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Icon's WiiWare Development – Post Mortem
by Richard Hill-Whittall on 07/18/11 03:37:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

We released our first WiiWare game in December of 2009; the title was called Stunt Cars.

I think visually this was the closest we got to a Nintendo friendly art direction and style – this was reflected in a number of positive previews leading up to release.

In hindsight though we made a few errors in development – the vehicle handling and control being the biggest issue. Still – on the whole we were happy to release our first self-published title, and excited to see how sales progressed.

After release our first full quarter for sales was January – March. The real sting in the tail is the sales performance thresholds for WiiWare, whereby you need to sell a certain number of units before you receive royalties. So first quarter, we didn’t hit the thresholds.

Performance Thresholds

These are without doubt the single most unfair mechanism in the history of independent game development & digital publishing (well maybe not – but they are evil!).

The way they work is that the publisher has to exceed these thresholds BEFORE they start to receive any revenue from Nintendo. Currently these are set at 3k units for PAL / 6k units for NTSC for 40Mb games, and 2k units for PAL / 4k units for NTSC for 16Mb games. You have a time limit of 2 years to hit them – if you don’t hit them in that time you will NEVER see any money. Gulp!

I have heard from several developers that they have not come close to hitting the thresholds on some titles – with sales in the very low thousands seemingly commonplace. Many have reported sales in the hundreds, particularly in the PAL territories. So BIG risk!

This also ruled out publisher funding very early on in the WiiWare lifecycle – due to the risk involved and the potentially tragic sales.

My take on this is that it is a horribly unfair situation for developers; it is a huge risk and really kills cash-flow, often taking multiple sales quarters before you hit the thresholds.

Stunt Cars sales continued…

So our next full quarter for sales was April – June. Again we didn’t hit the thresholds (Panic!), but we were very close. We finally hit our NTSC thresholds in the July – September quarter of 2010, but not the PAL ones.

So far 9 months without money. We then needed to wait for a further 30-days for the payment to be processed.

In total 11 months of waiting for any form of income, and that doesn’t include the actual development time – which took about 12 months.

The PAL region sales were even slower; it took a little over a year to hit the target, plus the rest of the Q1 2011 time-frame (plus the thirty day payment term). So about 16 months from release to first royalties!

More Releases

We released a second WiiWare title in June 2010, Arcade Sports; and at the time of writing (July 2011) we have only just hit the NTSC thresholds – a year after release. We are about a hundred sales off hitting the PAL thresholds, so we should hit those over the next quarter (July – September 2011).

One decision we made before releasing any more WiiWare titles after Sports was to cut the size down to 16Mb for all future games, so we were covered by the lower thresholds. It has to be said that 16Mb is not a lot of space!

In December 2010 our third WiiWare title was released, Family Games. This was far and away our biggest (& quickest) seller, hitting its NTSC sales threshold in the first quarter. As usual PAL sales dragged a long way behind and took another quarter to hit the threshold.

This brings us onto our last WiiWare title, Soccer Bashi, which was released in January 2011. And what a disaster it was/is!

Averaging under 10 sales per week PAL and 20 sales NTSC, it looks very unlikely we will ever hit the thresholds. We put a lot of time, effort and love into the game but it appears we got it very wrong. I have no desire to ever sit down and work out the actual development & publishing costs for Bashi, as to be honest I don’t think I could stand to read them.

Reviews

We found many of the review sites for WiiWare games to be very harsh – if you veer too far from the typical Nintendo styling the reception isn’t particularly good. Nintendo Life in particular provided a number of very unpleasant reviews.

Morale wise, bad reviews hit really bloody hard; especially when you put in so much effort into a project. Looking back and being completely honest, I knew some of the titles had issues or were lacking perhaps a little extra polish and balancing (our very limited budgets always worked against us), but I was confident of a 6 or a 7 – certainly not a 3.

I took the NL reviews in particular very badly – and actually ended up in a bit of a slanging match with them, which is a very unprofessional thing to do. It was just so damn hurtful, for the team and for me.

In contrast we have actually released some of the titles now as PSP Minis, and the reviews have been completely different – with several 80% plus reviews.

The Financials

So is it all worth doing? Did we break even?

In short NO, and we did not – the numbers are just too low. At best we are close to breakeven on one or two of the titles, at worse we are going to suffer a huge loss on the poor selling title Soccer Bashi. The knock-on effect of that one major flop is that it kills all profit made across the titles, so we won’t breakeven.

Also the WiiWare store is horribly inflexible; so if a title isn’t selling you have no options to boost sales – you can’t change the price point, they don’t run sales or promotions, you can’t update the game once it is on sale unless there is a critical bug found, etc.

In short WiiWare prohibits you from trying any of the usual approaches you can to kick-start sales.

Conclusion

Regionally on WiiWare, North American releases far exceed the sales of PAL releases by a 2-to-3:1 ratio. Add in the extra localisation and age ratings costs for PAL region and the figures become very poor indeed in the PAL regions.

Perhaps the main point with WiiWare development is that you absolutely have to capture the expectations of the typical WiiWare audience – the visual style needs to be very in-keeping with the template set by the first party titles, so unless you get marketing backing directly from Nintendo, anything that veers away from this will fare badly.


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Comments


Robert Dowling
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That's a great read, I'm sad to hear it didn't turn out better for your team and am undecided whether I'm surprised or not, that WiiWare is such a difficult distribution portal.

I hope the PSP Mini sales turn it around for you!

Richard Hill-Whittall
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The Minis sales were a big help as they provide regular monthly income (well at lease they do from SCEE). Until PSN went down anyway LOL!

Tony Capri
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Wow...kinda speechless that this sort of scamming still goes on, especially with such big companies like Nintendo. No royalties 'til you hit a certain threshold? I think I see now why some developers are hesitant to do anything for their platforms. Yikes!

Richard Hill-Whittall
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Yes - it is horribly tough, and I must admit the thought of doing future stuff on a Nintendo platform makes me feel a little bit sick at the moment!

Richard Hill-Whittall
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We tried for several months to get onto XBLA - but we couldn't get a response for a long time, and when we did we were then told you could only self-publish if you have published a boxed game first!



Plus we had developed retail titles for Wii prior to this, so it was a natural progression as we had all the tools & tech in place.

E Zachary Knight
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Leave it to Microsoft to preserve the middle man.



Sucks that you have such trouble selling on WiiWare. I would assume that the VC over shadows the WiiWare original games. That and the majority of Wii owners probably don't purchase downloadable games. Tough market.

Jamie Mann
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Thank you for that - I think this article is pretty much the only open assessment of WiiWare's T&Cs and sales figures that I've seen!



It's a shame that the results are even more dismal than I'd expected...

Martin Pichlmair
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Great article. I bet you're breaking a number of NDA's. What I don't understand is why you chose to make three more WiiWare games after the first one proved to be such a disappointment.

Richard Hill-Whittall
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We were already well under way with development on Arcade Sports when Stunt Cars was released - and after just one title it was too early to really make a decision on the viability of WiiWare. Also we didn't really think there were any other viable platforms - XBLA is impossible to get on, and we knew it would require more time & money than we could afford to get onto PS3 PSN.



What we did do though was to start working on PSP Minis too, porting the games over (I'll be putting something together about this later) and basically our Minis releases saved us as they provided a regular monthly income.



The minis also helped to offset some of our losses as we didn't have to develop new titles, just nice and straight-forward ports that didn't take too long.

john bonachon
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I won't blame Nintendo for it but the whole Wii.



Wii feature 512mb of space to store almost anything :

-savegames.

-updates.

-Wiiware games.

-other information.



512mb can looks a lot but some games uses a lot of space, for example Rock Band Beatles can fill your memory in no-time.



So, most customers are annoyed with it. In my case, i purchased an game (Cave Story) and later i was forced to un-install it because the problem with space. I never finished this game and never will buy any other game because i can't play it (not at least without deleting a savegame or other information).



So, i don't think that other game (excluding Nintendo games) were able to profit with this platform.

Giuseppe Navarria
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Instead of totally blaming your lackluster sales only on the platform you should start to think what went wrong with your games, I looked for both Family Games and Soccer Bashi and honestly I don't think you could expect very great sales for those games

Richard Hill-Whittall
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The games are what they are, and yes they have faults - but the fact remains that WiiWare is a punishing platform and the thresholds are completely unfair.



I can live with a game not selling, but not with one not selling and having no options at all to provide updates, sales, promotions, etc... AND not receiving any money at all for it until it sells a few thousand units. Honestly Giuseppe if you can't see the major issues with that then this really isn't the place for you and you should head over to a N fanboy site.

Giuseppe Navarria
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I can see the issues, Wiiware is the worst one compared to xbla and psn, sorry if I sounded harsh. A developers needs all the necessary tools to push his games on the market and spark interest. And in the era of the "instant-buy" and digital delivery you need services that are fast with the developer too. Still I think that wiiware could be a better choice than, dunno, that mess of a market that is appstore.

Richard Hill-Whittall
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I'd love to do more WiiWare stuff - but I just can't face the financial uncertainty of actually hitting the thresholds, and the time it takes to actually receive money. WiiWare could (and should) have been brilliant.

Richard Hill-Whittall
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Interestingly Nintendo Life have just released an incredibly timed WiiWare write up - now I know why they follow us on Twitter!


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