LOS ANGELES — The Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow can sometimes feel like it’s all about Sony and Microsoft. But Nintendo isn’t letting this week slip by without having a say of its own.
Coming into E3, the Japanese publisher still really had only one main mission: Sell the world on the Wii U. It hasn’t had a lot of luck with that so far. The company has only sold around 6.5 million Wii U systems as of April. That’s less than the 7 million PlayStation 4s Sony has sold despite releasing that console a year after the Wii U. But Nintendo thinks it’s building a strong case to convince skeptical players, and it spent E3 detailing its argument.
Nintendo of America senior director of corporate communications Charlie Scibetta explained to GamesBeat what the company wants to say to gamers that are not sure if they want a Wii U.
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“The message on Wii U is that it’s a great time to buy,” Scibetta said. “What we know already is that without great content to power the hardware, people won’t buy it. We have to have great gameplay experiences that people want to take advantage of. We think we have that now.”
Scibetta pointed to the most recent example of Mario Kart 8, which launched in late May. That kart-racing franchise has performed extraordinarily well for Nintendo in the past, and the most recent entry hasn’t disappointed yet.
“We saw a great uptick in sales [with Mario Kart],” said Scibetta. “We had a great opening weekend there with 1.2 million sold worldwide. That’s also helping us on the hardware front.”
But Nintendo isn’t just pointing backward to Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, and other available Wii U games.
“By my estimation, Nintendo has five triple-A exclusives due out on Wii U later this year: Hyrule Warriors, Bayonetta 2, Smash Bros. Wii U, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and Sonic Boom — plus the debut of Amiibo,” IDC research director Lewis Ward told GamesBeat. “Nintendo is basically holding its own against Sony and Microsoft on the console exclusives front.”
The company also came to E3 this year with the idea of justifying the system’s touchscreen GamePad controller, which is different than what every other console-maker offers. That effort led Nintendo’s legendary Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto to bring a couple of games based on the device.
“Mr. Miyamoto came to the show this year and showed us different game experiences that he’s making that utilize the GamePad,” Scibetta said. “Mario Maker is one example. He showed the new Star Fox game. He had his Giant Robot and Guard projects, both of which use the GamePad in a unique way to advance gameplay using the gyroscope and the two screens.”
Those two project games are still (as the names suggest) in a testing phase. Project Guard has one player controlling a number of remote cameras on the GamePad — but it brings in local social elements by enabling people in the room to help the player quickly spot the aliens on the television. This had people on the E3 show floor yelling “camera 4″ or “aliens on No. 6,” for example. Project Giant Robot has players building a robot and then controlling it with the GamePad from a first-person perspective.
The company also had Mario Maker, which enables players to make their own Mario platforming levels using the GamePad touchscreen.
“With these kinds of things, Mr. Miyamoto’s trying to showcase what the hardware is capable of,” Scibetta said. “We’re the only ones with that built-in second screen, and at a good price.”
Of course, this is the Wii U’s third E3, and it feels very late for Nintendo and Miyamoto to only now have games in a “project” state that capitalize on the dual displays and touch screen. For example, the lineup for the immediate future doesn’t have a lot of unique stuff using the GamePad.
“With the games coming out this year — Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros., Captain Toad, Bayonetta — we have a lot of good software that’s going to power hardware sales,” said Scibetta.
With the software not fully justifying the hardware, Nintendo has to rely on what it has now. But Scibetta doesn’t lack confidence. Fans are responding well to its show this year — and especially to the multiplayer fighter Super Smash Bros. That release, like Mario Kart, could boost game and hardware sales.
Ward agrees that it will help.
“I do think the combination of Mario Kart 8 and Smash Bros. Wii U will lead to a significant console sales bump in 2014,” the research specialist said. “I think Nintendo’s playing it conservative on their Wii U sales projection and that they’ll ship over 4 million units in the next 12 months.”
Ward also says that Smash Bros. on Wii U has the potential to establish itself as a huge e-sports game, and that it may even help the company break some of its sales records. The response to the fighter on the floor was overwhelmingly positive from fans of the franchise, and it’s clear that it is one of the most-anticipated releases of 2014.
Other analysts are unimpressed, and they feel Nintendo didn’t address its long-term issues.
“I think overall Nintendo beat low expectations at the show, and the new Amiibo games look good,” R.W. Baird analyst Colin Sebastian told GamesBeat. “But these seems more like band aids for Nintendo rather than a long-term strategy to recover market share.”
And while Super Smash Bros. may move systems, the Wii U is still facing very tough competition, according to Cowen & Company analyst Doug Creutz.
“Nintendo has great products, but the problem is they’re going up against Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Destiny, Halo … there’s just a lot more good product coming to the other two platforms,” Creutz told GameSBeat. “I think Nintendo believes — now that people have bought their Xbox Ones and PS4s — customers will buy the Wii U as their second console. We’ve seen that happen in the past, but this holiday you could either buy a Wii U and Smash or buy Assassin’s Creed, Halo, Call of Duty, Destiny, Battlefield, and Dragon Age all for the same amount of money if you already have an Xbox One or PlayStation 4.”
But Nintendo thinks that Smash Bros., Mario Kart, and the rest of the Wii U’s current and upcoming 2014 releases are enough for now.
“That’s the message for us,” said Scibetta. “Check out the software like Super Smash Bros. If it seems like something appealing to you, go down to your retailer and play it yourself. We don’t want anyone to just take it on faith.”
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