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Width vs. Depth: Nintendo's New Interest in Fans

If you're to believe Satoru Iwata's rhetoric, Wii U will be for the core. Mostly.

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There were plenty of terrific consoles games released for Wii I’m guessing most people never played. I accept that.

Zach & Wiki. LostWinds. Bit.Trip. Sin & Punishment: Star Successor. Kirby's Epic Yarn. No More Heroes. Donkey Kong Country Returns. Rhythm Heaven Fever. World of Goo. Xenoblade Chronicles. Little King's Story. Nyx Quest. And Yet It Moves. Swords & Soldiers. Cave Story. Fluidity. Many came to other platforms, but they were on Wii first.

Once Wii became known as a console for the masses, it was tough for Nintendo to shake that perception. Of course, Nintendo didn’t do enough to push back against it, either.

If you believe Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, that lesson has been learned, as Wii U's launch unveiling looms. Iwata outlined his feelings on the future of Nintendo in a Q&A session with investors, published today in English.

With Microsoft and Sony's next hardware likely set for 2013, all eyes are on Iwata at E3.
With Microsoft and Sony's next hardware likely set for 2013, all eyes are on Iwata at E3.

“Regrettably, what we prioritized [on Wii] in order to reach out to the new audience was a bit too far from what we prioritized for those who play games as their hobby,” said Iwata.

Nintendo announced Wii U at E3 last year, and while I found the machine promising, the overall reception was muted. It wasn’t a technological showcase, there wasn’t much more than demos (albeit interesting ones), and it seemed to have a little too much in common with an iPad. It will be introduced again at E3 next month.

If we’re to assume the overall industry tide is turning against Nintendo, one way Nintendo can hang on is by doubling down on its fans. That wasn’t Nintendo’s strategy when 3DS launched, a symptom of the company’s arrogance with the platform. When 3DS experienced a slow start, who did it appeal to? The fans. And that’s going to be the same strategy with Wii U, except it’s going to happen much faster this time.

It will be a balancing act, though.

While Iwata admitted it lost devoted fans over the last few years, expanding the games to a wider audience is important to Nintendo. 3DS' launch lineup consisted mostly of a gimmick, and it created momentum through placating to the hardcore. It has not, however, found itself the same mainstream gold that was Brain Age or Wii Fit.

“We are making efforts so that we will be able to make several proposals even from the launch period that can eventually become evergreen titles for the Wii U,” said Iwata. “We have learned the lesson that we have to make that kind of preparation for the Wii U, or the Wii U will not gain enough momentum to expand its sales.”

Iwata explained this balancing act as width and depth. Width represents the expansion of possible consumers, the kinds of users who wouldn’t call themselves “gamers.” Depth is the realm of the gaming hobbyist, the player who will happily spend dozens of hours engrossed in game worlds. There wasn't enough depth on Wii, he argued.

“With the Nintendo DS and the Wii,” said Iwata, “the approach of ‘width’ was well accepted by many people; however, what we did in terms of ‘depth’ was not satisfactory for some consumers.”

Nintendo has not produced a Wii Sports or Brain Age equivalent since, but Iwata says it's on it.
Nintendo has not produced a Wii Sports or Brain Age equivalent since, but Iwata says it's on it.

Nintendo reached more customers with DS and Wii, but that came at a price, especially when it came to perception with the devoted.

“Once consumers have a notion that ‘this system is not for us,’ we have learned that it is extremely difficult to change their perceptions later,” he said.

Many of those players never came back, and allowed their Wii to collect dust. But it's safe to assume they remain Nintendo fans.

Cue the hyperbole, right? Wii U will launch with a new Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Super Smash Bros simultaneously! Probably not, and Iwata cautioned against expecting too much right out of the gate.

“There is always a limit to our internal resources,” he said. “The company now has to develop software for the Nintendo 3DS, has to prepare for the Wii U launch and has to finalize the hardware functionalities. With these circumstances in mind, if I said that an overwhelmingly rich software lineup would be prepared from day one, it would be too much of a promise to make.”

Hopefully, he's just tempering buzz. Nintendo needs a thunderous, excited fan base coming out of E3.

3DS has become a bit of a rolling thunder, especially if you’re paying attention to the eShop. In short: quality software on a regular basis. Whether Nintendo can find phenomenon-level repeat success with Wii U won’t be known for months, but we do know Nintendo can still make terrific software, and it appears prepared to unleash that weapon.

E3 is just a few weeks away.

Patrick Klepek on Google+