Talking Point: Does Nintendo Need to Exercise More Quality Control on the Wii?
Posted by Sean Aaron
Are shoddy ports and the tide of cheap cash-in titles putting the Wii at risk of meeting the same end as the Atari 2600?
Nintendo is right to be proud of the Wii: it has single-handedly put them back at the top of the console stack after two generations of consoles which, whilst not outright disasters, failed to capture the imaginations of the majority of the game playing public. The Wii has also attracted more than its share of dud software thanks to the expanded gaming audience attracting 3D parties who weren't as keen on Nintendo's previous offerings. As we enter the 4th year of the Wii's lifespan has the Wii's software catalogue reached the point where it's in danger of crashing under the weight of poor quality titles like the venerable Atari 2600? Is it time for Nintendo to take a harder line on what gets published for its white wonder box?
When Atari first released the 2600 in America no one really knew the impact it would have: it was one of the first consoles that played games contained on ROM chips housed in removable cartridges. Because the 2600 and its software was created in-house, Atari had no concept of other companies developing software for it and therefore no licensing scheme or any kind of technology in place to restrict what kind of code could run on the system. When a group of disgruntled Atari programmers left the company to form Activision and publish software for the 2600 on their own terms, Atari filed suit claiming they were trying to steal trade secrets, but failed to get the company shut down. Eventually Atari settled out of court and agreed to allow other companies to produce software for the 2600 in exchange for a royalty fee; and the 3rd party software business began to boom as companies started coming out of the woodwork to cash-in on the video game craze.
Atari collected royalties on games that ran on their hardware, but had no means of preventing the running of unauthorised code. Whilst this is great for hobbyists who still create software for the 2600 today, it was a big problem for Atari during the height of the console's popularity. The embarrassing publication of pornographic games by developer Mystique resulted in a lawsuit, but this was only a small part of a glut of substandard software that was rapidly filling the shelves in the early 80s and is widely blamed for causing the Video Game Crash of 1983. The catastrophic drop in software sales had an impact that was felt far beyond Atari, as many software publishers closed their doors overnight and competitors Mattel Electronics and Coleco exited the video game business - it was truly a disaster of epic proportions for the industry.
Nintendo came to the rescue not long afterwards, delivering the Nintendo Entertainment System: a version of the Famicom designed for overseas markets (ironically offered to Atari as a replacement for the 2600 in 1983). Nintendo appeared to have learnt lessons from Atari's mistakes: they not only collected license fees from 3rd party publishers of software on their console, but they also included hardware lockouts to prevent unauthorised code from running on their system to ensure they got paid. Whilst every software release on the NES isn't a gem, Nintendo was spared the woes of the American video game business resulting from unauthorised software publication and the industry has continued to grow over the past 25 years through a succession of console generations, delivering ever more compelling experiences to an audience still interested in playing games.
In some ways the current console generation echoes that of the late-70s to early-80s with a proliferation of small development teams finding an audience thanks to new software distribution models and console manufacturers making their development kits more accessible than they have been in the past. The Nintendo Wii is particularly well-positioned thanks to a combination of low development costs and solid brand-name recognition both amongst gamers and developers who grew up playing Nintendo consoles. Of course along with the increased number of publishers and developers eager to sell their wares on the Wii comes the potential proliferation of low-quality software: not only on the store shelves, but also the online WiiWare service - an example of what may be the future software distribution model for all video games.
Nintendo has little to say about the quality issue, normally choosing to focus on sales figures which show Nintendo's hardware and software outselling its rivals by a significant margin. Of course most of the software sales consist of games produced by Nintendo themselves, leading others in the industry to conclude that it's too difficult to get the attention of consumers. Whilst we can debate the reasons why some 3rd parties feel hard done by, anecdotally it's hard to deny that the Wii shelves at specialty shops are creaking under the weight of low-quality licensed tie-ins and mini-game collections with similar themes like sports, board/fairground games and pet sims.
On the WiiWare side of the equation we have no numbers - a shortcoming of download sales generally - but there is a sense that all may not be well. Developers have complained in the past about the required number of unit sales required before they get paid and the difficulty in getting a firm publication date from Nintendo. On the other hand it's been said that the sales threshold is a quality control measure, but in the wake of the addition of Flash support for WiiWare development resulting in the appearance of low-quality ports is that enough?
Atari not only suffered financially as a result of the Video Game Crash, but the Atari brand itself was tarnished - a blow from which it never really recovered. Whilst the famed "Nintendo Seal of Quality" on NES software only confirmed that software bearing it would run on their system, the threat of "brand poisoning" should logically play a part in determining what software gets published on a game console. Any company which values the impression consumers have of its products would reasonably be expected to block the publication of software which makes false claims about its capabilities, but this clearly isn't happening now. Small developers aren't the only ones guilty of putting out quick ports for download: even established players that have a long-standing relationship with Nintendo have seen fit to publish ports with a minimum amount of effort put into them on WiiWare.
The counter-argument is that Nintendo cannot be the ultimate arbiters of quality and certainly we agree that even amongst our own reviewing staff there are different likes and dislikes when it comes to individual games and game genres. Nevertheless if you look at the games that receive the lowest scores on our site, many of them have flaws that should raise red flags during the quality control process and would arguably justify a block early in the development process, but certainly at "lot check": the time when Nintendo notes bugs and other problems that need addressing by the publisher/developer before a game can be approved for release.
At a time when developers are calling for Nintendo to do more to promote the WiiWare service and the Wii is increasingly seen as a platform with less profit-potential for 3rd parties, we would argue that increased quality control is required. Nintendo successfully recaptured the support of many 3rd parties and the Wii has proved a hit with consumers, but that doesn't mean the long-term future of the company and its brands aren't at risk. Putting more of an emphasis on code quality over simple bug checking sends the right message to both 3rd parties concerned about too much product being on the shelves and consumers who may not be purchasing anything without the Nintendo label due to software overload.
We would argue that potentially alienating part of the publishing and development community by putting a stop to sloppy ports and quick cash-in software is a small price to pay to defend the Wii and WiiWare brands and ensure their continued success - what do you think?