Talking Point: E3 Exposed the Strains of Nintendo's Development Workload

Delays have been common on Wii U

Nintendo and, in particular, the Wii U are in a tricky catch-22 situation; third-parties — including Ubisoft at E3 — are holding off on most additional support for the platform until sales improve, yet games are needed to boost sales. It's an issue that feels all too familiar, though the absence of much support on Wii was down to its limited technical capabilities, where in some cases — not all, we'd suggest — a number of upcoming projects from other developers could potentially be scaled for Wii U. And so we come back to that old truism — Nintendo games sell Nintendo consoles.

Yet, arguably, Nintendo's never had such a tough challenge on its hands in populating a console's software library. The greater processing power of Wii U, aligned with higher consumer expectations for HD-quality visuals, puts Nintendo's development teams under more pressure than ever before. In recent years issues of spiralling budgets and delays for HD games were for others to concern themselves with, as Nintendo merrily produced SD games that would be pulled up by art design rather than higher resolutions. That option is now off the table, and those troubles that have been so regularly cited by struggling studios now invade Nintendo's projects.

And the delays have come in significant numbers since the system launched, to damaging effect. If Nintendo's own games sell its systems most effectively, it goes some way to explain the severe drop in momentum in 2013. Pikmin 3 is an obvious example; it was originally thought to be a launch window title, but has slipped to late July / early August depending on your territory, while games promised for the Summer only in January have fallen victim — Wii Party U and Wii Fit U now arrive in the distinctly un-summery October and December months.

There have generally been two lines from Nintendo to explain these delays. On the one hand Satoru Iwata insists that delays are all about ensuring a suitable level of quality, making sure that releases are valuable titles. On the other hand there's been acknowledgement that the shift to high-definition has caught the company's teams out, with the required investment and team sizes being larger than expected. As well as the 'level of quality' argument, Satoru Iwata said the following during Nintendo's investor Q & A earlier this year.

The reason for the delayed release of our first-party titles was the fact that completing the games released at the same time as the launch of Wii U required more development resources than expected, so some staff members from development teams working on other titles had to help complete them. In short, the development teams of "Pikmin 3" and other future games were understaffed during that period. We do not simply have one easily identifiable bottleneck in software development. These days it is becoming increasingly challenging to determine the minimum development resources required for customer satisfaction. The point I am trying to get across is that currently it is more challenging to sell packaged software for around $50-$60.

The Wii and DS were the ultimate golden geese, in that their concepts alone, along with the relative novelty of HD at the time, enabled them to cruise to monstrous sales while pushing visuals not often comparable to those on rival systems — some titles were exceptions in impressing visually, it must be said. It's entirely logical that large projects would be turned around with much smaller teams and lower budgets as a result, and the audience on the systems were happy for something like Wii Fit to be basic visually, as it was all about shedding extra pounds on the Wii Balance Board.

Yet the problem for Nintendo in selling $60 games isn't just about visuals, but also finding gameplay hooks and quality to continually place them above rivals. The Wii may have given birth to what's often called the 'casual' market, but Sony and Microsoft didn't hang about in jumping into that very market once it was proven; the latter's Kinect achieved impressive worldwide sales, while we also have the current-day phenomenon of ludicrously cheap, often throwaway experiences on phones and tablet devices. Nintendo's teams aren't just trying to deliver visually appealing games fit for a HD-loving audience, but looking to demonstrate features and content value that truly step up from those that were enjoyed on Wii.

And so what should have been a reasonably solid launch window became one short of system-sellers, with Nintendo resorting to essentially writing off the first half of the year in favour of plugging a happier second half. True to an extent, but squeezing Wii Fit U and Wii Party U into later months perhaps misses the opportunity to add additional diversity to the system's summer offerings. Pikmin 3 and The Wonderful 101 both look extremely promising, but it's doubtful whether either will successfully shift systems — in a major way — to the family demographic this summer, whereas Wii Party U in particular may have been ideal for that period.

Most tellingly, Mario Kart 8 is pegged for Spring 2014, missing the all important sales window at the end of the year. The arrivals of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Super Mario 3D World bring some potential big-selling clout to the Holiday season, yet it can be easily argued that it's the karting franchise that's the bigger hit than 2D DK or 3D Mario games. Regardless of what sales source you consult, Mario Kart Wii was a monster seller, well beyond the Galaxy games and Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Of all the delays or vague '2014' release windows, MK8 was the most surprising, and we cannot conceive of a scenario where Nintendo would deliberately hold it back beyond the Holiday season for any other reason than it won't be ready in time. The ideal holiday lineup on Wii U, both statistically and in terms of appealing to gamers and families with the greatest variety, would have been Mario Kart 8 alongside 3D World or Tropical Freeze; the aforementioned Wii Fit U, Wii Party U and also The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD offer solid backup. As it is, the mass seller will have to take on the role of providing a bump in sales next year — hopefully after a successful Festive season.

But the regular delays and third-party support drop off have been a difficult double impact for the Wii U. As it is, and despite these issues for Nintendo in turning around these games, there's a relatively full lineup from now until the end of the year, with New Super Luigi U notably arriving on the eShop this week. These development challenges that Nintendo have faced on Wii U teach us two important lessons, however — Nintendo needs to invest and secure resources to keep up a steady stream of games well into 2014, and it needs this year's big hitters to deliver sizable sales numbers and attract third-party contributions.

If anyone wonders why third-party enthusiasm and support matters, the trials and tribulations faced by Nintendo delivering system-selling games shows that the famous company can't do all of the work on its own. Modern development and consumer expectations make that task too great, and help will be needed.

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