Over the weekend there was an interesting article published by Eurogamer's Digital Foundry, in which a "secret developer" shared their Wii U development experience. It made tough reading for anyone loyal and committed to the Nintendo and Wii U cause, but did provide some fascinating insight and a great degree of detail. Such was the negativity highlighted, ranging from experiences with documentation to the development kits themselves, that there was naturally much debate around the topic and various viewpoints from current Wii U developers.
We received a number of tip-offs and links to some tweets, in particular, from various developers, yet the purpose of this feature is to highlight that an improved current-day Wii U development environment for some developers bears minimal relevance to the original article. It's important to highlight the positives for developers on Nintendo's systems — as we often do in our own interviews and reporting those of others — but the focus of the article in question was very specific, and not particularly linked to the early 2014 realities for a download-only developer. If so much space on Nintendo Life is given to interview answers singing the Wii U's praises as a machine for developers, it's only natural to share views to the contrary, too.
So let's take the widely reported and acknowledged fact that a number of download developers rate the Wii U and its development tools highly, on the one hand, but consider the circumstances behind the anonymous writer in the Eurogamer article. Here's what seems clear from that piece.
- This individual likely worked on a project for a major third-party retail developer, which received an early hardware pitch from Nintendo.
- The project in question was developed and launched fairly early in the system's lifespan.
- Despite relatively positive critical reception, the level of sales was disappointing.
- In working on a major project on pre-launch and early access Wii U kits, there were various shortcomings, from the developer's perspective.
- Early issues related to limited documentation brought additional challenges.
- Obtaining assistance on a technical level from Nintendo took a good deal of time, due to requests being translated and passed to Japanese teams, and then the same in reverse.
- The architecture of the system made some transitions from engines utilised on systems such as the Xbox 360 a problem.
- Despite early voiced support from the company's management, a combination of these factors have seen reduced support.
- This article was written recently.
Even though the article was written recently, it's clearly been produced from the perspective of an early project, so reflects issues and problems from the initial days of the system, before launch and seemingly up to the launch window. What is highly likely, and something we'll strive to clarify with various developers, is that development tools and documentation have improved a great deal since that time. But let's consider key facts here that put support from current independent developers in the correct context — this is from a (likely) third-party retail project from an earlier period in the Wii U's lifespan; that is the key point. Reading between the lines and putting together the points made in the article point to a third-party game of a reasonable size, but whatever the case reflects an early-access perspective.
Support and enthusiasm from the current download / Indie market is not an area of concern for the Wii U at this time — there's a thoroughly promising list of projects confirmed to be on the way, and plenty of positivity to go around with regards to Nintendo's level of support with the eShop. That's particularly pleasing, but it's beyond dispute that there's a current issue with retail third-party support on the system. The warning signs, and a clear shift away of support, were evident from relatively early in 2013 and best represented by E3 last year — the majority of major multi-platform third-party games were not announced for Wii U. It became a dispiriting theme, as various titles were revealed for Xbox 360 / One / PS3 / PS4 and PC, while Nintendo's console was repeatedly left out.
How big an issue that is has been debated in other features and will be again in future, as the Wii U — at present — looks set for a pattern of third-party support somewhat similar to that of the Wii. Some major franchises continue to arrive — current examples are Call of Duty and, for now, Assassin's Creed — while many pass the system by. A number of these games struggle to match the sales on Microsoft and Sony platforms, and so occasionally miss key features and, like a vicious cycle, further weaken interest in Wii U iterations. Meanwhile, Nintendo works with key partners to release some enticing third-party exclusives, while in broader terms the system is largely defined — at a mainstream level — by first-party games.
That seems to be the path at present, though of course the industry and trends evolve and change. We think that's a fairly accurate perception at the time of writing, however, and is perhaps dispiriting due to a hope, particularly during the 2011/2012 period, that Nintendo's new system would enjoy a greater share of the third-party pie. With the ongoing absence of EA and decreasing or limited support from other major players, such as Ubisoft, the reality is starting to diminish that previous optimism.
Even accounting for the fact that an individual example — like that of the secret developer's article — do not represent universal truth, it does bring together impressions and opinions that are relevant in this context of diminishing third-party retail returns. Yes, it's referring to development tools like are likely obsolete and improved since, but is reflective of an experience that may have partially influenced some initial third-party company perceptions of the system. The early days for Wii U were typified by highly contrasting opinions — both on and off the record — with some developers talking down issues that were cited, and some clearly unhappy with the process of bringing their games to the console. The secret developer was evidently involved in a project that fell into the latter camp.
How much you believe or the weight you give these articles is your personal choice, but we'd suggest that counterpoints of "x says this isn't accurate" miss the key issue — it's about context, the size of the project and the timing of development. Saying that the Wii U is a pinch to work with now doesn't address the problem of pre-launch development, nor does categorising all game production under one umbrella. Each studio works with different starting points, philosophies and game engines, and some evidently had more trouble than others.
The reason the secret developer's words are interesting, even allowing for a healthy, objective assessment of what's said, is that they provide a particular perspective of Wii U development in its earlier days. In a climate of limited third-party support, meanwhile, statements around "management" backing away from the console ring uncomfortably true.
Dismissing the perspective of the Digital Foundry Eurogamer article isn't constructive. It's great that some developers have responded by highlighting their own positive experiences, but let's also consider the lessons that are raised — Nintendo's third-party retail support is worryingly low at present, and perhaps these early experiences of a developer are one (of multiple) factors that help explain why. In a cut-throat, competitive world, major companies focus on projects that will make the most money and, as has been proven to date, profits don't always hit the mark with Wii U releases. If you combine low profits — or no profits, as could be the case — with development headaches that arguably shouldn't be there, then the problems are obvious.
This isn't a case of "Nintendo is doomed", or focusing on negatives. It's about acknowledging issues from the past and present and looking at the reality of the situation. If Nintendo is to retain greater retail game support in the coming years, or even ensure smoother launches of future consoles, it's important to recognise problems that are raised and clearly have a basis of truth — perhaps, within the walls of Nintendo HQ, there is acceptance and planning in place to resolve some of the highlighted issues. There are always lessons to be learnt, even if they're difficult to accept.