Let's get this out of the way up front. Yes, you never, ever count Nintendo out of the game.
That's the go-to response for pretty much anyone in this industry when asked if the company will be able to dig itself out of the hole the Wii U has created - and it's usually a valid one. (Think back to the GameCube days and things were just as dire as they seem today - but it managed to turn things around.)
But as we head into the Wii U's second holiday season, the pessimism about the system is starting to crest. And despite Nintendo's push of first party software coming in the next year, there's nothing to suggest that a turnaround of any sort is imminent.
Third party partners are, in a word, disappointed with Nintendo. And while you'll still hear the usual refrain about not giving up on the company at some point, you're more likely to hear dissatisfaction when you speak with executives.
Yves Guillemot, Chairman and CEO of Ubisoft, is typically one of the biggest proponents of new systems, but betting big on the Wii U didn't work out well for the company. ZombiU, one of the most popular launch titles for the system with players, was not profitable, he says. Not even close. As such, he says, there are no plans (or even desire) for a sequel.
"It seems like a box that's out of sync with the future of EA - which is one that gives a real social feel to our games. The Wii U feels like an offline experience right now"Peter Moore
It was, in fact, because of that game's performance that Ubisoft decided to make Rayman Legends a multiplatform game.
"We must find a way to ensure the creativity of those games could have a big enough audience," he says. "We hope it will take off. At the moment, we've said 'let's do through Christmas and see where we are from there.'"
Activision, also, was a notable launch partner for the Wii U, but like Ubisoft, the results haven't been strong enough to justify a notable further investment in the system.
"We came to the table with a robust slate," says Eric Hirshberg, president and CEO of Activision Publishing, at E3. "But we have no announcements now."
No one, however, is more direct than EA's Peter Moore. EA, at present, has no games in development for the Wii U - and its AAA game engine isn't compatible with the system.
"We were there with four games for them [at launch]," he says. "It's been a disappointment when you look at sell-through and, as a company, we have to be very judicious where we deploy our resources."
For EA, at least, it's the system's lack of a rich multiplayer environment that's one of the big concerns - especially for sports titles. (That's part of the reason Madden won't appear on the system this year.)
"The lack of online engagement that we see on Wii U [is troubling]," says Moore. "It's so integral to what we do. They're so small it's hardly worth running the servers. It seems like a box that's out of sync with the future of EA - which is one that gives a real social feel to our games. The Wii U feels like an offline experience right now."
Nintendo systems have always been led by the rich slate of first party titles, but the company isn't an island - and knows it can't remain competitive without the cooperation of third party publishers. And while some, like Capcom, are sticking with the Wii U, even Nintendo admits it needs to woo back its publishing partners by boosting sales.
Rather than focusing on the negativity surrounding the platform, Nintendo itself says it's making software development its primary focus. With no price cuts on the horizon (something global CEO Satoru Iwata has been very insistent about), it realizes that the only way to boost hardware sales is to come up with a must-have game. And while the company is counting on Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros. to do their part, it realizes that those alone won't convince people to invest in the system.
"We have been unsuccessful in coming up with one single software with which people can understand 'OK, this is really different' and I can understand the real value of that as soon as I saw that," says Iwata. "Because there's no software that's simple and obvious for people as 'Wii Sports' for the Wii, potential consumers do not even feel like trying to touch the Wii U. Our challenge today is with the software lineup we are introducing now; we have to encourage them to want to experience the Wii U in the first place."
The problem is: That game's not coming out this holiday, based on what the company showed at E3. And if the Wii U tanks for a second holiday in a row, it's going to be that much harder to get publishers back on board.