2009 has been a conflicted, frustrating year for Wii software sales. On one hand, many of Nintendo first party efforts have been phenomenal successes, not only selling well at launch, but continuing to populate best seller charts weeks and months after their release. The most recent example of this is New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which sold over a half-million copies on its first day in North America and which EEDAR predicts will top 15 million units in total sales. On the other hand, the year has seen a number of high profile, critically acclaimed third party titles experience mediocre to outright dismal sales. Casualties of this trend include MadWorld and The Conduit, both of which can now be found in bargain bins, and, more recently Dead Space Extraction, which will probably join them shortly.
Most discussions of this sales dichotomy are anchored by the terms “hardcore” and casual.” The common sense explanation is, essentially, that only “casual” software sells on the Wii, while “hardcore” software does not. The problem with this explanation is not only that it is reductive and hyper-simplistic, attempting to explain complicated market trends with empty buzz words, but also that it is cyclical. What is a casual title? Well, it’s the kind of software that a casual gamer would play, of course. And who is a casual gamer? Ask many people, and they will simply say that they are the time of people who own a Wii. So, essentially, these labels provide very little useful information about why games on the Wii succeed or fail.
That said, even a superficial examination of the Wii’s recent commercial failures reveals a few common traits. Although these titles were largely praised for their high production values, cinematic presentation and engaging single-player campaigns, most of them share three attributes: they have been short, linear and have lacked offline multiplayer. While this is a trade-off that has had favorable results on the high definition consoles, where it allows for decreased development time and caters to the growing “games as a cinematic experience” market, it has proven largely untenable on the Wii. Of course, this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, given that the console’s hardware offers the opposite trade-off, exchanging graphics and processing power for interactivity and accessibility.
In order to see why this formula fails on the Wii, let’s look at each of its pieces in detail:
Short - MadWorld (5-7 hours of gameplay)
Game length seems to be more important to Wii gamers than to most. While five to ten hour campaigns are gradually becoming more common and accepted elsewhere, it seems to be the large experiences that typically sell well on the small white box. This is particularly true of single player titles, where epics like Super Mario Galaxy, Metroid Prime Trilogy and Twilight Princess have proven hugely successful. It is more difficult to find lengthy successful third party titles on the system, but that may be because so few developers have attempted them outside of niche import RPGs and ports of games from previous generations with added Wii controls. However, even these ports, like Resident Evil 4, have sometimes sold surprisingly well, indicating how important game length may be for Wii consumers.
Why is this? Well, it may be that Wii owners are more financially cautious when it comes to game purchases. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that the Wii has a much broader audience, and that it initially had a considerably lower price point that its competitors. Since it may be more likely to be owned by families with limited disposable income than by single young adults with limited expenses, it makes sense that Wii owners may be looking for the most gameplay for the least cost. Also, many individuals may have bought the Wii out of a nostalgic commitment to Nintendo’s past epics on the N64 and GameCube, and thus may harbor hostility towards shorter titles that other gamers may not.
Linear - Dead Space Extraction
The Wii has a difficult love-hate relationship with linear gameplay. The system has been home to the rebirth of the rail-shooter, the archetypal linear gaming experience. In the three years since its release, it has seen two House of the Dead titles, two Resident Evil: Chronicles titles, Dead Space Extraction and several arcade light gun conversions. However, none of these titles have sold particularly well. Considering their low production costs, some of these titles, particularly the arcade ports, may have been profitable, but none are models for Wii sales success. Compare this to No More Heroes, a relatively low profile third party release notable for its open world and plentiful side jobs and hidden collectibles. While No More Heroes did not sell on par with Nintendo’s first party leviathans, it did sell enough copies to garner a sequel and a PS3/Xbox 360 port. Its refusal to be strictly linear may be part of what helped NMH overcome weak initial sales to become a rare Wii 3rd party success story.
So why reject linear games? This may actually be a function of the previous topic. Linear games, after all, are generally shorter than open world games and has less replay value, making them a poor choice for an economically sensitive consumer looking to get the most out of each purchase.
Lack of Offline Multiplayer Support – The Conduit
This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, most complaints about the Wii’s multiplayer experiences are focused on the absence of strong support for online multiplayer, not offline multiplayer. However, many of Wii’s best sellers have been titles with a focus on hotseat multiplayer. Wii Sports and its sequel are obvious examples, and Smash Bros. Brawl has become one of the system’s few titles to sell equally well among nostalgic fans, new gamers and veterans. A particularly telling comparison exists in Mario Kart Wii and Excitebots: Trick Racing. Both of these games are extensions of established Nintendo franchises (granted, Mario Kart is better known). Both are arcade racers with tight Wii controls. Both support online multiplayer and offer a number of options for online matches. Both have been relatively well received by reviewers. However, Mario Kart Wii has seen massive sales success while Excitebots sold only 13,00 copies in its first month and has not greatly improved since, making it one of Nintendo’s few first party failures on the Wii. The biggest substantive gameplay difference between these titles? Mario Kart offers full 4-player splitscreen multiplayer, while Excitebots offers only 2-player splitscreen with no computer controlled opponents and for only some of its multiplayer modes.
But offline multiplayer, particularly splitscreen, has been waning on other consoles and an absence of offline support rarely hurts the sales of a game with extensive online options, so why should the Wii be different? Once again, this may be a result of the expectations that consumers had when buying the Wii. The pack-in game, Wii Sports, is targeted almost totally at living room multiplayer matches. Additionally, Nintendo has made little attempt to support online multiplayer, so an educated buyer would be unlikely to purchase the system for online play, particularly given the degree to which both Sony and Microsoft have emphasized their consoles’ online capabilities. Thus, a consumer who bought a system with a local multiplayer pack-in game and little established online support probably has rather low expectations for online multiplayer and considerably higher expectations for offline multiplayer. Sorry, High Voltage Software.
So what can developers take away from this? First, the Wii is not a lost cause for third parties, but you need to be aware of the type of consumer you are developing for. Models that work for the HD systems will not work on the Wii. Instead, a strategy focused on games with lots of replay value, open gameplay, and local multiplayer support may yield significant profits. It has for Nintendo.