Talking Point: Lessons to be Learned, Again, From the Wii U Games Drought

Fresh approaches can avoid repeat scenarios

So here's the deal, Wii U owners. The next notable exclusive for the platform isn't due until late June — when Game & Wario hits North America — and then Pikmin 3 hits the same region on 4th August. The eShop DLC-exclusive New Super Luigi U comes in the summer at an undefined point; if you're in Europe, by the way, dates are still needed for all of these games. A host of other titles look exciting — and were expected by now — but have no release date yet so, hold tight, yeah?

That's where we are right now with Wii U and, it must be said, the Wii U eShop. A look at the list of confirmed titles for the system — both in terms of retail and eShop-only games — suggests that a year from now we may be wallowing in delight surrounded by interesting games for the system, and looking back at the Wii U launch and following months as a time when everyone got it wrong, that it was just warming up and gamers were just so darn impatient. If we do that, though, we'll be kidding ourselves, as the Wii U has stumbled over similar trends that hindered the 3DS in its early days — on the plus side there should be decent odds on it recovering like the handheld, too.

What's interesting, and has prompted this Talking Point, is that Nintendo's talking a good game in terms of how these issues can be dealt with; it makes us wonder whether, with the glorious simplicity of hindsight and better planning, this perceived game drought on the Wii U could have been avoided.

A tempting argument, when looking at the trickle of releases on the Wii U, both in stores and on the eShop, is to suggest that the launch lineup was perhaps top-heavy and could have been more adequately spaced; yet this can be countered with the simple point that with so many of the games being multi-platform releases or ports, delaying wouldn't have done any favours. There's not much evidence to suggest that spacing out some of the third-party ports would have helped avoid the console's loss of momentum, as Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is evidence of an excellent release that, judging on available data and the absence of any real buzz, appears to have failed to set the tills ringing. The problem, which Nintendo appears to understand with its assurances that the second half of the year's exclusives will revive the system, is that very few people will buy a shiny and relatively pricey new system to play an enhanced port; they likely have an existing console to cover those bases already. New and/or exclusive titles get bigger numbers of fresh consumers interested.

Even with Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and LEGO City Undercover — with the former being an expansion of a Wii release that is also on 3DS — it seems that hardware sales bumps have been modest, with no shouting from the rooftops at Nintendo. Quite the opposite, in fact, with Satoru Iwata addressing the stalled momentum of the system in a Q & A with investors and stating that the Wii U is looking to a fresh phase later in the year.

It is a fact that Wii U currently has lost momentum owing to longer-than-expected intervals between software releases. We were faced with the alternatives of taking time to refine our products or launching them without too many intervals, and after careful consideration, we selected the first option because we believe that from a mid-and-long term perspective it is more important to improve customer satisfaction with each game.

And so, it seems, the next couple of months are close to a write-off for the Wii U; existing owners will no doubt have the odd release at retail and in the eShop to chew over, but we're talking about the console's prospects of a broader sales revival. It's a case of "this hasn't gone as we liked, let's start again in a little while".

And yet elsewhere in that same briefing Satoru Iwata highlighted concerns with the $60 retail game market — including the pressure to delay releases so that they meet expectations as "valuable titles" — while also outlining plans to maximise revenues in the eShop and on a broader scale with new plans. We were given firm indications that Nintendo is planning to explore free-to-play and subscription based services, whereas these were previously ideas that would be made available through infrastructure without such a definitive statement of first-party intention. Both interesting insights, but if these ideas had been translated into actions 12 months ago, and brought to bear in recent weeks and months, perhaps there wouldn't be a perception of a Wii U release schedule stumbling through a number of months while awaiting blockbuster hits.

Let's consider the options that the eShop could have offered from day one — even shying away from controversial free-to-play mechanics — with the added assumption that download code cards would have been available worldwide via retailers, as they already have been for a significant time for products on rival systems. Assuming the launch lineup would have remained the same — high-profile system sellers can't be magically produced out of thin air — we can think about what forward-thinking initiatives could have delivered from January this year to, say, July; this would have filled out a thin release period a little more. Let's start with LEGO City Stories, the original name for what became LEGO City Undercover, and let's imagine that a story-based structure had been maintained. It's a game split up into chapters, after all, with some areas locked and inaccessible until later in the game.

Now let's consider the recipient of various Game of the Year awards in 2012, The Walking Dead from Telltale Games — this was an episodic release initially distributed in small chunks that have since been collaborated as a "series". Perhaps LEGO City could have followed a similar structure, but began with high-profile episode releases in January and February. Even if development was being pushed close to the eventual March release, it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the first five chapters — which are locked to a smaller area of the game's world — could have comprised of an initial episode, or "story" to follow the original name given to the project at E3 2011. In the first couple of months of the year, as the release schedule was either barren or populated by late ports, these could have added a sheen of exclusive content in that vital period.

We then have New Super Luigi U, which will be DLC but, as yet, we don't have more details on how it will be structured. With a summer release and a promise of new versions of over 80 levels, it also begs the question whether it could have been available sooner in smaller parts. If there are eight worlds and, for argument's sake, Nintendo may sell the package for $40 — that's pure speculation to make a point — then could some of these worlds have been released, one per month or every two weeks, earlier this year at $5 a pop? That offering would have been arguably less suitable for an appearance in stores as download cards than LEGO City Stories, but would have been nice — and exclusive — regular content for the eShop to fill schedule gaps.

One aspect that's been a problem, and led to a relative dearth of enticing Wii U-exclusive content, is the focus on full-priced retail games that, by Satoru Iwata's own admission, is an increasingly difficult market to sustain. We know that there are a lot of exciting games coming in the next 12 months and beyond, but it seems — unless Nintendo subsequently proves us wrong — that a number of these releases are sticking to that tried and tested model. In some cases, and for some titles, that's the right choice, but Nintendo has franchises and talented teams / third party partners that can perhaps take smaller concepts and produce regular bite-sized content — the range of Nintendo-published downloads on the 3DS eShop is testament to that. If a big project can feasibly be broken up and steadily released, with the final product being equivalent to the content and price of a full retail game down the line, it's a viable option.

These concepts are entirely reliant on a significant presence of download cards with retailers, for one thing, to show a Wii U section in stores that isn't populated by disc cases gathering dust from the November launch. We're seeing the start of this with the GAME arrangement in Europe, and it's also a good advert to engage the audience with the eShop when they redeem those codes.

There are downsides to these ideas — particularly the modest hard drive space provided with the Wii U hardware — and we're dealing in hindsight. Looking back and saying "Nintendo should have had these ideas a year ago and made them happen" achieves little, admittedly, but as the company is making so many varied noises about how its going to diversify its delivery of games, we'd hope that some of these principles will appear the next time a software drought will come. That drought will most assuredly arrive, as it does for any console, whether it's two, three or more years from now.

As we say, a year from now we're likely to be enjoying a rapidly growing Wii U library, both retail and download-only, and memories of this dry spell may fade. We can't help but think, however, that with more foresight and planning Nintendo could have filled this vacant release period with more content, while still maintaining high standards. We're not saying that triple-A Nintendo games should be produced faster — that's not realistically possible — but that in some cases their distribution can be smarter.