Next week Capcom will release Zack and Wiki for the Wii.
This is significant not because I want to play the game (although I do, and you should also) but because I had never heard of it up until a few days ago. There have been plenty of articles and columns recently that lament the fact that third party titles have failed to sell on Nintendo’s newest console. This fact, the fact that Nintendo has suffered a similar fate with past consoles, and the perception that they are either competing too fiercely with these third parties or have too difficult and onerous a quality assurance process have led some in the industry to believe that the big N is doomed. The Wii will be unable to dominate this generation without significant third part support, they argue.
While I could propose an alternative explanation (i.e. the games have mostly been crap) for why third party titles have not been selling, this is not what I mean to discuss today. The question on my mind is this: Whose responsibility is it to make sure I have heard of games and that I want to buy them?
In the case of first party games, responsibility is clear. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have to make sure I know about their titles. The issue is a little murkier when it comes to third party games. The console manufacturers have slightly different business strategies, and this may have an impact. Sony loses money on each PS3 sold and ostensibly makes the money back by selling software and collecting the licensing fees that third parties must pay to release games.
Nintendo makes money on each Wii they sell, as well as on internally produced software and licensing fees. To me, this means that Sony definitely has a vested interest in the success of third party games and as such, should share the responsibility for making sure I have heard of (and want) every game released on the PS3.
Which brings us to Nintendo. I assume they honestly want a large catalogue of quality third party games on the Wii. The benefits derived from the larger installed base and the licensing fees that come from successful third party relationships surely outweigh any software sales they lose because of increased competition. So Nintendo should take some responsibility, but may be less inclined to do so.
If they are doing more than paying SquareEnix and EA lip service and want to reverse the perception that they are unfriendly towards third parties, Nintendo should demonstrate that they are willing to work closely with third parties to ensure their success. One way to do this is to share in advertising costs and help promote Wii games, whether published by Nintendo or not.
However, advertising is only one way that gamers learn about games. Frankly, the demographic targeted by video game advertising is likely to be skeptical about advertising, so while a television commercial may inform me that a game exists (the importance of which should not be underestimated) it is unlikely to convince me to buy a game. The other ways this knowledge spreads are word of mouth and through the gaming press. Word of mouth is tough to harness (insert joke about alliwantforxmasisapsp), but the press and publisher community are probably pretty intimate.
While I can speculate, I know very little about how the mainstream gaming press operates, so I don’t want to delve too deeply into my suspicions about the quality and integrity of certain publications. I imagine most major features and blockbuster reviews are used as currency between game publishers and gaming magazines. Its a two way street, and magazines will offer a cover story to a publisher in exchange for an exclusive advance copy of a game, or vice versa.
In my opinion this is a very important avenue by which to move information about games from developers and publishers to gamers, especially since gamers are likely to trust magazines more than commercials. While certain developers and publishers are influential enough to make this power play on their own, many of the small ones could probably use some help. When the game in question is a console exclusive, that help should come from the console manufacturer.
Back to Zack and Wiki. Capcom has proven that they are capable of making their products known. Who has owned any console in the past decade and has never heard of Resident Evil? On the other hand, Okami was a critical darling and sold about 38 copies. So I guess I am unsure about how competent they are when it comes to marketing their games. Zack and Wiki has received some press, most notably by IGN. Most of what they have said about it is positive; they have it listed among their most wanted games of the year and started a campaign to get people to buy it. Their campaign has led to a grass roots efforts by a number of smaller sites and blogs to get people to buy the game.
This does seem like a situation where Capcom should have gotten previews in front of more people, or, since people at Capcom and people at Nintendo must talk to each other occasionally, the two companies could have worked out some kind of arrangement where they share the costs of advertising and marketing since they will also share in the profits should the game succeed.
Ultimately, I think it is the job of the publisher to get the word out about their games. They have (or should have) infrastructure in place (in the form of a marketing department) that small development teams can not afford and should not have to be concerned about, since they are creative people. In most cases, the console manufacturers would do well to help them. Smaller publishers especially may have a hard time spending their money and influence to support a game, but they may well have a viable and interesting product. Since the success of a console relies so heavily on the quality, success and diversity of its games, console manufacturers would benefit gamers as well as themselves by helping to spread the word.
Oh, and buy Zack and Wiki.