Could Sharing Licenses Improve Nintendo’s Third-Party Support?

Earlier this week, Nintendo top dog Satoru Iwata announced the company’s decision to offer their trademark franchises to be licensed by new partners for Nintendo-exclusive productions. While it’s nothing too magnanimous for this industry, the idea of Nintendo offering up their legendary series to new entities is something significant for the company. Until now, outside of some rare occasions, Nintendo has been hesitant to let outsiders touch their prized possessions, so it’s certainly a liberating proposition. But it’s not just ambitious; with Nintendo offering their series for other developers to use, this could certainly calm the conflict that Nintendo and third-party developers have been having since the Nintendo 64 era. Even better, it could be beneficial for both sides.

Nintendo’s relationship with third-party studios has been turbulent at best, non-existent at worst. The Nintendo 64 was notably the first big shove of third-party developers, citing the limited format of the cartridge to be a massive obstacle compared to the discs of the Playstation and Saturn systems. Similarly, restrictions on the Nintendo 64’s successor, the Gamecube, were caused by the Mini DVD format, which proved more difficult when porting multi-platform games. The Wii was a massive departure from the horsepower-driven competition of past Nintendo systems, and while third-party sales caused a number of new series to appear, most of these were very slim offerings for casual crowds. The Wii’s technical gap from its competitors in the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 made porting multi-platform games very difficult, and by the late 2000’s, the Wii had very few major releases from third-party developers worth checking out. The Wii U possessed similar issues regarding technical division between the monolithic monsters of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, but the biggest issue didn’t have much to do with specs. It was really the library appeal.

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Despite the efforts of companies like Ubisoft, third-party games very rarely get a chance to shine on Nintendo’s systems, whose biggest appeal is the exclusive franchises like Mario, Zelda and Metroid. Ubisoft’s fresh IP ZombiU was a fantastic approach to the Wii U’s unique hardware capabilities, but failed to sell enough to justify the development cost. Third-party developers from both past and current-generation consoles have been leaving the system behind simply because Nintendo games seem to hog the spotlight. Games like New Super Mario Bros. U and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD have earned multi-platinum status on the system, while new IP’s from third-party developers fall by the wayside. The rather stereotypical mantra is “only Nintendo games sell on Nintendo hardware.”

This is where Nintendo’s franchise licensing idea seems to show enormous promise. Nintendo’s decision to allow third-party developers to license different Nintendo-owned franchises is a way not to counter that stigma, but for both sides to capitalize on it. Third-party developers have scoffed at Nintendo hardware because it’s difficult to get attention when Mario and Link are front and center, but what if these third-party developers are the ones with Mario or Link on stage? They have that Nintendo brand appeal that, up until now, was reserved exclusively for Nintendo. For example, if a third-party developer wants to make a new fantasy IP for Wii U, it isn’t likely to be able to stand up against Zelda. That is, unless it was the one that had Zelda. The license can be used to grab the attention of gamers and consumers who expect a lot from the Zelda series, letting the third-party developer’s project finally get the attention they’re after and even potentially earning the third-party developer some recognition outside of the Nintendo franchise they used. If their Zelda entry is incredible, fans are likely to follow them into a new IP as well.

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This move has been proven by Retro Studios with the Metroid Prime series. Retro Studios was a relatively unknown entity before they took up the challenge of reinvigorating the Metroid series, but after the incredible Metroid Prime series, Retro Studios is one of the most prestigious and widely respected studios in the biz. While Retro Studios eventually became a second-party studio, and then a full-on first-party studio for Nintendo, the idea that a fantastic game with a famous franchise equipped can spark interest and eventual reverence for an initially unknown studio is a big deal. With Nintendo loosening up its stranglehold on its licenses, new developers can use those licenses to build positive reputations, along with a much-needed third-party presence on Nintendo hardware.

This decision is also a way for Nintendo to inject a healthy dose of new-age spark to their franchises. Despite the reputations of their main series, Nintendo has been widely criticized for releasing Mario games without any significant shift in design. Same with Zelda. Getting third-party developers to work on these franchises is beneficial for Nintendo as well since these third-party devs can freshen up and improve the more stagnant franchises. A number of talented developers have shown interest in making entries for different Nintendo franchises, like Platinum Games and their interest in Star Fox, and that talent can be used to make these franchises exciting again. Even better is that currently unused franchises can be developed for even when Nintendo themselves are busy. If Nintendo’s hands are full with Zelda Wii U and whatever Mario game is next to come, other companies can work on franchises like F-Zero, Kirby, or even long dormant franchises like Earthbound. More development of exclusives not only offers more games to play, but more games that you can only get on Nintendo systems, building up the system’s value.

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One major complaint that many fans have cited is giving these widely respected and traditional franchises to developers who would mishandle them, aka “the CD-I syndrome.” Trust me, I’m well aware of that, but Nintendo has never been a company to make their venerable series someone else’s whipping boy. Nintendo has stated that they won’t give their franchises to companies who would misrepresent them and Nintendo’s image, so don’t expect GTA: Mushroom Kingdom anytime soon. And even if Nintendo was being especially lax on matching their franchises with developers, gamers’ tastes have certainly evolved. A game like Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon would never hit gold in this day and age, not with the internet and public opinion surrounding its development like hungry hawks. Nowadays, the industry is bigger and there are so many more eyes looking at how things are in the studio. Gamers will let developers know when what they’re doing is a bad idea, so it’s not likely that Link: The Faces of Evil II: The Dinnering will appear from this decision.

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If done correctly, Nintendo’s decision to open up their arsenal to others is something that could cool the burn of the current situation with third-party developers. Third-party developers can earn more public recognition with the Nintendo series backing them up in stores, while still showing off their design skills and making a name for themselves. Nintendo can reap the benefits of talented new developers who can liven up their long-in-the-tooth series, while also building up a new library of must-have exclusives. It’s a way for both Nintendo and the third-party devs to symbiotically help each other, all exclusively on Nintendo hardware. After Nintendo’s rough history with third-party developers since the Nintendo 64 days, this seems like a way for the company to loosen up, try new things and improve their guild of talent working on their trademark franchises.

This is Nintendo’s chance to mend broken ties and rebuild relations with third parties, all while making their hardware as essential as they (and we) want it to be.

Do you think Nintendo’s decision to offer franchises for license is the way to go? Sound off in the comments!