The New Console Window of Opportunity

I should be resting up. But I’m in some pain so meh, time for a bit of a post.

Crystal Dynamics’ Global Brand Director Karl Stewart made an odd comment.

“When we started developing the game we made a conscious decision that it was all about building the game for a platform and making sure the game was specific to that platform,” he stated on the Eidos forums, “Given that we’ve been working on the game quite a while before Wii U was announced I think it would not be right to try and port it across. If we started building a game for the Wii U we would build it very differently and we would build it with unique functionality.”

Now, I for one think there is a hint in there that Crystal Dynamics IS working on a Tomb Raider game for the Wii-U. There’s a very clear statement of intent in there. However, it’s when they talk about porting that I somewhat have to disagree.

When a new console is released, generally speaking the line-up of titles for the first six months rarely looks that polished, complete or indeed, interesting. There will always be a few stand-out titles, but the majority will be in one of two categories; the first is shovelware, although I loathe the term. By this I would mean games that have been rushed out to capitalise on the Unique Selling Point of the new machine – in this case, it would be the touch-screen controller. They won’t all be terrible games, but rarely will games in this category be complete, finished or terribly polished affairs. They are what they are – games that show off a few nice concepts, but little else. That’s been true of consoles since the 80s, and it is very unlikely the industry is going to change now.

The other major category is ports.

If current wisdom and communications with developers is to be believed, many are finding porting their games due for release this year to the Wii-U very easy. There is a good reason why there are often a lot of ports, or games tweaked to work on a new control scheme – that is, the games are often already made and will very likely have made a portion of their development costs back. A new console tied in for the same year isn’t something to be fearful of – quite the opposite, with an often weak launch lineup, familiarity can be a good thing – the people who will buy the Wii-U, at launch, will likely be those who are in the know with their tech and gaming and will actually want and actively enjoy comparing games between the old system and the new one.

If current talks are to be believed, this year the Wii-U’s release schedule will be full of ports – Darksiders 2, a new multi-platform Assassin’s Creed game, a re-purposed Batman: Arkham City, Ninja Gaiden 3, the new Tekken game, the new Battlefield (and very likely whatever new Call of Duty game as well), DiRT – the list is still early days, but the Wii-U will have a very strong and capable line-up of already established games. Very few consoles will ever get the kind of strong ports line-up that the Wii-U will enjoy this year. It’s ridiculous in its brilliance, really.

And then there’s that elephant in the room – the talk of Mass Effect 3, re-purposed for the Wii-U. This is a port that does make me tingly, as the implications for it are enormous. A game that really could make the best possible usage of the new controller, in almost every respect, and a game that is said to be able to be ported to the Wii-U “with ease”. Which means there’s no lack of power or purpose to the machine.

Yes, I know the arguments that we all want new games with a new system and I totally agree. They will come – on release? Hmm, not sure, but they are in the wings. A new Zelda HD, with visuals akin to the tech demo from last year, is worth waiting a year or two for. A new Metroid game, same deal. There is talk of getting a Super Smash Bros. game out in the launch window with a raft of new cast and crew, which will see Nintendo attract a lot of old fans. And, with Miyamoto wanting and actively trying to come up with new IP, no doubt he’ll come up with something else that is completely new.

The real issue here is, even if they’re working on a new Tomb Raider for Nintendo, why not just do a port – even if it’s a cheap and dirty one? By the end of the year (widely seen as the Wii-U launch window) the new Tomb Raider will have been largely forgotten about. It will have had its sales, burned through for a few months and then people will stop caring and wait for another game. On a new console, however, the opportunity is there not only to increase sales figures – the likes of which make businesses wake up in the morning at half mast – but to rekindle the respect and passion for the game, even if its nothing more than a bog-standard port. Its existence, its very reason for being will be another reminder – and the prospect of selling a game 8 months old at a full retail price once more, which makes more profits for everybody. Even if the worst happens and Wii-U sales are slow, there’s a big indicator that some may even be reminded to go and buy it for their older console, those that missed out on it first time around – which will generate some added revenue.

Nintendo are either very clever, or very lucky, to get the kind of third-party multi-platform support this year they have lacked for so very long. But in a lot of ways, Crystal Dynamics make no sense here at all. The basic business logic behind a port is sound, the examples have been in existence as long as there have been consoles and – for the most part – the game will already have made its money back by this point.

It’s a window of opportunity that many, many developers and publishers are relishing with a rabid zeal, a new console means a couple million units to be shifted, and that means a couple million units that need games to run on them. Be that a port, a piece of shovelware or a finely-crafted triple-A release like Pikmin 3, a new console is about games – of which, by and large, new consoles don’t tend to come with. Not big-budget releases in most cases, anyway. That is a potential market that you’d be crazy not to want a piece of.

Which leads me to suspect that Crystal Dynamics is working on a new game for the Wii-U. Because the alternatives are either (a) Eidos/Square-Enix have had a spat with Nintendo – which may not be a surprise, seeing as Nintendo is making a bit of a big deal releasing JRPG’s in the west, which used to be what made Square-Enix very rich, or (b) they simply don’t see the market potential there, or maybe they’re afraid of the launch lineup that could still include BioShock Infinite and other big-name titles.

Whatever the reasoning, a new console is a great time to be sitting on a game ripe for porting. With talk the new X-Box isn’t going to be more than 20% more powerful than the X-Box 360 – putting it more or less level with Nintendo in terms of power and performance – the Wii-U is going to be an ever-present force in the market.

And after the crazy amount of sales of the Wii, it’s a brand and a force you ignore at your peril.

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