With every console released since the original Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has seen their slice of the video game pie regularly decrease. Now with the impending launch of their latest home entertainment device, The Wii, Nintendo, pundits and fans are proclaiming that the emperor has come back to take his throne with a revolution. This article is written to show that this will not be the case, Nintendo will not regain their lead position with the Wii, and that the biggest fans are setting themselves up for disappointment all over again.
The Final E3
The scene: thousands of eager gamers form massive lines waiting hours for the chance to be some of the first to play the latest franchise offerings out of Kyoto. All those who play the games proclaim that "Nintendo is back" and mount nothing but piles of praise upon their short experiences. After the show media pundits everywhere opinionate and editorialize about Nintendo's latest offering, and how they're turning things around, making games fun again, and the classic "Nintendo is back". Even the developers and publishers get on the bandwagon. After the overwhelming at the show massive publishers like Electronic Arts start advertising an increased effort towards Nintendo's console and dramatically pumping up the numbers of planned released games. Nintendo is back. This isn't the current year 2006. The year is 2001. E3 2001 is the first massively public showing of the Gamecube where it receives the greatest of praise.
Check out this quote from 2001 from UBS Walburg analysts:
This should all sound extremely familiar. Wii wins E3. EA Ramps up Wii Production. The point: E3, analyst comments, and even publisher reactions this early in the console's life don't mean much. Even if there's a lot of enthusiasm for the machine at the beginning, if real-world numbers don't pan out, things can change very rapidly. We saw it happen with the N64 and the Gamecube. And the opposite with the Nintendo DS. Which brings us to the flip-book wonder.
Nintendo DS Does Not Equal Wii
The ridiculous and unprecedented success of the Nintendo DS has led many people to predict that the company Yamauchi built will find a similar response in the console market. Nintendo is back. Well not so fast. Every single Nintendo handheld ever released (Virtual Boy doesn't count as a handheld) has been a runaway success. The original Gameboy, the Gameboy Color, and the Gameboy Advance. The Nintendo DS is simply reinforcing the truism that has existed for the past 15 years, Nintendo makes great handheld devices. There's another history lesson to be found in those numbers, the performance of the handheld has had very little impact on the performance of the console. If success in one market led to success in the other, then the dominance of the Gameboy Advance would have given the Gamecube quite a boost right? Especially if there was some kind of tight integrating between them, and it even had a special name: Connectivity! Now, what did we see. The Gameboy Advance became the number one selling handheld ever, and the Gamecube the worst selling Nintendo console ever. There was no correlation, causation, or anything whatsoever.
To reinforce the market divide even further, let's look at the Playstation platform. The PS2, the most successful console ever, reaching the 100 million units sold faster than any game device before it, THE standard when it comes to home based entertainment. One would think that with a brand like this, releasing a handheld would pretty much guarantee Sony take over Nintendo's throne, just like they did in the living room. Enter the PSP. A year and a half later and it's performed substantially below expectations. It's not a disaster, or even a failure, but it's not a massive success, kind of like Xbox or Gamecube compared to the PS2. And this is with substantially greater hardware capabilities than the DS, far more functionality (media, internet, etc), and the Playstation brand!
Now, back to the DS. How has this little wonder become such a phenomenon? As is always the case in this industry, it's the games. Nintendo released a flurry of blockbuster releases that appealed to a broader, wider audience. Nintendogs, Animal Crossing, Brain Age, all of these titles were new and different and roped in a completely new demographic: girls. Will this new audience bite into the Wii? I don't think so.
Women don't want the Wii
What does the DS prove? The Nintendo knows handheld gaming inside and out. They're the rockstars at it, they're the Einsteins, they ARE handheld gaming. Now when it comes to the console scene... not so much. Now just a moment ago I stated that the DS appeals to the female gender, why can't the Wii? You have to consider a few things when looking at the DS' success and why females aren't going to jump on the Wii. The DS is a handheld device, we've established that, now where do you play handheld machines? In a variety of places: at the park, on the subway, waiting for a late friend at a restaurant, at your work desk, etc etc There are literally hundreds of places that a person can play with their DS, places that women (and men) frequently find themselves. In these situations the DS has to compete with traditional light-weight distractions such as books, cross-word puzzles and the overnight success of Sudoku. The DS replaced these activities with comparable experiences in the Brain Age series of games, and then extended that with Nintendogs and other traditional offerings.
It's extremely easy to imagine a woman sitting on her bed using her DS and getting some Brain Training in. Can you imagine that same woman sitting in bed and playing with the Wii? It just doesn't make sense. Home entertainment consoles have a very specific position and location in the household, and that's in the living room underneath the tv. Now this brings in a whole new ball-game. When that machine is sitting under that nice television it has a whole new set of competition for women's time. And remember, time is extremely precious, many professional people have very little time to watch more than an hour of television a day, if that. So in that precious hour of tv time would 20+ year old women really play Super Mario Galaxy over watching Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy, and starting tonight, Prison Break? And in that same hour would women really want to play some Super Smash Brothers, or whatever new games Nintendo comes out with, over watching Hugh Grant's smile disarm his romantic lead?
All of those situations involve sitting down and really concentrating in front of the tv. Most of the time tv is used as a filler, it doesn't take much attention so you have it on as background noise as you complete other tasks. I usually have the tv on while doing laundry, or even doing dishes. Video games require a substantial time investment, even if it's 15 minutes at a time, the interactive experience requires total concentration and attention. These are requirements that are just too demanding for most non-gamers. Too much investment is required to extract the necessary amount of enjoyment that makes playing the Wii a better experience than watching some tv. When it comes to these solid uninterrupted blocks, we're talking only a few hours a week. When it comes to time commitment and tv watching most people only have enough time to track 2-3 shows at most. You never hear people say "Sorry, I have to watch Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, American Idol, Prison Break, Law & Order, Entourage, Deadwood, CSI, 24" it's maybe 2 or 3 of those. This is precisely why Fox doesn't air Prison Break at the same time as 24, because people don't have enough time to dedicate and one show would cannibalize the other.
These statements aren't an indictment about the Wii precisely, but more a general observation that women are not, and most likely never will be considered console gamers. For as far as I can see games in general just aren't going to be able to compete with television and movies when it comes to the female demographic. Therefore I don't think Nintendo, or any game company should bank on a massive and widespread adoption of female home console gamers. Handheld, and PC at work is already very successful, stick with that.
Well about using the Wii as the ultimate party game device? It's a limited market.
Partying with the Wii
Make no mistake, the Wii is an incredible party-game machine. It will undeniably be a riot playing some Wii-sports and all the crazy games Nintendo will release with friends and family, young and old, guys and girls. But how big of a market is that? And is it worth it for me as a gamer to invest in the Wii just for those rare moments and get-togethers? Mainstream party games aren't anything new. They've been around since the NES, and in recent incarnations have taken the form of pure party games such as the Mario Party Series and Fusion Frenzy, or the ultra-approachable Karaoke and EyeToy games. While these games are greatly popular, even if we add up all of their sales together they don't constitute close to a successful console. We're talking about the 10-20 million range, and that's not including the overlap when it comes to sequels and all of that. Even if the Wii captures the entire party-game audience for next generation, which looks doubtful considering Sony's lock on the Singstar series in Europe, this won't be enough of a market to establish the Wii as a super-star console. Not even close. As for traditional console games, the Wii doesn't stand a chance.
Graphics DO Matter
In the world of 720p and 1080i, 5.1 surround sound, the sights, sounds and emotions they evoke matter. They make a difference. While examining the women-market I made mention of the limited amount of time people have, this is just as true for the traditional male gaming demographic. 6 years have passed since the PS2 launched, many of those people sucked into the world of Metal Gear Solid and Madden football now have careers and high-paying jobs, and the toys that go along with them. And in this world video games have to compete with the latest and greatest shows from HBO, Fox and the Spike network. A show like 24 has a massive production budget and it's obvious. For 24 episodes audiences were treated to non-stop action, and even if it got kind of lame around episode 18 this season, every week for that hour we all watched Jack Bauer blow things up and kick ass. This kind of visceral experience is what games are competing with, and this is a place that the Wii just can't compete.
It's not just pretty pictures that make for a more compelling experience, it's what you can do with the world that is more important. To get an idea of what next-gen tech can do check out this trailer of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter
I tried to find a video of the current-gen version of the game, but I was unsuccessful. Anyway, the capabilities and differences are readily apparent, the amount of crazy action going on the screen, the quality of the visual effects, the lighting, etc all of these come together to form an engrossing and exciting environment. The first time you fly over Mexico city in the helicopter and see hundreds of buildings laid out in front of you with the sunset in the distance it's an extremely impressive vista and creates a very real and strong emotional response from the viewer, and it's something that the Wii won't be able to do.
Another example from an upcoming game Kane and Lynch. I just think this footage looks so sweet
Just look at the beginning of the clip with the nightclub scene. Hundreds of people, great lighting, a smoky atmosphere. It actually looks and feels like a club, not some weird cheap imitation of one. And again this kind of effect just won't be possible on the Wii.
Developers for next-generation games are going to be spending super multimillion dollar budgets to raise the bar higher and higher to compete with the new and improved sophisticated television shows and movies. Nintendo has publicly proclaimed that this is not the direction they're taking their device, fine, but in the process they're going to be losing out on a very large and lucrative market. And this is a market that did purchase the Gamecube, especially in the early days with beautiful games such as Rogue Squadron, and later on in life with Resident Evil 4. These people are the ones that Nintendo is going to lose, and precisely why the Wii is going to sell less than the Gamecube. Well if the games are so expensive, then won't more developers will just end up making games for the Wii? The short answer: no.
While games developed for the Wii will probably cost less than half that of developing for the next-generation consoles, the potential market is much less than half as well. For 3rd parties when they develop a next-gen game they're going to be developing for the 360/PS3/PC. No matter who "wins" in that console space, developers will have a very large market and audience to sell to. Furthermore, on those other consoles they don't have to compete with Nintendo. Since the Nintendo 64 and beyond, in both the console world and handhelds, Nintendo has consistently developed and produced the most compelling software for their hardware. Nintendo is just a fantastic software developer easily in the top 3 in the world. Just look at any of the game sales and you'll see Nintendo games taking a very large piece of the software pie on Nintendo hardware. This doesn't seem to change with the Wii. Look at anything the fans are saying, or the media themselves, and almost all of the games that are anticipated, Super Smash Brothers, Zelda, Mario, etc are all Nintendo games. The only 3rd party games that have received some marginal attention are Red Steal from Ubisoft which got less than a lukewarm reception, and Rayman, again from Ubisoft.
Now, because of the similarity in capabilities it's possible that many developers will publish games for the Wii plus current generation consoles such as the PS2 and Gamecube. We're already seeing this happen with the new Dragonball Z game coming out for the PS2 and Wii. The PS2 is an absolutely enormous marketplace that is continuing to grow at a very nice clip, so the overall market there is extremely large. However, the problem with developers making games for both of these systems is two-fold.
- The PS2 has a massive library of games with dozens upon dozens of classics that can be had for a very cheap price. This back-catalogue of great titles can prove to be a very difficult form of competition for newly released games, especially when taking the price-point into consideration.
- Titles developed with current-generation consoles in mind aren't going to be designed to fully exploit and use the Wii's unique capabilities to their full extent. And since you know Nintendo will be releasing quite a few games that really flex the capability of the Wii, just like they did with the DS, fans won't settle for half-assed efforts.
Taking all of these things into consideration is the potential market for 3rd party games large enough to reward developers committing the resources? It's impossible to say for sure now, and we'll see what Ubisoft's early experiments will show, but for the reasons I just outlined I don't think it's likely at all. So does that mean we're going to be stuck with creative stagnation in the industry? Hell no! Why?
There's no need for a Revolution
Games today are more enjoyable experiences than they've ever been. Games are absolutely incredible nowadays and they're only going to get better. And the people love their games. Just look at the sales numbers, they're gigantic. The PS2 is on the way to dwarf all video game hardware before it, the software sales on the system are completely unprecedented. It's not just one type of game that achieves success either, all 3 current-gen consoles have treated the world to a large variety of compelling experiences. And this is coming from someone whose tastes are very far from the mainstream. The same type of people who proclaim that the game industry is creatively bankrupt are just the video game equivalent of movie and music indie elites that think the mainstream are misguided sheep. When it comes to movies I actually agree with them. This kind of jaded bitterness isn't an indictment against the industry, it's more a fact that games have matured and are actually mainstream now, as a result there's a small group of very vocal people that shout their criticisms from the rooftops. And just like those other industries the jaded crowd forms a large part of the media which makes the whole problem seem far larger than it actually is.
Let's be honest here, while the Wii's controller is intuitive and fun, it's not going to dramatically change gaming. Here's why. The most engrossing game experiences happen when you forget you're even controlling a game, when you stop thinking entirely of that plastic between your hands and you concentrate entirely on making that virtual avatar obey your commands. This is actually a well-known feature of user interface design and how people learn new interfaces. On page 7 of these UI notes, you can see the 4 levels of user-comfort listed out. By the 3rd and 4th levels, the actual mechanics of controlling the interface have gone to a subconscious level and the user concentrates on higher-level goals for instance "I need this key, to open the door to get to the next level" how they get the key is just second nature. For immersive games the Wii can make this process quicker for people who are unfamiliar with gaming, but after the first hour or so the method of control is irrelevant. And for people who have grown up on traditional controllers, the learning process will take a bit longer, but ultimately the end result is the same.
The other main area where the Wii controller affects the gaming is in the way the game is played, where a lot of enjoyment is derived out of the physical act itself of playing the game. This is most evident in the Wii sports titles where the player performs the real-life motions such as swinging a bat/club to hit the ball and not just pressing a button. In the future it will be exciting to see if this concept can be taken further than just one-directional motions such as swinging and hitting, and we get some cool sword fighting games. However, I'm still uncertain about how the actual Wii technology works, so I think a full motion-controlled virtual sword fighting game may not be possible with the Wii, or it'll be very difficult (update: Red Steel might have 1:1 control, but I'll have to see it to believe it. link). For these games where the control is the game, how deep can these games really be? Will they ever extend beyond a gimmick? I don't think so. You're going to see some cool applications to the controller in party games and that kind of thing, or in mini-game situations, which IS cool, but you're not going to see an entire GTA centered around doing silly motions with the controller. It just isn't feasible, and these large actions aren't conducive to extended continuous play periods that occur in these kinds of games, people will just get too tired.
Well the Wii is going to be cheap enough such that it can be purchased as a second console to compliment Microsoft's or Sony's conventional offerings. In this case the problem isn't money, it's time. People don't have enough time to support more than one console, and to use the Wii as a party machine, it makes more sense for people to purchase an EyeToy or whatever peripheral MS comes out with and a couple more controllers. The Gamecube showed that pricing yourself low enough to be non-mutually exclusive isn't a successful strategy. For a long time now the Gamecube has been at $99 and contains a lot of fantastic Nintendo games, and is perfect if people want a 2nd console to play some unique titles on. As we see, this strategy just hasn't worked. There may be people who have purchased the Gamecube to use in this manner, but it's obviously not enough to have a significant impact on the overall sales of the hardware. Considering how expensive the next generation consoles are, and the abundant ways to play with them, the likelihood of someone purchasing the Wii as a supplement is diminished even further. It's just not going to happen.
The Nintendo Point
Nintendo is doing what it does best, catering to its audience. Fans of Nintendo games are going to have a ball with all of Nintendo's offerings and remixes of its old franchises. The built-in wireless networking is going to go a long way towards letting people play multiplayer quickly and easily, as well as offer up a seamless way to download the latest demos and content, and get access to that virtual console. The problem is that the Wii doesn't actually do anything to entice new people, the people that bought the PS2, to switch over and pick up a Wii. The people that want to play all the old N64, SNES and NES classics are the same ones that are already going to buy the Wii for all the great Nintendo software they know is going to be released. Those people look so fondly to that bygone era precisely because it's the time when Nintendo was pumping out classic after classic, and the big N was synonymous with video games. But we have to realize that is a bygone era. There's nothing that Nintendo is doing with the Wii that will catapult them back into dominating the home console market. And really, as long as they keep making those great games, does it really matter?
digg it! Add to del.icio.us
note: all hardware and software sales data is referenced from vgcharts.org