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Will developers force Nintendo’s hand and accelerate a Wii successor’s debut?

Despite that fact that Nintendo held onto it’s position as the best selling game console in 2010, developers are starting to pass on Wii projects, opting to move previously announced Wii titles to other platforms including the greener pastures of 3DS.

Developers following this trend include High Voltage Software, who were previously great supporters of the platform. Two years ago they announced a then Wii-exclusive game called The Grinder that was to follow up their popular FPS The Conduit, but they promptly switched gears and announced The Grinder was instead moved to development for 360 and PS3 with the Wii version on hold and apparently being reevaluated. The latest Wii casualty is Animales De La Muerte, a WiiWare game that had been announced and was being eagerly anticipated by fans as a WiiWare title.

At GDC 2001 this week High Voltage’s Eric Stoll told Eurogamer that:

Quote High Voltage Software’s Eric Stoll:
“We felt like it was maybe a better fit on the next gen platforms, both content-wise and gameplay-wise. We can have more enemies on screen, and it’s probably a little more acceptable to have really over-the-top violence in an Xbox game than on the Wii.”That definitely factored into our decision as well. I’d definitely say Xbox Live games outsell WiiWare games.

High Voltage is about to release the sequel to The Conduit, “Conduit 2” on Wii.

While there are no surprises with regards to the WiiWare service which has been relatively dormant over the past year or so, some developers seem to be taking the same position with regards to retail releases. After announcing to gamers that the WiiWare release of Super Meat Boy had been canceled a few weeks ago, some had held out hope that the popular game would see release on Wii as a retail disc. Team Meat’s Edmund McMillen recently revealed on their blog that it wouldn’t be the case.

Quote Team Meat’s Edmund McMillen:
“We really tried hard to make this happen but not one publisher we talked to thought a retail budget title for the Wii would be profitable at this point in the Wii’s life cycle. And we totally understand that.”

This comes at an odd time when it was recently revealed that third-party titles like Just Dance and Call of Duty: Black Ops were beginning to overtake even some of Nintendo’s longtime “evergreen” titles in sales. Just Dance topped the sales charts over the holidays in 2010 despite having done the same the year before.

And what does Nintendo have to say about all this? At GDC both Satoru Iwata and Reggie Fils-Aime made firm statements that Wii hardware and software sales were still trending even better than expected at this point in the system’s life, and that they would not start talking successor for some time to come.

Quote Satoru Iwata @ GDC2011:
“It’s just four years since (Wii) release. It’s selling over 7 million units a year in North America, so we don’t think it’s at the limit. We’ll make decisions about a successor system at the time when software developers cannot offer surprises (on the Wii).”

I don’t know about you, but listening to quotes from High Voltage and Team Meat, it’s possible that time is already upon us. Although with 3DS Nintendo made a very clear commitment to improving their relationships with third-parties at E3 last summer, stories like High Voltage’s and Team Meat’s are becoming more and more common.

But hey, isn’t that the right thing to say at this point? Put yourself in their shoes: Nintendo knew they were risking the long term sustainability of sales by passing on high definition support with Wii. A lot has happened since 2007. You can’t buy a standard definition television anymore. Without another “Wii Fit” craze in the works to energize the user-base, Wii may very well have peaked at this point. Now, it could continue selling in large quantities based on popular releases like Super Mario Bros Wii and Donkey Kong Country alone, but if Nintendo hopes to push the Wii to a seven-year lifespan (that’s how long it took for DS to get a proper replacement), they’ll have to pull off something special to keep it going for three more years.

And if they do have an imminent announcement up their sleeves, tipping their cards would only hurt immediate sales of the console.

The game press doesn’t help either. As biased and journalistically inept as game journalists have become, they have a strong influence over a generation of gamers who simply can’t think for themselves–a mishmash of teenyboppers and man-children who live vicariously through the games the play and have no sense of open-mindedness when it comes to games. More than ever before, the current generation looks for the approval of their fellow gamers before deciding what to play, and that doesn’t work in Nintendo’s favor due to their approachable “gaming is for everyone” mentality.

Everyone talks a lot about price cuts, and those will have to come at some point. The $99 Wii will be a hot seller when it arrives, but I don’t see that coming until holidays 2012 at the very soonest.

Maybe what Wii needs is it’s own “DSi”-style refresh. A bump to even 720p along with a bit of storage and a transition from Wiishop to the new “e-Shop” concept would go a long way with consumers. That could feasibly be accomplished without even a major increase in cost, a pricing strategy that seemed to work well earlier this week with Apple’s own iPad refresh.

It’s clear though, that Nintendo needs to buy time for Wii. We’re entering a period where Nintendo’s main focus each year will shift from console to handheld; if the period when DS launched is any indication, GameCube got very little attention while Nintendo pushed the new DS. 3DS may in fact hurt Wii in the short term–developers have indicated that 3DS has roughly the same graphics capabilities as the Wii and more developers are sure to release their games on 3DS rather than take the risk of releasing on an aging platform.

Depending on where you stand with regards to Nintendo, this sudden pressure could be a good thing, as it may force their hand and result in a new console from Nintendo sooner rather than later. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past few years about Nintendo however, it’s that they are always at their best when they are surprising gamers with the unexpected. Whether the next unexpected unveil from Nintendo for Wii is another Wii Fit or another Vitality Sensor will likely determine whether the Wii continues it’s unprecedented run as the top console of this generation or instead fades out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

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