Saturday, December 6, 2008

Why The Wii Changes Everything

Well, for one thing, there's this.

I remember when the Wii was announced. A great many of the commenters predicted its failure. "It's hardly more powerful than the GameCube!" they complained. But I had a feeling it would be a success.

Because I wanted one.

Now, I'm a gamer. Whether or not I qualify for hardcore anymore is certainly debatable. I don't game as much as I used to, and I'm less willing to invest in the big games any more because I know it'll be a challenge (at least) to get past the learning curve to where I'm actually reasonably good at the game. (And I don't mean good in some Internet competition way, but just good enough to actually enjoy the process. Which is the point, after all.)

But I've been playing with computers since back when they were shared and billing was done by the millisecond. And I played on the first Pong machines. Certainly, I played computer games when doing so meant you had to type in the code yourself. And that was where I left off with video games (as distinct from computer games): When I could program my own.

The last console I owned, therefore (and one of two or three in toto) was the Channel F. I didn't like the action on the Atari 2600 (or the graphics), though the Atari 800 was a cool computer. By the time the NES rolled around in 1983, I had long abandoned the arcades and really couldn't much relate to the kinds of games that ran thereupon. (I was playing strategy, PC-style RPGs which are entirely different from the Japanese style ones.)

I wasn't real thrilled to live through the late '90s and the constant calls of "PC gaming is dying!" For one thing, PC gaming is the wild west of development: Anyone can write a game and try to sell it. There are no licensing fees. I'm not a Microsoft fan but they're smart enough to realize that making their development platform available for free benefits them tremendously. (Of course, they struggle with the other side, which is artificially restricting games from the PC platform to boost their XBox cred.)

What I realized about PC gaming, though, is that I played it when since before it was worthy of the word "niche", through the years where entire stores were devoted to PC games, and now, as their relative market shrinks. So why wouldn't I keep on playing when it goes back to being a niche again?

Which brings us to the Wii. Since I missed out on the NES and all subsequent iterations of consoles (though I bought an N64 and a PS2 for The Boy at various times), I really, really, really hate the controllers. One thing I've never been fond of, gaming-wise, is the tendency of some games to require artificially complex control sequences to do stuff. (Yeah, what I like about fighters is offset by annoyance over having to do these 7-8 sequence combos.)

So, somewhat ironically, consoles are to me, a closed world. I can't bring myself to memorize random codes. I'll do a little finger training for a strategy game, for example, but the basics mechanics have been standardized on those for years. To me, the control interface is a barrier that we should strive to eliminate. (This is one reason I always look at what Molyneux is doing; I know he feels the same way and it's interesting to me how he manifests this drive.)

Even if I did go through the trouble--what is essentially meta-game effort--when it's all done, I'm clicking buttons. If part of the fun of playing a computer game is doing something you can't really do otherwise (slaying a dragon, fighting a god, etc.) then the fact that you're doing it just by pressing buttons removes some of the elemental joy. (A good place to start with any game is to find some action that's pleasurable, and that you can find a pleasurable form of feedback for.)

The action/feedback cycle is the key element of electronic gameplay. There are some games that are little more than that. There are some games which have all the elements of gameplay but miss on that, and they're virtually unplayable. But once you're oriented within a game, there's another element to the cycle:


You mean to do something, you take the steps needed to accomplish that, and the game gives you feedback. The complex key-sequence is an artificial barrier introduced into the action sequence and the learning curve for any game is what it takes to unite intention with action.

The Wii changes that by using your native action to power the game action. So you don't have to train much, and the training you do parallels what you would actually do in real life. It's a weak parallel, of course, a shadow of what's necessary, and in some ways completely wrong from a technical standpoint. (Think Guitar Hero which, while not a Wii game, is the exact same principle.)

Anyway, the introduction of the whole body into the game is an element of immersion completely lacking from traditional gaming, and it's simultaneously both powerful and intuitive.

So I'm not surprised that the Wii sales figures are comparable to those of the PS3 and Xbox 360 combined. And I'm not surprised that the Wii Fit was the #1 selling game on Black Friday. The games are absolutely trivial: On the Wii Fit, there's a game where you hit soccer balls thrown at you with your head by leaning left and right (and returning to center as needed). This is a two button game, or three button at the most, and you'd be bored of it nigh instantly.

Add the body factor, though, and you've got something.

Ski jumping? That's practically a one-button game. But make the actions leaning and flexing like an actual jump, and there you are.

I suppose it's good for you in some ways, but that misses the point. It's the feedback. Eventually, of course, you'll get so good at the the controls that you'll need something subtler and more challenging, which isn't something we've seen a lot of yet.

But this is promising. Hell, the Wii Fit board is fun, but why not have, alternatively, ankle controllers? Cap or ear piece for head motion?

Think not? Well, consider that one of the prime laws of gaming has been that you couldn't get people to buy peripherals. You always had to make your game for the lowest common equipment denominator. What changed that?

Dance Dance Revolution.

Then what?

Guitar hero.

Now, the Wii Fit. And what do they all have in common? A level of physicality that hardcore gamers eschew. Even Guitar Hero: You can just click the buttons, but isn't what makes it attractive that you can ham it up as a guitar god? Hell, I play guitar--but I don't play anything like the archetypal rock star. It doesn't appeal to me much, but I can see the appeal--and it doesn't surprise me that various real-life rock bands play it.

The Wii itself may be a fad. And it may be supplanted by additions to the Xbox and the Playstation, or by another console altogether. (Although Nintendo certainly seems to be using its brand well.)

But the physicality? I think that's here to stay.


  1. Sir, I have one correction to your article regarding Guitar Hero. While you are correct that initially Guitar Hero was not A WII game there are now 3 different versions of the game on that console. Guitar Hero III, Aerosmith, and Guitar Hero IV.

    Also as A hardcore gamer, I have both the WII and the Playstation 3. I prefer the playstation 3 for most of my gaming experience but have more fun with the racing games, like Mario Kart on the WII. Why is that? It's because most of the games of adventure are still designed for that type of controller.

    Corey Ashcraft

  2. Yes, Guitar Hero (and DDR) are available for the Wii, but they're not Wii games in the sense that not only were they not developed first or primarily for the Wii, but they don't use the Wii controller. That's really the point.

    As for why hardcore (console) gamers might like the Wii, I'll have to take your word for it. I know Nintendo is a big name in adventure games, but I can't see new versions of the Final Fantasy style games being ported down to Wii-level graphics.

  3. but they're not Wii games in the sense that not only were they not developed first or primarily for the Wii, but they don't use the Wii controller.

    Well the "Rock Band" GH that we have runs on "wiimotes" (they snap in and out of the instruments).
    My wife is addicted to this product, and my kids are to a lesser extent. She got the rockband because it has a drum set, thinking she could suck me into the vortex. It worked.

  4. ChickenLittle--

    Sorry, poorly phrased. I mean to say they don't use the Wiimote as a Wiimote, but really just as a regular button-mashing controller.

    Now, the Rock Band with the drums does, I believe, as does Wii Music.

    I relate to the hardcore guys in the sense that, after playing a lot of these games, I'm not impressed by the technology per se. But as someone who doesn't play consoles, I'm impressed by how fun--and addictive--they can be.

    I'm really looking forward to the upgrades.

    I can envision a whole lot of expansion possibilities.

  5. I'm really looking forward to the upgrades.

    As in more and different songs. Eventually, I'd like see some à la carte choice. You could buy additional songs from a greater menu of choices. I have no idea how much time & money it takes to turn around a song, but I'm sure it could be a moneymaker for all.

  6. Chicken--

    I fear I'm not savvy enough to understand your comment.

  7. Sorry Blake, I was talking off the cuff based on personal experience with even researching.

    We have two version of the Wii game, GH III and GH "world tour." The latter has drums, bass and vocals.
    There's no carry over of songs between the two. A neighbor (who got us hooked) has GH II and that version has different songs than GH III. In other words, the library isn't cumulative. Maybe it is for other platforms.

    I just learned from wiki that games developed for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 support downloadable content. This lets you purchase new songs to play in the respective titles. According to Wiki:

    "Songs each cost approximately $2 through the various online stores for the console's platform. Excluding the songs from Metallica's Death Magnetic, downloadable content for earlier games will not work in other games in the series."

    Maybe this exists for my wii version. Anyway your question prompted me to look and learn, so thanks for that.

  8. Ahh. I haven't seen anything like that on the Wii channel, but I'm a tyro at the online stuff.

    I still think the developers are scratching their heads and gong "ook! ook!" at the whole thing.

    I haven't yet jumped on the Guitar Hero/Band/Wii music thing yet.


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