After years of hearing arguments over Nintendo’s woes I still believe that their number one problem since the N64 has always been third party support. Almost everything else flows from that. The real question though has been: what should they do? I’m starting to think that much of today’s conventional console development community is lost to them.
Nearly none of the big multiplatform consoles games coming out in 2013 have Wii U versions. Just look at the difference between EA’s “unprecedented support” comments at E3 2012 and what they’ve released on the Wii U thus far. And really, why should any of those games come out on the Wii U?
The main reason Nintendo hasn’t really had significant third party support on their consoles in over 15 years is because their consoles don’t present an environment where many of them believe they can sell their games. In the N64 era Nintendo’s policies with developers seemed draconian compared to Sony’s. People still argue over what killed the Gamecube’s third party support, and I think it’s that the system offered developers nothing the PS2 or Xbox didn’t already offer. The Wii just went in a direction completely different to what the industry expected and wanted. Today, the Wii U still hasn’t really had a game concept to indisputably prove the GamePad’s worth and is lagging in sales. More importantly, why would someone buy a Wii U in order to buy, say, Tomb Raider if Nintendo is trying to get back the gamer who probably already owns an Xbox?
A lot of arguments are about whether third parties are even right to ignore Nintendo’s consoles. I myself have argued that during the N64 and Gamecube years Nintendo console owners were a largely untested market, and that a lot of sales potential was left unknown. It’s also arguable that over the course of the past console generation developers’ decision to largely ignore the Wii in favor of making ever more expensive PS3 and Xbox 360 games was a foolish move — just look at all the studios that have been shut down since 2006, largely due to expensive commercial failures on those systems.
Ultimately though, I don’t think that matters anymore. What matters is that over the last decade and a half, Nintendo has failed to gain the confidence of most of the guys making the biggest console games today. I’m starting to question whether they should even keep trying. This is not to say Nintendo should sell their consoles on the strength of their own first party software alone. Over the years that’s lead to massive software droughts. I’m starting to wonder if Nintendo should turn to other, smaller developers who might be more compatible with their environment and vision.
I don’t think a Nintendo console is ever going to deliberately create the kind of environment on which EA, Square Enix, or Take-Two want to sell games like Battlefield, Tomb Raider, or Grand Theft Auto respectively, at least not as new releases. Publishers like that became what they are today because of the environment the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 created — an environment that supports big-budget endeavors strictly for the 16-35 male demographic. Nintendo’s consoles have been the antithesis of that environment (the Gamecube probably being their biggest attempt to replicate it), especially the Wii. Then you have companies like Bethesda, Epic, or BioWare — developers originally from the PC world who have never had any relationship with Nintendo. None of those companies has ever shipped software for a Nintendo home console and they all were only making PC games when Nintendo was dominant in the console space. Their world of game development is entirely foreign to Nintendo’s. In the coming years all those big publishers will want more powerful hardware on which to make more expensive games, which is exactly the kind of thing Nintendo is trying to avoid.
Just look what happened with the Wii. It has been the hardware sales leader this generation but didn’t get major support from very many third parties because they were already attached to the environment of Sony’s and Microsoft’s platforms. Nintendo pushed the idea of making cheaper games that eschewed fancy graphics and big budgets for new gameplay accessible to mass audiences. In response EA could only bring out the occasional Boom Blox or EA Sports Active while Ubisoft tried a bunch of stuff like Just Dance or the Babiez line. Let’s not forget the various failed attempts at team sports games like EA’s casual-friendly Wii Madden games. I hear Konami cracked the nut that was making good Wii Remote-controlled team sports games in Pro Evolution Soccer, but was largely ignored. There may have been some successes in there, but those publishers still put the weight of their resources and talent into expensive high-definition PlayStation and Xbox games with relatively few sincere attempts at Wii games.
Nintendo probably hoped that third parties would agree with their vision and put more effort into games following it if the Wii gained a massive install base. But really, should Nintendo have even expected companies like EA, Take-Two, or Bethesda to go back to the drawing board on how they design games in order to accommodate something as different as the Wii Remote or GamePad?
I think what Nintendo should have been doing is trying to encourage other, smaller developers who might be more receptive to more accessible control schemes to come up through their platforms. Right now Nintendo is making a big push for indie developers with the Wii U, and it might be an appropriate move. When you think about it, indies are probably more similar in terms of game design philosophy to Nintendo than anyone else. Many of them are about simple fun and core gameplay mechanics instead of high-detail graphics and cinematic games.
I think this push would’ve been much more effective if Nintendo’s Wii U eShop existed in its current form around 2007. WiiWare’s restrictive policies burned a lot of indies, but had Nintendo managed to offer a better environment than say, Xbox Live Arcade several years ago, they could have established the Wii as a great system for cheap, independent games. That, along with the Wii’s huge hardware sales could have been a potent combination for the indie market. The Wii was already a little bit of a refuge for middle-budget retail games in its time.
Some of these indies could possibly have even grown bigger in a more developer-friendly version of the Wii’s digital environment. Because the EAs and Activisions didn’t make a serious push to take over iOS, Android, and Facebook, that space grew its own big hitters like GameLoft, Zynga, and Rovio. I think the Wii’s install base was big enough that if Nintendo had attracted indies to it and given them what they needed, some of them could have grown in a similar fashion.
Nintendo is probably trying to create a similar environment on the Wii U right now — getting indie games to fill in the gaps left by the lack of support from the big third parties. Now however, they’re going to have to compete with Sony’s and Microsoft’s robust efforts to create indie-friendly consoles.
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