Third Party Puzzle
The idea that third parties can't do well on the Wii is firmly rooted - and completely wrong
If the strength of feeling displayed on games forums and websites is a good measure of consumer sentiment (and I'm not implying even for a second that it actually is), Nintendo is a company in gamers' black books right now. The stunning success of the Wii and the DS in reaching out to new audiences who have never played games before is viewed in the Internet's darkest corners as a betrayal of core gamers, an abandonment of traditional games to be replaced with brightly-coloured, "waggle controlled" abominations.
The reality, of course, is somewhat different. Only this week, Nintendo announced dates for a line-up of Wii titles which should please any long-term fan of the company's output - Mario Galaxy 2, Metroid: Other M and Sin & Punishment 2 being key highlights for the hardcore audience. Many of the top sellers on the console are games which appeal broadly to upstream and downstream gamers alike - Mario Kart, New Super Mario Bros, Super Smash Bros Brawl and Mario Galaxy all appear in the console's top ten.
Viewed dispassionately, it's hard to see the Wii as the scourge which angry gamers claim it to be. It's unlikely to be the only console that an upstream gamer owns - but as a second machine, sitting alongside an Xbox 360 or a PS3, it's absolutely ideal, while for more casual gamers, young families and so on, it's the ideal machine to sit alone under their TV. Hence, presumably, the machine's sales - which remain almost as high as the 360 and PS3 combined, and almost 20 million units higher than the mighty PS2 was at the same point in its lifespan.
So why the anger? On one hand, perhaps a certain sense of technological disappointment persists. Gamers are used to HD, to persistent online services with voice chat and cross-game messaging, and so on - and in those senses, the Wii certainly does not stack up to the PS3 and 360. Nintendo's wisdom lay in recognising that the vast majority of its audience would not notice or care about those things, allowing it to save vast amounts of time and money by leaving them off the console - a decision whose knock-on effects are still felt in the much lower production costs of Wii games.
While this makes sense on a business level, a certain sense of disappointment from the existing fanbase is understandable - but not the harsh treatment Nintendo receives from its most vocal critics. In that case, I fear, a rather more unpleasant line of argument rears its ugly head - the idea that this is the young male demographic who view gaming as their own private playground railing against the sudden inclusion of women, older people and others in "their" pastime.
Yet if that factor - magnified and amplified, as always, by the Internet's unfortunate side-effect of making loud idiots seem like outraged majorities - explains some of the upstream consumer dissatisfaction with the Wii, where is the equivalent explanation for publishers' reticence to engage with the platform?
This, to me, is one of the least explicable foibles of publishers in recent years. A month does not pass without another publisher executive making a disparaging comment about his firm's prospects on the Wii, with doubts being expressed in the past few months alone by Ubisoft and Sega, with Ubisoft going so far as to publicly announce that it is refocusing development efforts on the PS3 and 360.
Of course, the headline hardware figures which suggest that the Wii is the market's dominant platform aren't the only figures publishers have to consider. The tie ratio is also important, and the Wii has another factor to consider - Nintendo itself. It's a long-held belief that only Nintendo games (and those from selected third parties who work closely with the Japanese platform holder) do well on Nintendo platforms. Both Sony and Microsoft publish titles for their consoles, of course, but these are key exclusives which lay the foundations for the console's success - Nintendo, some critics argue, not only lays the foundations, but goes on to build the whole damned house, and then lock the doors and windows.
In support of this argument, one need only look at the Wii's all-time top ten - a list populated exclusively by Nintendo first-party titles. Case closed - or is it? The reality is that the popular view that nobody other than Nintendo is making money out of the Wii is not quite as simple, or as true, as it may seem. In fact, 76 games have now sold over a million copies on the Wii - of which, only 22 were first party titles.
That's right - less than a third of the Wii's million sellers are first-party games. It may be rather different at the very top - just about everything that's sold over five million copies is a Nintendo game - but there's a lot of profit to be made in that ground between a million and five million units, especially considering how much more economical Wii development is compared with building games for the 360 or PS3. (Incidentally, the Wii also has more third-party million sellers than the PS3, one of the platforms Ubisoft is now moving its focus onto.)
These figures aren't discussed as much as they deserve to be, given the prevalence of the "Wii is awful for third parties" theme, but neither are they a secret - so why, in that case, are publishers so critical of the Wii? To some extent, this may be a little bit of sabre-rattling on their part - keenly aware of how profitable the Wii is for Nintendo, key publishers are unlikely to pass up on any opportunity to pressure the platform holder to drop its licensing fees by indicating that they're not happy with the money they're making from it.
More importantly, however, it may be a factor of the continuing inability of some studios to make the Wii work for them as a development platform. Even several years after launch, few developers outside of Nintendo itself have grasped the real potential of the console and its control methods. For every game which truly leverages the potential of the console to provide a unique and compelling experience (Silent Hill: Shattered Memories being a rare recent example), there are dozens of identikit mini-game compilations and on-rails shooters which compound their weakness as games with equally poor presentation.
Part of the problem here isn't creative drought, but rather a continuing aversion to risk-taking in the development process - which makes a certain amount of sense on the 360 or PS3, where budgets are so high, but is tougher to explain on the Wii, where low budgets and rapid development should, in theory, free development teams up to be much more creative. The reality, however, is that many large publishers struggle to actually take advantage of those low-budget opportunities. Wasteful internal studio working cultures conspire to make even Wii game development expensive for these companies, stifling both their creativity and their profitability.
In other words, much of the "problem" with Nintendo's third-party market isn't actually a problem with Nintendo at all. The platform holder has created a console which, although not without its challengers, has sold almost 70 million units in a shockingly short space of time and proved a success with both a core demographic and with a wider audience, and which has the potential to keep development timescales and budgets low. Publishers failing to take advantage of that can blame Nintendo in public all they like - but it's to their own product line-ups and development practices that they should look for the solution.