[In the first of a two-part series discussing the Wii, designer Brice Morrison first concentrates on the positives of Nintendo's breakthrough console to ask - in its two years since launch, what has the machine done for the biz, and what is its legacy to games?]
Almost two years since its launch, the Wii has certainly made a splash in the games industry. Though not a godsend, as I will discuss in a later article, the Wii is responsible for many uncanny feats.
It is incredibly fun, sure enough, but the pioneering console's reach goes far beyond the enjoyment of swinging the Wii remote. What else has it done? In what ways has the Wii affected game players, the games industry, and games as a medium?
You Don't Press Buttons? Let Me Try...
Without a doubt, the most influential change of the Wii is its effect on the demographics of the video game market.
In the days of old, video games were made for "gamers". These core gamers were quite homogeneous; most of them were boys and young men who played video games anywhere from 10 to 30 hours a week.
They were familiar with the usual franchises: Halo, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy
, and they knew them in depth. They suffered from genre addiction, where players become incredibly skilled at a particular type of game by having their finger reflexes burned in, sequel after sequel.
Developers created the same game over and over again with more difficulty and complex gameplay in order to satisfy these core gamers.
Today, the people who are likely to buy games are vastly different from the people who would have bought games several years ago. Nintendo called their shot in the dark the "blue ocean strategy": searching for people who didn't currently play games, but who would play if given the right interface.
Nintendo recognized that many potential customers didn't come to the party simply because they didn't like the house's welcome mat. They weren't giving games a try because pressing the buttons was too complicated.
Before Nintendo's newest generation, many had never played games for that reason alone. They now enjoy the simplicity of swinging the Wii remote, an action more closely resembling the activities they are familiar with.
This shift, caused by simplifying the connection between the game and the player, is hardly new; a similar explosion occured in the home computer market three decades ago.
Early in the 80's, personal computers were only used by specialized techies who enjoyed working from the command line, since having to type all of your commands was too difficult for the majority of consumers.
It wasn't until the Macintosh appeared in 1984, with a graphical interface and mouse, that it became accessible to the average consumer. The ugly welcome mat was replaced, and everyone was able to join the party.
It is worth noting that it has not been the Wii alone that has allowed this movement (though it is arguably the largest proponent). Casual games such a Bejeweled
were around on the internet long before the Wii, entertaining everyone from the core gamer to the 35 year old woman who never touched a console in her life.
But these games were largely underground and from independent developers, away from the cutting edge of the games industry. To have one of the big three consoles (the other two being Sony's Playstation and Microsoft's Xbox) go after casual and mid-core gamers aggressively was the final thrust that resulted in a monumental shift in the market.
Mom Doesn't Want To Fight Aliens?
So now that all of these new casual gamers own a Wii, what will they play? Mom and Pop don't seem eager to get in on a Halo
deathmatch. So what do they want?
This is the second major effect of the Wii: the broadening of the types of games that can now aspire to be successful. Nintendo chose to position the Wii (along with the handheld Nintendo DS) as a console that was different from the others. On the Wii you're more apt to find games that are about more than the simple fun of violence and gore.
It should be realized that the Wii could have just as well been marketed as a hardcore system, just as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
They could have created the Wii, motion controls and all, and still had the same types of difficult games. Games that required dozens of hours and intense practice to complete. Games with the same action and fighting themes as before. Games that were made for the hardcore gamers of the last generation.
Luckily, they didn't. Nintendo decided to differentiate. Instead of making the last generation of games more difficult in order to satisfy hardcore gamers, they struck out for new territory and went after the non-gamers.
And because those consumers are now ready to play, other more interesting titles are marketable. Games like Big Brain Academy
and Wii Fit
can now be pitched as possible commercial successes.
Now that consumers are ready and waiting, game designers can aspire to create the games that will feed this new market of consumers who want more than entertainment, but rather want to improve their lives.
Dissolution Of The 'Gamer'
The Wii has already changed many aspects of the games industry for the better. But it has also paved the way for immense change in the future of games.
"In the future there will be a TV in every home," said Charlie Gordon, hands clasped on the side of his podium. The crowd, without a second thought, laughed at him.
If Charlie had been speaking in 1990 and instead claimed that "In the future, every single person will play games," he would have likewise been laughed off the stage.
Heck, if you would have told me as soon as five years ago that my family, wonderful people who live on a farm in southern Virginia, would one day own a game console, I would have called you crazy. But now they own a Wii. And so do many others like them, people who had never played games before.
The shockwave that the Wii has sent out is continuing to gain steam. As more and more people play games, the term "gamer" will fade into the past. When describing themselves, no one says, "I am a television-watcher," or "I'm a movie-goer".
Instead, a person is more likely to tell you what kind of TV and movies they watch. The fact that they watch them at all is a given. Now that games have become more accessible, so too will they follow suit.
Broadening Of The Purpose
The other long term effect the Wii will have on games isn't necessarily a prediction, but rather a simple extension of the current trend: the functions that games serve in our society will continue to expand.
When games were exclusively for young boys, games were about entertainment, and rightfully so. But now that we have adults, mothers, fathers, and senior citizens playing games, interactive software is becoming much more than entertainment.
A 72 year old woman doesn't play Wii bowling just because it's fun; she also plays it for the exercise. Players of Brain Age
aren't turning down a movie or a trip to the ballpark to try the game, they view it as an investment in their mental health. These are noble goals that were never possible when core gamers were just looking to kill some time.
Over the next few years, games will continue to change and redefine how we think of them, likely moving further and further from entertainment. In fact, we may have to come up with a new name for them.
The Future Looks Bright
The execution of their console by Nintendo, the marketing, the design of the controller, and the software titles have all worked together with one goal in mind: get people who have never played games before to give it a try.
Truly, the mid-core and casual games market is an exciting one. As a game designer, it is a relief to finally be able to talk seriously about games that are more than entertainment and be able to expect profitability.
Such designs were once constrained to nonprofit art, but can now be embraced and rewarded. This, my friends, is a very good thing.
[Brice Morrison is a game designer who has been developing quirky titles since he was in middle school. Before taking a job at Electronic Arts, he developed several successful independent games such as Jelly Wars, an action adventure franchise, and QuickQuests, a casual MMORPG.
While at the University of Virginia, Brice founded Student Game Developers, an organization which continues to produce games every semester and open the doors to the games industry for students. His blog at BriceMorrison.com discusses games in a broader context and how they can be more than simply entertainment.]