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Nintendo miss the point with the Wii U

Chasing the casual gamer.

Consumer electronics company Nintendo has launched its latest console, the Wii U, in the UK. Widely interpreted as the organisation’s response to competition from the tablet and smartphone gaming market - which shares its lucrative "casual gamer" audience - its complex hardware marks a departure from Nintendo’s usual intuitive, mass appeal approach. The Wii U is a prime example of design by analyst, an approach which could prove disastrous for such a well-loved consumer brand.

This October, Nintendo cut profit and sales forecasts, with business press citing the growing popularity of smartphone and tablet games as a factor. The challenge these formats present has loomed large in Nintendo’s corporate psyche for some time, and the Wii U appears to have been created with a bloody minded logic uncharacteristic of the company. "So it’s touch screens they want, is it?" says Nintendo, "then touch screens they’ll have." The new console’s much publicised Wii U GamePad has one, its 6.2 inches sitting proudly amidst more traditional sticks and buttons. The result appears rather tricky to negotiate for those unwilling to invest a bit of time and care. Nowadays, that’s most people.

Admittedly, the company’s attempts to usher mobile gamers back into the traditional fold are a little more complex than having them poke about with a bastardised iPad. The introduction of ‘Miiverse,’ a Twitter/Facebook/forum hybrid, goes some way toward providing the social experience which many mobile games exploit.

But Nintendo have still missed the point. Design by analyst involves identifying popular features in the competition’s offering, co-opting them and using them on your own terms. This is problematic in the consumer world, where so much is vested in unquantifiable lifestyle factors. The majority of mobile gamers use tablet or smartphone formats because of convenience or, more powerfully, because of the removal of social stigma such platforms offer. When you’re playing Angry Birds you aren’t a gamer, you’re just someone passing the time. Even the Prime Minister does it, and he’s not some pimply nerd. His skin famously looks as fresh as the driven snow.

The frustrating thing is that Nintendo actually anticipated this with their last console, the Wii. While traditional, or ‘core,’ gamers complained about its underwhelming graphics, its flimsy design and its lack of appeal to third party developers, the masses lapped it up. Nintendo knew that to make it a success they had to brand the Wii not as a console, but as a kind of toy for the whole family, as much as a feature of the living room as the TV. The Wii U, by contrast, will likely appeal to many core gamers for its creative potential, but will scare anyone else away. I certainly can’t imagine my parents buying one, despite the fact that their old ‘Wii Fit’ seems to have shifted somewhere above food and below sleep in terms of importance in their daily lives.

Could this be Nintendo’s New Coke fiasco? Anyone who harbours affection for the usually unpredictable elder statesman should hope not. Nintendo has always played its own game, and its likely they’ve something truly inspirational to pull out of the bag. When they do, however, it should be done in response to the human behaviours they know so well, not for some wonk in the finance department.

Josh Lowe is a freelance journalist and communications consultant. Follow him on Twitter @jeyylowe.