A while ago, I read a very interesting interview with Yasuhiro Wada, president of Marvelous Entertainment, courtesy of EDGE magazine. Part of the interview focused on the critical vs. financial reception of Marvelous’s home console games, several of which are on the Wii. While they were received warmly enough by critics, their high scores didn’t translate into high sales figures.
Here’s an excerpt from that same interview:
Edge: Some of Marvelous’ latest titles had positive reviews worldwide but this did not translate into sales. What are the reasons of this? Do you think the choice of the Wii as a gamer platform is one key element?
Yasuhiro Wada: We are yet to gain the brand value of companies like Nintendo, Capcom or Square Enix. Even if you don’t fully understand what a title is about, because it’s branded Nintendo, Capcom or Square Enix, you feel like ok to buy and try it. A Marvelous game has yet to gain such recognition and trust from users. Now, if you consider the big but very light population of casual users, they don’t know about Marvelous at all. This population is by far the majority on the Wii. So in that sense, you could indeed think the Wii factor is working against us. But at the same time, if you consider games like Umbrella Chronicles, Biohazard 4 or a Tales Of RPG on the same Wii, you find that those games sell more than 200,000 or 300,000 copies.
Wada blames neither the console nor the audience. He takes the smartest stance I’ve seen any videogame publisher take on the subject of Wii game sales – that established brands are as important to game sales as to any other industry. It’s an accurate assessment of a phenomenon that too many publishers lazily write off as “Third-party games don’t sell on Wii” and it’s something that Peter Moore has been emphasizing since his Microsoft days.
Moore is now in charge of EA Sports and is behind the successful launch and establishment of the EA Sports brand on Wii. Case in point: both the latest Tiger Woods game and EA Sports Active on Wii have met with great retail success.
The “third-party games don’t sell” quote is something that’s been making the rounds ever since the Wii launched. It’s an ignorant sentiment that’s been echoed by several major western third-party developers and publishers at some point, Mark Rein of Epic Games being the latest.
The problem is, while these publishers complain about the problem, they do nothing to address it.
Wada’s quote about established brands is something that is apparent to most games industry enthusiasts. For an industry that claims to pay attention to its audience’s desires, most bigger publishers seem to have missed the thousands of forum posts on variety of website clamouring for Wii entries of established franchises.
Most publishers have missed the opportunity to establish themselves on Wii because they refuse to introduce these established and trusted brands to the system’s audience. Whether it’s an ego issue that doesn’t let them see past the weaker hardware specifications or just an inability to understand the market is up for debate.
Regardless, it’s a misstep, and a mind-boggling one at that, considering that Japanese publishers seem to have figured out a solution to the problem ages ago. Here’s a quote going all the way back to April of 2008 from Teruaki Konishi, R&D producer at Namco Bandai Games:
“A lot of developers, ourselves included, had the impression that "regular" games don't sell now that the Wii's come out. But if you actually look at the figures, that's not really the case; The sales rates of "game-like" games like these are about the same on the Wii as they were on the [Gamecube]. So if you look at it that way, ignoring your personal opinion of Nintendo's hardware platforms, the phenomenon of Nintendo's games selling great and third-party titles doing just OK is hardly a new thing. There are definitely more casual gamers out there, but in terms of pure sales, it's not like our products have suddenly plummeted. As I was discussing with some people earlier, I wonder if some are putting their own personal fantasies into the debate."
Case in point: Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World has been warmly received by the Wii audience, not only in terms of sales numbers, but also in terms of time spent with the game.
Was Dawn of the New World as critically well received as its predecessor on Gamecube? Far from it.
It sold because it was a decent game from an established brand, similar to how Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and Call of Duty all performed well on Wii due to their reliable and widely respected reputations among gamers. And now that a portion of the Wii audience has been introduced to these brands, the likelihood of them purchasing the next installments of these series is pretty good.
Remember, the DS market is the way it is now because of the immense support the device has received from Japanese developers, with mainline entries from series like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest leading the way. This in turn created a sizeable role-playing audience on the system, which is now allowing Japanese developers to keep producing the kinds of games they're good at, despite the lackluster performance of home consoles in Japan.
It’s the same reason Capcom has developed Monster Hunter 3 for the Wii, due out this Saturday in Japan. Monster Hunter is one of Japan’s most successful game franchises at the moment, and taking advantage of the Wii’s large install-base is certainly a wise decision on Capcom’s part. Namco Bandai Games, too, are developing their next “mothership” Tales of RPG for the Wii, while Square Enix have announced Dragon Quest X as a Wii exclusive. These are all mainline entries - mainline being the key term here - in some of Japan's most powerful game franchises.
This is in contrast to Activision, who have yet to even announce a Wii SKU of this year’s Call of Duty, despite last year’s Call of Duty: World at War being immensely popular with Wii owners. Even those that are sure it's eventually coming are wondering why there's a need to be so hush-hush about it. If you're developing it, market it. Don't push it under the rug and pretend it doesn't exist.
Still, smarter publishers in the West are starting to catch on. Electronic Arts is prepping a new - albeit, slightly underwhelming - Dead Space game for a fall release, while Ubisoft is following up with a sequel to the popular Red Steel that is built entirely around the capabilities of the Wii hardware. THQ, too, recently announced a UFC game for the Wii, following the success of the latest installment on the high-definition consoles.
The Wii is about going back to the basics and reaching out to a new audience just as the Famicom and NES did. What these publishers are doing is introducing themselves to this new audience. When a high-definition Wii successor comes around, you can probably expect to see EA and Ubisoft games being amongst the third-party successes.Remember, games on Nintendo's platforms have always sold through word of mouth, and that's even truer for this new audience.
While Japanese publishers seem to have understood the importance of leveraging established brands to catch the attention of the Wii audience, western publishers are only just starting to catch up. By next year, we should have a pretty good idea of whether or not they were too late to adapt.
[Ishaan Sahdev is a writer at Siliconera. He can be reached at: ishaan AT siliconera.com]