamepad could turn water into wine, nobody would hesitate to buy them for $350. The story would be that so many people were surprised to find their NEWLY PURCHASED gamepad didn't work with their old Wii. Instead the story is nobody will purchase what they thought was a gamepad.

It's true that a lot of people think WiiU is a optional overpriced peripheral for the old Wii - but that's because no commercials are making them shit their pants about how much they need this gamepad thing for cutting edge gameplay revolutions.

I think we game obsessed folk forget that for the majority of consumers: the Wii represented magic. Some sort of cutting edge witchcraft that let you play games without pressing buttons. And the message quickly spread as it launched that "you've gotta try it." I don't hear anyone saying you've gotta try the gamepad.

And i'd argue that Kinect took the magic ball and ran away with it. Now Xbox had the you've gotta try it magic (along with all this other great shit).

I'd say the only way for Nintendo to comeback is trounce the magical promise of kinect. (and to that end, I think biometrics would have been the innovation to pursue, not a single-touch tablet).

Sean Kiley
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Let us play internet games on the tablet, Mozilla U or something. Let us play all VC games for $5 a month. Give us a must have game like xbox had Halo. Thank you.

James Burns
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I don't that the issue here is about hardware power or the console's name. I think there are three key problems for Nintendo:

1) Marketing and communications
2) Design
3) Software

1) There is very little question that Nintendo's marketing efforts for Wii U have not been strong. I think that they needed to be more pervasive, and a lot more unique - they needed to accurately convey exactly what the Wii U is. This task is definitely made more difficult partly due to the legacy of the original Wii, and partly because the Wii U's design is naturally subtler. That is, the Wii Remote is obviously different. It's obviously a seachange in design. Without even explaining it, one can look at the Wii Remote and get a sense of how it might be used and how it might be different.

The Wii U GamePad just can't, by definition, achieve the same kind of immediate recognition or spark of imagination. We are all now very accustomed to touch screen devices, so the screen on the controller is not fundamentally new.

The "new new" elements - the stuff we really haven't seen before in a mainstream way - are inherently tougher to communicate to audiences, especially non-gamer or "casual" audiences who don't have the same level of natural engagement with this industry. Conveying asymmetrical gameplay, or the idea of detatching from the TV - these are actually fantastic and clever concepts, but they are very hard to effectively communicate, especially in a 30 second TV spot.

And then this leads into...

2) I agree with the original blog post about design. Part of the issue is that there is an industrial design problem, in my view.

For starters, the Wii U console and GamePad could have been designed completely differently. Even with cheaper materials, the GamePad should feel more like an iPad or Surface, I think - not in terms of shape, but in terms of colours and materials. For instance, a glossy black front combined with a brushed-aluminium rear (or perhaps faux brushed aluminium) might be a way to start thinking about it (not suggesting for a moment that this is the solution though).

The console suffers from a bigger problem, in that it's terribly non-descript. It really does look just like a bulbous Wii. It doesn't look new, or different, or even interesting. And it doesn't feature prominently enough in TV commercials and other visual advertising. Nintendo could have done a better job in this department, and I think it would make a difference.

3) The software just isn't there. The best example Nintendo has of a differentiator - a piece of software that showcases Wii U - is Nintendo Land. Nintendo Land is not bad by any measure, but it's not great. It's not WiiSports on the one hand, and on the other hand it's not a Mario or Zelda. It's stuck somewhere in the middle. It's somewhat convoluted, in the same way that the Wii U appears to be (appears to be but perhaps isn't in reality).

And then you've got something like New Super Mario Bros. Wii U - great game, but perhaps not the best launch title.

The only game that really got close to being a truly "next generation" differentiator for Nintendo here is ZombiU, and that speaks more to the weakness of Nintendo's approach rather than to ZombiU's inherent strength as a key product.

These problems are compounded by the incredibly dry "launch period". It's too dry. The gap is too large. Pikmin 3 will be a fantastic title, I have no doubt - but it's not a game that will significantly change the present situation.

Within this realm of software I'd also include the highly-uninspiring Wii U OS. Miiverse is actually brilliant and has the potential to be a huge, huge gamechanger. But the initial design of the OS - the initial slowness of it especially - is like a chain around Nintendo's neck. It drags everything backwards, despite the genuinely great ideas embedded within.

I think that Nintendo really need to think more carefully about this kind of functionality and the interface design more generally. It needs to be sharper, quicker, and dare it say it - slicker. It actually looks older than the latest Xbox 360 interface. Not a good way to start.

One other little thing that surprised me - the Miis have hardly changed at all! Why not bump them up to leapfrog Microsoft's Xbox Avatars? They are identical to the Wii iteration, but now in HD. That really isn't good enough.

I am tempted to think that Nintendo really expected to continually ride on the coat tails of Wii, or something like that. Perhaps they just don't fully understand the landscape that exists around them.

I love Nintendo as well, and I think they have an enormous amount to offer, but I think that nearly all of their mistakes with Wii U were highly avoidable.

Trent Eckstein
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All I can say is that I bought a wii u and it was worth it.


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