With sales of its 4 1/2-year-old Wii console plummeting and avid gamers spending most of their money on competing devices from Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp., Nintendo Co. has unveiled a new console that it hopes will draw those players back.
The Japanese game company showed off the device, which marries an iPad-like touch screen with a traditional controller, at a news conference Tuesday morning before the official opening of the Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Dubbed Wii U, it's scheduled to hit stores sometime between April and December 2012.
Nintendo sold more than 86 million Wiis since introducing the device in 2006, building a massive audience of women and older people. But consumers appear to have tired of the device, with sales dropping 25% in the first three months of 2011 compared with a year earlier, according to ITG Investment Research.
In addition, those who already own a Wii buy fewer games than owners of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, which led big publishers like Electronic Arts Inc. and Activision Blizzard Inc. to pull back on supporting Nintendo's console.
"The problem with average consumers is getting them to buy more games," said Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst with M2 Research.
Unlike its predecessor, Wii U features high-definition graphics and the multitude of buttons and triggers that serious gamers demand. By combining those elements with an easy-to-use touch screen, the company could attract hard-core gamers while keeping its appeal to more casual players, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said.
"As an industry, what we haven't achieved yet is a game platform that is equally satisfying to all players," he told the crowd at the Nokia Theatre in downtown L.A. "This is exactly what we intend to create with our new platform."
The most visible difference between the current Wii console and its successor is the controller, which features a 6.2-inch touch-screen tablet in the center that displays a different visual from what appears on the television. Equipped with an accelerometer and a gyroscope, the controller can shift its image based on players' physical movements, allowing new types of gaming experiences.
"It's like the Swiss Army knife of controllers," said Danny Bilson, executive vice president of core games at THQ Inc.
Independent game publishers that had cut back or stopped making new games for the Wii indicated they were at least intrigued by the Wii U's potential to regain market share, particularly among dedicated gamers.
"It seems like Nintendo heard the voices of hard-core gamers," said Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games, which created the BioShock franchise.
Even EA was back on the Nintendo bandwagon. The company's chief executive, John Riccitiello, appeared at the news conference and called Wii U "a better platform than we've ever been given by Nintendo."