Why 'Wii're Risky

Hey everyone! I’m back from my two week hiatus. Finals for me went pretty well, so now I’m just getting ready for my sweet summer job. I won’t tell you what it is…yet. But I will say that it’s right in tune with my career, so I’ll let you speculate on that for a while.

As most of you have probably figured out from the oh-so-subtle clue in the title, this week I want to talk about the Nintendo Wii. I love, the Wii, it’s a creative, cheap, easy to get into system that has allowed Nintendo to rise to complete dominance over all of its rivals. Not only has the motion sensitive control system caught a lot of attention, its attracted non-gamers to the system as well, tapping into a large market.

Unfortunately, the Wii isn’t all-powerful, rather it’s a very carefully ‘balanced’ console. You could say that it walks the razor edge in terms of what it’s capable of and how that works with both the audience and developers. While many of its features gain it great selling power, these features also serve to harm the Wii.

I spend a lot of time designing games, as I should, I need the practice and it’s what I’m going to do for a living if all goes well. But one thing that I’ve noticed about my designs is that most of the time, a design that will work on another console will not work the same way on the Wii. This block is due to the Wii’s design and capabilities. Let’s start with the most popular design choice behind the Wii, the Wii-mote.

The Wii-mote is the Controller for the Wii, and it looks a lot less like a standard controller and instead a lot more like a television remote. This is due to the motion sensitive nature of the Wii. Each Wii-mote houses an accelerometer to sense movement, thus the player is able to perform many functions of gameplay without ever pushing a button. Instead they simply wave their hand. With this simple addition, the Wii opens a lot of boundaries that are closed to other consoles. For example, the Wii’s motion sensitive abilities make it a natural choice for point and click adventure games, which have seen a surge on the Wii and PC as of late. However, those same adventure titles are hard to find, if at all, for ordinary consoles, the controls just don’t lend themselves to the play style. Points for the Wii…

Until we take them away. The Wii’s motion sensing controller has faults to balance out the equation. What are they? Mainly a lack of buttons. There are only two primary buttons, A and B, plus a D-pad on top, the + and -, Home and 1 and 2 at the bottom. While any of these buttons may be freely used, the ones that are most easily accessible are the A and B buttons, while the rest require a larger then average repositioning of the hand to access. In some cases, this does not pose a problem, but certain game types demand a much larger assortment of buttons. I would predict that this is why most fighting games are not launching on the Wii, indeed, quite a few genres like having plenty of buttons to push, and in some cases, remapping said buttons to movement does not translate well into the game.

But then there are games that the Wii’s motion controls are perfectly suited for, a first or third person shooter. Why are there not more first person shooters available on the Wii? We come to another drawback/strength of the Wii: Its graphics capabilities. Nintendo’s console is both small and cheap, something that honestly is a great advantage over Microsoft’s 360 and Sony’s PS3 (which personally, rivals a printer in sheer terms of size). Shoppers looking for a system are pulled in by the Wii’s lower pricing and by its smaller size.

But where the Wii is compensating is what brings some hurt. Not only does the Wii lack HD visuals, but its graphics are nowhere near as intense as the nearest competitor. This puts the Wii in a bit of a bind. Although graphics don’t have a great influence on the gameplay itself, a large majority of people will choose, and would prefer the game that looks better. This gives developers more of a reason to develop a game for a different console, they can make it look smoother and more visually appealing. Now graphics don’t make the game in 90% of all games (the 10% are the rare gems that experiment), but developers have a specific goal in mind for their game. If they want a game with real-time dust rendered across surfaces that can be disturbed by the player an non-player characters, that’s going to take a lot of processing power. Power that will have to come from somewhere, but with the Wii, you have a lot less ‘somewhere’ to draw on.

A final weakness of the Wii that I wish to draw on is the Wii’s inclination towards experimental games. Experimental is a dangerous word for game developers as it usually means “this might work, it might not.” In the games industry, larger companies have sometimes tended to shy away from experimental designs (Hi Electronic Arts!) because there is no guarantee that the game will make any money, while a tried and true design will likely be bought by someone.

With the Wii, it gets weirder. With over 50 Million Wii’s, someone will likely buy the game, but does that make the game good? Will you get half-way or more through the game development only to discover that the highly experimental idea doesn’t work? The Wii’s unique control scheme leads it to far more experimental design concepts then other games. I have no problem with this, personally new ideas and concepts are a good thing, but others may not be as accommodating as I am. Experimental designs can succeed just as well as they can fail miserably. Which will it be?

Obviously the Wii is a great success, and I’m not trying to make the Wii look bad by pointing out a few flaws. Rather, I’m trying to show that the Wii’s design is carefully balanced on a series of drawbacks that gave the Wii advantages in other areas, and that these areas are what will determine whether or not developers will push their games to the Wii or return to more stable roots.

1 comment:

Time Enforcer Anubis said...

I think Nintendo's intent with the Wii was to cater to a different market. There's money in marketing towards the everyman, but, in the process, things tend to get "lost in translation" for lack of a better term.

The motion controls are hit-or-miss, in my experience, and that's coupled with the fact that a disproportionate amount of Wii titles would probably work better with a standard controller. Like you said, the Wii's perfect for point-and-click adventure games, FPS, and other types of games that control better with a mouse and keyboard than with a standard controller. Replace WASD with the nunchuck analog stick, replace the mouse with the Wii-Mote proper, and it's fine.

The thing about the Wii, and I'm gonna get into stuff about the gaming community at large with this, is that it's doing new things, and that's risky.

The fact is, while the gaming community is clamoring for companies to bring new things to the table, those new things are rarely well-supported when they come out. The Dreamcast, in my opinion, set the bar for modern consoles, even though what it brought to the table was not well-supported at the time. It was the first console to popularize online capabilities, online play, and DLC and it was the first console to include a (semi) integrated web browser, which wasn't seen for another generation afterword. Hindsight is always 20/20, and looking at what consoles are doing now with online content, then looking back and realizing that the Dreamcast was the first to make that a selling point, it's easy to question why the console failed.

It's easy to answer the question, too. The Dreamcast failed because, while it brought fresh and new ideas to the table, it was seen as too risky to support, due to a number of factors unrelated to the console itself.

The Wii is somewhat of the same thing, however, the Wii is succeeding and here's why:

The Wii markets to everybody and their grandmother. The Wii is the console for people who didn't play video games before the Wii and probably wouldn't play them if the Wii didn't exist. No offense to people who don't game, but they tend to have lower standards as to what a game should look and play like. Graphics aren't as important to them as they would be to people who grew up with video games.

Honestly, the Wii can be looked at as both "Risky" and "Safe", and here's why:

The Wii's risky because it's not guaranteed that a game developed for it will play well on that console. The Wii's safe because a game developed for it will most likely gain exposure, due to the sheer number of people who own the console and, not only that, the game could very well sell to people who own the console because they didn't grow up with video games, and not only that, but Wii titles are no doubt less expensive to develop that 360 or PS3 titles.

All-in-all, the Wii's greatest strength is also its greatest flaw. The Wii can't hope to stand up to the 360, the PS3, or a half-decent gaming PC head-to-head, so it markets itself as the everyman's gaming console, and it just so happened that that exact course of action worked.

The Wii did what the Dreamcast couldn't, which is to say, it brought new things to the table and managed to stay in the running. However, the Dreamcast managed to do something that the Wii can't, and it's much more important than just bringing in new elements.

The Dreamcast set the bar. The Wii can't set the bar. Why not? Because 5, 10, 15 years down the line, motion controls won't matter as much as online play does.

That's just my prediction, but I think it's pretty accurate.