Talking Point: Sonic and the Wii U Both Seek a Boom in Sales
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Nintendo and Sega need mutual success
We may be Nintendo fans keen to see as many major exclusives as possible, but we can't help but wonder whether Sega — behind closed doors and in hushed tones — wishes it was free to go multi-platform with the upcoming Sonic Boom. We are aware that Sonic Boom is also coming the 3DS and is in the hands of Sanzaru Games, which previously brought Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time to the PS3 and Vita; yet the footage and screens to date focus on the Wii U version, and the home console title's developer — Big Red Button Entertainment— has been doing a lot of the talking around the game. In terms of which iteration will have the bigger budget, fanfare and focus when released as a prequel tie-in to the TV show, we suspect that it'll be the home console version that gets the most attention.
That was the case with Sonic Lost World, as the majority of pre-release talk, previews and visibility was around the first HD Sonic experience on Nintendo hardware. Yet attention and focus doesn't always account for actual sales in the marketplace — of the 640,000 copies sold up to 31st December 2013, over half were the 3DS version of the game. In our opinion the 3DS iteration was extremely average, earning a 5/10 score from us rather than the 7/10 of its Wii U sibling, which we regarded as "good" overall considering some giddy highs and solid moments being joined by inexplicable drops in level design quality. In general the 3DS title got far less marketing attention, too, but it seems the sheer weight in numbers took the handheld's version to higher sales — the userbase was key.
Userbase will be a key issue when Sonic Boom represents the final piece of Nintendo's Sonic exclusivity deal with Sega. While the Sonic Lost World numbers aren't disastrous, they won't have prompted any popped champagne corks, either, and we're not convinced that Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games will have set the tills ringing to an excessive degree either. It's simply the case that 2013 wasn't a good year for the Wii U, and its poor level of sales trickles through and affects everything related to the system; third-party exclusives take part of that hit.
If we take a positive outlook on the year to come, this can perhaps be considered a major opportunity for both Nintendo and Sega to demonstrate their combined powers of recovery. Nintendo's already made clear, pending unlikely reversals in the next few months, that the current Wii U SKU — ie with the GamePad as its core controller — will remain its focus, and rather than slash prices by dropping the pricey Pad the company will aim to improve its image and bolster its presence as a unique selling point. The potential for the controller and hardware simply hasn't resonated with the public to date, and Nintendo is already planning to develop and reveal game experiences to emphasize its value; this includes NFC projects and a quick-start system option for player to jump into games quickly on the controller. More importantly, it must be said, Nintendo is aiming to hit the market with franchises and releases that it hopes gamers of all types will find almost impossible to resist — Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. being prominent examples.
Then we have Sega's bid to keep the Sonic brand running for years to come. Sonic Generations arrived on various platforms and with a heavy marketing campaign — it was an anniversary game, after all — and was approaching two millions sales as of 31st March 2012, which was just shy of six months after launch. Not a bad performance, and we now know of how Sonic Lost World fared in its first two months, but these figures show that the mascot is no longer a dominant figure as he was in Sega's hardware heyday. It's also the case that, in the opinion of many if not all, the company hasn't truly nailed it with a Sonic game for quite a few years — there are always those that would disagree, and there have been reasonable efforts, but a Sonic game hasn't wowed a majority of critics / gamers in recent memory.
Sega is, of course, making noises about Sonic Boom being the best Sonic since the last one, and that is standard marketing shtick. Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and every publisher / developer on the planet will at some point say their next offering is the "best yet", and we watch early teasers and judge whether that's even vaguely possible. What we will say about Sonic Boom is that it's different from recent outings for the mascot, not just for the fact that he's joined by playable friends but in the co-op focus and what seems to be a more action-orientated gameplay that, on the face of it, seems like a slower experience. We see Knuckles using those rather unpopular muscles to climb around monkey-bar style, Tails shooting a big gun, and Amy swinging around and attacking with a large mallet; we also see Sonic running very, very fast over water. There are glimpses of the characters dashing along at high speed and "tethering" but there are clearly fairly large areas that are explored, with enemies to battle.
It'll be intriguing to see how balance is found, but Sega is giving itself a little freedom with the Sonic Boom brand, as it is a supposedly separate part of the universe; it's a new image that won't actually, it seems, change the core Sonic, especially as the Sonic Team is supposedly still working on another Sonic title. Yet if a criticism of Sonic Lost World — and in particular some sloppy stages — was that the Sonic Team couldn't quite pin down how to change the formula while keeping the brand's sense of speed, perhaps the role of Big Red Button Entertainment — and of course Sanzaru Games on the 3DS — is important in simply getting away from tweaking a formula that's not quite hitting the mark.
While Big Red Button Entertainment is an unknown quantity in terms of output — Sonic Boom will be its first game — it does have a front-man with credentials — expect Bob Rafei to be pushed forward to talk about the Wii U game, as he has been to date, due to his past as "employee number one" at Naughty Dog until he left, and a figure well-known and respected in the development industry. The appointment of this studio fits well with the role of this brand as a fresh departure for Sonic. We have those designs that will continue to have long-term fans arguing until the end of time, but there'll be a TV show and toy range joining the games, all three combining to form one large marketing push. We'd suggest that it's revealing that Sega has created a whole new Sonic, with new hands on deck, for what must be an expensive cross-discipline project; it clearly decided the original Sonic either isn't cutting it or, perhaps to be more fair, needs reinforcement and diversity.
As we suggested at the very top of this article, Sega may wish that this new brand was receiving greater exposure on the video game front by hitting every platform possible. Alternatively it may value the fact that, if used correctly, the Wii U hardware in particular could be perfect for the title's apparent emphasis on co-op play — Rafei has already talked up the role of the GamePad. There's also the simple fact that a wounded Nintendo can be a powerful force, especially with a war chest of cash with which to charge. The Wii U's problems have seen multiple third-parties back away, so we can be sure that first-party releases and third-party exclusives will get the full attention of Nintendo's marketing efforts. When you combine the Sonic Boom TV show and toy range with Nintendo's anxiety for the Wii U game to fly off the shelves, you get a potentially powerful hype machine.
It's too early at this stage to even try and figure out whether Sega's big moves with the Boom franchise will be a roaring success that will boost Sonic, the Wii U and 3DS, or whether it'll be a damp squib of a poorly viewed show, unsold toys and modest video game sales. What we do have are two companies rather anxious to boost brands, which makes the Wii U title a fascinating prospect; to emphasize the point, we'd expect most focus to be on the Wii U game, more so than the 3DS iteration. There's mutual interest between Nintendo and Sega for the Wii U to start a drastic reversal of fortunes, and assuming the games join the TV show during the Fall season, the big N should have already started its efforts to shift serious units following the arrive of Mario Kart 8 and others. It wouldn't surprise us if Nintendo gives Sonic Boom a wide berth at release, at least a few weeks to a month space from any major first-party titles.
Sonic Lost World arguably could have had a greater push in advertising and general marketing, but we wonder whether Sega knew that through the combined efforts of Sonic Team and Dimps — the latter on the 3DS — it hadn't quite revolutionised or refined the series to earn universal acclaim. With Sonic Boom's three-pronged branding assault the focus reverts to producing the goods and winning audiences old and new back, in large numbers, to the blue blur's cause. The 3DS version will likely sell reasonable numbers simply because of the portable's userbase and loyal fans — it's with the Wii U that the big push is likely to come. Nintendo and Sega both need this final leg of its partnership to boost on from its reasonable but unspectacular run so far, and that can only be good for gamers.
Sonic Boom has a lot of money and pressure on its shoulders, and both will only increase in time. The same can be said for the Wii U, so the mutual needs of both partners may drive them to substantial levels of effort, with themed console bundles and more possible spin-offs. Nintendo's home console needs all the hyped, buzz-worthy exclusives it can get, and Sega needs Sonic Boom to return its investment and give the mascot's brand a lift.
Sonic Boom could be one of the biggest stories for Wii U this year — if it achieves that status, Nintendo and its fans all win.