Before the Wii U was launched Nintendo made the right noises about third-party support — here was a powerful system with backing from major players like EA, Activision and Ubisoft, we were told, and the innovative new controller would encourage unique, multi-screen experiences. Of course, everything is always amazing when pitched at E3, though the realities of the situation quickly dawned on us all and, actually, the perfect storm of Nintendo-exclusive content aligned with a packed third-party catalogue turned into a different kind of storm — of the public relations variety. The Wii U, throughout 2013, was caught in a maelstrom of negativity, some of it fair and based on fact but plenty that was undeserved.
The current malaise of major third-party developers is impossible to deny, as the line-up of multi-platform games actually coming to the Wii U is painfully thin, and those that are coming to the system are prominently supported by or published by Nintendo. Bayonetta 2 is a classic example — and may still tempt a modest number of gamers to put down the cash for the increasingly affordable system — while others such as Sonic Boom are part of deals Nintendo has struck, in that case the final part of a Sega agreement. When incentive and money isn't on the table directly from Nintendo support is minimal, with the likely exception of traditionally solid family-based genres that often perform for Nintendo, with the likes of Skylanders, the emerging power-house of Disney Infinity and Just Dance.
That last example is an interesting one as it brings Ubisoft into the frame, and even more so as it was the Wii — not Wii U version — of Just Dance 2014 that performed over the Holiday season. Therein lies part of the problem, of course, that thousands of gamers are still buying a Wii version of a game available on the newer system, exposing the challenge that Nintendo faces in converting that enormous last-gen audience — or some of it — to the new system.
Of course, Ubisoft is currently on the minds of Nintendo fans following its decision to delay the Wii U version of Watch_Dogs until after its release on other platforms, placing Nintendo's system at the bottom of that particular pile. Ubisoft's thinking is clearly driven by the best prospects for profit, and the minor contribution of Wii U sales of its games sales over recent months provide ample evidence of why the Wii U is last pick — it's making the company the least money.
While business logic has arguably been applied, plain-old common-sense suggests that Ubisoft has given Watch_Dogs on Wii U an unavoidable likelihood of failure. Yes, there are gamers that will only own a Wii U, yet with all of the other platforms — especially with PS3 and Xbox 360 bundles now available at budget prices — doing the rounds, it's likely that the majority with an interest in the game will already own it by the time it eventually hits Wii U. Delayed ports can play a role for the Wii U, but are highly unlikely to contribute much to hardware sales or to make the system a must-have.
As has been the case with other publishers, Ubisoft partly has itself to blame for Wii U software struggles, albeit while facing the challenges inherent in Nintendo's continued drive for unique control interfaces and infrastructure. Bringing games to Wii U may be awkward for development teams better accustomed to Sony and Microsoft's most recent generations of hardware, but Nintendo system iterations don't always have much of a chance — Rayman Legends missed a quiet earlier release window to grab game-starved Wii U owners, Splinter Cell Blacklist didn't include the popular local co-op, and Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag skipped DLC. Examples abound elsewhere, too, especially with EA's early and only contributions to the Wii U library. Business rationale contributed to a self-fulfilling prophesy — the Wii U versions of various games don't deliver sizeable numbers so publishers invest less, and the resulting pared-back games are even less appealing than before.
It can be a frustrating scenario for Nintendo fans, especially those that may have fantasised in optimistic pre-launch 2012 days of a Nintendo system that would deliver first-party and attractive multi-platform experiences. As it is, gamers that seek a broad experience and a lot of major triple A games have to contemplate other means, with PC, Sony and Microsoft each offering options. The Wii U is becoming — perhaps already is — a system for Nintendo games, occasional if exciting exclusives, and a potentially prosperous download market. The question is whether that's a particular surprise or, even, an issue.
For those that can only afford to own a Wii U, it is a problem. It's the Wii all over again, with the bulk of third-party multi-platform games duking it out on Sony and Microsoft platforms, though Nintendo's last-gen box of tricks did have a diverse and fairly attractive range of exclusives from out-with Nintendo's legendary studios. The reason that Ubisoft and others dabbled with exclusives was because it was worth a punt, due to the Wii userbase being impressively broad; taking a gamble is relative when tens of millions of units — now over 100 million — are out in the wild. So with the inevitable shovelware and nonsense we did have some solid titles such as Red Steel 2 and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (the latter also on PS2 and PSP, admittedly) that came from third-parties keen to give the Wii a whirl. As we've already suggested above, with the Wii U Nintendo is having to provide incentive to studios to bring their games to the console — money on the table, we'd wager, in most or all cases.
As we've suggested in the past, it's not new for Nintendo to be outside of the triple A club in third-party multi-platform games, and it's been argued here in the Nintendo Life office that this has been the case since the Nintendo 64. Once Nintendo went its own way in terms of its technology and interfaces, and also struggled with the GameCube, support from major publishers has fluctuated depending on a system's performance, and always with that awkward perception — which is pretty accurate — that Nintendo games sell most on its hardware while the rest fight over scraps. The NES and Super NES days of Nintendo being the go-to hardware manufacturer are long gone.
The reason the Watch_Dogs revelation matters is because it should, we'd anticipate, wipe out any remaining pretence that the Wii U will deliver a viable platform to enjoy the bulk of high-budget multi-platform games. That ship sailed before now, but the Ubisoft title was a remaining gleam of light, an example of console parity for Wii U owners that'd rather get their fixes through just one system. Of course, it's possible to only own a Wii U and have a variety of games to play — it's a Nintendo box with big N goodies — but it's a reality that indulging in the best-selling offerings from other publishers is becoming something for other systems. For Nintendo gamers with a taste for ever-increasing diversity, owning more than one home console — or a PC — is once again a necessity.
None of this is to say Nintendo doesn't need third-party support, of course it does, yet it needs that support to relate to the audience that the Wii U forges, so may take the form of those family-friendly, accessible games that arrived on Wii. Should the latest system successfully revive its fortunes through its various big-name titles that are coming in 2014, then more games from other developers will follow — it's not an instant or immediate fix, however, and studios that work on the biggest franchises to flood Sony and Microsoft systems are becoming another generation removed from Nintendo, stripping away familiarity with the hardware and, by extension, increasing the investment needed to produce games for the platform.
So Watch_Dogs isn't the big-name IP to show the Wii U can mix it with its contemporaries for mainstream, triple A projects. The Wii U is pushing ahead on its own path, just like the Wii before it. Its long term prospects are unclear as yet, but we need no more hints, delays or cancellations to tell us one thing.
The Wii U is a system for exclusive, different experiences mostly from Nintendo and, in some instances, from allies, partners and third-parties. It won't deliver all of the multi-platform blockbusters with enormous marketing budgets — it just won't.