Editorial: Tom believes Nintendo's mysterious "quality of life" platform could be intended to quietly nudge the Wii U out of the spotlight.
The Wii U is performing dismally at retail. It's the depressing reality in which we live, and one that has caused us to think up ways to improve the console's fate. What if Nintendo no longer bundled it with the expensive GamePad? Or partnered with outside studios willing to create exclusive games for the Wii U? Then maybe the system wouldn't lag so far behind its competitors. Though such moves might help Nintendo in the short term, they would be mere Band-Aids on an open wound. The Wii U is in a dire situation. I believe Nintendo has reconciled itself to that fact, and has already planned a way to bail from this sinking ship.
Enter the "quality of life" (QOL) platform. No one knows what to make of Nintendo's proposed QOL initiative, partly because we know almost nothing about it. Nintendo wants to improve people's lives in some indeterminate way--using non-wearable technology--and is going to introduce this nebulous product some time next year. According to CEO Satoru Iwata, whatever the QOL platform is, it will be entirely separate from their gaming ventures. Iwata said, “When we use ‘health’ as a keyword, some may inevitably think about ‘Wii Fit.’ However, we are considering themes that we have not incorporated to games for our existing platforms." But what if Nintendo has much grander plans for this mysterious device than they're letting on? This could be Nintendo's next big idea. An idea much more in-demand than their ill-advised tablet controller, and one that could propel the company to the same heights it enjoyed during the peak years of the Wii.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let's take a look back at history. In 2004, Nintendo announced the DS, and positioned it as a complement to the Game Boy Advance and GameCube. It was going to be their "third pillar," another portable system that would coexist alongside their other hardware. Remember, this was a difficult time for Nintendo. The GameCube was lagging far behind the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, and though the Game Boy Advance was still in its prime, it wasn't successful enough to prop up an entire company. Nintendo was becoming less relevant. They needed to make a serious splash to turn the attention of the gaming audience back toward them.
What if Nintendo has much grander plans for this mysterious device than they're letting on?
As you may remember, the Nintendo DS was a phenomenon. Nintendo had a masterful software lineup that appealed to its core audience while bringing in newcomers as well. There was nothing else like Nintendogs or Brain Age, so Nintendo was able to expand to the casual market, though they never ignored those who kept them afloat during the lean years of the GameCube and Nintendo 64. It soon became clear that their planned "third pillar" was no more than a shield. If the DS were to fail, they could sweep it under the carpet and release a new Game Boy. But after the handheld took off, the Game Boy name was forgotten, and Nintendo has continued to have one dual-screen handheld and one console ever since.
Now we're seeing history repeat itself. The 3DS is selling well, though not nearly as well as its predecessor, and the Wii U is bottoming out. Nintendo is losing relevance. Its investors are demanding that they develop games for smartphones while its loyal fans are gobbling up the few games still trickling out for the Wii U. It's a sad situation. Excellent games such as The Wonderful 101 and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are being ignored at retail simply because not many people own the system, and third-party studios are sprinting away from the console as if it has Ebola. Is it too late for a price cut? Is it too late to secure exclusive games? The Wii U's fate isn't sealed yet, but the chances of Nintendo turning its fortunes around are so slim that a plan B is needed.
And that plan is the curious quality of life platform. When Nintendo first announced this device, I was puzzled. Nintendo has been around for more than 100 years, and in that time they may have transitioned from manufacturing playing cards to video games, but they have always focused on entertainment. Quality of life gives me visions of doing P90X workouts or downing a raw egg after jogging five miles. It makes me think about psychiatric evaluations and acupuncture appointments. People improve their lives in ways that are necessary, but not fun, so I couldn't imagine how a quality of life platform could possibly be appealing.
But then I remembered who we're talking about. There's no way that Nintendo is going to push our minds and bodies to their limits without a carrot dangling tantalizingly before our eyes. I may not have a clue what this QOL thing actually is, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it will be fun. More importantly, it's going to attract an audience that could not care less about the 3DS and Wii U. Part of the reason the DS and Wii were so popular is that Nintendo broke free of popular gaming conventions to appeal to people who don't want to spend their leisure time stomping goombas or doing barrel rolls. Wii Sports and Picross DS showed those who normally shun games why we spend so much time in front of a digital screen, and elevated Nintendo to the predominant technology company.
So right now, Nintendo is taking a cautious approach with their quality of life platform. They announced it at the same time they said Mario Kart 8 is coming out in May and Satoru Iwata is taking a paycut, news stories that would deflect attention away from this mystery. They're carefully saying that it's separate from their gaming division. Nintendo is trying to make the QOL as inoffensive as possible, something that gets mentioned during investment meetings instead of taking center stage during a Nintendo Direct. But they're only going to stay quiet for so long.
For the rest of 2014, Nintendo is going to continue with the plans we've already seen with the Wii U. Mario Kart 8, Yoshi's Epic Yarn, Super Smash Bros. and Bayonetta 2 are still going to come out this year. Maybe we'll even see X and Zelda come out next year. But after that? Don't expect much. Nintendo is treading water with the Wii U, but that's not a long-term strategy. Once the QOL platform comes out next year, you're going to see their focus shift. Advertising and store kiosks will force this device into people's consciousness, and Nintendo will distance itself from the failing Wii U. It's a smart strategy. Nintendo doesn't have the third-party support to prop up a console, and can't produce games quickly enough to keep good software flowing. They have to reinvent themselves.
This sounds like a scary situation for someone who was weaned on Nintendo games, but it doesn't have to be. Nintendo will never stop making the video games that we know and love. But it's no longer financially viable to have two separate platforms that cater to the same audience. By having the QOL alongside the 3DS, Nintendo will be able to appeal to the dyed-in-the-wool gamers and the casual populace at the same time. And we'll see traditional games such as Super Mario 3D World released only for dedicated gaming devices, while everything else comes out on the QOL platform. Everyone will win. It may be a rough transition, but I believe Nintendo's quality of life platform will greatly improve the fortunes of the Kyoto company and push the Wii U quietly into the sunset.