EA's on-off relationship with Nintendo over the past decade has been so eventual it's a wonder it hasn't been turned into a 10-part docuseries on Netflix by now. Back in the Wii era, EA was happy to throw resources at Nintendo's system thanks to its impressive install base, and we were gifted with no less than 78 different titles from the publisher, including the likes of Boom Blox, MySims, EA Playground and Dead Space: Extraction – all bespoke games created to properly leverage the unique functions of the best-selling motion-controlled home console.
The Wii U was a commercial disaster for Nintendo and it's unlikely that any amount of third-party software support was going to change that
Like any good relationship, it benefitted both parties – so much so that EA announced the infamous 'unprecedented partnership' with Nintendo prior to the release of the Wii U. EA's then-CEO John Riccitiello even joined Satoru Iwata and Reggie Fils-Aime on stage for his first-ever appearance at a Nintendo conference, all but confirming that two of the biggest names in video games were about to get even closer with the Wii U.
Of course, we all know how that particular episode ended. While EA was initially keen, bringing titles like Mass Effect 3 and FIFA 13 to the system, it notably held back Madden – one of its crown jewels – and as the console struggled to find its audience, EA's enthusiasm waned. Even titles like Need for Speed: Most Wanted U – which should have made a real splash on the system – were pushed to market with little effort, leading Criterion founder Alex Ward to lament that "neither Nintendo or EA gave a s*** about it". The previously rosy partnership was coming to an ignominious end.
In the cold light of day, who could blame EA for this outcome? The Wii U was a commercial disaster for Nintendo and it's unlikely that any amount of third-party software support was going to change that; the marketing for the machine was clumsy and the hook of having a second screen was underused, even by Nintendo. As EA's CFO Blake Jorgensen bluntly said in 2015, "We don't make games anymore for the Wii or the Wii U because the market is not big enough... it's all about the size of the market."
However, the concept of the Wii U arguably led to the development of the Switch, and prior to Nintendo officially unveiling its new console in 2016, there were rumblings that EA was ready to rekindle the flame. Indeed, early in 2017, EA's executive vice president Patrick Söderlund took to the stage during the Nintendo Switch Presentation in Tokyo to confirm that a custom-made FIFA would be coming to the new system, later adding: "We've been with Nintendo for a very long time. I'm a Nintendo fanboy since I grew up. Nintendo is the reason I got into gaming." So, game on again, right?
Before we appear to be ungrateful, getting to play titles like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit on the go is great, and the fact that Apex Legends is Switch-bound is cause for celebration
Not quite. While EA has certainly been active on the Switch, it appears to have fallen into its old ways again. FIFA has now lapsed into 'Legacy' territory, with EA basically updating the kits and stats but keeping the game engine in stasis – a practice which it formerly reserved for last-gen systems. Elsewhere, the company has decided against creating unique experiences solely for Switch, and instead chooses to port-over older titles – presumably because it continues to believe that Switch owners only buy Nintendo games. Just yesterday, it was reported that many of the "multiple titles" EA plans to bring to Switch this year are ports.
Now, before we appear to be ungrateful, getting to play titles like Burnout Paradise and Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit on the go is great, and the fact that Apex Legends is Switch-bound is cause for celebration – it's one of EA's most recent hits, after all. And it's worth noting that the process of bringing these games to Nintendo's console isn't akin to simply flicking a switch (pardon the pun); they will need optimising for the platform, and that costs money.
However, there's no escaping the fact that some of these big-name releases are games which have already been developed and will have presumably recouped their initial production cost many times over on older systems (Hot Pursuit, lest we forget, was a PS4/Xbox One launch title). Releasing them on Switch might not be 'money for old rope', but it's pretty darn close. Surely there is room for EA to create unique content solely for Nintendo's console?
EA isn't alone in this approach, of course. 2K has recently released a slew of ports to the console, and not a month seems to pass without another PS3 or Xbox 360 titles getting a new lease of life on Switch. It's also worth noting that EA isn't really creating 'bespoke' games for other consoles, either; its titles are primarily cross-platform, so they launch on both PS4 and Xbox One at the same time. While it would be nice to expect that the likes of Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order and Battlefield V on Switch, it's clear that not every game can be successfully scaled down to the hybrid system successfully. Should EA be creating unique games exclusively for the Switch, then? That's a risky business, as you don't have the safety net of multi-platform sales to cover the development costs, so it's unlikely that the company would return to the days of the Wii, when it was pumping out platform exclusives designed to take advantage of the console's unique interface (and audience).
You could argue that the company is doing the best it can, given the power deficit between Nintendo's system and the PS4 and Xbox One
So where does that leave EA and Switch? You could argue that the company is doing the best it can, given the power deficit between Nintendo's system and the PS4 and Xbox One. Sure, titles like DOOM and The Witcher 3 prove that Switch is capable of hosting current-gen experiences when the development talent is there, but the console is clearly weaker than Sony and Microsoft's platforms, which is why it makes more sense – purely from a business perspective – to leverage that massive audience with titles from the previous generation. Titles which, it should be remembered, are making their Nintendo debuts on Switch. This is an untapped selection of players that EA is unlocking with these ports. If the sales are there, maybe the company will be even keener to support the platform?
There are still elements of this approach that rankle, of course. Asking full price for Burnout Paradise on Switch was pretty cheeky, given that it was cheaper at launch on other systems back in 2018 and is often on sale elsewhere (the Switch Tax is alive and well, it seems). And why hasn't The Sims 4 been confirmed? Surely that most casual of all EA licences would be absolutely perfect for Switch – a console which already has a world-beating life sim in the form of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Sims on Switch sounds like a no-brainer to us, given the audience, so why is EA sleeping on it?
Still, EA isn't the only third-party publisher to be caught napping by Switch's incredible success, nor is it the only one which uses Sony and Microsoft's formats as its main source of income. However, it could well be the case that by ignoring Nintendo's growing audience for so long, the company will have a hard time convincing them its efforts are heartfelt and sincere; ports are a good start, but the company needs to put in some real effort if it seeks to completely rekindle that oft-derided partnership.