Last week, only three months after the launch of Nintendo's Wii U console, Michael Pachter, the highest-profile analyst of the game industry, put the product, and the company, on death watch.
"They misfired on the Wii U," he said to VentureBeat. "They made a mistake, it's something they probably can't recover from…and their handheld business can't save them in the face of cannibalization from smartphones and tablets."
The numbers back him up, at least for the time being. Wii U sold 57,000 units in January, 200,000-odd fewer copies than the Xbox 360, which is seven years old. And it's not as if the commercial dubiousness of the Wii U only became apparent after its release. Nintendo's stock dropped 10% the day after the console was announced in 2011.
Because the system has fared so poorly, so quickly, you'd probably assume that the coverage of the Wii U by the gaming and tech press, from its announcement to the reviews at its release, was characterized by skepticism, if not outright negativity. You'd be totally wrong. Here's a sampling of things major game and tech sites have written about the moribund console:
VG24/7: "This is exciting technology, people. When someone starts showing some actual games, we can expect to be very impressed indeed."
IGN: "I'm quite excited to pick up my own Deluxe Wii U on November 18, and can already foresee many sleepless night at the mercy of my entertainment center's new centerpiece."
Penny Arcade Report: "I adore the system so far."
Destructoid: "I'm a believer. I am a bigger believer in the Wii U than I ever was with the Wii, and I think that, at least in terms of usability, Nintendo has concocted for itself the perfect storm."
PC Mag: "Excellent…The Wii U, Nintendo's first step into high-definition gaming, is an ambitious console that's brimming with potential, even if that potential hasn't quite been realized yet."
Even those outlets that were more circumspect in no way recognized that this product (which as of this writing has a single major exclusive title — a 2-D Mario game, which have been extant since 1983 — that is rated above an 80 on the reviews aggregation site Metacritic) would totally fail to resonate with consumers. Kotaku did not give the system a "must buy" recommendation, but wrote:
"We can only say that for those who only have a Wii, the Wii U is everything the Wii was and more. We can't, however, say that it demands the immediate attention the Wii did. We can't say its games right now are the games you have to play this season. If you get a Wii U, you'll likely be at least as content as the people who bought an Xbox 360 on day one were."
Those systems, of course, are both more than six years old. Polygon expressed disappointment that the Wii U didn't break any new ground for Nintendo, but conceded that it would still host great games: "The Wii U is poised to deliver the same thing Nintendo always has, but we're still waiting to see if it can deliver more."
So how did the gaming and tech press get this so wrong? How did journalists fail to see what investors and consumers discerned immediately?
It's not a simple question, but it's one that relates directly to a major debate going on in game journalism circles right now. Bear with me. Last week, Gearbox Games released a game called Alien: Colonial Marines to universal scorn from critics. The bad reviews were surprising: The game was made by a well-regarded developer, based on a beloved movie (James Cameron's Aliens), and had been the subject of glowing previews from some of the game establishment's most respected journalists.
Over the past week, embarrassed by their credulous writing about the game, games journalists have been debating the role of the game preview in their publications. At issue is the idea that game publishers typically show game journalists extremely polished, sometimes non-playable slivers of their forthcoming games, and that covering such events, even neutrally, inevitably leads to overly positive, if not fawning, stories. Jenn Frank summarized the attitude of many when she tweeted that "the previews process…is the last vestige of enthusiast press," meaning it's one of the only places remaining in games journalism in which the legacy persists of uncritical fans queueing up to see new games early. Kotaku issued a long explanation of its preview policy with the weirdly defensive headline "Apologies if We Wasted Your Time with that Preview."
Frank may be right that previews are the last structural vestige of the enthusiast press. But let's not delude ourselves: There is the vestige of the enthusiast in the heart of every game journalist. No one gets into games writing because they are completely dispassionate about games. It's a natural instinct for people who grew up cherishing games to want games, and game systems, to be good. (This phenomenon is obviously not limited to games. For a great example in tech, read PC Magazine's 2008 review of the Samsung Instinct. Money quote: "If you want an iPhone, but you don't want to switch from Sprint, the Instinct is almost as good.")
Look: I want the PlayStation 4 to be good. I want the new Xbox to be good. I wish Wii U had more good games, and that the handheld peripheral wasn't so obviously a mistake. But this is an instinct that people who aspire to cover games honestly for a wide audience need to be incredibly aware of, and vigilant about either acknowledging or suppressing. Because this is exactly the reason that game journalists failed to see plainly what an insufficient product the Wii U was going to be for months after its release, and perhaps forever. Nintendo has earned an enormous reservoir of positive feelings from gamers (and game/tech journalists) who grew up on their wonderful products. People want Nintendo to succeed. It is telling that the people who were clear-eyed about the Wii U — investors and consumers — both had money on the line. Significant purchasing decisions have a way of turning beliefs into questions.
That's an important lesson to keep in mind on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, as we digest the coverage of Sony's announcement of the new PlayStation. Let's ask ourselves some very basic questions: Does the technology seem like something that people will want to use? Are there games for the system that people will play? Are there features that seem transparently unnecessary or cumbersome? Does the system, and its games, do things that people will want to pay hundreds of dollars for? The thing these questions have in common is called common sense, and when we evaluate new gaming technology, we need to start believing in it.