Nintendo Land, a virtual theme park that collects together bite-sized portions of several Nintendo franchises, seems to be the big first party hope for Wii U. It's intended as a title that can match the appeal of Wii Sports and push the console's central concepts: the uses of the GamePad's screen, asymmetrical multiplayer, a system that can appeal to all markets.
We're not convinced that Nintendo Land is another Wii Sports just yet, but there are certainly interesting things at play here. Perhaps we're only looking at a small part of Nintendo's big picture for the title. Assistant editor Mike Mason and features editor Thomas Whitehead look at how Nintendo could make this amusement park as important to the Wii U experience as bowling was to Wii.
Game budgets have started to reach unsustainable levels. Since HD consoles were introduced to the industry, many companies have fallen to the rising costs of game development. Publishers such as Ubisoft and Activision often involve multiple studios on single games – just look at Assassin's Creed, Ghost Recon and Call of Duty as examples. Titles regularly need to sell millions of copies just to break even; Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning did well in the charts, racking up 1.22m sales in three months, only for its parent company 38 Studios to lay off its entire staff because it needed 3m sales to break even. It's not just companies supporting new IPs that have had to deal with this. Big companies like THQ and SEGA are struggling, the former scrabbling to stay on the NASDAQ stock exchange and the latter stripping down its release schedule to focus on major franchises such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Football Manager.
Wii afforded Nintendo a safety net for a time. It meant that it didn't have to force itself or its partners into more costly HD development before it was ready. The decision blew back later in the generation, but not until its bank balance inflated healthily, earning Nintendo a war chest that can now sustain it through multiple failures if necessary. But that can't last forever, and if there's more money at stake it may no longer be sensible to develop games without a chance of a degree of success. What if, however, there was a way that Nintendo could extend the range of safety without resorting to leaning exclusively upon ever-profitable franchises, ensuring that it could continue to take those risks that endear it to us?
Nintendo Land could be the answer. We must look beyond it as a mini game collection and instead think of it as a crucial experiment in market research and franchise-testing. Nintendo knows that Mario is a reliable money maker – there's a reason two New Super Mario Bros. titles are coming out this year – but it can't be so certain of a series like F-Zero. It's critically loved, but its commercial success cannot be guaranteed. Traditionally Nintendo might scour message boards, send out surveys to existing customers or gather consumer panels if it was to find out if a game was viable, but that only takes a small portion of the potential audience into account.
Nintendo Land incorporates a mixture of safe and less safe franchises. Using Miiverse, where comments and social interactivity will be rife, Nintendo could gauge reaction to each of the separate attractions – and in turn the franchises that they're attached to. If Nintendo looks at the Balloon Fight mini game and sees high activity levels and dozens of positive comments and conversations, that could be the impetus to develop a full, all-new game in that series with confidence that it has a decent chance of success. Those traditionally risky developments could suddenly be slightly less of a leap of faith.
Not only could Nintendo Land turn a profit itself, but it could also lay ground for future sales successes. Franchises like Metroid could be introduced to a whole new audience who might be more willing to spend money on a full entry a few years down the line. Attractions for additional series could become free downloadable content, made available whenever a new 'test' is necessary. Even entirely new series could first appear here to reduce the possibility of failure. Used properly, Nintendo Land could be a gateway to increased franchise popularity across the board; despite its apparently safe shell it could unlock the door to more experimentation than ever before; it could guide users to embrace eShop titles and games that they would previously never have looked at.
Despite the fact that its E3 reveal was arguably underwhelming, Nintendo Land became the most talked about title in our E3 team last week. In a sense that's because it's potentially something very different due to the capabilities of Wii U, and as Mike has suggested there are a number of ways that Nintendo can not only use the title as an accessible gateway for new users, but as a means to learn more about its gamers. The fact that so many famous Nintendo franchises will make an appearance in innovative ways means that this could be an excellent platform to win over those unfamiliar with the likes of F-Zero and Animal Crossing.
To pick up briefly on Mike's final point, Nintendo Land seems like an ideal opportunity to make use of DLC and to effectively promote the Wii U eShop. Rumours are already swirling around, inevitably, that Nintendo Land will indeed be packed in with systems, but perhaps Nintendo could consider an eShop download code that provides access to extra content on day one, essentially bribing the user to get their console online.
That may sound mercenary and unfair, but it doesn't have to be a significant proportion of the game, just enough to encourage the effort of connecting to the eShop and registering an account. There may be workarounds for those without a connection, too, with each console having a card packed in that's eligible for one set of the initial extra content: take it to a retailer, they load the data, or an unlock code for the game itself, and the NFC technology in the GamePad does the rest. That's a long shot, the idea of on-disc DLC isn't exactly popular — though this would be free — and it would be much clumsier than simply making the content available right away without the need for online access, but it would allow Nintendo to support a minority while encouraging the majority onto its digital platform.
The idea of 'test' content as DLC is also a way to push gamers onto eShop, especially if the title succeeds in becoming the go-to family experience in Wii U's early days. If the infrastructure is right then Miiverse and the eShop could combine, with Nintendo welcoming debate through the social network setup, reaching anyone who dabbles in the area, and including plenty of links and prompts to try free extras from the online store. It's all about keeping the experience painless and accessible, giving gamers some fun extra content while, as Mike has pointed out, Nintendo gains invaluable market research. While on the surface pushing people onto the eShop may seem cynical, it will be vital for Nintendo's success on Wii U, and 3DS, to build a well-supported digital platform that contributes to getting the company back into profit. This could be a relatively harmless way to help with that development.
It'll be disappointing if Nintendo Land is just a disc in a box like Wii Sports before it: it has the potential to do so much more.