The challenges facing the Wii U, like those that faced the 3DS before it in 2011, are numerous. It's seeking to reverse stalled momentum that was, perhaps strategically, allowed to happen in exchange for a busy lineup of games in the second half of the year. This is being done against the backdrop of one of the most challenging periods for the home console industry; revenues are down at retail, alternative platforms driven by iOS and Android battle for attention, and there'll be the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and to an extent the Wii all battling for customers. The older systems will be targeting the low-budget market, Sony and Microsoft's new hardware will be at a higher scale, and with its planned price cut the Wii U will occupy a middle-ground, of sorts. It's a crowded market.
The Wii U is also confronting what, at times, can be relentlessly negative press and general opinion. Whether it's major news networks without a clue what they're talking about, EA walking away entirely for the time being or developers such as Bethesda saying its ship has already sailed in attracting third-parties.
In the latter case it should be acknowledged that there may be some fair points made, even if the overall point is a tad excessive. This is part of what Bethesda's Pete Hines said:
The time for convincing publishers and developers to support Wii U has long past. The box is out. You have to do what Sony and Microsoft have been doing with us for a long time and it’s not that every time we met with them we got all the answers we wanted. But they involved us very early on, and talking to folks like Bethesda and Gearbox, they say ‘here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re planning, here’s how we think it’s going to work’ to hear what we thought – from our tech guys and from an experience standpoint.
You have to spend an unbelievable amount of time upfront doing that. If you’re just going sort off deciding ‘we’re going to make a box and this is how it works and you should make games for it.’ Well, no. No is my answer, I’m going to focus on other ones that better support what it is we’re trying to do. So you’ve gotta spend more time trying to reach out to those folks before you even make the box, when you’re still designing and thinking about how it’s going to work.
There is surely merit in some of these points, as talk of sloppy ports in the Wii U's early days, particularly, was offset by mutterings of developers not having a significant amount of time with the hardware. To an extent this may be a result of Nintendo's notorious love of secrecy, which arguably has benefits in building hype and avoiding leaks but can have a negative impact on the nuts and bolts of third-party game development. It's clear that developers need time to adjust to hardware, and this is exaggerated by Nintendo's system going such a different way from mainstream rivals. Again, it's a strength and a curse for the platform.
In the Wii / PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 generation, the two latter systems were both HD and capable of similar technological feats, though the PS3 architecture and slow Blu-Ray reader could pose challenges. The Wii U not only has the GamePad controller shaking things up for third-parties, but its own architecture that, again, is undeniably different from that on offer in the PS4 and Xbox One. In fact, the upcoming systems have numerous similarities due to incorporating largely off-the-shelf components for PC-style architectures; even operating system functions such as the ability to play as content downloads and streaming game footage are largely similar between the two.
On the one hand those are perhaps negatives for the PS4 and One, with the dividing lines between the two arguably becoming less obvious once again, potentially restricted more to exclusives and — courtesy of the One's bundled Kinect — price. For third-parties such as Bethesda, however, it's an ideal scenario. The primary controllers are, give or take some optional add-ons that are easily ignored, of the same setup as those that came before, while working on a version for one system does plenty of groundwork for the other. With the Wii U that's clearly not the case, with architecture and components of its own — that evidently lack the same degree of raw power — and the GamePad; throw in poor sales momentum in its first nine months and it's clear why some studios aren't investing at this time.
Of course, Bethesda isn't a company that we'd expect to be active on Nintendo systems; the vast majority of its biggest projects — developed and published — bypassed the Wii, so it's not necessarily the place to go for positive noises on bringing games to the Wii U. It's the comment that the time for convincing publishers is "long past" that we think is up for debate, as this taps into the (unfortunately) common refrain that the Wii U's fate is almost set in stone. Looking beyond the fact that ideas of hardware "success" may have to be different this generation compared to the last — the Wii's 100 million units could potentially be the last success on that scale — it's simply premature to rule out projects or to say the ship has sailed for the console.
That outlook fundamentally ignores the turnaround for the 3DS, which (like Wii U) is highly unlikely to match its predecessor but is, as most surely agree, performing rather well. It's all about context and judging success by market conditions, and it's surely about allowing enough time to pass for plan B to come into effect; in this case, Nintendo's applying a price cut and hitting the market with a steady sequence of big brands. The poor performance of the hardware to date has scared some publishers away — understandably so — yet notable examples such as Ubisoft and Activision have maintained support by bringing blockbuster 2013 releases to the Wii U, even if support into 2014 is up in the air.
Voices from various publishers, including EA, have reiterated similar messages — they want Nintendo to succeed, aren't writing off the Wii U and will consider support should sales and the system's userbase improve. In the case of those such as SEGA, Activision and Ubisoft, games are being produced — with SEGA bringing the exciting home console exclusive of Sonic Lost World — to assist with that goal. Nintendo's first-party lineup, which is finally clicking into gear, is naturally the most vital part of the system's big marketing push, but having a variety of other games on the shelves will also help in the coming months.
While acknowledging the various issues with the Wii U to date, it certainly seems too early to speak of its viability in the past tense. Alongside the potentially burgeoning eShop support from smaller developers, it's important to recognise what matters to most of the industry's big players — money. Aspirational talk of services and connectivity among gamers are all the rage at present, and these companies will undoubtedly have staff members with a desire to deliver the best games possible, but at boardroom level corporations mostly operate with the bottom line and profit in mind. If the Wii U builds a larger userbase and shows significant momentum in the coming 6-9 months — we're aware that's an if — then we have little doubt that third-party games will come in some form. It's about economics; if the investment is less than projected sales on the system, there are good chances of support into the future.
There are too many unknowns and unresolved issues for the Wii U that will only become clear well into 2014, and while some developers and publishers may well stay away for years to come — as some did with the Wii — others may target the Wii U if the market is there. One of the system's challenges is delivering solid third-party sales for those games that do arrive, but Nintendo simply isn't out of the game yet; no-one can say with any degree of certainly whether 12 months from now we'll be talking about the revived Wii U boosting Nintendo's bank account, or the struggling system counting time to its successor.
Ultimately, whatever the perceived horsepower of the Wii U, questions over its control scheme and more, if the system sells in high numbers we'll likely see third-parties support it in various forms. Bethesda and some others may be exceptions in that their policy is as stated, that if the support and hardware doesn't suit their needs they simply won't be interested. We'd suggest that's unlikely to be the case with a number of other major companies, however, as money trumps all. If the Wii U sells well, publishers often find a way. Will the Wii U have all major multi-platform games? Most likely not. Will it still have support should it show profitability and strong sales numbers? Absolutely.