The Wii U and the Third-Party: A Tale of Love, Loss, and Risk
Ah, video games, what a truly special medium, pandering to sight, sound, touch, and the mind. Here is the hope that many will remember these components that make video games truly special, the reason there is an entire industry now; they are more than a pretty face. Like the evolution of any medium, risks laid the foundation for every milestone in video game history. Although, as a very young industry, the prospect of taking huge risks might not be as appealing. As it seems, one of the biggest risks as of late is to develop for the Wii U, Nintendo’s latest console that may have been released too early, and is thus running on hardware that doesn’t quite match the graphical standards of the new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Photo-realism is in, and the Wii U can’t necessarily provide that, so it’s less than appealing to the third-party. Therein lies the challenge for Nintendo and indie developers across the board, or basically anyone who isn’t creating the picture-esque “blockbuster AAA” titles for the new, big, black consoles. Nintendo is ready to face its “competitors” with a fistful of experience and talented game developers, but they simply cannot do it alone. Especially if they wish to recuperate from the recent financial losses. It’s going to take a lot more than a Mario-themed band-aid.
Inferior graphics are not the sole reason for less than expected sales figures for the Nintendo Wii U, but also marketing, however that’s a story for another day. Third-party games like Mutant Mudds have garnered fantastic reviews praising the quality of the gameplay as well as a creative and expert utilization of the 8-bit art style. Often without the millions of dollars at their disposal unlike many massive developers like EA, indie developers must work with what they’ve got, then focusing all their strengths on the sheer quality of the game. Whether or not it fails isn’t the point here, but rather how they sell based on the concept and gameplay rather than its sheer visual splendor.
For example, you won’t see people shitting on Surgeon Simulator 2013 because it doesn’t have perfect life-like textures, but rather because it’s stupid, hilarious, and brilliant all at once. On the other side of the spectrum, you see Xbox One games like Ryse: Son of Rome being praised for being gorgeous to look at, but is ultimately deemed an disappointingly shallow game. Then there are Wii U games like Super Mario 3D World that just work on every level, all the while boasting a framerate practically stuck at a glorious 60 fps, but that’s Nintendo’s own first-party title; It’s their system, they know very well what they’re doing, how to do it, and they know it’ll be great. Mass Effect 3 gets its own Wii U version and runs comparably to the Xbox 360 version, and both run significantly better than the PlayStation 3 version, but then Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on Wii U suffers some framerate issues. Why do the graphics seem so fickle? Where then does that leave the third-party developers?
Recently, a Digital Foundry article stirred up a bit of controversy when an unnamed developer spoke out about their experience in developing a game for the Nintendo Wii U. Apparently, the process was rocky at best with limited technical and feature support to help create the optimal game, whatever it was. Christopher Arnold, President and Founder of Nami Tentou Games and creator of Ping 1.5+, has since responded to the feature via Twitter about how it’s pretty much all blown way out of proportion. With his experience in developing for the Wii U, he claims the developer that wrote the article was pointing out pre-retail software development kit problems, but that these have long been absent from the kits that are now sent to developers. Arnold continues with:
Being an early on developer on any new hardware will pose challenges to those unfamiliar. Programming and coding is most of the time trial-and-error. Wii U game development takes the same amount of work and attention as a Xbox 360 or PS3 game development. They’ve done their process of making their API understandable and useful to seasoned programmers. Wii U development = any other game console development time. That’s what it’s been like for me developing, and I’ve been pushing my PC harder than my Wii U during development also. That’s all I have to say on the subject of Eurogamer’s clickbait article. They titled it to stir up the Nintendooom wheel again.
He concludes with telling third-party developers to just get on with it and create for the Wii U. The biggest risk therein would be the lack of substantial sales for the system, which would mean less than desired results for developers hoping to reach a certain number of sales to reap the well deserved reward for their efforts. Now I have a theory here: Everything has come full circle; some third-party developers do not take the risk to create on a new hardware that is apparently just as easy to develop for, resulting in a lack of third-party titles, which leads to low sales, and then comes back around to the developers who would rather not take that risk and produce a title that won’t make enough of a profit. It’s a shame, but it’s a business.
Undoubtedly, many of us will agree that Nintendo probably should have waited another year or so to really kick the technical potential of the Nintendo Wii U up a few notches and make it more enticing for more developers to create on, but this is what they have to work with. Poor marketing aside, no one is then able to find out how it’s actually a splendid piece of hardware and overall system by now.
The urge to create for the newest systems, PS4 and XbOne, overpowers risk. Or does it? Capcom seems to be having their own challenges developing for the new consoles, according to Senior Manager of Technology Management Masaru Ijuin in an interview with Official Xbox Magazine:
Well, I’m afraid creators will have to start back at square one when they learn how develop games using Panta Rhei. Next-gen consoles have drastically redefined the way games are rendered. Conventional theories no longer work… Don’t get me wrong, we believe MT Framework is a powerful rendering engine. But it’s clear that heightened game quality leads to a rise in the number of man hours. The amount of work involved in making games for next-gen consoles is eight to ten times greater than what is required for the current generation of consoles.
As it seems, it’s a herculean task that a huge company like Capcom can surely overcome, but that is not quite as easy for smaller development teams. The last generation won’t be dying for another long while, and the Wii U, with a stronger graphics processing unit will likely keep going at least a little while after the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 call it quits, once developers get more comfortable with its limitations. It may not have the technical prowess to run many picture-esque titles like a PS4 can, but it has its own strengths that developers must harness to turn it into a wildly successful machine, not unlike Nintendo’s own 3DS handheld. In the words of Christopher Arnold:
3rd party needs to make the move first. Stop playing coy and hop into bed already.
The Wii U had the potential to be the best-selling system on the market right now, but the cogs are only just now getting put in place, seemingly way too late. Unfortunately, it’s a big ol’ flop right now, but there’s still time. A suitable number of must-have first-party titles are on the way for the system which is definitely going to help some, but it’s also up to third-party developers to stretch their creativity and take that chance. ‘Tis the rocky relationship between Nintendo and the third-party, the ultimate OTP.