It hasn't been a good week for the Wii-owning gamer: first, THQ CEO Brian Eastick went on record suggesting that there was no viable market for traditional games on Nintendo's console, citing sales of his company's games De Blob and Deadly Creatures as evidence. Sony then predictably waded in, suggesting that they no longer need to state their case in encouraging third-party developers to put their top titles on the PS3 rather than Wii, as the latter's enormous userbase is perceived as a sales white whale.
While Nintendo and their fans will rage against these views as biased, they have become so common that it is hard to deny that they must represent the feelings of at least a tangible number of the upper-tier of third-party developers. Those feelings also seem to be 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 they do only manage it after major discounting from retailers. The evidence seems as damning as can be and can even be extended back as far as the days of the N64. Is it then true 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 those 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 that big marketing budgets are an instant key to success: one only needs to refer to Brütal Legend, which has sold fewer than a million copies worldwide across both HD consoles despite a very prominent campaign, to see the flaw in this argument.
One can also not ignore the fact that due to the vast technical differences in hardware, many third-party Wii games are made as exclusives and even with a huge promotional budget, a game on one console is likely to sell far fewer than a multiplatform title, meaning that any such investment has to be more carefully measured. 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 big releases like Resident Evil 5, Grand Theft Auto 4, Halo 3 or Dante's Inferno most recently.
But that's not the only side of the story. Incidentally, as an English citizen, I'll be speaking from the point-of-view of someone living in the European marketplace and so will need any American gamers to provide their own experiences as to back up or refute my own as proof. Over here, it's not just the fact that Wii games do not receive any marketing exposure, but also how difficult it is to find recently-released third-party genre Wii games on the shelves.
As someone who prefers browsing in shops to the impersonal online buying experience, even such supposedly high-profile titles such as MadWorld and The Conduit were limited in stock in major retailers and non-existent in local branches (and one can hardly suggest that it was down to their sales success). As for the likes of Little King's Story, Deadly Creatures, No More Heroes or even Dead Space Extraction, not only were these games not on the shelves of many major retailers I visited, but when they did have a presence it was near the bottom shelf and the sales assistants did not even know they existed.
If Brian Eastick genuinely believed that 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 that up with the minimum requirement of giving the game any sort of presence on retailer shelves, in Europe at least (where the game apparently sold more copies than in the US, where I dread to think what the situation must have been like).
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 that are 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 that old trope, the 'vocal minority'), but because Nintendo provides 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 can 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 gaming market. Their titles regularly colonise the upper ranks of 'Most Important Games Ever' lists, especially entries in their flagship Mario and Zelda franchises, whose influence reaches far outside their respective genres. In recent generations, if one examines the number of games Nintendo has published, the number of genres those games fit into as well as how well received those games were, the consistency of quality is mind-boggling.
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 highly polished, quality games, but Nintendo are on a whole other level in terms of how many of those top-level games they release as well as the diversity of experiences they provide.
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 the connection I share with them. That's not to say I'm unaware of their faults, but rather 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 how many adults find pleasure in Mickey Mouse products for the association they bring with happy childhood memories of comics and cartoons.
Many at this point would jump in, suggesting that it is that legacy which is blocking third-party success on Nintendo consoles. People only buy that hardware for those franchises, right?
I would say not: certainly 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 that everyone who has bought a Nintendo console is a raging fanboy and deliberately blind to the world outside the Mushroom Kingdom. While those types of obsessives might exist somewhere (just as there are Michael Jackson obsessives and comic book brand loyalists), such behaviour goes so far beyond the human norm that that 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 manufacturers support their consoles with quality first-party releases, they do so only intermittently. In buying one of those consoles, the gamer knows that 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 that Nintendo gamers will not buy software from other companies, but that they are not reliant upon it. As previously stated, just because Nintendo console owners will be buying Nintendo games does not mean they are not open to buying other things as well, but there is an undeniable difference in the buying psychology. On HD consoles, it is third-parties who will set the standard for the gaming on that platform, with first-party releases occasionally giving it a boost. 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 received poor notices from 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 heavy marketing behind it. 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).
A lot can be gathered 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 terrible 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 crucially neither looked as polished or was as well reviewed as games in those series, nor did Konami make any effort to make the game feel like an important release. The Far Cry series, meanwhile, has no relevance to Nintendo gamers and it only took a glance at the dismal screenshots on the back cover or any number of awful reviews to see that there was no reason for them to feel anything but insulted by the cynicism with which it was suddenly hurried onto the console apparently 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 was heavily advertised as a Wii exclusive. However dishonest, Ubisoft successfully made Nintendo owners feel like their game was almost as vital a buy as the new Zelda and potentially part of a quality ongoing franchise that could be built just for them. Call of Duty 3, of course, is among the most widely established FPS names, meaning that for many it bears 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 quickly revealed as disappointing, they tapped into the key characteristics that define the appeal Nintendo holds for many of 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 long-established in gamers' minds that the name had a certain respectability and recalled fond gaming experiences past.
Subsequent 'hardcore' Wii releases have failed to hit those two crucial marks. SEGA's big three (Overkill, MadWorld and The Conduit) did a decent job of making Nintendo fans feel important but gradually became less appealing over time: Overkill was about four hours long and part of a dying genre (the success of the previous House of the Dead game on Wii is largely attributable to its low price-point), MadWorld was barely two hours longer and very 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 that those same buyers looking kindly on the fact that none of those aforementioned games even had single-player modes lasting ten hours and were clearly limited in budget and originality. Conduit was the only one in a mainstream genre, but was 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 and is still moving copies at a low level, while sales of Bayonetta on individual consoles, after a month and a half on shelves and bolstered by a fairly prominent advertising campaign, have only just surpassed the more niche and largely unsupported MadWorld (for the record, VGChartz puts the 360 version at 410k and the PS3 version at 440k, with SEGA having shipped one million copies, while MadWorld moved 420k over its lifetime).
It would seem that Nintendo fans are certainly 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 that 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 again less than ten hours long and with zero replay value.
The answer we can take from this is that third-parties can achieve success on Nintendo consoles, but only if they take the care to 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 (Modern Warfare: Reflex Edition should soon join the list) as FPS'. This proves that there are Wii-owning gamers who are willing to make these types of game successful. If the Wii market for those games is still undeniably smaller than that on HD consoles, it is at least partially down to the fact that 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, Jet Force Gemini over one million (and was considered a failure) while even the all-swearing, all-defecating, all-bloody 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 possibly or legitimately expect success?
The worrying thing is that when Nintendo inevitably upgrade their hardware to HD, it may be too late for developers. The risks in building and advertising a series of quality games on the Wii and building a name for themselves is somewhat offset by the low development costs and the fact that, until the release later this year of the Sony and Microsoft motion control systems, the Wii can provide experiences that no other console can. It's a disheartening sign that Motion Plus has been so ignored, even though it sorts out many people's one major grip with the console and would provide a single brave publisher with an unchallenged place in the Wii's market place.
But it seems as though they're all waiting to see how Red Steel 2 will do (but with that name and Ubisoft virtually admitting it won't get marketed by halving its sales estimates, I'm saying no more than half a million over its lifetime), taking a cautious approach when more than ever, fortune will favour the brave. Because when Nintendo go HD, the development costs advantage disappears and the question ceases to be whether third parties can have success on a Nintendo platform, but whether it is even worth trying. That's when we all lose.
***The source for sales numbers in all cases is www.vgchartz.com. While I acknowledge that they are not always the most reliable of sources for short-term sales, they are generally seen as a reliable barometer for lifetime estimates which are, apart from in the case of Bayonetta, the numbers I have used.