Saturday, December 27, 2008

First of all, as a disclaimer I don't own any gaming consoles. I just follow the industry because I'm interested in the strategy behind it and I hope someday gaming will mature & develop enough to really interest me. Right now it feels a bit too much like being 6 years old and playing with action heros in the bathtub. The stories are bland repetitive grinds to the next check point. The voice acting is universally terrible. There's just nothing there to keep me interested. Occasionally something new and interesting comes along and I can be drawn in for a while but I've never had any ability to grind away at every new video game for hours chasing a carrot on a stick like some people. I admire them for it because I assume it is a lot of fun (to them) and it's certainly more constructive than watching TV or any other passive entertainment source.

When I do play games I tend to like something quick & simple. It seems contradictory based on my critique of modern games as not being interesting enough but a straight forward puzzle game or shooter at least has nothing to be ashamed of. It is what it is. You can't have a bad story and bad voice acting if you don't bother to fake either. There's a lot to be said for accessibility & brevity in entertainment. I'm an extremist -- either give me no-substance or give me more substance than I can take. The middle-ground is just too mediocre.

Anyway, the point of this entry is to look at why the Wii is so successful. Without any official numbers yet it looks like the Wii dominated x-mas sales. I consistently see people bitching about how this toy that doesn't even do HD can be dominating the 360/PS3. The important thing to remember is this is coming from people who absolutely despise the idea of a quick & fun game. They crave the 15 minute tutorial, memorizing & mastering a dozen button combos, memorizing & mastering points on a map, etc. They don't want 30 minutes of fun gameplay, they want 30 hours of gameplay. They'll figure out how to make it fun (somehow) It seems to me it's a hold over from the early days of video games where selection was more limited and games were expected to be longer, harder, and more of a grind. These people seem to have developed more of an enjoyment of the physical process of pressing buttons and sitting on a couch for 6 hour spans. The actual quality of the game itself is largely irrelevant to them. It simply has to satisfy some basic elements of traditional gameplay and offer a comforting and familiar experience.

The success of the Wii is purely based on the fact that most people don't feel this way. They don't have the time to spend 4 hours doing "missions" so they can get a new item and be rewarded with 4 more hours of "missions" It's simply a different mindset. I think it's possibly a generational thing -- not age per say but experience. Anyone who missed the period of gaming between the late 80's to late 90's has a different standard for what makes a game fun. Hardcore vs. casual perhaps -- although it's hard to say some Nintendo fanatics aren't hardcore. It's maybe more of a time management issue. It's no secret there is a serious lack of good third party software for the Wii but it seems to be irrelevant towards sales. Why? Because the average Wii owner probably only wants 2 or 3 games a year. If Nintendo can provide that directly the need for a healthy third party ecosystem is diminished. Unlike Sony & Microsoft, the Wii hardware itself is profitable. Nintendo is a very profitable software company independent of Wii hardware revenue. The average 360/PS3 owner are probably more interested in buying 10 games a year and it's unlikely either Sony or Microsoft could deliver enough games first-party to satisfy them. So the model for Sony & Microsoft is far more dependent on third parties.

So in the long term it's going to be interesting to see how sustainable the blockbuster & hardcore gamer market is versus the smaller, more accessible, casual game market. It seems the blockbuster game market is showing some signs of slowing down, or even collapsing entirely. While there are many high profile games that make a huge profit there are increasingly more and more very expensive games falling flat on their face. It's very similar to the movie industry where only known properties tend to be developed into blockbusters -- either remakes, sequels, or derivative works of literature & comic books. However there are many cheaper movies made that can turn a profit without being #1 at the box office or dominating DVD sales. They are able to do this by finding a very specific style or sub-genre and executing it very well.

So to wrap it up, there are 5 specific things the hardcore/blockbuster game market should do to become more relevant to the masses or, in time, they are going to become marginalized niche players:

1) Shorter, cheaper, more episodic content. (downloadable)
2) More exploration into less mainstream titles. Spend less to develop it, appeal to a smaller audience & sell less copies, but make more money in the end.
3) Stop puking out bad sequels or you'll destroy your cash cow. They have to show some restraint here. You can only go back to the well so many times.
4) Cheaper consoles. Subsidize it with a a subscription model if you must (xbox style) but the days of $400+ consoles has come and gone. You can only get away with that when you don't have any real competition.
5) Start moving away from buttons & joysticks. This model is 30 years old now. It still has some life left in it but the success of the Wii and games like Rockband/Guitar Hero show people are very interested in alternative control systems.

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