Soapbox: The Wii Changed The Face of Gaming, Before The Console Industry Promptly Forgot Its Lessons
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Tom Whitehead believes that the Wii's good work has, in part, been wasted
This week the Nintendo Japan website updated the status of Wii production, officially bringing it to an end. We'd previously argued that Nintendo could have ruled the micro console market with Wii and the company, potentially, missed a trick; it seems to be a decision made on the basis of precedence and convention. We've also already conducted and presented our Wii obituaries in various forms in 2012, as the arrival of the Wii U and the abandonment of Wii development by Nintendo had set the dye, even if it would carry on regardless for another year. There's a certain irony that the most disruptive home console in recent memory ends with a regimented business decision, and that itself reflects a caution not just within Nintendo, but the wider gaming industry at major corporate levels.
When considering the core game-changers introduced by the Wii, many will instinctively — and to a degree correctly — go straight for motion controls. With the Wii Remote and — eventually — MotionPlus, Nintendo took gaming from a preserve for enthusiasts to a universal act. There's often petty mockery of the 'Wii Sports generation', but I think it was the best thing to happen to gaming in recent times. For the first time in my whole life I wasn't just playing games with my older brother, but with my parents and any relative / friend that could instinctively reproduce motions — in other words, everybody and anybody. It was no longer my nerdy little hobby (I wasn't writing about, reviewing or critiquing games or the industry back then) but a shared activity, and I loved the fact that my family could, even in a heavily diluted and simplified experience, see what I loved so much about video games.
Like any viral trend, the motion revolution of the Wii brought its own problems. Shop shelves were crowded with mini-game shovelware that, annoyingly, seemed to sell well, and motion was applied aimlessly in some games; both issues helped give birth to the usage of 'waggle' as a derogatory term. Poor quality releases and a new market of gamers also admittedly brought problems for developers and publishers, as turning a profit on the system wasn't always easy. It brought some interesting reactions from rivals, too, with Sony practically mimicking Nintendo with the Move, while Microsoft introduced Kinect — all options had flaws.
Motion gaming isn't exactly dead, so the legacy of the Wii survives to an extent. Sony's backed away the most, it seems, with its motion bar thing on the new Dualshock which is there because, well, why not. The Wii U fully supports all Wii controllers, meanwhile, with upcoming releases (mainly those riffing on Wii predecessors) making use of those old Remotes, though plenty of games focus on the GamePad and largely avoid waving arms around. Microsoft's upgraded Kinect is no doubt nice and accurate, and arguably targets the motion crowd the most if it works as advertised. The common problems — across the board — that make these varied uses of motion so less effective than the Wii are the emergence of smartphones and tablets in grabbing large parts of the market, but more importantly the price of entry to the latest home consoles and their blatant return to 'hardcore' gamers.
There's something defeatist about backing off accessible experiences for the most part and catering to the twin-sticks and buttons crowd. A look at the launch libraries of PS4 and One show mostly gamer-centric releases, and Nintendo for its part priced out the Wii generation when it launched Wii U. We can go around the houses and discuss marketing, naming conventions, manufacturing costs and the technicalities, I get all that, but ultimately those that bought a launch Wii for £179 / $249.99 would have been given pause for thought with the $349.99 of the Deluxe model, with the white model pushing credibility at $299.99 — if you want to download anything (with digital content far more prominent than in the Wii days) on the 8GB system, you'll need a hard drive on top of that price, anyway. Yes, prices go up in real life, but Nintendo had perhaps under-estimated how important pricing was in making the Wii the console to own for families or gamers, like me, keen for fresh games at an affordable price. Combine value with an exciting new hook, and monster profits follow.
In that sense recreating the perfect storm of the Wii was almost impossible, and I still believe that the Wii U will get by, with lifetime sales maybe nestling somewhere between GameCube and Nintendo 64 levels; Nintendo will still turn profits and move on in a few years time. But affordability matters more than ever in moving beyond hardcore fans, and that's why I see greater price cuts as essential in the future, and why I think Sony and Microsoft have shrunk their target market too far. Dedicated gamers will splash out, but I struggle to see many families or loose hobby gamers throwing down $399.99 to $499.99 in the medium term for a PS4 or One. Launch sell-outs? Absolutely. Big sales into mid-2014? We'll see, the market is more crowded than in the last generation.
I'm aware that the smartphone / tablet gaming phenomenon has moved the goalposts, but also believe that the 'big three' manufacturers have all-too-easily backed down to the threat. Android and iOS are far from perfect — free-to-play can really mean exploitation in some cases — and consoles have been slow to offer a sensible middle-ground between the race to the bottom and the old full-retail model. Steps are being taken to hit that territory, such as the terrific efforts of Nintendo and Sony in particular to welcome smaller developers to online stores; download-only developers may bring us more innovation than anyone, and I think the big N is due plenty of credit for its current and potential future role in that. The Wii U eShop in particular looks like it has an exciting future.
Yet the Wii U, in its first year, hasn't found that balance of accessibility and value. Enthusiast gamers may put great stock in visuals or traditional experiences, but the Wii U hasn't found that ground between the Wii and so-called 'hardcore' credentials, and may ultimately end up tempting just a portion — not all of — the Wii crowd once again. Early messaging about the Wii U was trying to sell it up as a system that's great for CoD and triple-A multi-platform games (just look up early interviews by Reggie Fils-Aime or the launch date reveal) — a marketing campaign doomed to failure. The new reduced price is a step towards regaining families and gamers with a taste for Nintendo experiences, though I'd argue that hitting $250 / £199 for the premium model is the next logical move to give the Wii U a bump in late 2014 and beyond.
When Nintendo gave up the technology race in favour of innovation with the Wii, I was delighted, and was also thrilled that I could enjoy unique experiences without breaking the bank. The Wii U hasn't done that from day one — I mentioned my family earlier on, and my parents just bought a 32GB Wii U in a flash sale at that golden £199 price. There are now experiences, such as Wii Sports Club and Wii Fit U that I know they'll enjoy, and perhaps Wii Party U and Super Mario 3D World will be added to that list in the remainder of 2013; Mario Kart 8 is a given. Yet when I showed them my Wii U in the past, the interest was there but not with the same immediate spark and flash of anticipation. Nintendo Land was the embodiment of this — it's excellent, but for the most part less intuitive and fun than Wii Sports or Mario Kart Wii. The Zelda swordplay was ideal, but the splash of minigames was less focused, less immediate and, in cases such as Metroid Blast, utterly beyond gamers more familiar with a Wii Remote or touchscreen.
I don't claim to have a perfect answer to how these shortfalls could have been avoided, and I'm actually confident that as the price drops and the software library (retail and download-only) grows the Wii U will be just fine. I do feel that Nintendo and its home console rivals have reverted to safe options, however, in part relegating innovation to a share button or the ability to use voice commands to tell your One to switch to TV. To its credit Nintendo will possibly innovate the most with asynchronous multiplayer and its various control options, but I'll always remember the Wii as the system that seized affordability, simplicity, accessibility and diversity all at once, while never afraid to embrace its alienation and differences from the PS3 and Xbox 360. I rather adore my Wii U, but it makes me a little sad that it's not a joy easily shared by those that admired its predecessor to such a degree.
With a tighter market and game companies in retreat, the Wii's golden era (before its bubble burst) may be the last major disruption to the home console market for a generation or two. The likes of Steam Machines from Valve and who-knows-what will shake up the home console market for enthusiastic gamers, and they're going to be fascinating times, but the Wii entranced consumers of all kinds in the living room — arguably one of Nintendo's greatest achievements.
Do you agree that the Wii revolutionised the industry in a way that the Wii U can't? (373 votes)
I do agree, its concept was a game-changer that hasn't been matched by Wii U
I largely agree, though we'll need to give Wii U more time to have the same impact
I'm not sure
I don't quite agree, the Wii U is innovative and capable of shaking up gaming
I disagree, the Wii's concept and impact are over-stated
None of the above
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