Nintendo must find the Second Way
Nintendo's strength is its own titles - what it really needs is a return to the second-party approach of old
Along with publishing some rather good games, Ubisoft has quietly been developing another important role over the past few years. Thanks to the outspoken nature of CEO Yves Guillemot and the company's careful balancing of enthusiasm for new technologies and platforms with a decent degree of financial and management conservatism, Ubisoft has become a bellwether for the publishing industry. Perhaps a difference between French and American business culture plays a role, perhaps not; either way, where other firms equivocate and fall back on meaningless corporate double-speak, Ubisoft and its executives have developed a reputation for speaking openly and giving us an insight into what the publishing industry at large is actually thinking.
When Guillemot pronounces, then, that his company is no longer going to launch "mature" titles on Wii U - Watch_Dogs will be their last such effort, following the disappointing performance of Assassin's Creed on the platform - you can safely bet that it's not acting in isolation. What Ubisoft says in the open is almost certainly precisely the strategy being pursued by other publishers as well; they're just more likely to try and veil it with empty platitudes about what a great partner Nintendo is and how important it is to the industry, effusive corporate praise which, once picked apart, actually carries no commitment of substance to the Wii U platform.
"If mature cross-platform titles aren't selling on the Wii U, which they are not, then publishers should feel no obligation to continue to develop them for that platform"
Nor should any such commitment be forthcoming. If mature cross-platform titles aren't selling on the Wii U, which they are not, then publishers should feel no obligation to continue to develop them for that platform. If this were a two-horse race between rival platform holders, some publishers might be tempted to continue support for the lagging console just in order to keep the front-runner on its toes, but with three strong companies competing, that branch of thought no longer produces fruit. Wii U is on its own, in this regard. Just as Ubisoft will continue to publish Just Dance titles and their ilk on the platform, where they do very well, other publishers will also find casual or kids' games in their line-ups which suit the Wii U - but support for "mature" or "core" games will disappear in short order. I wouldn't expect to see many multi-platform core titles on Wii U from 2015 onwards.
This will cause wailing and gnashing of teeth, because wailing and gnashing of teeth is essentially what the games media and the fanboy frenzy is set up to provide. The death knell! The final nail in the coffin! Vultures circle overhead! Once the core-game supply for Wii U completely dries up and other publishers admit to pursuing exactly the same policy as Ubisoft, headline writers will fall over themselves to drag out death-related imagery that would make a teenage goth poet blush. We know this, because it has happened before. Every Nintendo console since the SNES, in fact, has seen its third-party support fall off a cliff at some point in its life cycle. On each occasion, Nintendo's failure to woo third-parties has been presented as a sign of inevitable doom.
Let's lay it out, then; Nintendo's home console platforms are terrible for third parties. They've been that way for twenty years and they're not going to stop being that way any time soon. Honestly, it wouldn't matter a tuppenny damn if Nintendo unveiled a PS4-beating HD console tomorrow; the business model, the branding and the market for Nintendo consoles is simply poison to the cross-platform "mature" mega-hit franchises like Call of Duty, GTA or Assassin's Creed.
"Core gamers buy a Nintendo console as a second device because they want access to Nintendo exclusive titles, primarily first-party games"
Purchasers of Nintendo home consoles fall broadly into two categories. You've got core gamers who buy a Nintendo console alongside another gaming device - either a Sony or Microsoft console, or a PC; and you've got "casual" gamers, including the family and child segments, who buy a Nintendo device because they trust the brand. Neither of those groups is actually all that keen to buy the latest Call of Duty on a Nintendo platform. Core gamers buy a Nintendo console as a second device because they want access to Nintendo exclusive titles, primarily first-party games, but migrate back to their "primary" console to play mature cross-platform titles. Casual gamers don't want to play mature cross-platform titles anyway. In both cases, they bought a Nintendo device to play Nintendo exclusives.
That's exactly how Nintendo likes it. Nintendo consoles maintain pretty strong tie ratios - even the Wii, supposedly the dust-gatherer of the last generation, had a healthy software tie ratio - and the lion's share of the games sold are Nintendo first-party games. It's not that Nintendo "accidentally" builds consoles like the Wii and Wii U which are underpowered and "weird" compared with the other consoles of their era, then wrings its hands and wonders why third-parties aren't launching loads of cross-platform games. Nintendo does this deliberately, building consoles that are custom-made to play Nintendo first-party games and which don't risk being overrun by Call of Duty and its ilk and thus damaging or polluting the brand image which the company has carefully constructed over the past few decades. For Nintendo, the fact that Assassin's Creed doesn't sell too well on Wii U is a feature, not a bug, because it means that the company's own first-party titles remain solidly in the spotlight and the brand image of the console remains Nintendo's to control.
Of course, that approach begins to look a little less wise when the console in question fails to sell very well, leaving Nintendo's first-party titles with only a limited audience to address - which is exactly what's happened with the Wii U. Yet the solution isn't to throw in the towel and simply copy what Sony does - an enterprise in which Nintendo would almost certainly be doomed to fail. Nintendo needs to find a solution to its current woes which actually suits Nintendo; something which leverages all the things the company is good at and rescues its market position without simply becoming a clone of its rivals or, worse, just another software publisher jostling for attention on the App Store.
"Nintendo needs to find a solution to its current woes which actually suits Nintendo; something which leverages all the things the company is good at"
The solution, perhaps unsurprisingly for a company with such a long history, may lie in the past. Nintendo doesn't need or want a swathe of third-party multi-platform manshooters on the Wii U, and that's absolutely fine. It does, however, need more breadth if not more depth in the Wii U's software catalogue. The first-party games on the system are excellent, but it needs more of them, addressing more niches; maintaining Nintendo's excellent quality standards while also exploring more genres, more aesthetics and more audiences.
Once upon a time, Nintendo used to do almost exactly that. It operated "second-party" studios within and outside Japan, most famously Britain's Rare, which were independent but nestled under the wing of the platform holder, given access to Nintendo's expertise, assets and finance in return for accepting creative guidance from Kyoto and publishing exclusively on Nintendo platforms. It also built relationships with publishers, mostly in Japan, which guaranteed exclusive titles to Nintendo systems on similar terms.
"Bayonetta 2, which no other publisher or platform holder would fund, is a compelling Nintendo exclusive now"
Some legacies of the second-party system remain. Bayonetta 2, which no other publisher or platform holder would fund, is a compelling Nintendo exclusive now; Hyrule Warriors, released in Japan last week, is a cross-publisher collaboration of a sort which the company should pursue more regularly. Yet these are mere echoes of a system which once guaranteed a strong flow of exclusive, high-quality titles to Nintendo platforms - titles which were different from the offerings on rival platforms, but compelling enough to ensure that gamers felt that they really, really needed a Nintendo console under the TV as well.
A resurrection and reinvigoration of second-party would make enormous sense for Nintendo today. It would look quite different to the system of the past in some regards; indie developers would have to form a big part of it, for example, although one could argue that Sony has already stolen a march on Nintendo in this regard with its policy of working closely with selected indie developers on PS4 and Vita. The scope would have to be as big as it once was if not bigger, though; studios around the globe, not just in Japan, with oversight from Kyoto but also enjoying the trust required both to build excellent new IP and to experiment with old properties. Rebuilding this system would require opening the Nintendo warchest, of course; and it would take time and patience, although both of those are qualities Nintendo has never lacked for. It would, however, do more that just giving Wii U a shot in the arm; it would set Nintendo up with a supply of IP and games that would sustain its platforms for generations to come.