Nintendo’s Project Cafe: Will Gamers Feel The Buzz?

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata

By David Radd

These are interesting times in the gaming industry. It’s been over five years since the current generation of consoles started with the Xbox 360, yet there is no successor on the market. Game consoles have long run in five year cycles and the fact that only now is talk becoming seriousabout the next next-gen (or the “eighth generation of consoles” if you prefer that designation) is a serious anomaly.

What’s more interesting is the fact that the first console revealed (code named Project Cafe) is coming from Nintendo. At the time of this writing, the Wii has sold roughly 85 million hardware units worldwide while the PS3 has only sold around 50 million and the Xbox 360 about 55 million. I can’t think of a time previously when a console had been decisively in the lead for most of a console generation, yet was set up for replacement before any of its competitors.

Yet given the situation all of the consoles are in, Nintendo striking first for the next generation makes sense. Evidence suggests that the PS3 and Xbox 360 may be gaining momentum while the Wii is starting to lose it. The Xbox 360 has never been stronger (particularly in North America) while the PS3 is being driven by solid global growth (despite the recent PSN issues). While hardware sales for the Wii aren’t terrible, they are not coming at the torrid pace that they once were. Despite a massive global install base, average user engagement for the Wii seems to be diminishing.

Why are users playing their Wii systems less (or in some cases, no longer plugging them in)? It’s a complicated issue, but it mostly boils down to this: a lack of games people want to play. For the more causal crowd, there hasn’t been something like the Balance Board or Wii Remote Plus to give the system a new spark in a while, and for the hardcore gaming crowd the influx of new games has slowed to a trickle; leaving the former aside for the moment, the latter is mostly the purview of third-party developers.

The Wii has always been something of an enigma to third-parties. Software support for the system was not stellar in the beginning (with a few exceptions like Sega and Ubisoft) but after its hot start, various developers looked for ways to get on board. Despite varied and creative efforts likeZack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros’ Treasure, MadWorldand Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, reaching blockbuster status has proved elusive for most titles. As a consequence, most third-parties have shifted their focus and resources onto the PS3/Xbox 360 and the number of third-party games of note releasing on the Wii has truly slowed to a crawl.

Why third-parties have (for the most part) failed to capitalise on the Wii boom is still a subject of hot debate. I’ve actively seen third-parties blamed for their own efforts on the Wii and some even think that their Wii efforts were purposefully sabotaged in order to validate their own view points. As someone who’s examined fiscal reports for the past several years, it’s hard to believe anyone would truly choose to sandbag their own title; those who think there is an industry-wide conspiracy to discredit the Wii deserve a tinfoil hat. As for what should be done, I’ve seen a lot of negative advice for what third-parties should do on the Wii, focusing not so much on what should be done right in the future but criticising what they perceive as things done wrong in the past. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Any fool can criticise, condemn and complain and most fools do.” 

It’s a complicated issue, but again, I think there are some fundamental issues at play. Because the Wii was different from its direct competition, it necessitated that most games either be built from the ground up for it, or be revamped to play on it. Even if it wasn’t as involving as a PS3/Xbox 360 project, necessitating exclusive development is a hurdle, particularly if sales results were erratic at best. The Wii’s greatest strengths were (at least at first) low cost thanks to less-bleeding edge hardware and a unique controller, but these were, ironically, also its greatest weaknesses.

Part of the bet of the Wii from Nintendo was that players weren’t interested in better graphics as much as they were new gameplay experiences. For the mainstream this may have merit, but the current situation suggests that the core gaming audience cares about graphical fidelity a great deal, perhaps explaining partly why their focus has shifted to the PS3/Xbox 360.

Turning back to Project Cafe, will things be any different this time around? Is this finally the stake in the ground, the point upon which most third-parties will not venture further because of cost? No, I say, probably not, and it will be for reasons similar to this previous generation. If the third Xbox and fourth PlayStation produce graphics that blow their predecessors out of the water (and there’s every reason to believe that they will) then Project Cafe (assuming the leaked hardware stats are at all accurate) probably won’t impress gamers, and as time goes on, the more acute this difference will be. Will consumers want to essentially step back a generation when something more powerful is available? All the history of this industry suggests they will not.

Returning to the software state of the Wii, Nintendo has really been the heavy lifter for their own system, but there’s an issue with this: Nintendo is like Valve in taking their time to polish things to a high level. This has made first-party releases come in spurts and it likely hasn’t been helped by shifting focus to the 3DS (something Nintendo openly admits) and probably whatever Project Cafe games they’re working on as well. Nintendo has, notably, already shot off all of its biggest franchises for the Wii; a new Starfox, F-Zero or Pikmin probably wouldn’t move the dial at this point.

I’m sure Nintendo is hard at work at making sure all the Marios and Zeldas will get Project Cafe entries, at least eventually. Nobody knows what the hook for the system will be (though rumours suggest a screen mounted in the controller), but gamers might be more wary this time around. See, the Wii Remote + Nunchuk promised a revolution, but the shoehorning of motion controls into games that weren’t designed for them often had poor results and gamers might not be eager to try another “waggle” experiment. To put it simply, controllers work the way they are – there’s a reason why the keyboard and mouse setup hasn’t changed its basic form and function over the past 25 years. It’s a catch-22 situation – if Project Cafe has its own unique control system core gamers might be turned off, but the mainstream audience that helped make the Wii a success might not be interested in the system without a new gimmick.

The timing of Project Cafe is problematic as well. All indications are that Nintendo’s next console will launch in 2012. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are already pretty well established at this point and will be in more homes in a year an a half’s time; this would put the shoe on the other foot and give Sony/Microsoft the install-base advantage against Project Cafe. Besides that, it is likely that the successor systems for Sony/Microsoft will come out some time in 2013/2014 with probable revaluations next year, which might put a serious damper on Project Cafe enthusiasm for core gamers. And will the mainstream rush out to buy a new system not far removed after purchasing a Wii or maybe an Xbox 360 with Kinect?

All this said, Nintendo has managed to spin straw into gold in the past, and I highly doubt all the secrets of the Project Cafe have been revealed. Maybe with a new angle and some bought third-party exclusives, Project Cafe will have a profitable life cycle, though something tells me reaching the levels of the Wii might be too tall a task. Without a doubt, Nintendo needs a new console right now; the question remains whether anyone else wants it.