Monday, May 9, 2016

Nintendo and the fallacy of the "Third party savior"


Well, here we are again. Sitting here on the shoreline of console releases wiggling our sand encrusted toes, while watching the Wii U slowly dip through the sky and clouds to disappear below the horizon line and fade into the æther. Soon, after an a long night of waiting and longing, we will find ourselves sitting at that same beach of anticipation, waiting for a new console to rise from that same horizon and take it's place among the skies. It's something that's happened for every console generation, but for me and many other gamers, The anticipation always seems heightened when it comes to Nintendo Consoles.

The NX right now is a rather huge question mark in terms of what it is and what It will possibly, be. There have been tons of different theories and rumors about what the new console will look like, what capabilities it has, what kind of media will the games appear on. Its' all strange and interesting, and the hype train is definitely in full effect.

Naturally, with hype and speculation, comes another set of arguments that have seemed to become cultural mainstays in the collective consciousness of the both armchair analysts, naval gazing journalists, and the gaming community at large; Nintendo Needs third parties if they're ever going to survive this console generation” , “Nintendo needs to have more 1st party games on their console”. And my personal favorite “Nintendo has to get it right, this time!” But how much of this is just speculation and how much is actual fact?

A glorious start for a gluttonous end

Stop me if you've heard this one, before - “Nintendo's third party support is non existent, and if they don't start courting third parties, then they'll be in trouble this console generation”. It's something we've heard for some time, but is it really as true as we believe, or is this just a meme that's been thrown around for decades? It can be easily said that software is what drives hardware for consoles, and we've seen plenty consoles dry up and die without Third Party Support. The Dreamcast, the Jaguar, and other consoles of olde suffered from this to a greater effect, so the same could easily be said about Nintendo, right?

Well. Before we answer that, we would have to take a little trip back to the end of the second console generation. Remember how Third-party developers were putting out tons of shovelware on the consoles of the time? Well the reason for that was actually due to various companies trying to rush out copycat or poor quality games in order to cash in on the video game boom. By 1982 the flood of poor quality games grew exponentially and eventually overtook the market.Retailers would only stock the games that sold over the glut of copycat games resulting in 10% of games on the market producing 75% of sales. The underwhelming ports of games like Pac-Man and the multi-million dollar flop of ET had only made things worse, and the home console market finally succumbed to an industry crash in 1983. 

We all know about how Nintendo had single-handedly revitalized the console market with the release of the NES, and due to some monopolistic, yet necessary actions to prevent a second crash, like controlling the number of releases (which pushed companies like Konami and other companies to create subsidiaries, like Ultra Games, in order to gain an advantage), and providing a security chip to ensure that pirated, and unlicensed games were practically non existent on the NES. Third parties weren't too thrilled about this, but at the height of the NES, Nintendo was in fact the only game in town. With that, it's easy to say that 3rd party developers and publishers weren't too happy with wanting to go back to something like this in the waning days of Sega's peripheral obsessive years, so when Sony and Nintendo had their falling out, Sony decided to actually jump the gun and put out their own console. it was considered a no-brainer for them to flock to the Playstation's support over going back to Nintendo's draconian rules.

For Nintendo, the dwindling number of Third-party support had begun around the days of the 64, at first attributed to Nintendo's desire to continue using cartridges, which at the time were considered to be an archaic technology compared to CDs which held more data, and cost less to produce. Over time the Gamecube would see a sharper decline of third party support, despite finally switching to optical mini discs; To the layman, Mini Discs had faster loading times, were harder at the time to pirate, and were considered durable, but I also surmise that the reason why Nintendo didn't want to go with DVDs like the competition, was due to Sony actually having a large stake in the development of DVD technology. This could just be speculation, however  I could easily see Yamauchi being that petty

The Dreamcast's death had been another instance of both Sony's dominance in software support, and Sega's diminishing number of third party titles. Even Capcom, who's Dreamcast titles were prominently shown on the system, had began migrating to Sony. They would do the same to the Gamecube during The Capcom 5 betrayal, where Capcom, and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, promised to create five exclusive games, only to have the company port all but two to the PS2. The company claimed that all five games being exclusive was a “misunderstanding”; The deal had been for only RE4 to be exclusive to the Gamecube (which was ported to the PS2 anyway). This was the event that lead to Shinji Mikami's departure from Capcom.

Cash Grabs Shovelware and hidden Gems

When the Wii hit the scene in November of 2006, no one expected for it to be as huge as it was. In fact, the sentiment at the time was that Nintendo should go the way of Sega and become a third-party developer, but of course it and the DS were figuratively “printing money” and the newly coined “motion controls” and ease of play were bringing in entirely new demographics. Even with the sales lead, the high attachment rates, and newfound mainstream popularity, Publishers were avoiding putting any of the same games that graced the PS3 and the Xbox 360 on the Wii, often stating that “the graphics aren't on par with the more HD variety games”. Let's consider for a moment that graphics can be scaled down; The Unreal 3 engine was made to work on an Iphone in the Wii's lifecycle, and Crysis can be made to run on a Pentium 3 computer. Not to mention that even on the Gamecube, Medal of Honor: Frontline was praised by sites like Gamespot for being graphically superb , and Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike, even with a massive amount of compression to get the game on an optical disc, was a graphical masterpiece in it's own right!

However, according to a bunch of supposed “professionals” the Wii, which has similar specs to a Gamecube with a better processor and graphics card, can barely run PS2 games, and due to this half-assed logic, some ports to Wii actually were just PS2 games with graphical tweaks and control adjustments for some form of motion control. Of course, the common excuse at the time was that “the Wii Version of these games had to be totally built from the ground up”, and if you believe that, I surely have some land to sell you in phallus shaped parts of North America.

If you look at the Wii's library, you had a ton of flash game ports, collect-a-thon games, or really just cash grab titles that third-party developers used to fund larger more graphically heavy titles on the HD consoles, and when fans shouted that they wanted games like Dead Rising, Resident Evil 5, and Dead Space on the Wii, their respective companies pulled the old “ It'll happen, only if the fans want it enough” routine. This can be often thought of as A modern day equivalent of the “if you believe in faeries, then clap your hands” treatment. When those games did come, they were nothing like what the PS3 and 360 had; Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles, Resident Evil Darkside Chronicles, and Dead Space: Extraction were rail shooter versions of the games fans actually felt would boost sales on the highest selling console of the 7th Generation. Sure, you also had Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which was an interesting take on the first game in the series, but the former was more of a common occurrence than the latter. Ultimately, it was the Wii's own first party titles, and some strong offerings from Indies and companies that were legitimately hungry and actually wanted to put quality titles on the Wii that really kept the fans happy amid a sea of shovelware.

And now we come to the Wii U, a rather fun and interesting console that had a ton of potential, but continued the tradition of being a Nintendo console that is obviously promised support from the gate, and then left out to dry by those same third parties that screwed them countless times, before. Ubisoft, with Rayman Legends, a game that was delayed on multiple occasions, (but still not as much as Mighty No. 9). then released as a tie-in with it's PS3 and 360 versions to lackluster sales. Assassin's Creed IV with it's slack-ass lack of features compared to it's other versions, and the company's downward spiral into mediocrity. Rocksteady and their “Better late than never” edition of Arkham City, that had absolutely no DLC, which seemed to be a trend, because the same thing happened with Watch Dogs, as well as Mass Effect 3, which why in the blue hell would you release the third game in a series on a console that never saw the first or second iteration, and have no means of porting those games at all, while releasing a trilogy version shortly after? Companies like EA claimed at E3 that they had fifteen games lined up for release on Wii U, but it's rumored that they pulled support due to Nintendo rejecting the offer of EA's Origin distribution system being their official service, which seems to be a good thing. Origin, at this point was pretty much a wretched hive of DRM scum and villainy. Nintendo must be cautious.

Above: EA's lies being told in real time..
With that being said, I do have to point out the silver lining that was in fact, a fantastic port of Deus Ex: Human Revolution: Director's cut, A pretty decent Zombi U offering in my humble opinion, Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate that had really good cross platform play with the 3DS version and the fantastic experiences that was Platinum Game's The Wonderful 101 and Bayonetta 2, which wouldn't of happened at all if Nintendo, hadn't of stepped in to fund the project; you see, Midway through Platinum's development, Sega decided to halt production temporarily. Platinum tried to go to other publishers to find a means of completing funding, but were declined until Nintendo stepped in. In fact, I'll let Kamiya say it in his own words..

Platinum Games] are developers and receive support from publishers by making games that they request or suggest.

As for Bayonetta, we developed the game after signing a deal with SEGA. Later it was decided to also develop the sequel, so we started working on Bayonetta 2.
When development had progressed to a certain degree, in SEGA’s situation it turned into “This isn’t a good plan”, so development halted temporarily.
Without funding we didn’t have the possibility to continue development, but we wanted to get this partially developed Bayonetta 2 available to the public one way or another. So we offered it to various publishers, but as it is a big title, we couldn’t find a partner company. Finally, Bayonetta 2 was about to get terminated completely, when…
Nintendo came in and lent a hand and we were able to restart the development we so desired. Finally the game was released last week, so in five years, we were able to make Bayonetta 2 available to the public.
Knowing those circumstances, if someone is still angry for heading towards Nintendo, I wonder what’s the reason for that, wouldn’t you tell me in a way that is easy to understand?
As I have said earlier, if you want Bayonetta 2 on PS4 or Xbox One, how about trying to ask Nintendo… If Nintendo doesn’t say yes, it’s not going to happen… While you’re at it, try asking for Mario and Zelda too…”

The success of Bayonetta 2, and the fact that Platinum even went so far as to remaster Bayonetta 1 and package the games together, was definitely what made the two games shine. So much so, that Bayonetta appeared again in Super Smash Bros, and Platinum had been brought on to work with Nintendo on Star Fox Zero.

However that's just one instance of the company actually supporting third party developers, and what works for one doesn't exactly work for all. Before we move on I want to show you a little blurb from former head of Nintendo's Indie relations, Dan Adelman.
“It really comes down to the business case for these publishers. Nintendo consumers buy Nintendo systems primarily for the first party content. There’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy in that publishers feel that they can’t compete with Nintendo first party, so they choose not to invest in making high quality products for the platform. There are some notable exceptions to this over the years like Rayman Legends but many times third party publishers set low sales projections for their games, and then decide a development budget based on that. I can’t say outright that they’re wrong either.”
There have been cases where companies decided to pull out the stops and make a great game for Nintendo platforms only to find that consumers weren’t interested. And it could be because consumers have been burnt by third party games on Nintendo platforms before.”
For Nintendo to break this cycle, I think they need to invest and absorb some of the risk for third parties who try to embrace the features of Nintendo platforms and help communicate to consumers which games are on par with Nintendo first party games in terms of quality. Sony and Microsoft spend a lot of money securing exclusives – or at least exclusive features – on the top games and since Nintendo doesn’t really do that, third parties focus on the other systems. I’m not sure about Sony, but I know Microsoft also has a team of technical people that will go work with a studio for a few weeks or even months to help them make their games as good as they can be on those platforms.”

It's easily to believe this is indeed the case. This would logically explain why we saw a lot of half-hearted attempts at games on the Wii and Wii U's library, as well as Nintendo's actions with helping out Platinum Games. The biggest thing that would lead us to believe that companies couldn't compete with Nintendo would be the fact that a great many Wii games had the uncanny ability to sell months after their release date. This has been referred to as “long tail sales”. Most AAA games of the time would cap out at a million sales or slightly more and drop off, but games like New Super Mario Bros Wii, Mario Kart Wii, and Even games like Splatoon and Mario Kart 8 recently have been still reportedly moving units for some time beyond their initial release date. Getting back to Adelman's statement, buying exclusives is something the competition does, regularly. But is that really something that Nintendo should look into? Well, let's explore that.

Getting it right

For most of the complaints that have graced the internet concerning Nintendo's consoles, the most interesting one is when people talk about how “Nintendo has to get it right, this time” . I would issue a counter to this reasoning, by stating that Nintendo has been getting it right, however, the company hasn't been as cut throat as the competition in terms of locking down third parties.

In an interview with Gamespot (don't worry, it's archived), Xbox head, Phil Spencer talks a bit about Microsoft doubling down on their first party titles, while Sony is actually securing more third party deals through exclusivity.
Microsoft appears to be doubling-down on its first-party titles while Sony is securing a lot of third-party deals. How difficult is it to be successful, in terms of market share, when Sony is gobbling up so many third-party deals now? How difficult does that make your job?

So, they don't "gobble" the deals up. They buy them. You know, I read the same things you do, and I know some people think it's somehow less expensive to sign third-party exclusives if you have a bigger market-share. I can tell you, it has nothing to do with market share.
When you go in to do a deal, with a third party, that third party has its own view of the global market and the value of it. And they should, they should think about their assets and how valuable they are, just like anyone would when they are selling their goods.
I ran first party before I took on the job as head of Xbox. And when I was picked to do this job, I think people would have expected that my focus would be on first party. My view is, there are some bellwether companies out there in terms of first-party games, like Nintendo, which has incredibly strong IP, and a breadth of characters and games to play, which allows them to do a great job in lighting up peoples' interests.I'll try to go back to the question and rephrase. Sony is getting a lot of exclusive deals with third party studios...
Well, it's buying them.

He continues to expand on this at the end of the interview, as well...

And finally, in that 18 months, what has been your hardest decision?

That's tricky. So, I did a Q&A with the fans in the hall after the media briefing and one of the Italian guys asked me about setting the language of his console to something that wasn’t Italian, and he wanted to decouple the console. You wish you could do everything that people want on the platform, you wish you had the bandwidth to make everything perfect, so to stand there and have someone ask you a question like that, you’re sitting there and you know, "Yes, this is something we should do, I’m going to add it to the list of things to do, like background music."
You probably felt my passion go up when you said say, "Sony’s gobbling up deals." That's because certain realities--whether it’s bandwidth of the development team, your own capability, or just the business dynamics you have--influence all the decisions.
You have to lead the product and give customers a reason to buy an Xbox. You want to have great franchises and be as transparent as you can be. It seems that there are many times when fans hit you with something like, "I’d really like you to go do this," or, "Why did you make that decision?" that makes you really want to please the fans. There's a lot of requests and energy from them and we do our best.

Both Sony and Microsoft have been guilty of buying up exclusives. (Rise of the Tomb Raider / Titanfall / Dead Rising 3 ring a bell? ) Historically, it's been proven that extensive libraries of games are what give consoles a powerful market presence. However, if say Sony or Microsoft had to depend on their first party offerings in recent years, without the aid of many 3rd parties they would be in a much worse situation than Nintendo would be, due to having a strong amount of dependence on those 3rd parties. That seems to be where Nintendo actually has an advantage over it's competition. In fact, using starvation tactics to take down Nintendo as a competitor, has only made them a much stronger curator of first party content and due to their recent nurturing of Indie developers, Virtual Console offerings, and even the backwards compatibility which both Sony and Microsoft had neglected until recently, even this current drought can be easily rode out. Let's not even get into the fact that there are gamers out there with hefty back catalogs of games to sift through in the meantime.

The second thing to consider is that Microsoft is ramping up it's first-party offerings for the same reason why Sony is grabbing as many exclusives as possible. They know that the Xbox One and PS4 have been suffering from their own respective droughts. Oh sure, there have been games being released on both consoles, but for the first few years of this current console generation, the only games seem to have been remastered ports from previous generations with very few new offerings. Of course now the newer games are slowly starting to funnel in, but those games were also promised years ago, and hype often has a habit of dying off after a while.

Truth be told, Microsoft and Sony's actual future seems as questionable as Nintendo's speculated future..

Of course we could also blame this ramp up on the arrogance of Sony and Microsoft in thinking that they could quickly jump start the next console generation and sustain consumers with remastered ports. The problem with that, is people were still enjoying the offerings that had existed on the previous generation consoles. Currently, Sony is in plans of releasing a newer version of the PS4 with an overclocked system and a solid state drive, and video card that will produce games in 4K, which seems to be also a means to push their 4K enabled televisions. Microsoft and Phil Spencer are kicking around the idea of offering up-gradable Xbox one consoles, in some way of wanting to merge the console and PC spaces into one strange hybrid. He states that “I believe we will see more hardware innovation in the console space than we've ever seen.” However, while this seems like innovation, the tactic of relying on console upgrades to carry a system that had been largely only concerned with having a faster processor and better graphical video card, seems more like an act of desperation.

In the midst of all of this, third-party developers are going to have to figure out how to either create products for two different types of architecture on Sony's platform with a risk of alienating existing adopters, while working out how to maintain another audience, that could be completely segmented due to price of routine upgrades keeping them away from having the same experiences as their friends with a higher amount of disposable income.

And then you have Nintendo who has made the claim towards the start of the Wii that they are not in competition with either Sony or Microsoft, and have actually been introducing hardware innovations in the past two console generations (that have been imitated and cannibalized by their competition ). It's a safe bet that the NX will likely still be largely ignored by AAA publishers for some reason or another. Oh sure, You'll see EA rush out their false hand of support, only to pull it back after day-one launch. You may even see a few offerings from last generation's left-overs make an appearance on the NX, but it' rather hard to say if we'll see any change in the way AAA publishers will treat Nintendo consoles, until there really isn't any other option available but to give both full effort and full support.

Ironically enough, with the way things seem to be going, that may wind up being the cheaper option given the circumstances, and yet it's quite possible that they would still risk wiping themselves out of existence because they believe they are too big to fail. That's fine by me! They'll likely be replaced by the talented hungry established developers and indie devs who are still keeping the Wii U alive as people wait patiently for the next Nintendo console to peek over the horizon.

- I'll see you next bossfight!

Source Links
Resident Evil 5 will not be on Wii U

Sega tried working with Capcom. Bandai Namco on various Wii Virtual Console Releases.

Investigation started After EA Caught Spying via Origin Client

Xbox One interview: Phil Spencer on Microsoft's First Party Focus.

June 2014 NPD: Nintendo's response – US Mario Kart 8 sales at 885,000 units...

November NPD: Nintendo claims record sales in the US, Wii now over 15 million

Talking Point: Wii U Gamers have been treaded poorly by the third-party Retail scene..

Sony Buying lots of 3rd party exclusives for PS4

UPDATE: the Definitive but evolving list of new-gen remasters

Phil Spencer signal Xbox One Hardware Upgrades

PS4 Neo specs, price and release date rumors for the PS4.5

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