Last year at E3, Nintendo promised a lot to core gamers. "Wii U will be right just for you," Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime said, playing a showreel of hardcore shooters and action games to win over the crowd. Talking heads from big publishers all crowed about the machine's capabilities and its new controller — top brass at THQ, Activision, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. and more all appeared on video with nothing but praise for Wii U.
But EA went one better. CEO John Riccitiello joined Satoru Iwata and Reggie Fils-Aime on stage for his first ever appearance at a Nintendo conference. Riccitiello's speech may have been necessarily vague, but his presence said it all — two of the gaming world's biggest names are working together more closely than ever.
It was cheering to see EA's still committed to Nintendo platforms after a rocky time on Wii. EA published 78 Wii games — significantly fewer than the 110 and 116 it brought to PS3 and Xbox 360 respectively — that varied between excellent and abysmal: Boom Blox and Dead Space: Extraction sit alongside Charm Girls Club Pajama Party and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. For all its efforts, though, EA never had a hit the size of Just Dance or Zumba to push it to the top of the third-party publishing pile: few would see Wii as a genuine success story for EA.
Perhaps that's why Riccitiello chose E3 2011 to appear on stage with Nintendo — a show of faith, a way of acknowledging that both companies need to collaborate to succeed. Riccitiello spoke of an "unprecedented partnership" between Nintendo and EA, and while we don't have all the details yet, it could be vital to Wii U's future.
So, what is this "unprecedented partnership"? Riccitiello didn't say much specific. Of course EA will bring its big HD franchises to Wii U — that almost goes without saying — but when the CEO of one of the industry's biggest forces uses the phrase "unprecedented partnership", that usually means much more than just FIFA, Battlefield and Madden.
In sharp contrast to talking heads from other publishers, Riccitiello said more about Wii U's online connectivity than its controller, and that's because EA is working closely with Nintendo to get the online side right. Riccitiello discussed DLC, matchmaking and leaderboards — all standard fare by now — but he also spoke of the online service expanding beyond just Wii U:
Imagine these EA games on a console with content, gameplay and community that can be extended to mobile and social networks as well as the web.
Nintendo's been slow to embrace social networks (to say the least) and its battle against mobile plays out in the media every time a mobile developer expresses an opinion about Nintendo, but both services are crucial to EA. While Nintendo plays catch-up with online multiplayer, EA has moved into companion services like EA Sports Football Club and Ultimate Team, expanding the online experience beyond its console restrictions. As Riccitiello puts it, EA is "changing games from a thing that you buy to a place that you go."
No wonder EA is so keen on Nintendo's online services: the two companies are working closely together to make sure Wii U's online is up to spec. Riccitiello said:
Nintendo's next console is truly transformational as well: a better platform than we've ever been offered by Nintendo, deeper online capability and all of it driven by an unprecedented partnership between Nintendo and Electronic Arts.
That last part got the internet's collective cogs whirring. Some decided to read it as "online capability... driven by... Electronic Arts" to suggest Wii U would run on EA's servers and Origin service, but it's far more likely EA is providing Nintendo with feature requests, guidance and expertise rather than anything more tangible. After E3, EA Sports vice president Andrew Wilson told Eurogamer.net:
[Online is] something that we're working very closely with Nintendo on. We are highlighting to them what we believe are the most important elements to that infrastructure to deliver a connected experience that we think is the future of gaming. They have demonstrated an openness and willingness to work with us and work with developers that I think will only land us in a positive place.
Of course, Nintendo will have its own vision of the future of gaming, but taking EA's considerable online expertise on board speaks volumes about its willingness to work with third parties on more than just development support and marketing.
Outside the Box
All signs point to Nintendo and EA teaming up to create Wii U's online infrastructure, but what if the collaboration's something else? If the two are sharing technical expertise and feature wishlists, could they be sharing more? How about franchises, tools or development teams?
DICE's powerful Frostbite 2 engine behind Battlefield 3 could easily come to Wii U, and the potential there is mouthwatering. A high-definition Star Fox with destructible environments would be good; a new Metroid using the engine could be incredible.
To take another step towards the abyss of rampant speculation, Nintendo and EA could even share their big IPs and characters. Mario once appeared in NBA Street V3 and SSX On Tour, but the crossovers could go deeper. Dead Space studio Visceral could do a fine job of Eternal Darkness or Metroid; BioWare and Paper Mario or The Legend of Zelda would be very interesting. Or what about Samus Aran in Mass Effect? OK, that's going too far.
EA publishes console games from some of the world's biggest developers: BioWare, Valve and Crytek have created big sellers, and if EA is this excited about Wii U that could extend to its development partners too. We're not saying Mass Effect Trilogy for Wii U, but EA's enthusiasm will surely motivate studios to create exclusive content for the console.
Divide and Concur
There'll be those of you shaking your heads at this, grumbling about EA being "evil". The publisher splits opinion like few others: some object to its relentless annual cycle of sports titles, though it doesn't seem to do their sales any harm.
No matter how feelings are divided, we can all agree Nintendo is taking a massive step in the right direction with this team-up. Shedding its typically insular approach to developing online services can only benefit developers, publishers and players alike, and teaming with a company the size and scope of EA is a huge vote of confidence to Wii U's future.
12 years ago, SEGA launched the Dreamcast, a console with all the promise in the world. Two years later, without a single EA game in its catalogue, it officially died.
You may not think EA has the same make-or-break power today, but if Nintendo really wants to muscle in on the HD market it'll need EA's full support. EA has spent years developing software and services for HD, connected consoles; bringing that expertise to Wii U is a very, very good thing for Nintendo and its fans.
John Riccitiello stood beside Reggie and Iwata at E3 for the first time last year. Don't be surprised to see them stand side by side for a long time to come.