Is Nintendo's Wii U About to Lose Its Biggest Third Party Game?

The Nintendo Wii U has received notoriously poor support from third parties. Is the system about to lose its biggest upcoming game from an external publisher?

Jan 28, 2014 at 8:18AM

When the pioneering software for the most recent batch of console hardware was first being unveiled, Watch Dogs from Ubisoft (NASDAQOTH:UBSFF) was one of the standout tites. Videos of the game running on high-spec PC hardware were shown as an indication of what the next-generation platforms could offer in terms of graphics and gameplay advancements. The effects, scale, and level of detail on display looked to mark the debut of the potentials that improved hardware performance can offer. The game was also slated to hit the Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) Wii U, although footage of a build was never shown.

Nintendo's latest home console hardware has failed to capture significant third-party support, and Ubisoft's open-world action game currently stands out as a bright spot on an otherwise worrying 2014 lineup. While it is unlikely that Watch Dogs will approach the levels of critical acclaim earned by Take-Two Interactive's (NASDAQ:TTWO) Grand Theft Auto 5, the title would be an entry in a genre that has been poorly represented on Nintendo platforms. Now, a number of European pre-orders have been cancelled and GameStop Italy is telling customers that the Wii U version will no longer release. Will Watch Dogs come out on Wii U? Would Ubisoft be wise to cancel it?

The would-be winner of a one-dog show
Looking at the available Wii U 2014 release lineup, it would be fair assertion to say that Watch Dogs is the biggest third-party game slated to hit the platform. The game represents a substantial investment for Ubisoft and is the company's first attempt at a new triple-A IP in this console cycle. While the "Assassin's Creed" brand is still strong, the company needs to introduce a new blockbuster property to remain relevant this generation. Watch Dogs was originally planned for release around the launches of the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One, but has been pushed back to a soon-to-be-revealed 2014 date. Possible explanations for the delay have ranged from not wanting to compete head to head with the record-breaking Grand Theft Auto 5 to the game receiving a poor reaction from internally conducted review sessions.

Is it worth releasing?
Reports that GameStop Italy has cancelled all existing preorders for the game are raising questions as to whether the game will skip Nintendo's platform altogether. Ubisoft's CEO Cervat Yeril publicly stated that the company was disappointed with the sales of its Wii U Launch title Zombie U. Third-party performance on the Wii U has been weak across the board, and Ubisoft would be right to question whether releasing the M-rated game on Nintendo's platform is worth the trouble.

The game was announced for Wii U relatively far in advance of the console's disappointing returns, and it's possible that Ubisoft has already contracted to release the game on Nintendo's platform. Ubisoft may also have an interest in releasing the game to preserve relations with Nintendo and because cancelling any version of your game tends to create bad press. Otherwise, Ubi probably doesn't have much incentive to release the title on Nintendo's console. While exact sales data has not been publicly released, sales of the "Assassin's Creed" series have been very low on Wii U.

Can Watch Dogs compete with Grand Theft Auto?
Take-Two Interactive subsidiary Rockstar Studios has done an impressive job of maintaining dominance in the open-world action game genre. The company pioneered many current gaming staples with its revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III and continued with a string of generally high quality releases that achieved cultural landmark status thanks to the controversial nature and overall appeal of the product. Rather than releasing these games in yearly installments, the massively scoped "GTA" series tends to see more years pass in between releases. The company will likely release a version of its blockbuster Grand Theft Auto 5 on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. As the biggest selling game in 2013, an announcement of updated Grand Theft Auto 5 would almost certainly trigger a short-term valuation hike for Take-Two.

Ubisoft's outlook already suffered a sizable hit on news that Watch Dogs and its next-gen racer The Crew had been pushed into 2014. If it turns out that Watch Dogs quality issues are primary among the reasons it was delayed, the company is in for a lot of trouble as development of Watch Dogs is said to have kicked off in 2009. Ubisoft needs a hit, but it's not going to get much help from the Wii U installed base.

One of two disappointing outcomes
Whether or not Watch Dogs is cancelled for Wii U won't mean much in the end. It's possible that the cancellations occurring in Europe have nothing to do with the game's broader release, but the underlying message will be the same regardless. If the Wii U version is released, it will flop. As one of few high-profile third-party titles announced for Wii U, it's not as though its absence would send a message that hasn't already been received by other publishers.

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Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Take-Two Interactive. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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