UbiSoft and the Wii U; Subterfuge and Missed Opportunities.

Hindsight is always 20/20, so bear this in mind as I dissect this thorny little issue.

It’s always nice to see a little positive Wii U news; even if that is that its version Rayman Legends continues to be the defining one to recommend.

That said, however, Rayman Legends is clearly a sore point between Nintendo and UbiSoft, and perhaps a sore point that didn’t actually need to happen. Had UbiSoft been a little more subtle, a little more devious or even a little braver, it’s quite likely that the Wii U might be doing better right now; or at least, its reputation with Nintendo might be stronger than it currently seems to be.

Some might say it is unkind to level all the fault of the Wii U’s troubles at the very swift announcement of a Rayman Legends delay; that may as well be the case, but I’m not going to level all the blame at UbiSoft’s door. I’m only going to level some of the fault. Really, UbiSoft has played some wonderful subterfuge with the Wii U, and it began by delaying the Wii U version of Rayman Legends to coincide with the release of XBox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions – which seemed to even at the point of announcement not only infuriate buyers of the Wii U, but also its own studio and staff. No-one was quite sure why UbiSoft had chosen to go down this route when by all accounts the game was finished; but no, they wanted to add more content and give time to teams who would port the game across to other platforms.

This is where UbiSoft missed it’s first major opportunity. Rather than release the Challenges App (Which was nice but did eventually get rather dull as they repeated themselves), they could have released the game for the Wii U, and held off announcement of the ports until after the honeymoon month. After those four or five weeks were up, it could have safely and calmly announced ports to other systems without putting a major dent in the launch-frame release schedule of a newly-released console. Any talk of fairness is rubbish; if Microsoft is not willing to take ports of previously-released games (and it’s taken them before!), then UbiSoft should have had the audacity to basically turn them down. After all, as it turned out, the game did sell the lions share of copies (almost 50%) on the Wii U!

This ties in with a second missed opportunity; that Challenges App, and the additional content, could have been primo-DLC material for the Wii U.

After getting a huge chunk of sales off the Wii U version, and several months to build up a userbase, the arrival of this and additional content would probably have been a welcome breath of fresh air for those who had already gotten the best from the main game. More than that, after those sales, it’s additional money on top of what would otherwise have been made at that. Admittedly, some would consider this cynical, cold, calculating. But this is business; and at a time when UbiSoft needed the extra money, it’s a major chunk of money it missed out on. If you consider as of November 2013, the game was at about a million sales (still not shabby), that would be – rounding out – 500,000 Wii U owners. Let’s use that as an aggregate for what they might have got between February and September 2013. Let’s also say the additional content and Challenges Mode cost £9.99. That’s roughly £4,995,000 – or, in laymans terms, just shy of £5 million (this is assuming the PS3 and XBox 360 versions got it for free, of course, but it could so easily also have been day-one DLC!).

No, not everyone would have bought the DLC – but even taking into consideration Nintendo would likely get at least 20% of that sum, that’s a huge chunk of money to turn down, and more to the point, it’s an embarrassing and foolish oversight on the part of UbiSoft. This is not rocket science – it’s business, and if it’s going to make money, missing opportunities like that when they fall into your lap is bordering on plain humiliation.

Now couple this with a later embarrassing quote from UbiSoft, stating that they didn’t think the Wii U version would sell enough copies; well, not only did they not give it the chance, but generally they moved the release of a bright 2D platformer into the oncoming behemoth that can only be described as Grand Theft Auto 5. That it did sell more on the Wii U is heartbreaking enough (especially considering UbiSoft hasn’t actually apologised or admitted any wrongdoing in that statement), but to limit potential sales by putting it in the window to one of the industries most anticipated titles of the year? Yeah. That clearly didn’t help matters either. In February, Wii U hope was strong and the launch window for all consoles was a little dry. It’s a wrenching little vicious circle.

Later on, however, UbiSoft seemed to almost be playing a game of tactical espionage inside the warm arms of Nintendo.

First game the withdrawal of multiplayer from Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Admittedly, the game sold really badly – 300,000 across multiple platforms badly (now supposedly 500,000, but hey, that’s the same amount of Rayman Legends copies sold on Wii U!), but the Wii U release was marred deeply by the removal of multiplayer content. Considering the Miiverse was at the time still a much-liked function of the machine and obviously was being pitched as a primary multiplayer tool, the removal of a multiplayer mode was hugely damaging not only to potential Wii U sales of the game, but also to Nintendo; casting doubt on the technical achievement of its social network, one it has since answered but only just.

Then came Assassin’s Creed 4; and before it even hit the market, UbiSoft said that DLC would not be forthcoming to Wii U owners of the game. Once more, this unnecessarily limits sales of a game on the Wii U; why buy an inferior version (actually, the Wii U version isn’t that bad. Certainly more fluid than the PS4 version!), but it again scored a blunt hit on Nintendo’s eShop; another cornerstone of Nintendo’s digital offering. UbiSoft was not the first to do this; WB Interactive got there earlier dithering over whether to release Injustice DLC on the platform, but it did at least dither until after release. UbiSoft not only landed this before release, but had before that been promoting a collectors edition promising content; a collectors edition it then had to change, at its own expense. I can’t imagine for a second either that Nintendo was happy, or that it would have been hard to implement; Capcom seemed to be doing it just fine earlier in the year, after all.

More recently though, as the main Western publishers ignore the Wii U, UbiSoft decided to delay the Wii U release of WatchDogs; it hasn’t cancelled it, and has been furiously and aggressively denying that it has been cancelled, merely… delayed, for mysterious reasons (to make some money from Smartphone apps for WatchDogs on PS4 and XBox One, maybe?). But taking into consideration it delayed the Wii U version of Rayman Legends to finish two port-versions, and the amount of money invested in the Wii U version (to the point that UbiSoft even dedicated a whole studio at UbiSoft Romania to the Wii U version!), any delay of release is likely at this point to drastically reduce sales of the Wii U version.

It also reminds me of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was once due for the Wii U. But critical backlash of the release saw Wii U pre-orders cancelled in their droves, and ultimately sank the actual release of the game on the Wii U as the market rejected it wholesale. I’m not going to suggest for a moment WatchDogs will be anything like as bad as Aliens: Colonial Marines; but it demonstrates a salient point that if the reception to the game isn’t overwhelmingly positive, that those waiting for a Wii U version are likely to be in the enviable consumer position of being able to change their minds – to cancel their preorders, and render the expenditure and/or time of a whole studio rather pointless. Wii U owners may feel slighted; but if the game does end up 6/10 material or worse, they have the get-out-of-jail-free card. This is a card UbiSoft – or ANY studio, for that matter – should want consumers of a platform to have in their grubby little paws. It can sink a game; and, as we’ve seen, it can sink development studios.

Don’t misunderstand though; I don’t believe for a second UbiSoft are trying to sink Nintendo, or set out to deliberately undermine Nintendo.

However with some crucial missteps alongside a struggling console, UbiSoft has to accept that it hasn’t actually done that much in its dealings with Nintendo to push the Wii U to its dizzying heights, or encourage and grow sales of the machine in a year where even a few thousand more here and there couldn’t have hurt. UbiSoft’s general unfocused attitude to things, and to trying to cut money by hoping Nintendo fans will take the pain, is short-sighted and frightening in how it believes owners of the Wii U will continue to put any faith into a company that treats them with such open disdain. If it hasn’t frayed relations between UbiSoft and Nintendo, it’s certainly frayed relations between UbiSoft and the Nintendo audience, and that is going to take time and, dare I say it, money in order to put right.

More than that though, UbiSoft has missed multiple opportunities to make some extra money. It’s deliberately made it harder to sell its own products to an audience of over six million Wii U owners, and it has also cost UbiSoft dearly; this year it will make a huge financial loss, partly because it delayed WatchDogs out of it but also partly because it missed out on big slices of potential money, or sales by thinking you can pull out of the casino after spending 90% of your money thinking that you’re saving anything – reality is, you’ve spent 90% of your money already! You may get out with a little, but you ain’t getting out with a profit, that’s for sure.

But fundamentally though, above anything else… none of this should come as a surprise. Most of this is either the logical conclusion of action or inaction, or the general result of treating people poorly. And yes, UbiSoft are in a bit of a pickle and no, it’s not all UbiSoft’s fault and no-one should say it’s all UbiSoft’s fault – to do so is facetious.

This stuff is obvious though; obvious enough that gamers are wising up to it, and may in turn limit UbiSoft’s future sales. It’s all stuff that frankly UbiSoft should have foreseen and known about long before it happened. It also should be all the more obvious to it now though, after all has been said and done, knowing it has a mountain to climb in wooing back the Wii U audience. That it doesn’t seem to realise that is why UbiSoft is becoming increasingly irrelevant on the Wii U, and why UbiSoft does appear to be in such a muddle right now.

UbiSoft can’t continue to be so reckless either; if the Wii U is costing it so dearly, then trying to bring Nintendo down with it appears at best spiteful. But with so many indie studios now doing such good business with Nintendo, with Japanese publishers like Capcom, Namco-Bandai, Sega and Tecmo-Koei having such healthy relationships with the Wii U and with a growing second-party base willing to work for Nintendo, it’s not just Nintendo which will smart if UbiSoft explodes in close proximity. The resulting fallout would not be pretty. And it will be hard to not notice the smoking crater someone like UbiSoft leaves behind.

But perhaps UbiSoft has been coy; after all, in a community always willing to blame Nintendo for anything and everything, many of its mistakes and decisions have gone somewhat unnoticed, or at least to the wider market, unpunished. Sympathy and condolences have been offered in lieu of harsh words and finger-wagging, eager to assign blame to Nintendo (and it let these things happen, of course, so it isn’t blameless either!). It’s a mysterious force that only Stephen Hawking could possibly explain; a sort of miniature black hole, absorbing the fire of UbiSoft in order to just show you a burning Nintendo, without the ignition source. But it’s definitely one Nintendo won’t have noticed; and ultimately could destroy relations between the two companies if UbiSoft continues to fail it. After all, Nintendo does primarily sell on its own product – UbiSoft is welcome, but all guests can outstay their welcome after a while, especially if you’re not flushing the loo…

I don’t know the future of UbiSoft on the Wii U. But right now, I can say with some certainty as a consumer that I am definitely going to be more wary of UbiSoft’s releases; I am unlikely to pre-order in the future (WatchDogs is already paid for, and I’ll see how the initial reviews are before getting my money back!). With a growing loyal Indie following, the knowledge Nintendo is expanding its own studios and the support of the main Japanese publishers, it may be a slower road but Nintendo can ride the storm.

But if it has to shake someone loose… why keep the passive-aggressive guy around?

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