Dark clouds gathering over Nintendo

It’s looking more and more like the Wii U is a flop

It’s looking more and more like the Wii U is a flop, with at least one analyst describing it as such after Nintendo revealed disappointing sales numbers this week. The company was hoping to sell 5 million game consoles by March 31, but has now cut that projection to 4 million, with game expectations taking an even bigger downgrade – 16 million rather than 24 million.

The rising tide of mobile games in Asia is one factor for the slower sales. Anecdotally, the fact that it doesn’t really outshine existing competitors in any way is probably another.

Post Arcade had a telling story on Monday about another factor, the waning third-party support for the console. As with the company’s previous two consoles, the GameCube and Wii, support for the Wii U started out strong with its launch in November, but is now starting to lag.

While the lineup of third-party games for the initial launch was strong, the pickings are pretty slim over the next few months. As the Post story points out, many of the big upcoming titles – Grand Theft Auto V, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider – are set for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but not necessarily on Wii U.

The exception to this rule, as the article suggests, is France’s Ubisoft, which has so far released more games for the Wii U than any other third-party developer, and which seems to unwavering in its support.

“Our talented developers see new hardware as a chance to create a new game experiences, introduce new franchises and characters,” said Oliver Ernst, general manager of Ubisoft Canada. “This is really appealing to folks who buy the new systems, as proven by the fact that ZombiU is the number one third-party title worldwide on the Nintendo Wii U.”

That’s interesting because, in working on my Assassin’s Creed feature last year, a number of Ubisoft observers and ex-employees related the French company’s special relationship or “love affair” with Nintendo. Alain Tascan, former vice-president of production at Ubisoft Montreal, told me the two companies shared a philosophy of creativity over commerce. He also said that Ubisoft’s founders, the Guillemot brothers, have a sort of reverence for Super Mario and Donkey Kong creator Miyamoto, and that their first hit – Rayman – was indeed based on Super Mario.

A former Ubisoft creative director seconded that, saying the French company is “a bunch of artists trying to pretend that they’re businessmen, whereas a lot of other video game companies are a bunch of businessmen trying to pretend to care about art or entertainment for that matter, at least at the executive level.”

Ubisoft and Nintendo both have an “artiste mentality,” with the French company often asking itself, “What would Nintendo do?” he added.

Another former employee suggested the similarities between the two companies extend to the boardroom, with both companies being very closed to outsiders.

“The insularity [at Ubisoft] isn’t as strong as Nintendo, but you still feel it’s a European company with a headquarters in Paris.” This sometimes has adverse affects on the bottom line, he added, since outside viewpoints aren’t necessarily entertained at either company.

Despite all that, Ubisoft hasn’t said much in the way of Wii U for one of its next big games, Splinter Cell Blacklist, which was shown off to journalists at the Toronto studio this week. The game, which launches on Aug. 20, has been confirmed for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, but there’s been no talk of Nintendo’s console as of yet.

Ubisoft could still add a Wii U version of the game (which looks really impressive, by the way), but the fact that it’s not part of the plan from the outset must be disconcerting for Nintendo fans. If the console maker’s biggest supporter is wavering, it could be in for some real trouble.