From the beginning, third party publishers have been leery of the Wii U. Perhaps that’s why they’ve done such a bad job of selling games on it. Sure some of the issues facing third parties can be blamed on Nintendo, but these publishers own missteps and miscalculations are as much a part of their games’ failures as anything inherent to the Wii U. Here are some ways in which publishers have undercut their chances for Wii U success.
Offering Bare Bones Wii U Versions
Almost invariably, publishers leave out features on the Wii U available for the same games on other platforms.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist left out local co-op, while Batman: Arkham Origins left out online multiplayer and cancelled DLC. Call of Duty: Ghosts offered free DLC for every platform except the Wii U, and the publishers of both Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Mass Effect 3 announced that there would be no DLC for the Wii U.
Sniper Elite V2 did it all: a year after its release on other platforms it hit the Wii U with no multiplayer, co-op, or DLC.
For gamers who own multiple consoles, this raises the question, “should I buy the stripped-down Wii U version or spend the same money for a fully featured version on another platform?” You might, if these are features you don't care about, or if the game does something interesting with the touchscreen, but it's more likely you'll only buy the Wii U version if that's the only console you own.
For a lot of multi-console gamers, buying a clearly inferior version of a game makes no sense, and a lot of gamers own more than one console. Why would this not be apparent to publishers?
Treating the Wii U Like a Freak
Why do developers skip the Wii U? Many claim the issue is the gamepad. Tomb Raider skipped the console because the developer felt the game would need custom controls and didn’t want to bother. Borderlands II didn't make it because “…we couldn’t think of a natural, obvious, ‘OMG, I want that for what the Wii U brings to the table’ feature.” Murdered: Soul Suspect was a pass because, in the opinion of someone on the development team, the only good Wii U games are those made specifically for it.
These would be reasonable responses regarding the original Wii, whose motion controls were so integral to the device that it really did feel wrong to try and make a game without them. But the gamepad can be used like any other controller; Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze simply turned the touchscreen off.
No one has ever said they weren’t releasing a game for the PS3 or the PC because they couldn’t bring anything special to it; with any other console, you put a game on it because that’s the way to get the game to gamers. A separate rule for the Wii U is unnecessary.
Giving Up on the Wii U Too Early
It’s understandable that, as the Wii U struggled in its first full year, publishers became nervous. Alas, that nervousness caused them to make decisions that harmed both the Wii U and their own games’ prospects.
The two most notable examples are Rayman Legends and Deus Ex: Human Revolution – The Director’s Cut. These were both games that were originally announced as Wii U exclusives, then delayed for months so that they could be released simultaneously on other platforms.
Imagine if the publishers hadn’t second guessed themselves. Rayman Legends would have come out to a game-starved Wii U audience in February and been bought by pretty much everyone who owned the console. By the time it finally came out, a mix of more competition and lingering resentment meant a lower attach rate, yet it still sold best on the Wii U, suggesting that holding it back for the other consoles was a waste.
It's the same situation with Deus Ex, another game whose delay didn't result in big sales on the other consoles. As a May Wii U exclusive, it would have done much better.
In both cases, the publishers could simply have released the games first for the Wii U, then later on for other platforms. Wii U owners would have been excited by envy-inducing exclusives and bought them, and those without a Wii U would have been primed for the games by the excitement generated on the Wii U.
Making Wii U Owners Feel Ripped Off
At times publishers seemed to be going out of their way to push gamers into an “anything but the Wii U” frame of mind. EA released Mass Effect 3 for the Wii U at the same time that they released The Mass Effect Trilogy on the 360, PS3 and PC. Square Enix priced Deus Ex: Human Revolution – The Director’s Cut $20 higher than on other platforms; a large premium just for touchscreen controls.
No one likes to feel they are being screwed over; even if you don’t own another console, you still might refuse to buy a game if you feel you’re getting a comparatively bad deal.
Not Taking Responsibility
Publishers have offered various opinions on why their games have sold disappointingly on the Wii U, but none of these opinions involve publisher mistakes. Sure, there are issues with the Wii U, but as I make clear above, publishers have made decisions that seem almost designed to ruin the prospects of their own games.
At best, publishers just express a vague disappointment and start cancelling Wii U games; at worst, they go on the attack.
This has been the case with EA, who half-assed it for the Wii U then went after the console tooth and nails. Take this comment from an anonymous EA source: "Nintendo was dead to us very quickly…. Even the Mass Effect title on Wii U, which was a solid effort, could never do big business …”
Even the Mass Effect title? As though that was one that should have made it?
Mass Effect’s failure was utterly predictable. Either you’d already played all three games and didn’t need it or hadn’t and weren’t sure you wanted to jump in at the end of a famously intricate story arc. Furthermore, EA released the entire trilogy on other platforms at the same price. The port itself was well done, but success was always a longshot.
In the same way, EA’s Madden 13 and FIFA 13 were released missing almost every significant new feature coming to the other systems in exchange for some touchscreen features. But according to a senior sports programmer at EA, the problem wasn’t giving Wii U owners last year’s software, it was that the Wii U was “crap.”
To be fair, not taking blame comes with being an executive. Activision’s CEO blamed disappointing platform-wide sales of Call of Duty: Ghosts on "the challenges of the console transition year" rather than on consumer apathy at an inert series.
But at least he didn’t blame Nintendo.