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Nintendo Fans are Too Smart to Buy Third-Party AAA Games

This is a staff response piece to this week’s “Weekend Wondering” community poll question: “Weekend Wondering: Should Nintendo Change For Third Party Developers?” Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments!

The relationship between third party developers and Nintendo has been kind of a tense one in recent years. No matter how many times people claim that Nintendo fans really do want “hardcore” experiences on Nintendo platforms, the sales never seem to stack up. The latest case study: Wii U.

Touted as the most third-party friendly Nintendo platform since the SNES, Wii U had a bunch of third-party games at launch. Sure, most of them were late ports, but as I’ve said before, most gamers (believe it or not) are actually single-console gamers. Opening up a new can of games that Nintendo fans have never had the chance to play should work like a charm, no?

So why didn’t these games sell on Wii U? Here’s a theory: what if it’s not about Nintendo fans not wanting to play anything that doesn’t come from Nintendo? What if it’s more about Nintendo fans being too smart to be duped by third-parties’ efforts to sell them on the same games that already failed to draw them to other platforms?

Those two statements may sound similar at first glance, but there’s a subtle difference. The first statement implies that Nintendo fans have no interest in anything that doesn’t have the Nintendo brand on it. However, it seems pretty clear that that’s not the case. Even Wii, which was heavily stigmatized for its apparent lack of third-party successes, actually saw more third-party game sales than competing consoles in its first 18 months on sale.

Meanwhile, Nintendo DS has always managed a fairly high ratio of third-party sales versus first-party sales, and the best-selling Wii games of 2010, 2011, and 2012 weren’t even first-party. They were the last three entries in the Just Dance franchise.

So it’s not that third-party stuff can’t sell on Nintendo platforms. The problem has to lie somewhere else. Let’s look back at some of the best-selling third-party games on other Nintendo consoles and see if we can determine any kind of pattern.

The NES Era: Arcade-Style and RPGs

mega-man-2NES sales figures often don’t seem impressive in hindsight, as very few games managed to break even three million copies. One has to remember, however, that in the NES era, the gaming audience was much smaller than it is now. Games were just breaking out in popularity, and even the best-known games of the time weren’t nearly as well-known as the brands of today.

The NES carved itself out as a home console that brought the fun of the arcades into your living room. Early games for the system actually included a strong lineup of arcade ports, including Donkey Kong, the original Mario Bros., Ghosts’n Goblins, Xevious, and others. Even the standout originals like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Metroid carried over a strong arcade-like feeling.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the best and best-selling games on the system were the games that delivered on that arcade-like style. Best-sellers included Tetris (published by Nintendo), the Mega Man series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Duck Tales, and Bomberman. This era also saw the rise of console RPGs following the success of The Legend of Zelda, including the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games.

The SNES Era: The Arcade Evolves

Of all Nintendo’s historical game consoles, SNES was the one whose image stuck closest to its predecessor. SNES worked hard to continue the arcade-style legacy of the NES, albeit with higher-powered graphics and more possibilities for gameplay thanks to added buttons for its controller. Because it worked hard to establish itself as an upgrade system for NES owners, it emphasized arcade values in a similar fashion.

Super Mario World, Super Mario All-Stars, and the Donkey Kong Country franchise carried on the legacy of Super Mario Bros.; The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past aimed to return to the standard top-down style established by the first game; Star Fox represented Nintendo’s entry into the on-rails space shooter genre.

And, as one might expect, the third parties followed. Capcom brought its arcade Street Fighter franchise and created a Ghosts’n Goblins sequel, while Rare supplemented the same crowd with the breakout Killer Instinct series. For the RPG niche, Square and Enix continued to pump out Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy titles and developed new games like Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana to supplement the genre with new experiences.

The N64 Era: The Dawn of 3D

The main characteristic of the Nintendo 64 era was its use of powerful 3D visuals and worlds. While many third-party companies fled to PlayStation to make use of the more PC-like architecture and expanded possibilities offered by the switch to CD format, our previous pattern remains true: third-party publishers were successful as long as they embraced the needs and wants of the Nintendo 64 audience.

b-k-n64For N64, that meant games that were pioneers in the world of 3D gaming. Super Mario 64 was seen as revolutionary, and Rare quickly tried to capture the same magic with Banjo-Kazooie. We even saw some of the 3D platformers emerging on PlayStation emulate Super Mario 64‘s approach, including Spyro the Dragon and the more linear Crash Bandicoot, and Nintendo lost a bunch of its market share as would-be fans migrated to its competitor to play these games.

Other N64 success stories include GoldenEye 007 and later Perfect Dark, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and the new Turok franchise.

The GameCube Era: No Love for Nintendo

There’s not a whole lot to say about the GameCube era. Nintendo seemed to realize that many of their potential customers had chosen PlayStation the generation before, and so they worked hard to change their image to attract the PlayStation crowd. That meant trying to come off as “innovative” and “up-to-date” with the trendiest technologies, including dual-analog sticks, analog triggers, and fancy disc-based media and memory cards, as well as shifts in many of their franchise’s images, including Mario, Zelda, and Metroid.

Most of these shifts wound up taking an unfavorable turn for Nintendo. The GameCube controller, while popular among fans, saw lots of criticism, as did the console’s portable “lunchbox” design. Mini-discs were seen as inferior to the larger, more standardized DVD format. And most of Nintendo’s “innovative” gameplay and visual experiments, bar Metroid Prime, didn’t do anything to invigorate sales.

Interestingly enough, however, the third parties who signed on to Nintendo’s “capture the PlayStation audience” strategy actually did quite well, specifically GameCube’s plentiful Resident Evil installments as well as Soulcalibur II. Of course, since Nintendo’s strategy wound up failing, GameCube sales lagged behind their PS2 counterparts.

The Wii Era: Revolutionizing Play

When Wii was first announced, it was called the “Revolution.” And what was the revolution, exactly? Satoru Iwata was famously quoted as saying, “The game has changed, … and the way the game is played has to be changed.” What was game-changing about Wii was that it changed the image of video games from simply sitting in front of a TV with a controller and pressing buttons to getting up off the couch and playing together.

SkylandersA lot of people characterized the revolution as drawing a line in the sand between “casual” and “hardcore” players – terminology that’s since stuck – but I don’t think that’s totally accurate. There were plenty of “hardcore” gamers who rushed out to buy Wii. Where do you think all those Twilight Princess Wii sales came from? No, Wii was more about breaking barriers and bringing games to more people.

And it seems to have worked! Wii Sports is the best-selling game of all time. Wii Fit turned gaming from a hobby into a potentially life-enhancing activity. Mario Kart is healthier than it’s ever been. Even more traditional games like Mario, Zelda, and Super Smash Bros. have seen popularity boosts over last-gen.

What about third parties, though? Well, the games that sold the most copies on Wii all had one thing in common: they either embraced the “get off the couch” revolution or fell in line with the less “gritty,” more “universal” appeal offered by Nintendo’s own catalog.

  • Just Dance (franchise)
  • Zumba Fitness
  • LEGO (series)
  • Guitar Hero III
  • Epic Mickey
  • Sonic & the Secret Rings
  • Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

Many may look at this list and say, “Where are all the AAA games?” And it’s true. There isn’t really anything on this list that today would be considered “hardcore.” But to publishers, that should be irrelevant. Many of these games performed better on Wii alone than today’s multi-platform AAA games do altogether. Why? Because Nintendo’s audience is one of the most powerful audiences out there.

Dismantling the Third-Party Myth

The problem with third-party games on Nintendo consoles is not that they can’t sell to Nintendo’s audience. That’s a myth. Our look back at Nintendo’s legacy shows that many of the games that put third parties on the map in the first place appeared on Nintendo systems.

The problem is that the third parties of today aren’t correctly responding to the needs and wants of Nintendo’s market. They incorrectly measured Wii’s success as being owed to “casual gamers,” and that those “casual gamers” can only play easy games that don’t use buttons. That is, they assumed that “casuals” are dumb and so the games they present to casuals should also be dumb.

black-ops-wiiWhen they did create less “casual” experiences on Wii, they were often either crappy ports of multi-platform games (see: most Call of Duty games on Wii) or extraordinarily niche (No More Heroes, MadWorld). They weren’t designed to appeal to the more old-school fans that hopped back on board with New Super Mario Bros. Wii (and if they were, they were usually released as low-value episodic WiiWare titles) or aimed at capturing the depth and mass appeal of Nintendo’s first-party catalog, including Super Mario Galaxy, Twilight Princess, and others.

As time went on, it became clear that the games that third parties actually cared about marketing to the correct audience were the “hardcore” AAA games on Xbox 360 and PS3. Making games for the Wii audience was beneath them. No wonder they had an easier time on PS3 and Xbox!

Contrary to their beliefs, however, the Nintendo audience isn’t dumb. They’re actually quite savvy. They aren’t just going to buy whatever crappy games get put out because they’re on Nintendo platforms. They’re even willing to say no to Nintendo when Nintendo’s aims aren’t in line with their needs. That’s why they largely abandoned Nintendo in the 64 and GameCube eras. That’s why they came back en masse when Wii tossed aside the quirkiness of Nintendo 64 and GameCube in favor of getting back to the fun of play.

And that’s why they’re hesitating right now with Wii U.

They aren’t just going to eat up any Mario game that comes their way. The Wii Sports phenomenon wasn’t about drawing people in with superfluous gimmicks, but about a paradigm shift. And Nintendo customers are unforgiving when they know they’re being burned.

If we see Wii U as Nintendo’s effort to get in bed with hardcore gamers, the tepid response to Wii U seems to suggest that the Nintendo audience is diametrically opposed to hardcore gaming, no matter how hard the game industry tries to convince them. They are too smart to fall for it. If developers don’t deliver the kinds of rich play-oriented experiences they crave – and that includes both Nintendo and third parties – they have no problem holding onto their money.

Where many people see Nintendo fans as blind sheep that only buy what Nintendo puts out, I see a very different story. I think the Nintendo fan could teach the hardcore gamer a thing or two about voting with their wallet.