In an E3 interview with GameSpot, Nintendo marketing executive Scott Moffit admitted that the Wii U has a messaging problem. As if to hammer home the point, that same day, CNN's (since-corrected) hands-on preview of the system led off by asking if the Wii U controller would breathe new life into the aging Wii console. Fast-forward to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime's appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last Friday, where the unquestioned gamer Fallon was clearly confused as to whether the new console was simply an add-on to the original Wii.
These are examples of confusion coming from people who should know exactly what the Wii U is. If a technology journalist writing for one of the world's largest news organizations and a talk show host capping off his post-E3 "Video Games Week" with a live demo of the system from the company's president aren't clear on whether the Wii U is just a fancy controller or a new system unto itself, then who else could be expected to get it? Will the casual audiences Nintendo has been so successful courting instantly grasp the product the same way they did the Wii? Will that confusion build back the mainstream barriers to entry that the company broke down with the launch of the original Wii?
Of course, the messaging problem is one of Nintendo's own creation. Six years ago, Nintendo announced that it was renaming its in-development console, ditching the "Revolution" moniker in favor of "Wii." While the decision was divisive, at least it was a uniquely attention-getting name for a uniquely attention-getting system. Unfortunately, the sequel to a wildly original product is by its nature derivative, and what was uniquely attention-getting six years ago is now a simple brand extension.
The problem is, Nintendo has been relentlessly extending the Wii brand since day one. There was Wii Sports, then Wii Fit, Wii Music, Wii Party, and peripherals like the Wii Balance Board, a pricey add-on that expanded the system's functionality much in the same way a controller with a screen built into it could. The software on display isn't helping, either. The stylized graphics of New Super Mario Bros. Wii U and NintendoLand don't highlight the high-definition capabilities of the system, and multiplayer action in these games requires a bevy of original Wii Remotes.
Nintendo has been further aggravating the problem with its marketing of the Wii U to date. With all of the focus on the controller, the console itself--the physical box that plugs into the TV--seems like an afterthought. And even when it does make a cameo appearance in a publicity still, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Wii. In an Olympic competition to see which gaming system looks the most like its generational predecessor, the Wii U would be on the medal podium along with the 3DS and the PlayStation Vita, two other offerings that have struggled to create a distinct identity in the public's mind. Even at E3, Nintendo separated all of its Wii U hardware news and dumped it into a Sunday afternoon streaming video presentation instead of featuring it at the main event, its Tuesday morning media briefing.
The bad news for Nintendo is that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The good news is that as big as E3 is to the gaming community--most of which understands exactly what the system is--it's still barely a blip on the radar to the general public, the masses Nintendo specializes in attracting with its broadly appealing software. Even if the company has flubbed the mass-market messaging to date, it has months left to course correct and build up buzz for the all-important holiday launch. As for how, that's Moffit's big challenge. Because if Nintendo can't even get people to understand what the Wii U is, it's going to have a very difficult time convincing them it's worth hundreds of dollars to own.