Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Wii's 3rd-Party Line-up - When Are The Big Titles Coming?

Listen closely…

That slight rustling sound you can hear are The Winds of Change. They are on your internets… smacking you upside the head.

'Nu-E3' is coming. And while it's not the huge event that it used to be, it's still holds a fair degree of significance in the games industry; for this year especially, given the formative nature of all these new machines out. Once July 11th hits, three days of gaming expo importance will give you an indication of what you'll be playing in the next year or so.

However, what it will also do is give you some idea of the direction the industry will be heading in. And I imagine a few people will be surprised at what they see.

A handful of major publisher/developers had a couple 'revelations' -and I use that term with a strong hint of irony- this week which will have some bearing on Wii's future. The first came from Sega, which stated in U.K. magazine, 360Gamer (taken from Nikkei News), that it was going to shift its development focus away from Sony's platforms to Wii and DS. While PlayStation3 software will still be in the offering, Sega's stance now is that it will only develop titles for the format if it 'knows they will be hits'. Which is a fairly bizarre and circular argument given there's no guarantees in a title's success and great marketing can make even bad software sell, but that's the games industry for you. Namco Bandai and Capcom have also come out with similar statements of support for Wii and a change in their development focus. Slow on the uptake, but take in mind press releases are often written well after the fact.

Meanwhile, SquareEnix delivered the rather painful yet utterly unsurprising confirmation that there won't be a PS3 title from its banks to hit retail until April 2008 at the very earliest. Those waiting on Final Fantasy XIII to give the machine a much needed boost in Japan will unfortunately have to look towards another juggernaut to scratch that itch. With such a large title over a year away and Xbox 360 continuing to sink in the land of the rising sun, Nintendo's prospects for Wii just took a massive boost; that's even before the launch of new Dragon's Quest and Final Fantasy titles on the format (side quests or no, they'll sell through the roof).

There's still a question mark over third-party output for Wii in terms of big games, something you'll see answered a bit more come E3 and Tokyo Game Show this September, but it's been said before and it's worth saying again: third-parties were, like a majority of the gaming world, caught out with Wii's success. Some gamers have a false image of the industry running off an immediate cycle of development; a magical place where software is pushed out after mere months of conception. But most examples you see from Wii's launch to around late 2007 are a result of what developers thought would be merely to keep Nintendo quiet and earn a quick buck: half-hearted efforts even companies like Ubisoft admits to, despite blowing its support trumpet as early as mid-2006. Very few backed Nintendo to come out the gates as strong as it did. No wonder we've been getting ports and remakes, and some -not all, as doubters will have you believe- third-party sales are a little stunted. It's what those same companies are working on RIGHT NOW which is going to tell whether we'll see the best out of Wii and motion controlled games. Because what is in development now will be what we'll all be playing in 12 months time and beyond.

And that's going to be partly reflected in E3 next month, with TGS being all the more telling. Between the two events, a deluge of games are likely to be shown or at least announced as third-parties start backing what is clearly a strong competitor. I think it's revealing that in the peak of tennis season, with both the International Women's Open and Queen's Club Championships just ending, and Wimbledon being serving up on our TVs right now, that no third-party is pushing a Wii tennis game at this moment. The games industry tends to shy away from the annual event given its regularity and relative shortness, but come on now – Wii Tennis shows what can be done on a more basic scale, so even something similar could have been pushed out to capture audiences tired of the pack-in game. The genre doesn’t have a typically protracted development period, either. Not seeing one full tennis sim on Wii this summer (or indeed the last few months) tells you all you need to know about what was on the minds of many developers pre-launch; obviously not Wii. Yet a single game could have cleaned up the summer charts if someone had the guts and foresight to go for it. Instead they'll just have to watch Nintendo claim some of that nigh-captive audience with Wii Sports, no doubt earning another boost in hardware sales.

Third-parties are kicking themselves to the point where statements like the one Sega has just made are going to be more frequent. Hell, they already have been. Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Take Two and others have all come out in support of the machine in the past couple months, sheepishly admitting their foibles and error of judgment. SquareEnix already knew such a thing was on the cards having reaped the benefits of its DS (and Game Boy Advance) labours, which has seen massive profits for the company and somewhat puts to shame claims of third-parties not selling well on Nintendo systems.

It won't stop some of the same old excuses to be rolled out, though. Of course the competition is higher when you're competing with the likes of Mario and Zelda. This has always been the case. Yet the company's Draconian methods back in the days of the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 are mostly gone, and while a profitable third-party game on a Nintendo home machine may not be as chart happy as it would be on another format, it still carries clout – something evident in the often ignored facts that Ubisoft has two million seller titles on Wii, Atlus has its best selling game on the format, Majesco has record profits too via Nintendo's little wonder, and most third-party titles not only sell better on the system than on PS3, but also have larger gains (helped by lower development costs). All without a comparatively major effort coming from a third-party, as of yet.

Once these companies start noticeably pushing their resources and efforts into Wii development, then they should see results as long as what they provide is worth our money. The strong sales opening of Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition may go some way to showing publishers that a wide variety of game genres can sell, even as a remake/port, as long as the Wii remote implementation is good and the price is equally as accommodating for what's on offer.

I'm not saying we'll suddenly see Metal Gear 4 and a conversion of Final Fantasy XIII hitting Wii. Designated titles for the format are likely to be a mixture of those similar to what we've already seen, albeit less rushed or archaic, and the inevitable flush of exclusive titles will emerge to utilise of the motion controller. New franchises that may one day go on to be established names, as pressure increases to innovate and take advantage of a new and rapidly growing userbase willing to try new things.

And don’t worry – that doesn’t just mean more mini/non/wah-wah-there's-nothing-for-hardcore-users-games, either. Considering Wii's strategy is aping that of the DS, expect a similarly wide range of software to reflect the change in third-party thinking. But hey, guess what; because hardcore games are typically bigger than their more casual oriented brethren, they also take longer to create. And seeing as Wii is still selling like crazy, there's no real need to rush things. In fact, some companies may even want to wait a little longer to benefit from the increased audience, lessening the chances of their titles ending up as outright (and possibly unjust) duds.

In the meantime, you'll just have to be satisfied with 'oh-so-predictable' first and second-party fare like Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Bros: Brawl, and whatever else appears. I know… painful, isn’t it?

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