ZombiU was a critical success and a commercial failure. This isn’t an uncommon tale in the world of video games, but it’s especially pertinent here because of this particular Ubisoft game’s position as one of the most well-regarded Wii U launch titles. The survival-horror adventure won favor from those that played it thanks to its back-to-roots take on the genre and its innovative use of Nintendo’s new hardware. There’s been nothing like it for the Wii U since and, unfortunately, it seems we won’t be seeing any more ZombiU in the future.
The game’s inability to turn a profit – or even come close to doing so – is the reason we won’t be seeing a sequel, as Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot confirmed in a recent chat with GI.biz. It’s not that ZombiU is a bad game. But the type of gamer that wants to play this sort of serious survival horror doesn’t seem to be stepping up to buy the Wii U. “We must find a way to ensure the creativity of those games could have a big enough audience,” Guillemot said. “We hope [the Wii U] will take off. At the moment, we’ve said ‘let’s do through Christmas and see where we are from there.'”
We’ve seen many words here and across the Internet concerning the dismal position that the Wii U is currently in. The brand-new console that should have kicked of the “next-gen hardware” race in late 2012 arrived with a whimper as it became clear that many of Nintendo’s shortcomings with the original Wii – notably the underpowered hardware and half-baked online functionality – had carried forward to the newcomer as well. Sales tailed off quickly following the November 2012 launch, with less than 400,000 units sold in the first three months of 2013. Unsurprisingly, Nintendo’s third-party publishers started backing away.
A multiplatform move for ZombiU could help to put the game in front of more eyes, but it’s not a simple port due to how much reliance there is on the Wii U’s GamePad. Even with second screen support on other consoles, such as Microsoft’s SmartGlass, fundamental changes would have to be made. That costs money. ZombiU isn’t exactly the prettiest game either, and the resource conservation-focused brand of survival-horror it embraces speaks to a niche audience. When you consider all of these factors together, you can see how the port prospects are pretty slim.
That said, ZombiU hit a number of successful notes that Nintendo and any third-party brave enough to risk a Wii U release in the current environment ought to consider. The success or failure of that console is inextricably tied to how well (or not) developers can leverage its unique capabilities. The Wii U is underpowered compared to the PlayStation 4/Xbox One consoles launching later this year, especially when you factor in Nintendo’s confused, debilitatingly safe approach to online/social play.
The dev team at Ubisoft Montpelier very cleverly created a set of mechanics in ZombiU that effectively forced players to use the GamePad display. An action such as rifling through your backpack involves taking your eyes off the television and focusing on the small touchscreen to do whatever needs doing. The world around you doesn’t pause while this is happening, and the main view on your TV switches to a third-person perspective. You can see your character kneeling down in front of his or her bag, and you can see dangers as they approach.
ZombiU also uses the GamePad display as a minimap with its own interactive radar. At any time, you can tap a virtual button on the touchscreen to send out a ping that highlights moving beings as red dots. Stationary zombies aren’t detected, but rats and birds are, along with moving zombies. You might turn a corner expecting to find a dozen zombies… only to find a harmless murder of crows waiting for you instead.
Both the radar and the backpack fiddling are examples of tension-raising design tactics that work best in the context of a survival horror game. The same ideas wouldn’t necessarily work in another genre, but it’s the creative use of the GamePad here that’s important. It isn’t enough to simply drop a minimap and a touch-based item selection interface onto the second screen. Activision, Electronic Arts, and other third-parties supported the Wii U at launch, but that support came in the form of thoroughly uninteresting ports.
Nintendo’s first-party studios would do well to take note of what went right with ZombiU and attempt to approach Wii U development with a similarly open mind. The second-screen features in New Super Mario Bros. U is a good first step, but we need to see more games like ZombiU that appeal specifically to the mainstream, action-loving gamer. That’s who Nintendo needs to start buying consoles, especially with that unfriendly $350 price point keeping families content with their trusty, old Wii or iOS/Android tablets. Serious gamers spend serious cash for the things that they love, but they don’t love the Wii U.
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