Me on the Wii U

After watching Nintendo’s Digital Event online at this year’s E3, it feels like they are wrapping up their existing Wii U projects and focusing efforts on mobile and their upcoming “NX” console.

Since Nintendo have said nothing about the NX aside from the fact they’re making it, I’m mostly going on assumptions and gut feeling. However, as a developer making games for the Wii U, I need to consider the consoles likely lifespan and health of the market for games on it.

State of the Wii U

As it stands, the arguments for sticking with the Wii U are still strong. In an industry where digital distribution and free tools like Unity have meant anyone can make a game, the competition is fierce. Visibility is king, and in the relatively sparsely populated world of Wii U eShop games, pretty much every game will get reviewed by various Nintendo websites, guaranteeing at minimum, a decent level of exposure.

How that translates into sales is a different matter. At present, I’ve yet to release a game on Wii U. In addition to those few cases where figures are publicly available, I have spoken privately to a number of those with games on the store. Totem Topple will also help by giving some solid numbers of my own (when it finally launches).

Meantime, estimates suggest something in the order of between 1k to 10k unit sales. The wide range is because there are so many factors that can affect a game’s sales (quite aside from the subjective “is it fun?”). Level of marketing spend, how well it’s received by reviewers and the community in general, how good a fit it is for the Wii U audience. The 10k is not necessarily an upper limit either. A game that hits all the right notes, such as Shovel Knight, can definitely become a breakout hit, selling many times that.

For the purposes of planning, I need to assume a slightly more pessimistic outlook. Unit sales of 10k multiplied by a decent price like $10 ($7 after Nintendo take their 30% cut) can make a very healthy return for a one or two person operation working on such a game for 6 months or a year.

But equally, my games could come out at the bottom end of that range, and that’s what I need to prepare for. Totem Topple has taken 6 months, but it was originally made as a team, even though I took it on and ran with it afterwards. The others in the team will be taking their cut of the revenue it makes, so that will eat into any money I might see from it.

Conversely, Totem Topple will be launching on more than just Wii U. It will be interesting to see how that aforementioned added visibility just being on the Wii U translates into sales on other platforms. Quantifying that though – where a customer hears about a game (or decides to purchase it) – will be difficult. Whilst sophisticated analytics packages help link specific ad/marketing campaigns with specific installs on mobile, there are too many missing links in the data trail when it comes to Wii U or some of the other platforms like PSVita to work that out.

That’s definitely a negative when dealing with Wii U. There was a long delay with Totem Topple trying to find out exactly how to go about implementing and then subsequently getting approval for our analytics package (GameAnalytics) on the Wii U. Whereas other platforms didn’t bat an eyelid at its inclusion.

The advantage is that having gone through that process once with Totem Topple, I now have the knowledge of how to make things like Miiverse, Leaderboards, Analytics Packages and so forth happen on the Wii U.

That should translate into making life much smoother for Flight of Light. It is a game I feel much more confident about for the Wii U, because it’s a more substantial game than Totem Topple, with a bigger scope. My impressions from following Nintendo fandom are that for the Wii U at least, people want to sit down and play longer sessions, whereas the 3DS format is much more suited to shorter on-the-go sessions (or equally marathon JRPG sessions, but that’s a different kettle of fish altogether).

Nintendo have announced Unity for (New Nintendo) 3DS, so Totem Topple may get there one day. It is a platform for which there are far fewer concerns around sales potential. Though it would mean having to learn the whole submissions process for 3DS as well, which will take time.

Ticking Away

Time is the other factor in all this. The Wii U may be viable right now, but at some point, Nintendo will announce the NX. At that point, the market for the Wii U might bottom out, or get a surprise upswing or it could be the NX isn’t due till the end of 2017 and things settle down for Wii U until closer to the time. However, the further we get into 2016 before the details of NX come, the more uncertainty there will be.

That leaves a window of at least 6 months where Wii U is business as usual. The question for me is how to take advantage of the position I’m in during that. I have the equipment (devkit already paid for), over a year’s worth of experience making Unity games on the Wii U, Totem Topple effectively finished and just awaiting final approval, and Flight of Light now making really good progress towards completion, perhaps by the end of the summer.

In addition, I’ve taken on a contract to help port a Unity game to Wii U for a fellow indie developer here in London. I’m convinced there is a demand that I can satisfy to do more such ports in the future. They have a much faster turn around time and the risk is far lower than making my own games, since I can tell if the finished games I’m porting are any good and/or doing well in other places. There are risks elsewhere, and going by the pessimistic sales estimates, I won’t be reeling in big wads of money. But it is a realistic, repeatable business model.

What’s holding me back at the moment is time. It’s difficult to work on two games at once in the best of circumstances, but being effectively a one-man operation, it’s even harder to juggle – release deadlines inevitably get pushed back far beyond what I’d like, and suddenly that idea of Flight of Light perhaps by the end of the summer evaporates.

Equally, I could get investment and hire people to help, but that takes time in itself. Moreover, if it transpires that the Wii U only has another year or so of useful life left in it, the business model has a limited shelf life as well. Come NX announcement day, which could easily be E3 2016, it’s potentially all over.

Next?

The ideal scenario would be to build a relationship with Nintendo on Wii U in that time and then get in relatively early on the NX. Unfortunately, neither myself nor Nintendo make life easy in this regard. Nintendo is a sprawling company. Outside of the indie program, there is no go-to person, and it’s difficult to build relationships when I’m emailing someone once every 6 months because I happen to have a specific issue that’s dealt with by their department. By a quirk of fate, I ended up in the non-indie program (aka warioworld), and whilst that technically allows me to publish other developers, it also means I’m in the group Nintendo expects to just go and get on with things, no hand-holding needed.

Furthermore – and I’ve observed this with Sony and Microsoft’s indie programs – I’m indie number 2817 that on any one day, the limited handful of indie reps they employ, have clamoring for their attention. When I’ve yet to even officially release a game on the store, nevermind one that actually sells well, I’m essentially anonymous. Or worse, causing a fuss talking on websites and twitter or in blog posts like this one about stuff that skirts pretty close to breaking NDA’s. Or at least raises awkward issues that definitely don’t sit well, maybe even run counter, to the work they’re doing: Trying to attract quality indie titles to the platform or increase sales of games on the eShop for example.

It could well be that Nintendo decide to make NX far more open than it is at the moment for developers. Or more closed and selective. Or go in a completely different direction from the “wars of perception” and battles for hearts and minds of the “hardcore gamer” crowd that E3 is all about.

Regardless, I’ll keep plugging away at Wii U for the time being. I’ve not had a great deal of success in my four years of making games as an indie. Between my inability to actually finish my games, I’ve made a series of bets that have all simply failed to pay off. The OUYA in particular I really felt was something I could get behind and make a difference with yet for a variety of reasons, it just didn’t work out. My fear is that my Wii U adventure will likewise slip away from me.

Hopefully though, my jadedness will pass and I’ll be able to give my games their best shot at success. I’ll have a major hand in bringing at least 3 titles to the Wii U by the year’s end, all of which I believe to be quality offerings and have genuine claim to be at least somewhat “innovative” or different from other games out there. With any luck, others will agree!

 

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