Talking Point: Nintendo And The Third-Party Challenge

Can the Big N win over support for Wii U in the long run?

With Wii U finally available in North America and shortly on its way to European store shelves, Nintendo fans across the world seemingly have a lot to be happy about. At long last, we’ll be able to experience our favourite franchises in glorious high-definition, along with some high profile multi-platform titles, all while using an innovative new controller.

Nevertheless, Wii U has become the centre of a rather intense debate across the internet during the past week. 4A, the developer behind Metro: Last Light, has publicly announced its dissatisfaction with the Wii U’s CPU, with the studio’s chief technical officer going as far as to refer to it as “horrible” and “slow”. Potentially as a result of this, though there are plenty of reasons behind these decisions, the studio has decided to postpone a Wii U version for the foreseeable future. Gustav Halling, lead designer on Battlefield 3: Armored Kill at DICE, has also been pretty vocal about his concerns regarding the system’s lifespan (compared to future systems) due to its CPU.

While a couple of developer’s opinions are by no means justification to write off Wii U, it does inevitably raise some questions. After all, these people do make games for a living. And to make matters worse, these comments have emerged during a period when, more than ever, Nintendo is looking to convince third-party developers to make games for its system, no doubt in addition to developing exclusively for it. Based on what has already been said, is it possible that Wii U will suffer the sudden drop-off that the Wii did as a result of its capabilities?

Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo, has openly stated before that he believes Wii U will last a generation, claiming that the smaller visual differences in HD graphics wouldn’t make more powerful machines look overwhelmingly different. He is clearly very conscious of his customers, arguing quite rightly that Nintendo “had to design it [Wii U] by balancing the performance and the costs”. And when you throw a touch screen controller into the mix, it’s clear that sacrifices were inevitably going to be made.

It goes without saying that Nintendo’s strategy — in the short term at least — is certainly feasible; the Wii U is clearly more than capable of running most existing multi-platform software, and even 4A has said that Metro: Last Light is possible with some CPU workarounds. But what happens when Sony and Microsoft eventually release new systems of their own? Will the Wii U find itself incapable of running most multi-platform titles and, if so, will developers still spend time and money down-porting games to it? More importantly, will they dedicate the resources to making quality, exclusive software for the system once other platforms out-perform it?

Back in 2006, the Wii was a business move that really paid off for Nintendo; it re-established the company’s long-lost dominance of the industry, introduced a viable new way to play and featured some of the best titles to ever grace a video game system. But if there’s one area where it was truly lacking, it was third-party support. Throughout the past six years, many developers have typically been risk averse when approaching the Wii, opting instead for cheap, last-generation ports and mini-game compilations in favour of more adventurous and unique titles. While multi-platform games do exist on the system (take a look at the Call of Duty series for example), they were often subjected to considerable downgrades, poor implementation of motion controls and less content than their HD counterparts.

Reggie Fils-Aime recently spoke about the overwhelming third-party support that Nintendo now has on-board for Wii U, boldly stating that the system will have around 50 games available by the end of its launch window. That’s certainly a number to be proud of. Yet, when you further scrutinise the list, a good number of these titles are, in fact, ports of already released games. We’ve also heard relatively little about third-party games beyond the launch window that are designed specifically with the Wii U in mind. It's too early to say with confidence, of course, but there's already the sense that some third-party developers are somewhat cautious.

We still don’t know what technology other next-generation systems will utilise, but if it really is a considerable step up, then we could see a similar situation play out on Wii U as did on its predecessor. It’s important to note, as we have on a few occasions, that it's still early days for Wii U and it’s usually the case that the games at the end of a console generation are a far cry from earlier titles, in terms of visual performance. Developers could well find viable workarounds later on as they get more comfortable with the system’s configuration. Also, the Wii U is kitted out with a pretty meaty GPU and considerable system memory, which could potentially compensate for shortcomings with the CPU.

Not only that, but Nintendo actually has a lot of things going in its favour. It's generally assumed that Microsoft and Sony’s new systems —when they eventually arrive — will sport the powerful hardware required to create even more visually stunning and expansive titles. While the possibility of more in-depth, technologically advanced gameplay is something that many a gamer craves, there’s one major limitation: cost.

Despite advances in technology over the past few years, game development — incredibly — isn't getting any cheaper. For example, Microsoft’s latest instalment in the Halo franchise was its most expensive game produced to date. When the competition’s super-powered systems finally emerge, you can expect development costs to soar to unprecedented levels.

Unless you’re one of the giant game publishers, which has the resources to absorb the incredible cost that a flopped game could incur, one single failure or development setback could result in you closing your doors. It’s a terrifying thought, and this is where Wii U could truly benefit small to medium third-party developers. Nintendo is probably pitching this idea to companies as we speak, which, funnily enough, is a pretty good unique selling point given that business and profit margins come first in today’s industry.

Of course, the system would still need a relatively good install base, and developers would need to win over Nintendo gamers which historically speaking haven’t always been too receptive to third-party games. But as some third-party titles on Wii have proved, this is certainly possible, especially when thought and effort is put into manipulating the hardware’s unique features.

Another weapon in Nintendo’s arsenal is the Wii U eShop. As we recently informed you, many indie developers have nothing but praise for the company’s new download store. The developer’s right to set their own prices (within some basic guidelines determined by Nintendo), and the lack of recertification fees for updates and patches, could potentially make the eShop very lucrative for smaller studios.

Not only that, but the touch screen controller is another key factor. In a world where mobile gaming has become the norm, there’s the possibility for iOS and Android developers who found their feet on these mobile platforms to spread their development to Wii U at a reasonable cost. It’s unlikely that the Wii U eShop will turn into another App Store, given Nintendo’s beliefs regarding pricing and value, but that doesn't mean that mobile heavy hitters can’t still make their way across. It’s more the fact that indie developers have more tools at their disposal thanks to the GamePad, meaning that ideas not typically suited to home systems have more chance of working. This could present Nintendo with a considerable digital advantage over its competitors.

Only time will tell if Nintendo’s new little box of wonders has what it needs to keep up with the competition in the power department. Still, regardless of what is finally unveiled, there’s no denying that increasing development costs are a crucial factor for third-party developers. This is where Wii U can truly be a knight in shining armour, providing developers with the means to still produce great-looking games within a much more comfortable budget.

Nintendo just needs to hope that the gap between Wii U and future systems isn't too profound. It’s a matter of fact that third-party companies thrive on multi-platform releases. Moreover, Nintendo needs to convince developers that if they are going to make Wii U exclusives, they need to try to create meaningful and innovative experiences that take advantage of the system’s unique features. While ports and mini-game collections may win over some more casual gamers, core Nintendo fans are rightfully picky about their games, and developers should really take note.

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