Armchair Analysis Extra: Nintendo vs. The (Third-Party) World
After lots of speculation about Madden NFL 25 not seeing a Wii U release, Electronic Arts confirmed it via a recent statement (courtesy of Nintendo World Report):
“We will not be releasing a Wii U version of Madden NFL in 2013. However, we have a strong partnership with Nintendo and will continue to evaluate opportunities for delivering additional Madden NFL products for Nintendo fans in the future.”
Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Not having a Madden game in 2013 will not kill the Wii U. It’s instinctive to think that a lack of EA presence on the platform could be akin to a kiss of death, similar to what we saw with EA spurning SEGA and the Dreamcast. This is a different animal, I think. Yes, the lack of sports games will hurt attempts to position the Wii U as a primary console. There’s a pretty large base of consumers who buys sports games, and not having the most popular sports IP in the United States on the Wii U platform diminishes its sales potential. This doesn’t mean that the Wii U is finished, however. Nintendo still has its stable of strong IP to draw from that can’t be played anywhere else. It’s similar to what we saw back in 1999 and 2000 but Nintendo’s IP stable is stronger. If EA doesn’t come back to Nintendo, perhaps circumstances regarding some sports licenses will change… such as the current exclusivity deal between the NFL and EA. We’ll have to wait and see on that.
While Wii U will battle on, it’s undeniable that losing Madden for a year– combined with no NHL game, no NCAA football game, no PGA game, and no MLB game for this first full calendar year for the new platform on the market– is a painful loss. There also isn’t any assurance that FIFA will see a Wii U release. That would mean that only the NBA would see a Wii U game. Perhaps sports games don’t sell on Nintendo platforms, but when you’re trying to establish sales momentum ahead of competition from Sony and Microsoft and with the likelihood that both new consoles will see at least a Madden game this year (if not also an NHL game), that’s a considerable disadvantage. For sports game consumers looking to upgrade early, the Wii U simply isn’t an option without support. It’s one thing for the games to sell quietly; it’s another for the games to not even be there as a potential lower-priority selling point. I understand the claims from Nintendo supporters that “nobody” (read: very few) buys Nintendo systems for sports games, but not being one of the platforms that a multi million-selling game is going to be on is viewed as a negative by many. Like them or not, sports games are a very important cog in the video game economy.
I understand the cries of “Not fair!” and “EA sucks!” from Nintendo supporters. The rather quick dissolution of the “strong partnership” that EA and Nintendo reportedly had not too long ago is certainly suspect. Perhaps there’s something to the theory about EA’s pitch to Nintendo regarding Origin going south killed that relationship, but there are other factors to consider. Unit sales for the Wii U platform are historically low, tracking the lowest in the first six months at retail since the Nintendo 64 some 17 years ago. Could EA make a return on its investment to port its games over to the Wii U since the install base is so low and since sales of most third-party games on the platform are terrible? Given that EA is trying to scale back projects and save money, perhaps this wasn’t as “personal” a decision as some see it and it’s more of a business decision based on success potential. I think that’s a plausible scenario, but unless the truth comes out from EA brass (which I doubt), we’ll probably never know for certain.
I do think that there’s some culpability on Nintendo’s end here, too. Nintendo’s struggles with third-party relations are worsening, and this apparent divorce with EA is the biggest loss yet. What have Satoru Iwata and his staff been doing to keep EA engaged, if anything? Why isn’t Nintendo reaching into its war chest to make it worth EA’s while to keep supporting its platforms with games? Where has Take-Two been? Where is Konami’s Wii U support? Why didn’t Tomb Raider make it? There are lots of questions and no answers from Nintendo brass, aside from the now-popular Internet meme of “Please understand.”
At some point, Nintendo has to make a decision about third-party relations. Nintendo, at this point, has few allies in the ranks. Ubisoft is still supporting Wii U, but the concession of Rayman Legends moving from exclusive to multiplatform and seeing a significant delay was a blow. Capcom is there to some extent. There’s some question as to Activision’s trust in Wii U, with an air of uncertainty regarding a version of the newest Call of Duty game for the platform. Early reveal notes pointed to releases for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC; however, the Wii U was not mentioned on the list of platforms and retailers are not taking reservations for a Wii U version. I even witnessed a Call of Duty: Ghosts preorder for Wii U get turned away as the customer was told that the game isn’t coming. We don’t know whether it’s coming or not. Some claim it is, but Activision has been coy with its answers to questions about the situation. That absence is not helping Wii U’s perception to customers. If Wii U doesn’t have sports games and (at this point) doesn’t have Call of Duty, there’s no real impetus for people to sink $350 into the platform unless they’re Nintendo diehards. “Old” platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are getting it. It’s a safe bet that the new Xbox is getting it. It’s likely that the PlayStation 4 is getting it. Those last two platforms are fine in not yet being confirmed. The new Xbox isn’t even revealed yet (but will be on May 21st, when the first full reveal of Call of Duty: Ghosts will be shared during the event), and we know the PS4 exists but don’t have many details yet. Compare that to the Wii U, which has been on the market since last November and can be purchased right now. No Call of Duty? No Madden? Possibly no FIFA? Those are perception problems and point to weakness in the Wii U’s software catalog. Again, where is Nintendo in this? Is there not enough clout for Nintendo to get Activision to show its hand a bit?
In the worst case scenario, we will find out if Nintendo fans are right about first-party software being all that Wii U needs to thrive. I don’t believe that to be a good scenario for Nintendo– or, at least, one with a positive outcome. SEGA also had a fairly strong first-party lineup, complete with sports games, RPGs, arcade games, adventure games, and more. SEGA was unable to weather the third-party drought after a strong launch lineup and a solid & steady first-party release slate. Key third-party support is very important to the overall success of a platform, and without it, a very long and uphill battle awaits for Nintendo as its competition gets assault plans ready.
I’ll be very interested to see while attending E3 just what Nintendo’s strategy is. The leaders at Nintendo are not dumb and I’m sure that there will be a plan of attack. I just hope that it’s a good one.