They have become the hot topic of magazines, websites, and podcasts that span the video game industry. They are courted by every console manufacturer and are often enticed for exclusives, either completely or timed. They deliver some of the biggest high-profile games that release on all gaming platforms.
Who are they? Third-party developers and publishers, of course.
Nobody can doubt the power and influence that third-party development has on a system's public image and staying power. For the past two generations, Nintendo has seen the least third-party support among all console manufacturers, and has paid for it in terms of sales and perception. Microsoft's meteoric rise from rookie to industry heavyweight has been aided by the courting of these third parties and the promises and deliveries of titles such as, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Devil May Cry, and Guitar Hero. Sony's dominance last generation and recent momentum in this one both come from third parties as well.
It was the hope of many that this generation, third-party support for Nintendo's console, in this case the Wii, would be different. The new control schemes and watered-down graphical and processing power would force developers to place an emphasis on innovation, rather than iteration, when they set to work on sequels and original titles. Development costs would also be much lower than those for the PS3 or Xbox 360, hopefully encouraging more companies to try new ideas on the Wii as the risk of disastrous financial failure was less of a factor.
As always, however, money dictates future plans. Over the past year, it has become apparent that third-party games do not sell as well as Nintendo's own offerings. As a result of this situation, many third-party companies are giving less effort and attention to their Wii games than they should.
So here we are, over a year since the Wii's release, with a growing disparity between firs- party and third-party offerings for the system. Last winter, then 1UP.com News Editor Luke Smith called the Wii his "Zelda player," and besides amending Mario and Metroid to that list, nobody can really criticize his description. Zack and Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure sold modestly, if even that, and while it is too early to tabulate metrics for No More Heroes in North America and Europe, its numbers in Japan were abysmal. Many other third-party offerings on the Wii have been mini-game compilations, cheap knock-offs of superior games or license cash-ins, leaving many Wii owners to crave for more solid, original, third-party games. The exceptions to this rule seem to be the two Resident Evil games from Capcom and Guitar Hero 3 from Activision, which have all enjoyed critical acclaim and good sales.
What exactly is the cause of this conundrum? Who is to blame for this undesirable situation? After all, the 360 and PS3 are both enjoying tremendous sales of Call of Duty 4, Rock Band, and Devil May Cry 4, so it's not like the quality of games coming from third parties has slipped in general. So what makes the Wii different from the other two consoles?
The answer isn't exactly a simple one. In fact, it's multi-faceted. First, developers and publishers need to stop releasing any old game they can churn out in a few months onto the Wii. The system and its audience are not a dumping ground for second-rate ideas and execution just because the demographic is slightly larger in number and younger in age than the Xbox 360 or the PS3. After Wii Sports, Wii Play, Wario Ware: Smooth Moves Mario Party 8, Carnival Games, and countless others, I think that the mini-game genre is sufficiently saturated on Nintendo's machine. If a developer wants to see some unique interest and excitement about their game, why not trying a different genre, like survival horror, squad-based shooter (not light gun style) or real-time strategy?
The other side of the coin lies with the image of the Wii itself. The system, due to its non-traditional control schemes, lower price, and subpar horsepower is seen more as a companion console to either the PS3 or Xbox 360 than a standalone machine, like the other two are. How does this affect sales of third-party games? Let me explain.
Back when the Nintendo GameCube was released, I bought it on launch day and had no other console to go along with it. In the winter that followed, I unlocked all there was to find in Super Smash Brothers: Melee and was looking for another game. Resident Evil Remake did not hit until the spring, and Eternal Darkness was destined for June. I needed to find something to play, so I turned to Sonic Adventure 2: Battle and James Bond: Agent Under Fire to fill the void. Both games filled a need on the console (for an action/platformer and a first person shooter) that no other game could at that time. Both games were not 9s or 10s by any stretch of the imagination, but they were above average and certainly playable.
However, as much as I enjoyed those games then, I will be the first one to admit that if I had an Xbox or PS2 at the time, I would have most likely have purchased and played Halo over Agent Under Fire or ICO or Devil May Cry over Sonic Adventure 2: Battle. And therein lies the problem with the Wii and third-party titles. Most households do not just have a Wii, but a Wii and a PS3 or a Wii and a 360, causing many to dub their entertainment centers as PSWii or Wii60 houses. Instead of branching out and trying Zack and Wiki or No More Heroes due to boredom with the other current options, most gamers will go and purchase Call of Duty 4, Burnout Paradise, BioShock, The Orange Box, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, or other offerings on the other consoles.
This predicament does not occur on the 360 or the PS3 as these platforms are seen as independent machines, not needing further investment in another console to compliment their value (as well they shouldn't, given their price tags). Such a disparity in public image is a result of many different factors: the price, the power of the system, and the frequency of high-profile game releases. The Xbox 360 has seen a consistent schedule of about one big name game a month starting with Oblivion in 2006 and continuing up until now.
Taking these arguments into account, one question seems to linger: how can this problem be fixed? Unfortunately, I don't believe that it can be corrected this generation. First impressions last a lifetime, and many Wii owners or soon-to-be-owners, while loving the system for its creativity and originality, already regard it as second fiddle to the big boys of this generation. Furthermore, the detrimental cycle of poor sales and poor quality may have already snowballed into too much of a force for third-party publishers to stop without risking financial and business heresy. No original project with a larger than usual development budget is going to be green lighted when a company's previous offerings brought in an infinitesimal amount of revenue.
As a Wii owner and, more importantly, a follower of in the entire industry as a whole, I can only hope my assertions here are wrong. I can only look forward to the Wii getting its own Dead Rising, a very solid third-party offering that made an impact in both the sales and the perception of the Xbox 360, which was struggling in the middle of its first year. After all, it could be a very long couple of years for Wii-exclusive owners if all the games that are worth purchasing and playing are published by Nintendo.