Last weekend, Nintendo released its sales forecasts for 2014 and the outlook is not good. The company is dramatically scaling back their projections, expecting to sell 13.5 million handheld 3DS consoles and 2.8 million Wii U systems. Those numbers are revised from 18 million and 9 million, respectively.
While the 3DS was actually the best-selling console of 2013, brand confusion and heavy competition from mobile devices undoubtedly contributed to the Wii U’s trouble. But one theme has been consistent: the company’s crappy relationship with third-party developers.
Earlier this month, Eurogamer featured an essay written by an anonymous third-party developer who had worked on a launch title for Nintendo’s Wii U. The developer cites a laundry list of terrible experiences: byzantine development tools, poor documentation, barely present support, and little financial incentive for developers making cross-platform titles:
There are some fleeting parallels between Wii U and the next-gen consoles—the combination of a low-power CPU with a much more powerful graphics chip—but the notion of next-gen titles being easily portable to the Wii U just doesn't work. The gulf in power is just too high, while the GPGPU that we'll see on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 isn't compatible with the older shader model four hardware found in the Wii U. Doubtless, the first-party developers at Nintendo will make the hardware sing—they always do—but the situation looks grim for those of us in third-party development, with the opportunity to progress on the hardware held back by both the quality of the tools and the lack of financial reward for tailoring our code to the strengths of the hardware
While some larger third-party developers have stated publicly that making games for the Wii U wasn’t any more difficult than the competition, the situation changes altogether if you’re an independent developer. If you’re an independent developer, well, Nintendo doesn't care about you.
But such treatment of independent and third-party developers among large tech companies was the norm for a very long time. Only Apple, with its annual Worldwide Developers Conference going back to the mid-'90s, has ever shown prolonged and dedicated interest in supporting and informing third-party developers. It’s a move that’s paid huge dividends and changed the tech world in the long run.
Sony has also gotten bad reviews from indie game devs, though not as bad as Nintendo's. Sony made halfhearted attempts with gestures like its DevStation developer conference—which was only held in 2006, 2007, and 2012. But in this latest generation of gaming hardware, the company is showing a genuine interest in wooing independent game developers, scouting and signing indie games the way a college recruiter seeks out promising high school quarterbacks.
By contrast, Microsoft has come closest in recent years to reaching an Apple-esque gold standard when it comes to third-party developer relations. In 2011, it launched its first Build developer conference, consolidating two previous conferences for web designers and Windows developers into one annual event to connect with developers over all things Microsoft. Naturally, that includes Xbox. Furthermore, Microsoft’s plans include giving every Xbox One dev kit functionality, a huge win for developers of all stripes—provided that the program’s terms and conditions aren’t problematic.
Will the competition and game development’s changing tides force Nintendo to change its ways? Probably not. In fact, it probably doesn’t even matter if the Wii U turns around or not, according to IGN’s Keza McDonald:
Nintendo is an extraordinarily solvent company. As of the end of the last financial year, Nintendo had around $5bn in cash assets and another $5bn in bonds. That’s $10bn essentially in the bank. Ten BILLION dollars. Which means that Nintendo could make a loss of the projected proportions for 20 or 30 years without running out of money.
In other words—don't expect better dev relations until 2044.