The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

July 13, 2007

Console Check-Up: Nintendo

Filed under: Games — Tags: , , , — Brian Lutz @ 1:17 am

(Note:  This is the second of three posts intended to follow up on a set of predictions I made for the future of the three participants in the Console Wars back in October, before the Wii and the Playstation 3 were launched.  For further explanation and an analysis of the current status of the Xbox360, please see the previous post.  I will conclude this with a post on Sony within the next day or two.) 

Back when I made the original predictions I am basing this on (if you read the last post, you probably already read this,) I stated that Nintendo seemed to be the wildcard among the big three in the current console war.  Three years ago, the Gamecube had fallen well behind the competition, and Sony was threatening Nintendo’s largely uncontested leadership in the handheld market with the PSP.  In response to the threat of the PSP came the Nintendo DS.  Although largely dismissed by gamers as a gimmick before it was released (I was among the skeptics,) the combination of imaginative uses of the integrated touchscreen, combined with a solid lineup of first and third party titles ultimately served to convince me to buy one.  I now own two (an original and a Lite) and I have more games for my DS than for any of the other systems I have currently.  The DS wouldn’t see its greatest success until the introduction of non-traditional game titles like Nintendogs and Brain Age, which have sold millions in Japan, and continue to make the DS the best selling gaming device on the market by far.

To a large extent, it was because of the DS and its success with expanding the audience beyond the standard gaming demographics that I was interested by the Nintendo Revolution, which was ultimately renamed to the Wii. Even before the Wii’s unusual control scheme had been unveiled, Nintendo was making it clear that they did not intend to compete directly with Sony and Microsoft.  Given their lackluster showing in the past two generations from attempting to do just this, I can’t say I blame them.  Instead of trying to compete in the ongoing arms race between Sony and Microsoft,. they instead planned to build a less powerful but more affordable system, and rely on the non-traditional audiences that the DS has captured to sell the system.  At the time I wrote my initial predictions, I said that the Wii could either sell half as many or twice as many systems as the competition.  It has been clear from the start that the Wii was a gamble.  Has the gamble paid off?

So far, it looks like the answer is yes.  Nearly eight months following its launch, the systems continue to sell like the proverbial hotcakes.  it’s still incredibly difficult to find a Wii on the shelf anywhere here.  In both the US and Japan, the DS continues to outsell everything else on a regular bases, sometimes combined.  Since I purchased my Wii on launch day (which required nearly eight hours in line) I have only seen Wii consoles in stock three times.  It does appear that the hardware is becoming at least somewhat more available, but the things continue to sell as fast as they can make them.  My personal observations also seem to validate Nintendo’s strategy.  Shortly after my purchase of the Wii, I took it over to a get-together at my parents’ house to see how it would be received.  Everyone was instantly hooked on WiiSports, particularly bowling and tennis.   For some time afterward, virtually every family get-together turned into a WiiSports session.  In terms of selling systems, you can’t do a whole lot much better than putting a killer app into the box with the system.

Which begs the question:  If you’ve got the killer app for the system in the box, what do you do for an encore?  So far, there isn’t much of an answer to this question.  Once you get past Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Super Paper Mario, there isn’t a whole lot out there to keep the gamers’ attention.  The additions of Metroid Prime 3, Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Brothers Brawl and (eventually Mario Kart Wii) to the lineup should help this out to some extent, but that still doesn’t leave a whole lot in the long term.  The Virtual Console continues to pump out a steady stream of classics (and not-so-classics) to provide something to chew on, but even that can only go so far.  On the other hand, it’s been pretty much implied (if not directly stated) that harcdore gamers probably aren’t going to have the Wii as their only system.  For as long as the Wii name has been around, so has the name “Wii60,” the unofficial name for the combination of the Wii and the Xbox360 has followed.   Even so, on some of the gaming Blogs there does seem to be some degree of frustration with the lack of Wii titles, and a lot of people seem to believe that it was a mistake to put lesser hardware into the Wii than the competitors have.  A number of people also seem to call into question what exactly can be done with the Wiimote that hasn’t already been done.  Indeed, a lot of Wii titles do seem to consist mainly of minigames, attempts to use the Wiimote for first-person shooters (e.g. Red Steel) have largely fallen flat. 

It seems that Nintendo may be acknowledging that the Wiimote alone might not be enough to produce the experiences they’re looking for.  The major announcment made by Nintendo at their E3 press briefing was WiiFit, which adds a new balance board peripheral which can track weight and balance, and attempts to bring a more thorough workout to the Wii than the Wiimote alone can provide (although WiiSports boxing actually can do a pretty good job of this already.)  Although there isn’t a whole lot known about what will be done with this yet, this does seem to make clear that Nintendo continues to attempt to expand the audience for their products beyond the traditional gaming demographic.  I tend to think that even if they aren’t going to produce as much product to appeal to gamers as they might have in the past, this is the right direction for them.  As a target market, gamers tend to be excessively finicky and demanding, and as a result developers have to continue to push the envelope to keep their attention, which is pushing the costs of developing games increasingly skyward.  While there are developers out there who are up to this challenge, the high cost also tends to make it incredibly risky to deviate much from the established formulas.  As big as the market for video games is right now, it’s still a niche market, and it does have its limits.  The results of the last couple of generations have also shown that it isn’t necessarily in Nintendo’s best interests to try to compete directly in this market anyway.

In summary, I think it’s still too soon to see exactly where the Wii is going to end up when the final results for this generation of systems are tallied up, but for the time being it looks like Nintendo’s gambling has paid off.  In the meantime, the DS continues to maintain a healthy lead over the PSP (I’ll talk more about handhelds when I finish this series up with Sony, probably tomorrow) and things are for the time being looking pretty good in the Nintendo camp.  There are still some unanswered questions and I do have concerns that the Wii’s long-term potential might be wasted, but even if I never buy another game for it, I still feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of my purchase. 

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