Every month I get game magazines with beautiful characters from HD games splashed across their covers. The latest EGM features the Watchmen, the newest Edge details Little Big Planet and Game Developer dives into downloadable XBLA game The Age of Booty. Roundtable discussions in these magazines with developers and producers invariably focus on HD games and the challenge of creating and bringing them to market.
If you don’t follow the monthly NPD report you probably would have no idea that Nintendo has a significant lead in the American market. While the old guard of gaming press has been slow to downright resistant in accepting the Wii, the blame for the lack of Wii game coverage rests almost entirely on publishers. EGM has a tough time doing a cover story on non-existent games, and, while Babiez Party may be better than Mass Effect, diapers don’t look good on front pages.
No one can accuse the team that created the Car Vault of a lack of effort.
The lack of effort third party publishers (and Nintendo – see Animal Crossing) have put into making Wii games has been written about many times, by seemingly objective observers and fanboys alike. I have identified three major theories that analysts use to explain the current state of the console industry.
The first argument goes like this – The combined PS3, 360, and PC install base is larger than that of the Wii and so making cross platform HD games allows publishers to target a larger market. This argument rings true when two assumptions are made. The first is that cross platform PC/Wii games will not or can not exist. The second assumption is that time will stop moving forward.
Games like Strong Bad and World of Goo demonstrate that the Wii remote and mouse control are actually decent analogs. If producers choose to make cross-platform Wii and PC games we can remove PC games from the argument – the platform doesn’t necessarily support either HD or Wii gaming.
This leaves us with the march of time. In the states, HD gaming is roughly 4 million systems ahead of the Wii. The gap is around 3 million worldwide. Anyone with a sheet of graph paper is capable of working out the truth that the Wii will surpass combined PS3 and 360 sales. When is the only question. Publishers are hoping it takes a while, say until the minute before the XBox 9000 and PS4 are released.
Cross-platform Wii/PC games can not only exist, they can be awesome.
There is a subset of debates within the HD versus Wii argument. They range from “Nintendo sold 30 million consoles to people who have never played a video game” to “Wii owners don’t buy or play games.” Monthly sales data puts an end to most of these pretty quickly but they are still repeated ad nauseum, and likely believed by many publishers.
The second possible explanation for the lack of Wii support lies in the hands of the developers. However you personally define the term gamer, it is not a secret that many people in the industry associate power with progress. Better graphics, crisper sound and larger levels are the stuff dreams are made of for many artists, programmers, and designers. Until we reach a point where technology is irrelevant and technique is everything, games will be made by tech enthusiasts.
The Wii’s lack of computational power simply bores many developers. Some say more horsepower allows them to better realize their creative vision, others simply enjoy the challenge of pushing the newest and bestest technology to the limit. (Oddly enough, working with a new form of input does theoretically offer significant design challenges, despite many developers reluctance to work on the Wii. But then remember this is an industry where developers call systems they dislike a “virus”.)
Somewhere in Japan a meeting was held and it was decreed that Wii owners want spin offs of good series. Soul Calibur: Legends, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, Samurai Warriors: Katana, Dragon Quest: Swords and Castlevania: Judgment were thus born.
My final theory to explain why the Wii is everywhere but in development studio offices is perhaps the most conspiratorial. It is simply this – publishers are still hoping Nintendo just goes away. When the Genesis arrived many publishers jumped ship to support Sega despite the tight grip the NES had on the market. The PS1 gained significant support despite the strength of the SNES and even though it was Sony’s first attempt at a console. So what’s going on with the Wii – why are publishers who have shown they are capable of adaptation refusing to budge?
Many publishers grew accustomed to supporting Sony and are still scratching their heads over the PS3. Analysts are only now beginning to accept the reality that Sony isn’t going to once again dominate a generation of consoles and I’d wager many board members at various publishers still haven’t come to terms with this.
Beyond the Wii being a shift from Sony, it is a shift from business as usual. The template for handling new consoles has been around for generations and publishers aren’t about to throw it away. More often than not, the template calls for the same game released last year with more enemies, more locations, more voice acting, and more points of articulation in character models. Instead of rethinking old ideas, publishers seek to pretend it’s business as usual while throwing scraps Nintendo’s way.
Let us take a look at Red Steel and Resident Evil 4 and Umbrella Chronicles. The former was a mediocre launch title that sold over a million copies. It’s launch status surely helped sales but there are over 30 million more Wii owners now. In what bizarre world would the publisher of a million seller not announce a sequel? Both Resident Evil games for the Wii have passed the million mark. This has emboldened Capcom to rerelease Resident Evil Zero in Japan and give us a port of Dead Rising.
After a mediocre but pretty second attempt at wooing Wii owners, Konami has mostly given up. At least Kororinpa 2 should be good.
Wii owners have shown that they will support some core games, like the owners of all consoles (Okami bombed on the PS2 – not all good games will find a market). Yet publishers with money making core games refuse to follow up with much more than ports and minigame fests. What is going on here? Can it really be that publishers are still hoping every night that Nintendo just goes away?
It seems that way to me. Publishers had no problem shifting resources from the presumed champion the PS3 to the 360 as sales figures came in, yet Wii support is still infinitesimal. Square-Enix recently went on record as anticipating Xbox sales to continue to climb in Japan. Translation – We would rather support the system that may pick up than the one miles ahead of its nearest competition.
There is the old, tired idea that no one stands a chance when competing with Nintendo. Unfortunately for publishers, whatever console they release games for they are at least indirectly competing with Nintendo. The company is massive – bigger than all of Sony – and their influence is felt on gaming as a whole, despite claims the Wii and DS are not competing with any other systems.
Refining this idea to “publishers do not want to compete directly with Nintendo” still doesn’t make it more than a weak cop out. The first step toward proving Nintendo is some sort of impervious, infallible band of angels is to attempt to compete. Third parties have tried nothing and they are all out of ideas.
No More Heroes didn’t shatter any sales records, but it sold better than any of the designer’s previous games. Blueberry cheese brownie!
It is possible that the depressing truth of the matter is Ubisoft will make more money publishing Rayman Raving Rabbids Ravenously Rape Rapping Rats than Red Steel 2. On a company by company basis the strategy of releasing games in a proven genre makes sense but when examining the bigger picture the lunacy is apparent. Every large and small publishing house releasing party games will oversaturate the market and leave many empty handed.
Some are predicting that a new wave of developers and publishers will find success in vacant Wii markets by side stepping (hang gliding over? inner tubing past? snorkeling under?) the flood of mediocre family fare. The poster children for the move into this market are the not-so-tiny Sega and the smaller Marvelous. Sega is hoping their new House of the Dead, the Conduit, and Platinum Game’s MadWorld gain the attention of those who enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and are waiting for more mature (read: bloody) gaming. They’re also publishing the promising and innovative party game Let’s Tap (note to Ubisoft – it is actually possible to make a game both accessible and good).
Marvelous may be leading the way for a transformation by small publishers into significant players with their robust Wii support. 2D action game Muramasa, strategy sim Little King Story, farming/fighting game Rune Factory Frontier and RPG Arc Rise Fantasia are all slated for the Wii to be published, at least in Japan, by Marvelous. If they play their cards right, and if these games are actually good, Marvelous may propel themselves to big publisher within this single generation.
Arc Rise Fantasia may end up being just another generic JRPG, but the Wii could use a few of those.
Whether or not Sega and Marvelous capitalize on the huge Wii install base, discerning gamers still exist and are still waiting for more titles by A teams. The ever growing system sales and the highest software sales of any console should be enough to entice publishers to release good games on the system. Whether the market adjusts to reality is yet to be seen, but the money is there to be made if only someone is willing to take a risk. Fortune favors the bold.