bit-tech.net

Blame Nintendo!

This year has been an odd one for us gamers. We’ve seen pretty much every game under the sun, including a few which we kind of suspected would never get round to release after such drawn-out and continued delays. Yes, Episode Two, I’m looking at you.

We gamers have had a great year, with a lot of the good stuff still to come. PC gamers have been especially blessed too and while games on some systems have had delay after delay we’ve had enough quality games to choke Gabe Newell with. BioShock, The Orange Box and World in Conflict have all already been released, but further down the line we’ve still got Gears of War, Unreal Tournament 3, Call of Duty 4 and Crysis to look forward to.

But, as with all things, it can’t just be good news – somebody always has to lose out. Amazingly though, it seems like the games companies are the ones losing out this year and a number of publishers are already declaring losses and falling share prices.

Take Electronic Arts, for example, who posted $195 million net loss for this quarter alone (and in the same quarter as both Madden and FIFA games were released). Just last year the company had a net income of $22 million, but in the space of less than a year it seems like the mighty has already started an inevitable fall.

Midway has slipped into loss too and has posted a loss of $33.5 million, while Sony has the largest loss with the gaming division coming up $845 million short just for Q2. Just the other day, Konami share prices fell to a four year low and it probably won't be long before even more bad news rears its head.

In fact, it looks like the only game company that won't be going begging this year is Nintendo, who is currently tipping the top of the software sales chart thanks to the DS Lite’s insane popularity and the casual, almost nonchalant appeal of the Wii.

So, the question is this; why is it, in a year which is seeing sales records being shattered, are some publishers losing cash? More importantly, what is that going to mean for gamers in the future?

"It looks like the only game company that won't be going begging this year is Nintendo."

Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and try to pin the blame on the one company that is doing really well. It doesn’t have an awful lot to do with computer gaming, true – it’s an Italian-based plumbing firm, or so it would like you to think. Yeah, that’s right; I blame Nintendo, the scheming moustachioed bar stewards.

OK, I take that back because it’s verging on ludicrous. Nintendo isn’t an Italian plumbing firm and its employees don’t all have moustaches. In fact I don’t think any of them do, at least none of the guys I’ve met – but I still think they’re the ones to blame. It’s because of the Wii and the DS, if you want my opinion. My reasoning goes like this:

Publishers and developers like EA look at the Wii and the DS and see potential. They recognise that the system has an easily exploited gimmick and hardware that’s unable to use cutting edge graphics, which means they don’t really need to try.

The DS in particular is also pretty limited in terms of what games types it can handle effectively, but most importantly both the DS and the Wii have markets which developers have previously struggled to get in to – girls, basically. Because these companies see a massive market in the Wii and the DS, they try to capitalise on the situation by creating new games and ports for those platforms. EA is noteworthy here since it is the number one third-party publisher for the Wii and has a history of generating countless sequels.

So, dozens of these DS and Wii ports appear on the market but, unfortunately, most of them tend to be pretty awful and are less interesting than a carpet shop is to a five year old with a caffeine addiction. What do you expect when a company is aiming at a market which can only really be classified as either 'casual' or 'girls'? Nobody buys these games obviously – or at least, most people don’t buy them, unfortunately some people still buy these collections of lukewarm drivel. The problem is though that it seems the companies don’t stop there and end up churning out more and more awful ports to cater for the perceived Nintendo uber-audience because ‘Hey, the Wii and the DS are still selling like hotcakes, right?’

Back to top

Joe Martin

Yes, the DS is continuing to sell better than oxygen in space, but no, it isn’t anything to do with rubbish like Spyro and High School Musical: The Game. It's to do with games like Nintendogs, Phantom Hourglass and Electroplankton. All of these are first-party titles developed by Nintendo and aimed at harnessing (not exploiting) the strengths of the hardware. What's significant about that? I'll get to that in a minute.

The effect of this over-saturation of certain markets and the announced losses of some publishers could go either way. We could see the well of third party games and ports suddenly dry up on the DS and Wii, or we could see companies try to compensate by pushing further on these devices and further diluting the already watery games catalogue for the DS and Wii. Neither is good when you think about it, though most likely each publisher will choose their own strategy and we'll get a mixture of the above.

"Far too often, game publishers are accused of relying too much on sequels, but really they have no reason not to when we keep buying them."

The ideal solution is, to my mind, to encourage developers (by voting with cash) to experiment more and create new games and new intellectual properties. Far too often, game publishers are accused of relying too much on sequels, but really they have no reason not to keep using the same ideas over and over again when gamers insist on picking up the yearly releases of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, not to mention expansion packs for everything from Civilization to F.E.A.R. Meanwhile games which try to push boundaries and focus on singular platforms are ignored or, worse, torrented.

The only way forward that I can see is to encourage companies to develop games based around new ideas – ideas clearly targeted at a market and device and not simply limping towards the Wii because it’s new. Doing so will allow companies to build strong reputations and generate consistently high sales on single or similar platforms - just like developers BioWare and Bethesda have done.

New ideas are hard to get right and there's a lot of risk associated with it, true, but they’re definitely worthwhile and is why Nintendo has done so well in creating games for its own DS and Wii platforms. The games have been specifically targeted at the hardware in a way that makes sense but which is also new. No gimmicky bits are shoe-horned into Phantom Hourglass – the gimmick becomes a major and useful gameplay mechanic.

"We need a touch more of the 'Miyamoto Approach'."

The success of games like Portal and BioShock over tired re-renditions like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars proves that new ideas which are aimed specifically at a single system's market and strengths proves that this attitude can be applied to other systems than just the DS and Wii. I guess it makes sense in some ways that Nintendo, the company I blame for all this palava (or pavolova), is also the company which could lead other developers out of the whole mess.

Ultimately, if the future of gaming is to be secured as profitable for these businesses (and, more importantly, fun for us gamers) then we need a touch more of the 'Miyamoto Approach'. Fewer games, but ones with a more targeted approach – otherwise the outlook for gaming next year might not be so sunny and appealing.