Mending Broken Promises

The Wii is a funny thing. When it comes up in conversation, half the time I find myself arguing with people who claim it’s just a fad. The other half the time, I’m arguing with people who seem to think that Nintendo is beyond reproach or that anyone who criticizes the Wii simply can’t see past their own hardcore biases.

I think the fundamental issue at play is far more subtle than “the Wii is a fad” vs. “hardcore gamers don’t get it.” You can’t rationally argue against Nintendo’s success at this point… too many units of the Wii and games like Wii Fit have been sold to call this a fad. And you can’t deny that the Wii was a strategically brilliant move on Nintendo’s part. At the same time, it’s troubling to see how many people — casual OR hardcore — are allowing their Wii to collect dust. Why is that the case?

I have a hypothesis. Nintendo’s brilliant advertisements (plus the miracle of Wii Sports) have done a great job of conveying a simple, compelling promise to consumers. Actually, it’s more like a series of mini-promises: buy the Wii, and you can wield a sword like an honest-to-goodness samurai; buy a Wii, and you can play a realistic round of golf anytime you want; buy Wii Fit, and you can enjoy a fun, legitimate aerobic workout.

Except you can’t. The original Wiimote simply doesn’t offer the level of accuracy and position-sensitivity necessary to live up to these promises. There are a ton of games featuring sword combat, but none of them make you feel like you’re actually wielding a sword; not even close. Golf games feel OK… when you’re playing for distance; the act of putting (especially in Wii Sports) feels about as natural and enjoyable as a root canal. And Wii Fit, as I noted when it first launched, is brilliant in many ways but ultimately a failure as a long-term, engaging cardiovascular exercise experience. (To be fair: Wii Fit Plus may well address this, as may third party products.)

Long story short, Nintendo has made a bunch of promises, explicitly and implicitly, and has failed to actually keep many of those promises. This hasn’t hurt sales of the Wii or games like Wii Fit because:

  • Experiences like tennis and bowling in Wii Sports are such incredible (but apparently rare) showcases of the Wii’s value,
  • The idea of the Wii is so compelling,
  • There’s nothing else like it on the market (yet),
  • The price is right, and,
  • Nintendo’s marketing team is firing on all cylinders.

But long term, you have to ask: do the broken promises have any impact on Nintendo’s credibility with hardcore and casual consumers — if not on a conscious level then perhaps a subconscious level? Will those consumers approach future Nintendo titles and innovations with the same level of eagerness?

Personally, I think the answer to that question largely depends on Motion Plus. If it enables a golf game that feels just like playing real golf — unlike the pale substitute in Wii Sports — that’s something. If it enables a lightsaber game that makes you feel like Darth Vader — not like Darth Vader’s retarded cousin — that’s something. A marriage of compelling subject matter, plus thoughtful game design, plus reliable hardware — this is the Wii as it was always meant to be — the Wii as it always should have been!

…if only people notice. A surprising number of my casual gamer friends have never even heard of Motion Plus. I guess we’ll be hearing about the success of titles like Wii Sports Resort soon enough, and then we’ll really know how many people heard the siren’s call. Either way, Nintendo has a good year to get the message out — to get people excited about the Wii all over again. And there’s plenty of room for a price cut on the Wii, too. That should give it a very serious shot in the arm.

And if not, there’s always Natal, right?

Update, 6.21.09: Kim has pointed out a nice post of his own on the same subject. Worth a read.

5 responses to “Mending Broken Promises

  1. > too many units of the Wii and games like Wii Fit have been sold to call this a fad.

    I’m not saying it’s a fad, but I believe the above argument to be flawed. What number is the threshold for “not a fad”. I don’t believe there is one. Plenty of other fads had FAR larger number of units sold, only to fade back to a niche or vanish entirely. Karaoke machines are still a product category, but there was a fad for a few years that eclipsed the number of Wii’s sold to date. And while the cash outlay is far smaller, the number of hula hoops, rubik’s cubes, etc, sold in their time was way larger.

    In any case, my point is that the only thing proving it’s not a fad is a sustained level of sales over time. Certainly doesn’t *look* like a fad, but only time will tell.

    On promise of realistic control vs what was delivered, I did a post on this based on a great conversation between myself, Jon Blow, and a devrel guy from Nintendo a couple years back:

  2. Oops. Went back and looked at that old post. Wasn’t Jon Blow, was with Casey Muratori (an equally opinionated indie developer 🙂

  3. > What number is the threshold for “not a fad.” I don’t believe there is one.

    True enough. I guess it depends on your definition of “fad.” 🙂 My personal definition is covered by the following:

    1) The Wii has sold an impressive number of units over a relatively long period of time at a relatively high price (as compared to other “fads.”) Not to speak of units of related hardware/software (i.e. Wii Fit.)

    2) Almost everyone — press, famous designers like Will Wright, competing console makers, etc — now agrees that it was a good idea to take consoles in the direction of motion detection.

    3) The Wii has clearly exposed and, at least conceptually, addressed a core problem with consoles. I find it hard to imagine a rational argument against making future consoles accessible (i.e. going back to the days of a million-button controller and nothing else.)

    But at the end of the day, I have to admit that definitions of “fad” may vary.

    > I did a post on this

    Nice; I’ve updated my post with a URL.

  4. Not really sure at this point. It seems Wii Motion + does mend a lot of the issues that the Wii Mote had. The only thing seems to be recalibration. If developers can get around that seamlessly, they might be able to do some cool stuff with it.

    Right now, though, the issue is that Nintendo is just not persuing third party games hard enough. Why get a Wii when the other systems have games like Street Fighter IV, RE5, etc? I mean the Wii has quite a few cool, unique games that are worth playing, but it doesn’t have enough.

    If I were Nintendo, I’d be trying to get franchises on my system. Not spin-offs. I’d also still be trying to get Street Fighter IV, Soul Calibur, and RE5, since it plugs up holes that the Wii currently has.

    Bottom line is that the Wii is lacking the big games. Nintendo needs to persue them. And they need to start getting them when the others release, not months/years after.

  5. Billy Bissette

    Of all the people I know, I may be the only one that still plays games on my Wii. It also isn’t uncommon to hear of people who have sold their Wii because there was simply nothing coming out that interested them.

    As Austin says, the Wii is lacking big games. But I don’t think it will be easy for Nintendo to persuade companies to develop such games. It honestly doesn’t look like game designers want to create triple-AAA titles for the Wii. They would rather put their efforts into higher end PS360 games, while the Wii gets flooded with cheap productions and PS2 ports.

    And who can blame them? The only design hook that the Wii offered was motion control, and game designers quickly found said control to be too lacking. The sheer size of the Wii’s install base forces companies to acknowledge the system, but it doesn’t force them to put their efforts into it, particularly when “effort” has been shown to be in no way proportional to Wii game sales.

    Capcom hasn’t even bothered to include support for the Wii in its “next gen” game engine. Instead, they continue to use the RE4 engine for Wii games. The RE4 engine might have been cutting edge for the Gamecube, but it isn’t even that for the Wii.

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