Can Wii U’s Hardware Live Up to Nintendo’s Third Party Aspirations?

Reports have been coming in for awhile now about the Wii U development kits, and it seems that most developers feel that the console will have around the same power as the 360 and PS3. Some say it is a bit more powerful, some say it is a bit less, but it’s starting to sound like the Wii U will not offer a significant graphical advantage over the next round of consoles from Microsoft and Sony. If Nintendo wants to lure big third party franchises, this is going to to be a problem.

While the Wii was underpowered compared to its competitors, it was also a very different type of system. It was truly a revolution in gaming, focusing more on inclusive innovative gameplay over bleeding edge graphics. With the Wii (and also the DS), Nintendo returned to its roots of simple, fun, arcade style games.  Sure the big epic third party games stuck mainly to the competition, but the Wii offered everyone something to enjoy, with Nintendo’s classic games and new franchises that appealed to such a wide audience, like Wii Sports and Wii Fit. It was classic blue ocean strategy and it paid off big time with the Wii being Nintendo’s best selling system ever.

The Wii U appears to be something very different. Nintendo seems to be putting a lot of effort into ensuring people that this system will have the big third party franchises as well. Where the Wii was designed to bring in new gamers and welcome back lapsed old-school gamers, the Wii U looks more like an attack on the markets currently dominated by the 360 and PS3 (classic red ocean strategy). Look at the known lineup for games on Wii U: Darksiders 2. Assassin’s Creed 3. Arkham City. Aliens: Colonial Marines. Perhaps even the Old Republic. It is clear that Nintendo is targeting a very different type of audience with the Wii U, and it could work…  …for awhile.

The problem is, what happens when the competing systems come out and are more powerful? Sure, Wii U owners will have Assassin’s Creed 3, but what about 4? Or the next Batman game? Or Darksiders 3? Will third parties, now developing their big franchises for significantly more powerful systems, bother to scale down versions of the game for Wii U? Considering the history of the Wii, I’m betting not. If Nintendo’s big direction with the Wii U is to strike at the heart of Microsoft and Sony’s market by capturing these (dare I say) hardcore franchises, a comparatively weaker system is going to fizzle out pretty quick.

Nintendo has to be considering this, and there is a good chance that they are going this route because they suspect that the the next generation of competing systems may either not be as powerful as expected or may simply be late to the game.

There is the possibility that Microsoft and Sony are not planning to release new systems for some time. Given the state of the economy and the fact that the 360 and PS3 are now profitable after years of bleeding cash, Microsoft and Sony may wait another 2 or even 3 years to release true successors to their consoles. In the meantime, they may fine tune, bundle and drop the price of their existing consoles. If so, Nintendo may be able to keep that hardcore market for another year or two after the next gen systems launch before releasing yet another system of their own, fully capable of luring third party support.

Another possibility is that the Wii so disrupted the market that Microsoft and Sony’s net consoles will also not offer significantly more power. The next XBox could be a more casual, family friendly system fully integrated with Kinect. It would certainly help them capture a market they’ve been desperately chasing for the last 3 or 4 years. If that is the case, then the Wii U might compare quite nicely and we have no problem getting, say, the next Grand Theft Auto.

I have no doubt that the Wii U is going to offer us Nintendo fans the classics. We’re going to get Mario. We’re going to get Zelda. We’re going to get Smash Bros., Metroid and Mario Kart. The problem is, I can’t shake the feeling that this third party love will be fleeting – that the first couple of years of the Wii U will offer everything the competition has and more, but that these games will start to evaporate as third parties move on to more powerful systems. At the core of the problem is that the the hardware does not match the purpose of the console. If the purpose of the console is to lure those third party franchises back, it’s only designed to do so in the first 1 to 2 years of the system’s life. For some of us, that won’t be a problem. For me personally, I’d be just fine – I loved the Wii and I mainly play Nintendo games – but right now, the Wii U has that bait-and-switch feel to it. I feel like I’m being tricked into thinking the system is something that it’s not. Obviously, we’ll have to wait until E3 to get more information. Who knows, perhaps everything will change!