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Why publishers won't make the Switch

Third party publishers are slow to put their most prized titles on Nintendo's latest console. Will this destroy the Switch and are they right to do so?

 

Listening to the latest edition (Monday 14th August 2017) of KindaFunny Games Daily, I heard Tim Gettys (not quite) overtly criticise EA's decision to hold off on the release of FIFA 18 on the Nintendo Switch. The conversation turned to the disastrous decisions by publishers to port old or poorer-quality titles to Vita, which doomed the charming little handheld to a life as a second-rate console. Would it be cruel of EA to withhold its premiere sporting franchise (sorry USA, the rest of the world doesn't care about Madden) from the market's latest handheld and would similar moves by the big publishers kill the console’s momentum and consign it to the bargain bin with the Wii U?

This is my first blog and I will be up-front, I will often write in defence of video game publishers. In a perfect world, all publishers would put art first, commercials be damned. That is not to say that they don't - UBIart produced one of my favourite games, Valiant Hearts: The Great War in a framework that allowed artists and storytellers to build beautiful, touching games with little video game development knowledge. But to fund these projects, they need to pay their employees, cover the costs of failed ventures and please investors. A publisher focused solely on niche titles with artistic or cultural merit may quickly find itself short of cash to finance the next project, which would leave us all missing out.

I am under no illusion that FIFA is some sort of artistic masterpiece, but the same applies to publisher benevolence. Yves Guillemot, Gabe Newell and Andrew Wilson may well be sitting at home with their feet up, Switch undocked, searching for those pesky Korok seeds, desperately hoping that they get to keep playing Nintendo's marvellous and unique creations for the next 10 years. They probably are. But that doesn't mean that they will take every risk under the sun to make sure it happens.

Nintendo wants FIFA on the Switch. Why? Because it is an annual franchise that is almost guaranteed to sell, with support from one of the world's biggest publishers. Maybe the allure of millions of gamers who only buy consoles for football (soccer) games will be tempted by the on-the-go, social promise of the Switch will shift units and fill the Japanese giant’s coffers. That'd be great. So come on EA, gamers want the Switch to be a success so that we can get more of that Mario and Link goodness.

But what is in it for EA? I have no doubt that CEO Andrew Wilson wants to see the Switch be a huge success, not least because it gives a broader platform through which to sell his games, but because he's probably a decent guy. Taking FIFA, a game which is usually criticised for iterative design and overhauling it for this brand new console, with unique architecture and characteristics - that is a big ask. And will cost a lot of money.

Spending a little bit of dosh to see the third console sustain in the market is worth it, right? Unfortunately, as much as EA would want to see the Switch succeed, that's not EA’s primary concern It already has a massive install base to sell its games to through the PS4, Xbox One and PC. Investing in the Switch would require a Ezio-sized leap of faith. And that leap of faith will benefit some of its main competitors.

Imagine a scenario where EA invests heavily to bring FIFA to the Switch. Maybe it sells well and EA makes a tidy profit. Meanwhile, Ubisoft and Activision are sitting backing, watching EA play with millions of dollars in a gamble that could quite easily go south. If the Switch succeeds, great! Ubisoft will get to work porting Assassin's Creed Origins and their back catalogue to a proven system. And they can do so almost risk-free, because EA was willing to take the front the cash to prove the concept. Unfortunately, EA wouldn’t gain a first-mover advantage over their rivals having been the first one to jump in the pool.

Likewise, had EA spent all that money and it not worked out, Ubisoft, Activision and the rest of the industry will lament the failure of third parties on another Nintendo console, but nonetheless, wipe their brow because they don't have to explain to their investors, whose money they are the fiduciaries of, that they just blew a load of cash.

In a capitalist society, this free market is how it works. Nintendo will need its own marketing muscle to move consoles before it is worth it for third party publishers to get on the action, thus making the console more attractive and so on and upwards.

In an ideal, benevolent world, the major publishers of the world would create an independent body that banded together to share the risk and rewards of investing in games for the new Nintendo Switch. The EA / Ubisoft / Activision owned company would pool cash to bring a few games to Switch and share the profits if it was a success or the losses if it is a failure. Meanwhile, the growing user base would provide a new audience for them to sell their independent games. Maybe that's not such a crazy idea. But with Atari potentially bringing out a new console, how do you pick and choose the consoles you want to succeed? That is why it is up to Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to subsidise the early (most expensive development) costs of the major publishers so that all the parties, gamers included, can benefit. 

 

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