Nintendo: No Need For Alarm

Whenever the market shifts, as ours does with such regularity, we come to inflection points. Opinions invariably divide on how those inflection points will pan out – it’s the nature of disruption.

This week’s quarterly financials from Nintendo, which highlighted missed sales targets for the Wii U and 3DS, have brought exactly such a situation into sharp focus. When a company as big as Nintendo, which has until so recently been held up as a paragon of adaptive success and market growth, stumbles, pundits and punters alike are quick to make a diagnosis.

We’re no hive mind at GamesIndustry International, so we prefer to give you both sides of the argument whenever we can. To that end, we have two pieces about the impact of both the financial results and the sales figures revealed by Iwata, each arguing from a different perspective.

Yesterday we published a piece from Steve Peterson, our West Coast Editor, giving his take on the company’s prospects. Below, we have regular columnist Rob Fahey, who takes a more optimistic view.

Another nail in the coffin of the dedicated games console. Nintendo’s Dreamcast moment. The vultures were out in force to greet Nintendo’s latest revision of its sales forecasts, circling the Kyoto-based company with a naked and unseemly hunger. Wii U has missed Nintendo’s own sales targets; the clouds are gathering, the doom-mongers are checking their funeral outfits.

The headline figure that drew absolutely everyone’s attention was this – by the end of March, Nintendo will have sold 4 million units of the Wii U, which is significantly down from the 5.5 million it had originally expected to sell. 3DS sales are also down somewhat on projections, at 15 million rather than 17.5 million for the full financial year, though less attention has been paid to that stat, largely because 3DS is already solidly established in the market, with a 30 million installed base.

So here’s the bleak scenario – the Wii U, with only 4 million installed at the end of what might reasonably be considered its “launch window”, has failed to capture consumer imagination and isn’t a viable platform for third parties. Software projects get cancelled, publishers draw back their support, sales slow down even further and the platform enters a death spiral. Within a few years, Nintendo is forced out of the hardware business and follows Sega into third-party publishing – on tablets and mobiles, most likely.

I have quite a lot of problems with that scenario (and with some of the more moderate versions of it which have also been floating around). For a start, it may not match Nintendo’s targets, but 4 million units sold after a few months on the market isn’t actually that bad for a new console. It’s very significantly better than either the PS3 or the Xbox 360 managed; in fact, the only home console that has outperformed the Wii U’s launch window, in terms of units sold, is the Wii itself.

“Nintendo’s new home console is always going to be stacked up against its old home console, and that’s a tough thing to measure up against.”

That’s what you might call a tough comparison, even if there’s a harsh fairness to it. Nintendo’s new home console is always going to be stacked up against its old home console, and that’s a tough thing to measure up against given that its old home console was the fastest selling and most profitable home console in history. Old hands at Sony might wince sympathetically; the PS3, despite matching the Xbox 360’s worldwide sales curve at almost every step on the way, has often been portrayed as a bit of a failure due to comparisons with the all-conquering PS2. The 360, by contrast, is enshrined in conventional wisdom as a triumph, because it built so strongly on the not-terribly-successful original Xbox business.

Comparisons like those are useful for building narratives – especially bull-and-bear market narratives, in which a company’s actual performance is vastly less important than its trajectory. They’re not, however, very useful for building an accurate picture of a product’s viability. Wii U has missed its targets (Nintendo’s own, so the company can’t even accuse analysts of over-egging the pudding in this case) and hasn’t performed as well as the Wii did; there’s a bearish narrative about decline in there. On a practical level, though, Wii U has sold more units than Xbox 360 or PS3 did at launch, it’s lost far less money (in fact, Nintendo will record a full-year profit, compared to multi-billion dollar losses for Microsoft and Sony’s games divisions in their launch periods) and, crucially, it can’t lose the support of its largest developer and publisher, because its largest developer and publisher is Nintendo itself.

Is this to say, then, that all is rosy in the Wii U garden? No, of course not. The console clearly hasn’t captured consumer imagination to the extent to which Nintendo expected, and a major push will now be needed both in terms of software and in terms of marketing and communication. The biggest risk Nintendo faces is that of failing to address the huge audience of casual consumers who bought in to the Wii, which would confine the firm to its core audience – but that core audience is itself quite significant, on the sale of 20 to 30 million consumers worldwide. Capturing additional casual consumers (or core consumers who fall more readily into the Sony and Microsoft camps, but may be swayed by certain software titles) would drive the console past those levels; even if it achieves only half the success of its predecessor at this task, it’s hard to see the Wii U ending up with an installed base much south of 50 million.

“The biggest risk Nintendo faces is that of failing to address the huge audience of casual consumers who bought in to the Wii.”

The stock market won’t like that, and that’s fair enough. Nintendo was ludicrously overvalued in the previous generation – at one point becoming Japan’s most valuable company, ahead of the world’s top car-maker, Toyota – and if the Wii U and 3DS don’t match up to the sales trajectory of their predecessors, the next generation will see an undervaluation that may be equally ludicrous. There will undoubtedly be grumbling at this from shareholders, but Nintendo is more insulated from shareholder discontent than many other firms, thanks to the large shareholdings of former president Hiroshi Yamauchi (who owns the single largest voting bloc in the firm) and of Japanese banks and institutions, who are generally less activist as shareholders than their western counterparts.

Share price decline, however, does not equate to product non-viability, nor does it precipitate a collapse in a company’s own market – or even its profits. The viability of a product needs to be considered in more solid and less sentiment-driven terms. Does it make a profit? Does it have a large enough installed base to justify continued development?

These are, of course, moving targets. Profitability rises as a console’s lifespan continues, with production costs generally dropping off faster than hardware price cuts reduce revenue (although there are exceptions, the 3DS being an obvious one). Rising software sales also increase profitability – note that the Wii U, despite being Nintendo’s first console to launch as a subsidised piece of hardware, is comfortably in the black after its launch, having sold 3.8 units of software for every console so far. That can be expected to rise significantly; the Wii, often decried as the console that sat unloved and gathered dust, actually has an attach rate of 8.7 software units for every console sold. Finally, foreign exchange movements also influence profitability, and after a few very tough years, the Yen is finally nudging in a positive direction for Nintendo (and Sony). After trading at under 80 Yen to the dollar for most of 2011 and 2012, it’s now over 90 Yen to the dollar, a level it hasn’t reached since mid-2012. It’s still a long way from the pre-financial crisis levels, which rarely dipped below 100 Yen to the dollar, but it’s enough to win Japanese manufacturers some breathing room in their profit figures.

Installed base viability is also a moving target. Bigger is better, but it’s not as simple as that; you can’t simply say “well, there are half a billion iOS devices out there and even more Android devices, so games consoles are irrelevant now”, even though some commentators try to do exactly that. For many types of software, a machine with a 30 million installed base made up entirely of active gamers who are willing to spend $40 on software every few months is more viable than a system with a 150 million installed base whose users aren’t hugely engaged with game software and only spend sporadically, in smaller amounts. Conversely, there are many types of software which absolutely thrive in the latter environment, and would fail utterly in the former. Development costs are also a big factor, because if your development budget soars, you must be able to address a bigger market (or somehow charge them more money) in order to counterbalance that.

“In other words, when it comes to Nintendo, stop trying to bring everything back to bull and bear market perspectives.”

In other words, when it comes to Nintendo, stop trying to bring everything back to bull and bear market perspectives. Those have their place, but they’re not terribly useful in attempting to predict the shape of the games industry as we proceed towards an uncertain future. They tend to give us extremes and ignore subtlety; where any individual with a shred of intelligence and insight can look at the news that “Wii U isn’t doing as well as Wii” and interpret that in context as a decline but not necessarily a catastrophe or a herald of collapse, a market-led approach allows for little if any of that subtlety.

Nintendo has a lot of work to do on Wii U, but we’ve been here before – it had a lot of work to do on the 3DS as well. While 3DS’ price cut helped a great deal, much of the real work was done through significantly improving and bulking out the console’s software line-up, and a similar process is underway with Wii U. One need only look to the rapt response which the recent Nintendo Direct broadcast received from media and Nintendo fans alike to see the truth of Nintendo’s situation. This is a software company at heart. Its consoles are enabling hardware for its software, and as such, they sell in parallel with major software launches. Of course, this is a valid argument in favour of Nintendo’s ultimate destiny outside the hardware market entirely, but for now, the company isn’t willing to give up that level of control – and for now, it doesn’t look like it needs to. I don’t expect Wii U to match the success of Wii, in the medium or long term – but equally, I don’t count myself among those who expect it to be Nintendo’s last console. Sentiment is negative right now, but fundamentals aren’t, and for a business like Nintendo, it’s the latter that counts.

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About contra

Film maker. Video game historian. Will put more in here this section soon!
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