Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 2

[Note: This is the second part of a multi-part post.  Check out the first part here.]

In the first part of this post, I examined how Nintendo, with the Wii, traded core gamers for casual gamers, a strategy that worked in the short term but cost Nintendo in the long term.  When smartphones and tablets emerged as a major gaming platform, especially for casual games, they left Nintendo with no market for their new hardware.  They sold over 100 million Wiis, but are struggling to sell one tenth as many Wii Us.  There’s obviously nothing Nintendo could have done to forestall the rise of the mobile games market.  But this doesn’t mean that the evaporation of Nintendo’s audience was a foregone conclusion.

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Could Nintendo have transformed the tens of millions of casual, first-time gamers who bought Wiis into a dedicated customer base that would reliably purchase new games and consoles in perpetuity?  Who knows?  It would be a tough job for anyone, at any time.  We can’t know how things might have turned out had Nintendo done this or that.  But we can see pretty clearly a number of ways Nintendo failed to support and take advantage of the Wii.

How Nintendo Failed the Wii

The Wii was supposed to be transformative; it was supposed to revolutionize gaming.  During development, it was even given the codename Revolution.  The Wii remote and its motion-sensing capabilities were supposed to forever change the way we play games.  That Nintendo might introduce a radical new controller that would one day become industry standard wasn’t a farfetched idea; almost every feature of modern controllers first appeared on a Nintendo controller.  After the Wii remote was announced, Sony hastily added motion sensing capabilities to the PS3 controller, and it was starting to look like Nintendo was once again reshaping the videogame landscape.

Sony’s Sixaxis controller never took off, though, and was allowed to die a quiet death.  (Sony kept the accelerometers and gyroscopes, but brought back the DualShock branding, and motion controls don’t seem to be a big part of their strategy.) Both Sony and Microsoft made forays into motion control a few years later, with the PlayStation Move and the Kinect, respectively, to modest success, but those products, while still technically supported by their respective platforms, seem to be relegated to a small niche.  Only six PlayStation Move games were released in the last two years, only three of which were Move-only, and Microsoft has demoted the Kinect from essential Xbox One component to useful accessory to product they super sincerely promise isn’t dead.  In retrospect, it’s looking like the Wii, for all its bold innovation, didn’t contribute anything to the evolution of controllers, an evolution that has always been driven by Nintendo.

Why didn’t the Wii’s motion controls take off?  Maybe they were too radical.  Most of Nintendo’s previous innovations were pretty iterative: adding buttons and joysticks, and reconfiguring their layout.  But, on the Wii at least, motion control was an all-or-nothing proposition.  The Wii remote, even with the Nunchuck attachment, had fewer buttons than traditional controllers, forcing developers to create a new control scheme built around the Wi’s motion-sensing capabilities.

Maybe the Wii controllers didn’t work well enough.  Early promo videos – and our imaginations – promised a level of precise and intuitive control that simply wasn’t possible with the Wii’s tech.  Motion controls often ended up feeling like the beta or alpha version of the science fiction future we imagined.  The Wii Motion Plus, released two-and-a-half years later, improved performance, but it may have been too little too late.

Or maybe we just don’t want motion controls.  As fun as it is to imagine yourself running around your living room and swinging your virtual sword, taking cover behind your sofa and firing a few rounds from your virtual gun, or swinging your virtual baseball bat, motion controls often end up being annoying and tiring.  Part of the appeal of videogames is that you do something incredibly simple, like press a button, and your onscreen avatar does something incredibly complex and exciting, like execute some crazy, spinning, two-handed lightsaber attack.  A game that requires you to actually do those things in your living room in order to have your avatar do them in the game just reminds you that you can’t actually do those things.  Motion controls can be fun, but they can also feel like work.  Sometimes you don’t want to swing your sword; you just want to hit the button and let Link do the sword fighting for you.

We all prefer the Wii remote to this, though, right?
We all prefer the Wii remote to this, though, right?

All of these may have been factors in the Wii’s ultimate failure to transform gaming, and any of them may have been insurmountable obstacles.  It’s possible that nothing Nintendo did could have made the Wii remote the game controller of the future.  But I think a big part of the Wii’s failure can be attributed to the way Nintendo treated its own invention.

If the Wii’s motion controls were an exciting, transformative way to play, offering new experiences the likes of which we’d never imagined, and heralding the dawn of a new era in videogames, you’d hardly know it from looking at Nintendo’s first party games.  Sure, the Wii came bundled with Wii Sports, a showcase for the platform’s potential.  But Nintendo didn’t really throw its weight behind the bold new direction the Wii represented.

If you’re trying to transform an industry, trying to convince people that your way to do things is the new way to do things – or is even worthwhile at all – you’ve really got to be out front leading the charge.  You’ve got to convince people.  But Nintendo’s strategy seemed to be to introduce this new technology and then say to developers, “Here it is, now figure out how to use it.”  Just consider the obvious things Nintendo didn’t do for the Wii.

  • They didn’t throw the weight of their flagship IP behind the Wii.  Sure, as with every Nintendo console, the Wii had entries in the Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart, and Smash Bros. franchises, along with a lot of the other Nintendo characters you expect to see every generation.  These were some of the best, and best-selling, games on the Wii.  But none of them really made much use of the Wii’s new motion-control features. The two Super Mario Galaxy games control basically the same way previous 3D Mario games and other 3D platformers do: you move with the analog stick and you jump with the A button.  There are a few Wii remote-centered features, but they basically amount to minigames and novelties.  Some of these features work well and are fun, like the occasional Pull Star navigation sections, but are too sparingly used to really transform the game; others, like the whole Star Bit-collection mechanic, seem unnecessary and tacked on just to give you something to do with your Wii remote.  The best-selling Super Mario game on the Wii was, perhaps tellingly, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a 2D side-scroller that has you turn the Wii remote sideways and use it as a glorified NES controller that you shake every once in a while.  The basic formula for Wii Mario games is to make a “normal” Mario game, and then shoehorn in some Wii features.  Even when these features work well and contribute meaningfully to level design, they hardly impact the overall feel of the game.

    Wii-wheel-web-001

    Other flagship titles make even less use of the Wii’s features.  Mario Kart Wii – the Wii’s best-selling non-pack-in game – features a variety of control options, one of which has you holding the Wii on its side – or snapped into the included plastic steering wheel attachment – and turning it to steer your kart.  Nintendo seemed to understand that this was the worst way to play, though: if you played online with this control scheme, a steering wheel appeared next to your name, essentially bragging to other racers that you not only beat them, but beat them with the Wii wheel.  Meanwhile, Super Smash Bros. Brawl seemed to go out of its way to not use Wii controls.  Even the character select screen, which is navigated with a cursor that you move around mouse-style, isn’t controlled with the Wii remote despite seeming ideally suited for it.  Nintendo seems to be saying, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to make you use the Wii remote.”

    The Zelda games make slightly better use of the Wii remote.  Aiming a bow or hookshot with the Wii remote works really well.  However, the game’s primary mechanics – running around and sword fighting – don’t really benefit from motion control.  Both of the Wii’s mainline Zelda games have you swing the remote to swing the sword, but Twilight Princess, which is essentially a GameCube port, suffers from Wii Waggle Syndrome, where an action that could easily be controlled with a button press is instead mapped to an arbitrary shake of the Wii remote or nunchuk.  Thanks to the Wii Motion Plus, sword control in Skyward Sword is a lot more precise, but, aside from a few enemies and puzzles that are explicitly designed to force you to slice at a certain angle, random waggles of the remote will still get the job done.  Most of the time, you can’t help but think that the game would work just as well with a standard controller.  And it’s worth pointing out that Skyward Sword sold a million fewer copies than Link’s Crossbow Training.

    Nintendo’s treatment of its flagship IP seemed to reflect a lack of trust in the Wii’s technology.  If the Wii’s motion controls really were a better way to play games, then why wasn’t Nintendo taking full advantage of them?  If, as games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl suggest, traditional controls are still essential to good gameplay, then why was the Wii designed around this new technology?  The Wii was supposed to be transformative – it was supposed to be a “revolution” – but Nintendo itself didn’t transform very much, as judged by their most prestigious games.  If Nintendo wasn’t willing to trust its key IP with the radical new gameplay that the Wii promised, then why should any other developer trust their IP with it?

  • Nintendo dropped the ball with Mario sports games.  One of the biggest ways Nintendo failed to properly support the Wii was that they failed to make games that seemed obviously suited to the Wii.  It’s easy in retrospect, almost a decade later, to say the Wii should have had games X, Y and Z.  But some of these omissions were obvious even at the time.  One of the biggest omissions was the lack of good Mario sports games.The Wii came packed with Wii Sports, essentially a collection of demos for five different sports games.  Early promotional videos for the Wii featured tons of baseball bat and golf club swinging.  Nintendo seemed to understand that this new technology was ideally suited to sports games.  Surely, there would be a full slate of Nintendo-published sports games coming down the pike.

    When I played Wii Sports for the first time, it felt fun but too stripped-down.  The tennis game, for example, let you swing the racket but not control your character’s movement; the golf game only had four clubs and nine holes.  The only sport I revisited more than a few times was bowling – perhaps because it was simply the most fun, but also because bowling inherently has fewer “features” than something like golf or baseball and therefore felt the least stripped down.  That most of the Wii Sports games didn’t hold my attention didn’t bother me, though.  Nintendo already had established franchises for many of these sports.  I assumed that there would soon be a fully featured, standalone Wii entry in the Mario Tennis, Mario Golf, and Mario Superstar Baseball series.  And I would have put the odds at above 90% that there would soon be a Mario Bowling game, too.  The best of the five Wii Sports games married to Nintendo’s primary mascot and filled with the kind of wacky, lighthearted power-ups that Nintendo does so well – I can’t have been the only person to have this idea.  That Nintendo would make these games seemed so obvious that I didn’t even consider the possibility that they wouldn’t.  They seemed as inevitable as a Mario Kart game.

    It's Mario, bowling, but it's not Mario Bowling.
    It’s Mario, bowling, but it’s not Mario Bowling.

    So what happened in reality?  Nintendo released a new entry in an existing Mario sports franchise just six months after the Wii was released (in Europe, and a few months later in North America and Japan).  The game?  Mario Strikers Charged.  A soccer game.  I don’t know how familiar you are with soccer, but it’s a sport where you’re not allowed to use your hands!  I have nothing against this game.  I never played it, but reviews seem pretty positive.  I’m certainly not saying that it shouldn’t exist.  But I do think it’s odd that Nintendo released a console built around motion-sensing controllers that you hold in your hands, used sports games as a primary marketing hook, and then decided that their first Mario sports game should be soccer.

    More than a year later, Nintendo finally delivered a standalone Mario version of one of the games featured in Wii Sports with Mario Super Sluggers, the Wii sequel to Mario Superstar Baseball.  The reviews were only so-so, but at least Nintendo seemed to finally be making the obvious decision to release Mario sports games.  Only, this is where they stopped.  We never got a Mario Golf for the Wii.  We never got Mario Bowling (though there is a Goomba Bowling minigame in 2012’s Mario Party 9, so there’s that).  In 2009 we got a version of Mario Power Tennis in the New Play Control! line – a series of games in which Nintendo ported GameCube games over to the Wii with new controls pasted on – which was almost more insulting than not releasing any Mario Tennis game at all.  In 2010, four years after the Wii came out, we got Mario Sports Mix, a minigame collection featuring such sports as volleyball and dodgeball.  And that’s it for Mario sports games.  (We also, in 2009, got a revival of Punch-Out!!, the first game in that franchise in 15 years.)

    Just consider this for a minute.  Nintendo released a new console centered on its motion-sensing controller.  Their promotional videos featured people playing sports with these controllers.  The console came bundled with a collection of barebones sports games.  Nintendo has a number of sports franchises that feature their main piece of intellectual property, Mario, one of the most recognizable characters in all of everything ever.  The franchises existed, the brand was recognizable, the hardware was in tens of millions of homes, and the mechanics were already established and resonating with players.  But Nintendo did not make the games.

    Here’s what should have happened: Mario should have been in Wii Sports.  This doesn’t mean the game should have be rebranded Mario Sports or something, or that Mario should have even played a key role.  But he should have been in there somewhere, if just as an NPC who wandered by from time to time.  And the five games in Wii Sports, which all felt like demos, should have actually been demos.  Somewhere in the game, maybe in the main menu or during a loading screen, there should have been a message that said, “Check out Mario Golf, in stores now!” and “Check out Mario Tennis, available next summer!” and “Check out Mario Bowling, available next fall!”  One or two complete, fully featured games based on the sports featured in Wii Sports should have been available at launch, with another game or two slated for the coming year.  Within two or three years, all five of these games needed to come out.  If things were going well, Nintendo could then have done the whole thing again with Wii Sports 2 (or Wii Sports Resort).

    Nintendo’s sports minigames were connecting with consumers, but they were budget and pack-in games, so they couldn’t have been making that much money.  Why not leverage them to sell more games?  To sell full price games?  To transition all these first-time gamers from Wii Sports minigames to (slightly) deeper experiences, making them more dedicated gamers (and customers) in the process?  Did the success of Wii Sports take Nintendo surprise?  Did they bundle it with their console and make sports central to their marketing because they thought no one would like it?  Who knows?  Who knows why Nintendo does anything they do? How many rhetorical questions can you cram into a single paragraph?

    Maybe the tech just wasn’t ready.  Reviews suggest that Mario Super Sluggers suffered from Wii Waggle Syndrome.  EA didn’t really nail controls for Tiger Woods (and Grand Slam Tennis) until the Wii Motion Plus came out.  Maybe Nintendo couldn’t create the kind of Mario sports games they wanted to with the original Wii remote.  But that raises two questions.  First, why didn’t Nintendo release any Mario sports games alongside the Wii Motion Plus, or shortly thereafter?  Second, if the Wii’s tech wasn’t capable of delivering the promised experiences, why release it at all?

    Maybe the Wii needed to bake a little longer.  But Nintendo released it when they did, and they marketed it with a lot of sports-themed content.  By failing to better manage their franchises,  Nintendo missed a huge opportunity to make and sell a ton of potentially great games, and build a strong customer base in the process.

  • There was no Pikmin game.  While publishers were trying to shoehorn motion controls into every game under the sun, certain genres just seemed more suited to the Wii remote than others.  Near the top of this list would be real-time strategy games.  Quickly selecting units and moving them around the map is a lot easier to do with a mouse than a standard console controller, so mouse-like control with a Wii remote would seem like a perfect fit.  The Wii was probably never going to steal the hardcore RTS audience away from PCs, but Nintendo does have one light, fun RTS franchise: Pikmin.  The first two Pikmin games on the GameCube didn’t sell particularly well, but some of that is probably due to the GameCube’s overall small install base, and the million-and-a-half copies the first game sold were at least enough for Nintendo to make a sequel and add Captain Olimar to the Smash Bros. roster.  A Pikmin for the Wii seemed like a no-brainer.So, of course, Nintendo never made a Pikmin game for the Wii.  They did rerelease New Play Control! versions of the first two games.  In other words, they were willing to take Pikmin fans’ money, but they weren’t going to actually develop a game for them.  Nintendo did publish one RTS game in 2007 – Batallion Wars 2, a sequel to the 400,000-selling GameCube game – and Ubisoft released Anno: Create a New World in 2009, but that was pretty much it for RTS games on the Wii.

    New-Play-Control-Pikmin-box-art-001
    Real-time strategy games are first and foremost PC games; they were never going to be a major part of the Wii’s library.  But still, the lack of at least a new Pikmin game for the Wii is another example of Nintendo failing to connect the Wii’s tech to established, marketable franchises in even the most obvious ways.

  • The Wii could have been an FPS fan’s dream console.  When the Wii remote was first unveiled, the first thing I thought of was first-person shooters.  They were going to be amazing on this thing.  I’d always loved FPS games, but felt a bit like a man without a country.  I’d never much liked keyboard-and-mouse controls, mostly because of the keyboard part, and never played many PC games, but I hadn’t yet adjusted to the dual-analog schemes that were becoming standard on consoles.  I was the guy who would switch to the “classic,” GoldenEye-style control scheme whenever possible, and when it wasn’t possible, I awkwardly stumbled through games with a lot of wasted bullets and few headshots.  On top of this, the GameCube just didn’t get as many FPS games as other platforms did, leaving me, a lifelong Nintendo gamer, with little to play. But the Wii was going to change that.  This was going to be the ideal control scheme for FPS games.  Say what you will about a mouse’s precision, but I’ll take an analog stick in my left hand over WASD any day of the week.  An analog stick in the left hand and a mouse-like controller in the right?  A controller that you point at the screen – like a gun – and shoot by pulling the trigger?  Sign me up!  This was going to be the future of FPS gaming.

    Well, that didn’t quite happen.  To be fair, the Wii did get a number of FPS games, and many of them were pretty fun.  But it was also skipped by a lot of cross-platform games.  For FPS fans, things could’ve been a lot better.

    The reasons for the Wii’s relative lack of FPS games are many and varied.  Compared to Nintendo’s other missteps, these mistakes weren’t no-brainers, wouldn’t have necessarily been easy fixes, and maybe weren’t even mistakes at all.  But the lack of first-person shooters was still a missed opportunity.

    One reason shooters failed to thrive on the Wii may be, as with other games, the controls.  Shooters on the Wii worked a lot better in theory than in practice.  The Wii remote didn’t work as advertised, and imagined, until the Wii Motion Plus came out.  On top of this, though, is the simple fact that FPS controls on Wii took a while for developers to figure out.  The Wii launched with two shooters – Call of Duty 3 and Red Steel – and another, Far Cry: Vengeance, followed a few weeks later.  Controls for these games were rough around the edges, demonstrating both the promise and challenge of unique FPS controls on the Wii.  You could see that there was going to be a learning curve for Wii FPS developers, but you could also see that the games could eventually be a lot of fun.

    FPS controls did eventually improve on the Wii, but there just weren’t many games in those first few years.  EA brought a few Medal of Honor games to the Wii, and Activision ported over some of the Call of Duty games, and that was about it.  For their part, Nintendo released Metroid Prime 3 in 2007, the only original, first-party FPS on the console.  (They did eventually rerelease the first two Metroid Prime games on the Wii with new controls.)  By the time games like The Conduit and Red Steel 2 showed how well FPS controls could work on the Wii, the platform had largely been abandoned by FPS developers.

    Red Steel 2, a reward for FPS fans who stuck with the Wii.
    Red Steel 2, a reward for FPS fans who stuck with the Wii.

    Another reason the Wii didn’t get many FPS games was its relative lack of horsepower.  Developers had a hard time getting their game engines to run on the Wii.  Figuring out motion controls was already a big challenge; expecting developers to also rebuild their games from the ground up to run on Nintendo’s graphically anemic system was just asking too much.  This contributed to a feedback loop where the Wii didn’t get the kind of games that core gamers like, cementing the console’s reputation as casual-only, further dissuading developers from releasing core-friendly games on the console, and so on.

    Attracting casual gamers was central to Nintendo’s Wii strategy from the beginning, so it’s easy to understand that pursuing the FPS crowd wasn’t going to be high on Nintendo’s list of priorities.  Shooters were never going to be the crossover games that first-time gamers tried out after they fell in love with Wii Sports or Wii Fit.  Maybe it’s unreasonable to have expected Nintendo to put more of an effort into making shooters work on the Wii. But, on the other hand, the genre is such an obvious fit for the hardware that it would have made sense for Nintendo try to get shooters on the platform. This is the company that published – and sold 8 million copies of – GoldenEye, after all.

    Here’s what I wish happened: first, the Wii should’ve been more powerful.  Nintendo has a habit of selling their consoles for a profit, while other companies sell theirs as loss leaders.  As a Nintendo fan who also enjoys top-of-the-line visuals, it’s frustrating to know that I’m putting up with subpar graphics just so Nintendo can make some more money.  It’s also clear in retrospect that the Wii could have been more expensive; the console was impossible to find for months and months after launch, so clearly the market could have borne a higher price.  If Nintendo had made the Wii $50 more expensive and $80-100 more powerful, it still wouldn’t have looked as good as the PS3, but it would’ve been a lot closer, and maybe could’ve run some version of the game engines on which so many cross-platform games were built.

    Second, Nintendo should have made at least a few more FPS games.  There was always going to be a learning curve to developing shooters on the Wii, but Nintendo, having the most intimate knowledge of the system and the longest to work with it, could probably have gotten there sooner than anyone else.  If the Wii had a first-party shooter at launch, and another few over the next two years, more fans and developers might have seen the platform’s potential and been willing to take a chance on it.

    Having more and better first-person shooters wouldn’t have solved the Wii’s big problem – its inability to convert casual gamers into a more reliable customer base – but it would have broadened the system’s software library and fan base, which might have softened the blow when mobile games swooped in and stole all the casual gamers away from Nintendo.  And it would have challenged the Wii’s reputation as a shovelware landfill.

In the end, Nintendo seemed a little scared of their own creation.  The common knock on the Wii’s motion controls was that they were little more than a gimmick.  That they didn’t quite work the way they were supposed to until the Wii Motion Plus peripheral was released a few years in didn’t help.  But neither did Nintendo’s reluctance to buy into their own claims.  Between their hesitance to trust their key franchises with Wii controls, their unwillingness or inability to make even the most obvious motion-centric games, and their seeming preference for budget minigame compilations over full games, Nintendo contributed to the idea that the Wii was a gimmick.  Any chance Nintendo had to cultivate a new customer base from a previously untapped market, they squandered.

That the mobile gaming market exploded and lured so many casual gamers away from Nintendo isn’t Nintendo’s fault; there’s nothing they could have done to prevent it.  But that the tens of millions of people who bought a Wii to play casual games were still casual gamers at the end of the Wii’s life cycle is something Nintendo could have addressed. There are many things Nintendo could have done to build lasting relationships with their new, soon-to-be-former customers, and to broaden the Wii’s appeal. But, content to release minigame collections and sit back and count their money, Nintendo didn’t bother.

In the next part, I’ll take a look at the Wii U and the way Nintendo’s troubles have compounded.

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8 thoughts on “Wii Hardly Knew U, Part 2

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