It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good hardware launch – three years since the Wii and PS3, four since the Xbox 360 and five since the DS and PSP. It’s the type of lull in an otherwise restlessly churning industry that has some publishers reevaluating where they stand.
EA Montreal’s decision to abandon their stance on the Wii and refocus their efforts on the HD consoles is indicative of the way the wind is blowing. EA Montreal is only one arm of a massive corporation, but EA CEO John Riccitiello has already made his frustration with the Wii market known, and the failure of Dead Space Extraction is unlikely to lighten his mood. EA has been one of the most vocal supporters of the Wii – an apparent rethinking of that stance is a worrying sign of the times.
It seems that there are more than a few publishers who are delighted that the 360 and PS3 user base has reached something of a critical mass, so they no longer have to think too hard about the awkward Wii market. EA Montreal’s decision is something I think we’re going to see more of in the coming months. It’s a situation I referred to over a year ago as a self-fulfilling prophecy; third parties view the Wii as a fad, and therefore they make no software for it, fearing that two years later it will no longer be a viable platform.
Two years later, the only third-party software is lower quality, and sells less than on competing platforms; the same publishers turn around and use this as evidence to say that third-party games don’t sell on Wii.
Gee, you don’t say.
Dead Space Extraction is the latest example brought up to prove this logic. I don’t mean to say that it’s a bad game – by all accounts, it’s a great title, but one that has not met expectations at retail. But the problem here is not one of the title – it’s a problem with the initial expectations.
The only games that sell in the games market anymore are the ones that are exceptionally high quality, or exceptionally well marketed. Look at the titles that launched in the October to November window this year: Assassin’s Creed 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Uncharted 2, Left 4 Dead 2. All competing for the same general audience; all with massive marketing budgets and bulging Metascores. Extraction was neither exceptional nor exceptionally well marketed, and thus its failure should come as no surprise.
What is a surprise is that so few realized the odds were always stacked against Extraction. Dead Space itself disappointed at retail, despite being the beneficiary of the type of marketing campaign that would make Extraction weep. Extraction is a rail shooter, a genre whose market share has shrunk so much over the last decade that it would now probably be dead, if they weren’t so easy to make on the Wii.
The fact that rail shooters no longer seem to be released on the HD consoles (the last one I can find is Time Crisis 4, itself an arcade port) seems to suggest that nobody has faith in the genre anymore. The lack of advertising for Dead Space Extraction smacks of a management loss of faith either in the product or the market, leading to a yanking of the marketing budget at the last moment.
Extraction, clearly, is not what Wii owners want. The same argument applies for No More Heroes, MadWorld, The Conduit, and most other games that are supposed to have proven there is no hardcore audience on the Wii – these all seem like games that would have little chance on the HD consoles to begin with. The only marketable, exceptionally high-quality Wii hardcore game I can think of is Resident Evil 4 and it has sold over a million units.
The unwillingness or inability of publishers to capitalize on the Wii is worrying. Instead of creating new products, in the same way that publishers of the 1980s did to ensnare kids who had snapped up the NES just for Mario, publishers of the 2000s have played it far too safe. They’ve gone the route of copying what Nintendo does, or releasing mediocre action titles, or just making plain cheap and cheerful shovelware.
Nintendo must shoulder some of the blame for this – they have not been supportive enough of the titles that could have made a dent, and even they must realize that, as Blue Fang COO Scott Triola noted last week, Wii software is in “a downward spiral… that we need to get out of.” The high amount of dross available on the Wii is drowning out the quality, creating a vicious circle that will drive customers away from everything on the Wii that is not Nintendo-made.
While I realize that many “core” gamers are elitists who want to keep their hobby to themselves, speaking as someone who wants everybody to feel the same joy from videogames I do, this is an immensely frustrating situation. Here’s this machine that is low cost, easy to develop for and has a captive audience of millions, but little effort has been made to really crack it.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal is almost quaint in hailing an evening of Wii Sports bowling as “one of the best evenings we have ever had together as a family,” even while damning videogames as being “the domain of adolescent boys and aging nerds who should know better” (and like it or not, that is still how we are viewed by huge swathes of society.)
It’s frustrating to have seen the Wii effect on my own family, only to see publishers fail to supply the quality software that I know Wii owners are waiting for, and then turn around and say that the market does not exist.
As publishers back nervously away from the Wii, it makes me think that we may have let slip a one-time opportunity to redefine gaming, to make it truly mainstream in a way even the PlayStation brand could not. To make gaming an activity as acceptable as watching TV or listening to music. Instead we have retreated back into our bedrooms and garages, where we feel safe.
It merely highlights what I think a lot of gamers are already feeling – that the dynamism of the games industry has been seeping away over the past decade. We have become altogether too comfortable with our pigeonholed genres, our holiday blockbusters, and the battle to shift those half-million units the first month. Nintendo put a Wii in every household. But no one was interested in taking up the call.
This play-it-safe trend shows how poorly diversified most publishers are, how slow they are to react to changing trends in the market, and how exposed they are going to be in a changing world. Browser-based gaming is now entirely in the hands of companies who did not even exist a few years ago. Despite having years of experience in making games for the DS and the PSP, it’s not the big publishers but upstarts like ngmoco (itself founded by a former EA man) who rule the nascent iPhone market.
The one exception to the Wii situation I can think of is Epic Mickey, which looks like both a terrific game and a terrific business prospect. It utilizes a high-profile license with the backing of both a major corporation and an impressive gaming talent at the helm. The only problem is that it’s virtually alone. Epic Mickey is exactly the kind of product that the Wii platform needed last year, and it needed a lot more than one of them.
Mind you, when I say the Wii “needs” these products, I don’t mean in sales terms – Nintendo’s first-party offerings are more than enough to keep the hardware sales ticking. But if the Wii is to continue the “revolution” its codename hinted at, Nintendo can’t do it alone. Perhaps if Nintendo can bring their DS and Wii audience into successive generations, the lumbering giants of this industry may start to open their eyes. Otherwise they might find themselves competing where the market no longer exists.
Christian Ward works for a major publisher. Now that he thinks of it, he hasn’t bought Grand Slam Tennis either.