A crash in Wii software sales led Nintendo to need a new console a full year before Sony and Microsoft’s new hardware releases. While this was an awkward situation, it was also an advantage for Nintendo. After seven years the 360 and PS3 were showing their age badly, leaving gamers ready to splurge on something exciting. Nintendo won over those early adopters, and later won the race, by learning from their past mistakes and successes.
The core lesson Nintendo heeded goes clear back to the 8-bit console generation. Their main competitor then was Sega. The Sega Master System was generally considered more powerful than the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega had the advantage of IPs known through their arcade games. Yet Nintendo won that war, and not just through their own titles. They won it because the NES had amazing third party support. The number of quality titles released for the NES was astounding, and there was always something around the corner to keep gamers excited. The lesson of the NES and SNES was that when it comes to selling consoles, one thing is important above all else: software support.
Nintendo also learned a couple lessons from the N64’s mediocre showing. The first: they can’t support an entire console on their own. Even with considerable help from Rare, the N64’s poor third-party support hurt it badly. The second: third-party support is partially linked to hardware. The N64 lost major developers like Square because the N64 didn’t have a CD-ROM and couldn’t run their new games. The Wii had similar problems. It just wasn’t capable of running the same games as the 360/PS3.
That’s something Nintendo finally realized when developing the Wii 2 – it had become a cross-platform world. Most games, the bulk of any gamer’s diet, were available across two or three platforms. So if Nintendo wanted good third-party support, the Wii 2 had to be capable of running the same games as Microsoft and Sony’s upcoming systems. Initial plans for the Wii 2 involved a touch-screen “GamePad” that would have added two-screen functionality similar to the DS/3DS. Rather than spend resources on a gadget of questionable value, though, Nintendo went with a moderately powerful system that they estimated would be able to run “next gen” games well at 720p. Instead of the GamePad, Nintendo went with a “pro” controller similar to PS3/360 controllers. That way they would have a comparable button layout for cross-platform games. Nintendo also moved to match the PS3/360 in general hardware and functionality. The Wii 2 would have comparable online features, if a bit streamlined, and a 250GB internal hard drive as well as support for external storage. That was enough for DLC, patches, and some smaller download titles. Bluray support was added as well – rather than proprietary discs – allowing for comparable game sizes and movie playback.
Nintendo didn’t stop there, though. To win over developers the system needed to be inviting and easy to work with. With that in mind they switched to a PC-like x86 architecture. They weren’t sure where Sony and Microsoft were going with their hardware, but many games were released on PC so x86 would create an environment less intimidating to developers. They also worked directly with engine developers, making sure that Unity, Unreal, and others were natively supported by the Wii 2. They kept the system's learning curve low, assuring quick development and good optimization from the start.
But a side-effect of the cross-platform world – and being the underdog – was that Nintendo couldn’t just take a “build it and they will come” approach to the system. They needed to go out and court developers and publishers directly. Unlike the 80s and 90s, where Japan had dominated console game development, Western developers were now the backbone of the industry. Given their communication problems during the Wii’s lifetime (some linguistic, some cultural), Nintendo of America was expanded. Communication with Western developers was handled primarily via Nintendo’s Western staff, assuring good cooperation and support. Some of these new staff members were specifically assigned to court developers and publishers, locking down titles to be ready within the system’s launch window. Indie developers were also part of Nintendo’s plan. The nostalgic style of titles such as Axiom Verge and Shovel Knight were a perfect fit for a Nintendo system.
The final factor in the Wii 2’s success was launching with a true “system seller” pack-in – Super Mario 3D World. Inspired heavily by Mario 64’s larger areas, SM3DW took that a step farther with sprawling, non-linear levels that invited exploration and discovery. A focused, single-player experience, it was a true “next-gen” Mario game that expanded the scale of the series and had more content and gameplay than most RPGs. While the Wii 2’s initial launch price was high – $400 – the game was so amazing that many were willing to buy the hardware for it alone.
Nintendo’s real battle would begin a year later, though, with the release of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. While both consoles launched with a few exclusives, none of those titles had much character. More first-person shooters, more zombie killing, more quick-time events, and, well, that awful Knack game. Meanwhile the Wii 2 already had a year’s worth of similar “next-gen” quality releases. The master stroke, though: Nintendo’s announcement of a new Wii 2 SKU launching at $350 and including Super Mario 3D World. By undercutting its competitors’ prices, and offering a pack-in that won scores of Game of the Year awards, Nintendo dominated the holidays and spoiled its competitors’ launches.
The success of the Wii 2 from that point on was mostly a matter of releasing more great software. It could be argued, really, that all Nintendo had done was achieve parity with the core software support that Microsoft and Sony already had during the PS3/360/Wii cycle. Most games released on three or four platforms during the Wii 2’s run, and each console had a relatively small number of exclusives to set them apart. But that was all Nintendo needed. Their first-party game selection had always been great. By making those exclusives the only deciding factor between systems, they gained a decisive advantage. And with that Nintendo finally became worthy of being called “The Big N” again.