Thursday, 3 May 2012

Can Traditional Third Party Games Ever Succeed On Nintendo Consoles?

A recent leak revealed a sequel to Ubisoft's Rayman Origins as destined for Nintendo's upcoming console, the Wii U, sparking the usual heated debate across the internet about whether Nintendo will finally succeed in releasing hardware as beneficial to third party developers as the manufacturer themselves. The Wii's enormous userbase has been perceived as a sales white whale, with many of the 'new gamers' brought into the fold by Wii Sports and Wii Fit failing to make the transition to traditional genre gaming, at least for titles not released by Nintendo.

While these views are repudiated as biased by Nintendo loyalists, they have become so common that it is hard to deny they must represent the feelings of at least a tangible number of upper-tier third-party developers. Such feelings also seem backed up by numbers, with only a tiny number of third-party genre games achieving that all-important million sales mark on Nintendo's console. Many don't even make it halfway, or if so, only after major discounting from retailers. The evidence seems damning, proof of a trend supposedly reaching as far back as the days of the N64. Is it then true to say that traditional third-party games can never represent a viable investment on Nintendo consoles?
One of the most frequently cited reasons for third-party failings on the Wii among fans is that their games are not given the same marketing push as those on the HD consoles. While it's certainly true that screen or print advertisements for third-party Wii games are few and far between, it's also foolish to assume big marketing budgets are a key to instant success: one only needs to remember BrĂ¼tal Legend, which sold fewer than a million copies worldwide across both HD consoles despite a very prominent campaign, to see the flaw in this argument.

The vast technical differences in hardware also cannot be ignored: many third-party Wii games are exclusives and even with a huge promotional budget, a game on a single console is likely to sell in noticeably lower numbers than a multiplatform title, meaning any investment has to be measured more carefully. It's also true that, outside gamer-oriented media such as specialist magazines and websites, games advertising is not especially prominent anyway, at least not for anything but the biggest releases.

That's not the only side of the story, though. As an English citizen, I'm be speaking from the viewpoint of someone living in the European marketplace, so may not necessarily reflect the experiences of American gamers. Over here, it's not just a question of third-party Wii games not receiving sufficient marketing exposure, but also how difficult they are to find on the shelves. As someone who prefers browsing in shops to the impersonal online buying experience, even such high-profile titles as the latest Call Of Duty Wii port are remarkably difficult to find.

Smaller games like Little King's Story, Deadly Creatures, No More Heroes or Dead Space Extraction, were not only difficult to find, but often not stocked at all. If THQ's Brian Eastick genuinely believed 2009's Deadly Creatures could have been a successful game (by THQ's baffling estimates at the time, they were aiming for 500k sold worldwide – according to VGChartz, it managed 150k), he certainly wasn't willing to back it up with the minimum requirement of giving the game any sort of presence on the shelves of European retailers. The game apparently sold more copies here than in the US, so I dread to think what the situation must have been like over there.

But surely most gamers are technology-oriented enough that much of their spending will be done online, meaning a retailer presence shouldn't be a notable factor in a game's success or failure? Evaluating this point requires an analysis of who the elusive 'Nintendo audience' actually is and what they look for, the types of games released on Nintendo consoles, as well as how well that audience and those games fit together.

First off, I should state that I am a Nintendo gamer and have been for all of my gaming life (since about the age of five with Super Mario Bros on the NES, if you're interested). Apart from a few excursions with a PlayStation, my sister's Sega Saturn and the odd bit of PC gaming, Nintendo have been the overwhelming provider of my gaming experiences and continues to be up to this day. This is not because I disrespect what Microsoft or Sony bring to the gaming table (fanboyism is, I think, a classic example of the 'vocal minority' in action), but because Nintendo provide me with certain things that no other manufacturer do.

The first is a guarantee of quality across a wide number of releases: even the most ardent HD console supporter would surely not argue that Nintendo is one of the most consistent developers of high-quality software, not only this generation but since their earliest forays into the market. Their titles regularly occupy the upper ranks of 'Most Important Games Ever' lists, especially entries in their flagship Mario and Zelda franchises, whose influence reaches far beyond their respective genres. The consistency is mind-boggling, especially when taking into account the volume of games Nintendo releases. That's neither to deny that Nintendo have released plenty of stinkers in their time (ahoy, Geist and Yoshi's Island 64) or that Microsoft and Sony do not also release many high quality games, but Nintendo are on a whole other level in terms of the quantity of those top-level games, as well as the diversity of the experiences provided.

The second and arguably most important point, is history: I have grown up with Nintendo. Mario and Zelda are among my many happy childhood memories and when I play new entries in those franchises today, I enjoy them that little bit more because of that connection. Their faults are certainly plain to see, but I enjoy the good moments all the more because of the affection I have for the franchises and the characters, in the same way as many adults find pleasure in Mickey Mouse products for the association they bring with happy childhood memories of comics and cartoons. (Epic Mickey, incidentally, is one of the best selling third-party games on the Wii). Many at this point would jump in, suggesting it is that legacy which is blocking third-party success on Nintendo consoles. People only buy the hardware for those franchises, right?

I would say not: as a lifelong Nintendo fan, I haven't been reticent in buying third-party software over the years when it appeals or is available to me. Those who repeat the notion that Nintendo gamers only buy Nintendo games seem to assume everyone who has bought a Nintendo console is deliberately blind to the world outside the Mushroom Kingdom. While those types of obsessives might exist in some of the internet's murkier corners, such behaviour goes so far beyond the human norm that the idea of even a noticeable minority of Nintendo fans conforming to that stereotype is absurd: the average Nintendo fan is as quintessentially human as everyone else. So why are third parties struggling so hard?

My two points as to why I have remained (mostly) loyal to Nintendo conceals a subtext which seems to get widely overlooked. Nintendo gamers are not the same as Sony or Microsoft gamers, but purely for practical rather than brand loyalty reasons. While the other manufacturers support their consoles with quality first-party releases, they do so only intermittently. In buying one of those consoles, the gamer knows they will be reliant on third-party releases for most of their gaming over the console's lifespan. Nintendo consoles, on the other hand, are guaranteed a large number of high-quality releases from the first-party publishing arm alone. This does not mean Nintendo gamers will avoid buying software from other companies, but they will not be reliant upon it. That makes for an key difference in consumer psychology: on the HD consoles, third-parties are the ones setting the standards, with first-party releases popping up only occasionally. On Nintendo platforms, a standard has already been set and it is up to third-parties to reach it.

With that in mind, let's look back at some of the key traditional third-party games released at the Wii's launch. The key traditional title on everybody's lips was Red Steel. It proved a major disappointment and was poorly received by critics and public alike. It breached the million mark, but much of that can be attributed to its status as a launch title and the strong buzz behind it and the new console. Other titles included Far Cry Vengeance, by all accounts a disaster with sales to match; Elebits, a low-budget genre hybrid with limited playtime that was a minor critical success; and Call of Duty 3, the most successful game on my list despite the obvious laziness of the port - an Activision employee later stated that fewer than ten people worked on the game.

Much can be ascertained from those games, with the successes and failures both intricately linked to the profile of the Nintendo gamer I provided earlier. Looking at the failures of Far Cry and Elebits, several factors spring out immediately: the first is that they were both low quality, albeit in different ways. Far Cry was an outright bad game, whereas Elebits was clearly low budget and low priority for the publisher. Elebits was trying to tap into the same mindset that leads Nintendo owners to buy Mario or Pikmin games, but was not as well reviewed or polished as the equivalent first-party releases, and Konami made little effort to make the game feel like an important release. The Far Cry series also means nothing to Nintendo gamers, having never previously appeared on any of their consoles, and it only took a glance at the dismal screenshots on the game's back cover or any number of awful reviews to be anything but insulted by the cynicism with which it was hurried onto the console to take advantage of its launch status.

Red Steel, on the other hand, felt important. It was the first Wii game to have screenshots released (albeit later proven to be renders, adding to many Wii owners' continuing distrust of Ubisoft) and heavily advertised as a Wii exclusive. However dishonest, Ubisoft successfully made Nintendo owners feel their game was as vital a buy as the new Zelda and potentially part of a quality ongoing franchise built just for them. Call of Duty 3, of course, is among the most widely established FPS names, meaning it bears for many the same long-established kudos as Nintendo does for its fans. Many gamers would see the COD name as a marker of quality and reliability - even if in this case, that quality failed to materialise - and thus be willing to invest in it as a safe bet.

Even if both games were soon revealed as disappointing, they tapped into the key characteristics defining the appeal Nintendo holds for its fans: quality and legacy. Red Steel felt like a big release and was presented (deceptively) as a game of Nintendo-quality for Nintendo fans. Call of Duty 3 was almost as bad as Far Cry, but the series was sufficiently established in gamers' minds for the name to recall fond gaming experiences past.

Subsequent 'hardcore' Wii releases have failed to hit those two crucial marks. SEGA's big three (House Of The Dead Overkill, MadWorld and The Conduit) did a decent job of making Nintendo fans feel important, but the games gradually became less appealing over time: Overkill was no more than four hours long and part of a dying genre (the success of the previous House of the Dead game on Wii is widely attributed to its budget price-point), MadWorld was barely two hours longer and particularly niche in its direction (extreme violence, black-and-white visuals), while Conduit simply focused on all the wrong areas (no-one would buy a Wii game for the graphics) and increased coverage exposed its lack of invention and stale gameplay.

With Nintendo providing their gamers with highly polished twenty-hour experiences, it's hard to imagine those same buyers looking kindly on how the total playtime offered by those games barely added up to two-thirds of the average Zelda, let alone their obvious low-budget nature. Conduit was the only one in a mainstream genre, but so lacking in ideas that it felt as though Nintendo fans were expected to settle for the ugly duckling rather than the prom queens they were used to.

It's worth mentioning that when discounted, Overkill passed the half-million mark, while sales of Bayonetta on the HD consoles, bolstered by a fairly prominent advertising campaign, took almost two months to surpass the niche and largely unsupported MadWorld. It would seem Nintendo fans are no less open to the qualities these games offer than any other gamers, but will not pay full price for an experience which does not match the standards Nintendo sets in key areas.

The utter failure of Dead Space Extraction did not come as a surprise to anyone capable of rational analysis (a five-hour on-rails spin-off of an average-selling new IP only launched on non-Nintendo consoles? Yes please!), while Deadly Creatures, which tried to sell a tarantula and a scorpion as protagonists to a Western world full of arachnophobes, wouldn't have sold on any console, especially with zero exposure, no presence on shelves, mixed reviews and a single player mode less than ten hours long (despite being of high quality while it lasted) and offering little replay value. It is interesting to note that many HD ports of Wii games, such as Activision's recent GoldenEye Reloaded or the various No More Heroes re-releases, have failed to achieve anything approaching the solid numbers they achieved on Nintendo's console, both high-quality exclusives, tailored to the console's specific audience - Activision offering a respectable and respectful tribute to Rare's masterpiece, and Goichi Suda trading off his killer7 kudos and producing one of the console's greatest games (and most focused and exciting uses of motion control to date).

Third-parties can achieve success on Nintendo consoles, but only if they tailor their games to appeal to the specific natures of Nintendo gamers. Many of the traditional third-party million sellers on Wii have come in genres that Nintendo do not directly participate in: Resident Evil 4 as survival horror, the Call of Duty series (only Modern Warfare 3 has failed to hit the million mark, released last November when the console had already been marked as dead) as FPS'. This proves there are at least some Wii-owning gamers willing to make these types of game successful.

If the market for those games is still undeniably smaller than on HD consoles, it is partially down to how no third-party has made a concerted effort to build a fanbase for itself on a Nintendo console. In the days of the N64, with the exception of the Banjo series, Rareware released games which would be considered the antithesis of everything the traditional Nintendo gamer would go for, yet GoldenEye sold eight million and, in the console's dying days, Perfect Dark managed two and a half million, while Jet Force Gemini was still considered a failure for selling fewer than two million. Even the all-swearing, all-defecating Conker's Bad Fur Day, released when the console was in a state of nigh-on rigour mortis, managed about 750k. Build a strong reputation for yourself and Nintendo fans will flock to you. But with most third-parties invisibly releasing second-class titles to gamers used to first-class treatment from their first-party benefactors, how could anyone have legitimate expectations of success?

The worry is that when Nintendo upgrade their hardware to HD later this year, it may be too late for developers to salvage their damaged reputation. On the Wii, the risks of building and advertising a series of quality games were somewhat offset by low development costs and the console's ability to provide experiences no other console can (the PlayStation Move can hardly be considered a serious competitor considering its low sales). It's disheartening that Motion Plus has been so ignored, despite it sorting out many people's major gripe with the console: Red Steel 2 and Skyward Sword gave glimpses of the distinctive experiences motion controls can bring to traditional game genres.

It seems more likely that third parties will adopt a cautious approach to Wii U development, when fortune would surely favour the brave. When Nintendo go HD later this year, the advantage of low development costs will disappear and the question ceases to be whether third parties can have success on a Nintendo platform, but whether it is even worth trying. Low-to-middle budget retail titles which achieved success on the Wii, like No More Heroes, suddenly become a much more difficult to justify from a business perspective, as Grasshopper have discovered with the minuscule sales of Shadows Of The Damned on the HD consoles. If the more mainstream third-party ports then continue to struggle, as well they might - Sony and Microsoft gamers won't cross over for the same games they've already got - that's when everyone loses.



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