Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 May, 2006

Just a Wii bit of innovation?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:12 AM

I read Scott Miller’s blog when I can. He’s a smart guy, and 3D Realms has done some great work. He is usually very insightful when it comes to business issues. Scott has been a big proponent of original IP for game developers, arguing that developers should avoid licensing and retain ownership of their IP as much as possible.

Scott recent did a rundown of E3 content he saw and heard about, focusing on new brands at the show. He tends to be a bit harsh, deriding generic names (particularly the names of Japanese games) and not being impressed by many games that seem to be just rehashes. You would think that someone who values originality so highly would be a big fan of the Wii.

Well, not so much.

Scott Miller wrote:

Oh, and heard a LOT of negative comments about the Wii controller from developers who messed with it. Be very worried, Nintendo. Didn’t get to see it myself because I didn’t have 2+ hours to wait in line. What a dumb way to run a booth, meanwhile the open booths of Sony and Microsoft I explored fully.

Why the hate? Well, it makes sense once you start putting things together.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think Scott is a swell guy. I’ve never met him in person, but I’m sure he’d be someone cool to chat with about the industry. He’s had quite a few successes, so he obviously knows a thing or two about the industry (or is at least really, really lucky). But, he acknowledges that part of the risk of having a strong opinion is that you are sometimes wrong. I think he’s being a bit unnecessarily harsh about the Wii.

The first thing to note about Scott’s quote above is that he says developers don’t like the new Wii controllers. Anyone with any experience in the industry knows that’s pretty much expected; developers are very conservative when it comes to new things. We’ve been burned enough to know that anything truly new and “innovative” is dangerous. Our usual market doesn’t reward us when things get too unusual or different. This is why you see a bunch of super-creative people re-inventing the same genre over and over again instead of doing something innovative.

I commented on Scott’s blog:

I suspect the negative things developers are saying come from the general conservatism of the industry. How many programmers do you know of that clung stubbornly to C even after all the old “problems” with C++ were cleared up? The new controller is scary for most developers and they don’t know what to do with it yet. I suspect they should learn quick because it seems gamers are warming up to the idea. This is one reason why we don’t see a whole lot of “innovation” or new things in the industry, because it scares people.

Yes, there are still developers out there that cling to writing everything in C because C++ is too slow. Or, operator overloading could be abused, perhaps coding an operator like ++ to delete your hard drive! (I wish I were making that up; someone at 3DO actually used that as a reason to fear C++, ignoring that I could just as easily create a function called “Increment()” which deleted the hard drive.)

Anyway, I’m hardly surprised that developers distrust the new Wii controllers. It’s different and scary. It’s easy to write the controllers off as a gimmick. Of course, most people thought the dual screens and touch-sensitive screen of the Nintendo DS were gimmicks, too. I have to admit, I thought the dual screens were a bit dumb when I first saw the thing. However, after getting a DS for Christmas and playing a variety of games on them, I’ve come to love the thing. The dual screens and touch-sensitive screen really do allow for new types of games to be played. Sure, you’re going to get gimmicky games (or parts of games), but then you get a gem like Kirby’s Canvas Curse or Brain Age and you start to realize the possibilities. And, the market has rewarded Nintendo for the unique aspects of the DS.

Even though developers distrust the Wii controllers, journalists and potential consumers seem to LOVE them. The long lines to see the Wii were proof in many people’s eyes that there’s something there. Even the BBC got into the action with an article called “Having a Wii good time”. From the article:

The game also quickly revealed that it was not just a case of vague, random movements.

A rapid swing would increase the power of the shot. And turning the controller at an angle would produce a top spin or slice.

Yet, it’s not all sunshine. From the same article:

The controls worked less well on another shooter, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

The principles were broadly the same, but some of the action also involved a number of button combinations.

Over time, gamers will probably get used to this but it did not have the same pick and play appeal as the sports games.

Now, look at those quotes and realize what this tells you. Sports games that people are already familiar with are easier to control. I suspect that the more classic type of game, Metroid, needs more work in order to have the control feel responsive. This is nothing new, many games shown at E3 often have controls that don’t feel quite right. It often takes quite a while near the end of the development cycle to really nail down the smooth control you expect from a game. I’ll bet that Metroid will be much smoother to control later this year at launch than it was during the E3 demo.

I’m reminded of a previous console where developers complained that the system was hard to develop for, but that journalists and consumers fell in love with: the PlayStation 2. Remember all the complaints about how hard the system was to develop for? In the end, it didn’t matter. The PlayStation 2 was dubbed a success by the market and developers had to develop for it if they wanted big sales. I suspect we could see the same thing here, where developers that ignore the Wii do it at their own peril.

A quick note about Scott’s complaint about the line to see the Wii: Nintendo is just using the conventional wisdom that the forbidden fruit is usually the tastiest. There’s a 3+ hour line to see the Wii? That must be something worth seeing! Just watch this “stampede video” showing people rushing to get to the Nintendo booth shows that this worked: people were eager to go see the Wii. Now, have to admit that I thought the setup sucked, too. I didn’t get to see the Wii in person, either, but I don’t hate Nintendo for it.

Later, in the comments, Scott makes a few more comments about the problems the Wii will have:

BTW, Nintendo isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong with the Wii (giggle — except for that silly name…was Poo already taken?), it’s just that they’re saddled as a system for children, for the most part. This ain’t good, given that the 17+ market is where the real action is at nowadays.

Perhaps Scott couldn’t see the irony of making a childish joke then going on to deride the console for being too childish! Perhaps Nintendo does indeed know their target audience. ;)

But, I think the issue here is that Scott and most other people that claim the Wii is “for children” are wrong, rather, it’s more accurate to say that the console isn’t targeting the “hard core” gamer. Nintendo has said before they’re going after the “blue ocean” strategy and trying to expand the market for games past the existing markets. They’re not focusing on the hard-core gamers that demand more and more out of their games, the gamers driving up expectations and therefore budgets of “next generation” titles. Instead, they’re trying to introduce new people to games, which means less games like we’ve seen in the past and more games that are easier to get into.

Take a look at what 3D Realms has done in the past: Duke Nuk’em, Max Payne, and the recently demonstrated Prey. The audience for these games are the “hard core” gamers that “get” these types of games. My mom isn’t excited about playing Prey. However, I could see her enjoying a few games on the Wii to supplement her time spent on Yahoo games or playing some version of FreeCell somewhere. Scott is right in that the older demographic are more appealling, but he seems to forget that there are more non-gamers than there are gamers.

And that’s the problem with people like Scott (or me!) trying to say that the Wii doesn’t matter. We not only focus almost exclusively on the hard-core, we are the hard-core. We understand shooters and fighters and those types of games. A game that doesn’t involve a gun and amazing amounts of manual dexterity are alien to our way of thinking. It takes a long time to finally realize that this whole “casual games” thing isn’t a passing fad.

Now, this isn’t to say that Nintendo has found the silver bullet and will dominate over everyone else. I doubt my mother will buy a Wii for herself (although she might get one as a present from me some Christmas). Attempts to attract the “mass market” to games in the past have mostly ended in crying.

On the other hand, Nintendo is willing to try something new. The Brain Age games have been a huge hit in Japan, supposedly attracting older people to play the game according to the press release. If this is true, it means that Nintendo might actually have a shot at reaching that nigh-mythical mass market with the Wii. And, if more people start playing games, that’s good news for everyone. Unfortunately, some of those super-conservative developers might have to suddenly change the way they design games, or become prey for the new crowd of game designers that will rise up to develop games for this expanded market.

We’ll just have to see.

I think Scott sees the possibilities here, too. He did say, “I’m always one to root for innovation, and I hope Nintendo succeeds.” And, I think he does mean it despite his naysaying. In the end, I kind of share some skepticism about if Nintendo can pull off their whole “blue ocean” strategy by introducing games to the mass market. But, if they do…. If they do, it will mean a lot of change in our industry, along with more innovation in our games.

And that excites me much more than any new controller ever could.







2 Comments »

  1. The dual screens and touch-sensitive screen really do allow for new types of games to be played. Sure, you’re going to get gimmicky games (or parts of games), but then you get a gem like Kirby’s Canvas Curse or Brian Age and you start to realize the possibilities.

    This is exactly why I believe in the Wii. I did get to see it as a part of my Friday hangover (and I didn’t have to wait in line – press has advantages). It was damn skippy cool! I played the tennis game, it did respond well. If I could have had about 15 more minutes to work out timing, etc. I’m confident that it would play a lot like real tennis in terms of spin, etc.

    Before actually getting my hands on the Wii at E3 I was certain that Nintendo was onto something good that would land them 3rd again in the console race by stepping out of it and letting MS and Sony beat each other up.

    After my hands on, I’m actually of the mind that Nintendo is attempting to redefine the console market and win an entirely different race that will have the other two playing catch up by 2008!! That’s some serious strategy and it could fail, but if the ‘blue ocean’ strategy works — the market will expand beyond current borders and MS and Sony will restrategize the 360 and PS3 to fit that market…

    Which could leave the hardcore (yeah me too) in a ghost town… Dollars drive development — if grandma starts spending her retirement money on consoles instead of casinos, I could easily find myself awash in titles for people other than me no matter the platform.

    Scary, and exciting!

    Comment by Grimwell — 22 May, 2006 @ 1:34 PM

  2. It’s funny. I’m reading this a year later and it’s amazing how well the Wii did. I’m still trying to find one in local stores, and the word of a delivery of Wiis to a store is guaranteed to bring lines. Some day I’ll get a Wii. :P

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 May, 2007 @ 12:19 AM

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