Nintendo Made Wii U Difficult for Third Party Publishers

Nintendo Games Sell Great on Nintendo Consoles. Why Does Everyone Else Struggle?

Nintendo

The shortage of third-party games on the Wii U was nothing new for Nintendo, whose consoles have a reputation as barren land for non-Nintendo titles. Claims that weak third party Wii U support was because of poor sales or weak hardware always seem unpersuasive; the Game Cube was as powerful as its competitors and the Wii sold in vast quantities, yet both saw less third party titles than their rivals.

There has to be more to the equation.

Certainly poor Wii U sales resulting from Nintendo’s incompetent marketing are part of the problem, as are terrible decisions by third party publishers. But it's more than that; Nintendo makes consoles that seem to reject third-party games like mismatched organ transplants. Here are some ways in which Nintendo has created a gaming environment inhospitable to third party games.

The Kiddie Console Image

While Nintendo would say they make games that are fun for all ages, in the popular imagination, Nintendo is for kids, making them appealing to parents but less so to the many gamers who are neither a young child nor are raising one. The “fun for all ages” concept has been somewhat rehabilitated in film via the Disney Renaissance and the rise of Pixar, yet many gamers don’t want to share all their gaming love with the local first grader, and Nintendo markets even games with wider appeal mainly to children.

Within the kid-friendly niche, Nintendo is the powerhouse – that’s what fuels the 3DS – but it’s a niche few other publishers focus on. In VGChartz’ 2013 list of top games, almost all the top family-friendly titles were Nintendo’s excepting sports games, a family-friendly genre Nintendo ignores.

If you’re not Nintendo, you’re making most of your money on games with more adult content.

Even though the Wii was targeted at casuals (lowering Nintendo’s standing with core gamers), publishers did publisher a few core Wii titles like MadWorld, The Conduit 2, and Dead Space: Extraction. Sales were disappointing, reinforcing the idea, rightly or wrongly, that Nintendophiles don’t want such games. . 

That, combined with Nintendo’s Wii U focus on family-friendly mainstays like Mario and Donkey Kong, may be why developers often can’t even imagine Nintendo customers playing their games. Releasing a blood-soaked game like Grand Theft Auto V on the Wii U is akin to screening at Disney World.

Nintendo has brought a few great adult games to the Wii U like and Xenoblade Chronicles X, but publishing one adult game for every 10 kid-friendly titles does little to attract gamers who can drown themselves in blood on other platforms. Not that Nintendo needs gallons of blood; they just need more variety; more sports, RPGs, strategy games. That variety could be supplied by third parties, but Nintendo needs to lead the way, doing whatever is necessary to pull major games into its orbit.

Increasingly, parents are themselves gamers who want a console that both they and their kids can enjoy. This could make it difficult for Nintendo to stay relevant.

Resisting Developing Technological Standards

Nintendo generally has a reasonable justification for resisting the adoption of technology that is developing as an industry standard. Why make an HD console when HD TVs are uncommon? Why focus on multiplayer when it isn’t all that big? Why make your console more expensive for a minority?

Then a few years roll by, HDTVs are common, online multiplayer is huge, and Nintendo is struggling to catch up. By waiting until something is unquestionably necessary, Nintendo cedes the advantage to those who recognized its potential early on. Online multiplayer is a good example; by deemphasizing it in their own games, Nintendo has created a perception of Nintendo consoles as unfriendly to online play.

Even Wii U owners often buy games with a heavy online component for other platforms.

The fresh ideas Nintendo brings to the gaming world are often innovative and brave, but the ideas they ignore make the company seem old and stodgy, like a phone manufacturer who says, “Rotary phones were great in 1970, and they’re still all we really need in 2010.”

Nintendo has also steadfastly stayed out of the graphics race, and while I agree that cutting-age graphics aren’t necessary, it doesn’t matter what I think, or what Nintendo thinks, to the vast number of graphics-obsessed gamers and game journalists.

Once the industry adopts a standard, it’s difficult for hardware that doesn’t fit that standard. Games developed for the PS4 could easily be ported to the equally-powerful XB1, but as with the Wii, which could run PS3/360 games without a lot of compromises, the Wii U creates a barrier to ports. If it’s easy to make a game for two consoles, and more difficult to add it to a third console whose owners are famously indifferent to third-party games, what’s the point?

Nintendo’s own games historically emphasize local multiplayer over online and use cartoony graphics that look fine without high-end graphics, so their consoles perfectly fit what they want to do. But they often fail to meet the different needs of other developers.

Failing to Lead on Their Own Hardware

One of Nintendo’s best qualities is their willingness to think outside of the technological box. The DS, the Wii, and the Wii U all introduced interesting new interfaces.

Unfortunately, Nintendo sometimes lacks ideas for their bold technological choices. For example, the first game that really explored the possibilities of the DS was not from Nintendo; it was SEGA’s Magic XY/XX. It took Nintendo another year to catch up.

Nintendo did better with the Wii, using Wii Sports to show off the console’s capabilities, but with the Wii U, Nintendo once again said in effect, here’s some technology, developers; do something cool with it.

Nintendo had one idea, asynchronous gameplay, but they never even really committed to that. The bulk of idea-creation to other publishers like Ubisoft.

A common criticism is that Nintendo failed to make a case for the Wii U with the public, but they also failed to convince game makers. Ideally they would have worked with developers ahead of time, getting their feedback, offering advice and ideas, brainstorming, accepting outside suggestions.

Short of that, the console’s launch should have offered a wide range of inspiring ideas. It’s great to think outside of the box, but when you create something new, you need to help people understand it. You don’t, in the bitter words of Bethesda’s Pete Hines, say, “we’re going to make a box and this is how it works and you should make games for it.”

Conclusion

Nintendo makes hardware that works really well for Nintendo, and markets it to those who best love Nintendo games. It is a system that has made them tremendous amounts of money. Arguably, Nintendo could just forget third parties and go it alone, but if they don't care for that option, it might be time for Nintendo to consider becoming more inclusive and fundamentally rethinking their approach to the gaming business. Unfortunately, there is little indication that Nintendo believes that.