the artistry and psychology of gaming

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The Wii was the Future (that proves gaming is doomed)

The Wii was the Future (that proves gaming is doomed)

In the fourth installment of The Future is Doomed, 109 shows why gaming as we know it is about to change dramatically and why the Wii is simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have happened to gaming.

 

We’re going to open this article with a little history lesson.

Most of you are familiar with The Video Game Crash of 1983. For those who aren’t, and who are also too lazy to click that link, the cliff notes version is that a few years after Atari set up the home console industry, the bottom fell out on their business, seemingly without warning or reason. Abruptly, video games simply stopped selling. Atari, along with a slew of other developers, went bankrupt and the entire home console industry nearly died thanks to their blunder.

The hypothesized reasons behind the crash are varied; one of the most common explanations is that a deluge of poorly-made games and consoles simply made video games un-entertaining which, in turn, caused games manufacturers to slash their prices in an attempt to recoup losses, which wound up degrading the market even further, thus turning the whole situation into a self-sustaining chain reaction. I don’t deny that this explanation is true; the quality of games prior to the crash was substantially lower than in the Atari 2600’s heyday. However, I think there’s more to it than that.

One reason for the crash that is less-often explored – and perhaps far more pertinent – is the idea that people hadn’t just gotten fed up with low quality games, they’d also grown bored of video gaming as an entertainment medium. At the time of the crash, the Atari 2600 was a six year old piece of technology and, in many minds, it had passed its shelf life. More Ataris were sitting in closets or underneath beds than were hooked up to TVs. There was nothing wrong with the software (awful titles like ET and Pac-Man notwithstanding); it’s just that the hardware, the Atari itself, was no longer new and exciting. It was the gift from 5 birthdays ago, and it just didn’t seem as awesome as it once did.

But when Nintendo released the NES… well, that WAS new and exciting. Suddenly, instead of steering a pixel around a screen populated by other pixels, you had character sprites that could actually form recognizable shapes. People were buying again, and they were buying in record numbers. Until the Playstation, no console ever surpassed the NES in sales.

Nintendo was cognisant of the fact that poor game quality had played a major role in the video game crash and, thus, implemented several policies (most notably the Nintendo Seal of Quality) that were meant to prevent such an event from repeating itself. However, I’m of the mind that Nintendo was actually walking the same path as Atari. The one who saved them from repeating history was, ironically enough, Sega. Right around the time the NES was starting to venture into “old and boring” territory, Sega released its “new and exciting” Genesis, forcing Nintendo to step up their game and release the SNES. Thus were fanned the fires of the console war, a war that has never stopped since. I (partially) credit the console war – both past and present – with keeping gaming alive and thriving. The competition between manufacturers has fostered a drive for increased quality and a desire to constantly release more “new and exciting” products.

And we gamers love it! Which is an odd thing, when you think about it… In pretty much every other medium, we seek uniformity. Take movies, for example: once it became clear that Blu-Ray was going to beat HD-DVD, all manufacturers immediately stopped producing HD-DVD products. Similarly, we don’t have “exclusive shows” that can only be viewed on certain makes and models of televisions; everything is viewable on all TVs. Gaming is fairly unique that way. Not only do we accept the “Console Race”, and the disunity it brings, we actually encourage it. My cowriters may disagree but I say the console war is good for our hobby.

But there is a problem. The gaming companies are so concerned with jockeying for position in this proverbial race, they seem to have taken their eyes off the road and are now unaware that they are careening towards a cliff. Up to this point, gaming has been one long straightaway. The path forward has been obvious: make new consoles with better graphics, better sound, and bigger games. But let’s stop for a moment and take stock of where we are now:

Sound is pretty much as good as it’s going to get. It is now normal for games to have orchestral sound tracks, full voice acting, and crisp, clear sound effects. That is the standard at which we operate, and since there is no longer any sound we cannot replicate, we’re at the pinnacle of this particular aspect of gaming.

Graphics still have a little farther to go but, like sound, they’re rapidly reaching the end of their tether. We’ve gone from pixels to 2D sprites to blocky 3D polygons to smoother 3D polygons to realistic full character models. I’d say that, at this point, we’re maybe 1-3 console generations away from full photorealism. We have a few little nuances to fix (such as facial features and movement), but those are relatively minor improvements compared to the graphical jumps of the past.

That leaves game size. Just like our other two categories, we’ve gone as far as we can in this one. Well… perhaps not as far as we can, but as far as we need to go. Modern games are not limited by technology, but by budget. For all intents and purposes, game size is now unlimited; so long as a development studio has money to spend, they can make their game as large as they please.

Which brings us to a dilemma: what now? What can the gaming industry offer to keep things “New and Exciting”? What will the PS4 offer that the PS3 can’t, and what will Sony do to convince us to “upgrade”? How can you continue to manufacture “The Next Big Thing” when you’ve gone pretty much as far as your technology will take you and your next console offers no real advantages over its predecessor?

Nintendo apparently figured out the answer faster than its rivals and gave us the Wii as a result. The Wii represented a massive change from the status quo. Graphics and raw technical power were an afterthought; instead, Nintendo changed *how* you play the game. Instead of pressing buttons and wiggling control sticks, now you had to make actual movements with a baton. This left some gamers, particularly those in the Sony and Microsoft camps, scratching their heads. “What a stupid idea, it will never catch on,” was the common derisive remark paraded about following the Wii’s announcement. Many third party developers dismissed Nintendo out of hand, noting that their console specs were leagues behind both the 360 and PS3, and prematurely wrote the console off as a non-contender.

But then something interesting happened. In the months leading up to the Wii’s November 2006 launch, excitement began to build, both within the gaming community and without. People lined up for hours to play Wii demos at game shows, and the remarks from those who tried it were overwhelmingly positive. Pre-orders rapidly sold out around the globe, and scalpers online were charging a several hundred dollar mark-up for launch-day Wiis (prices briefly exceeded $1000 per unit online). Sony, who was poised to launch mere days before the Wii, tried to hype themselves as *The* big holiday gift, but it was starting to become clear that Nintendo was about to steal the show.

The Wii launched and almost overnight became a global sensation. It sold out during its holiday launch season, then defied expectations by continuing to sell out in the months following. The shortage continued throughout the summer of 2007, then strung right into the next holiday season. Nintendo actually had to build a new factory to manufacture Wii components in an attempt to keep up with demand. For almost two years, it was all but impossible to find a Wii for sale unless you were either lucky or willing to wait outside a store hours before it opened. The Wii’s sales outpaced Sony’s much-hyped PS3 by a margin of 5-to-1, and quickly blasted past Microsoft’s 360. Today, the total number of Wiis sold is greater than the 360 and PS3 combined and it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Wii has the seventh console generation in the bag.

The meteoric rise of the Wii completely blindsided the gaming industry. No one – not even Nintendo – had expected the little white box to be such a sales powerhouse. The same third party developers that had scoffed at the Wii’s poor technical specs were now scrambling to produce games for it so they could cash in on the unit’s popularity. The Wii’s high sales were just as baffling to segments of the gamer population, some of whom continued to decry the Wii as a passing fad, even as its sales continued to climb into the stratosphere. To this day there are gamers who still don’t understand how such an underpowered, “gimmicky” console could have trumped both Sony and Microsoft.

It’s actually pretty easy to figure out: the Wii was the only console in the running that was genuinely “new and exciting.” It wasn’t just a bigger, beefier version of the console that came before it, it was a completely new and revolutionary way of playing games. And that got a lot of people talking, including those who had never thought of playing a console before. My sister – a 40 year old mother-of-two whose first and only console was the Sega Master System back in 1986 – was constantly phoning me around the holidays of 2007 because she wanted to buy a Wii and couldn’t find one. This Wii was not for her sons or for her husband; it was for her. She wanted one because she thought it looked like fun.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band were wildly successful for the same reason. It wasn’t because they had particularly intricate gameplay (timed button pressing has been around since before the beginning of gaming) or incredible graphics or an immersive story; contrary to what gamers believe, those things aren’t what makes a true blockbuster. It was because they offered a new way to play the game. They packaged and advertised themselves in a way that made them accessible and appealing not only to the gaming faithful, but also to those who had never before played a video game. 20-year-gaming veterans could throw down with someone whose only experience with video games was seeing one at a party once, and both of them could have a blast.

And that, my friends, is the future. The age of technological improvements – the easy way forward – is in its twilight years. We are now on the precipice of a new age in gaming, one where processor power and hard drive size are unimportant trifles. Creativity and original design are the new currency of the realm.

Innovation is the future. Novelty is the future.

Consoles and games like the Wii and Guitar Hero are the future.

Or, at least, they should have been. Only problem is, both of them seriously dropped the ball, and in ways that makes me worry for the future of our hobby.

Now before I get an earful from the peanut gallery, I want to qualify that statement. The Guitar Hero series – even in its recent iterations – has always been a fun and enjoyable series. I am not saying that the series is overrated or low quality – it isn’t. Likewise, far be it from me to claim that the Wii is a bad console – to the contrary, is my favourite console this generation and the amount of time and money I have spent on it and its games far outstrips its competitors. Yes, despite what some of the critics are saying, the Wii is not a bad console, nor is it wanting for good games.

So if I’ve admitted that both Guitar Hero and the Wii are great, why am I saying they dropped the ball?

Let’s focus on the Wii first.

With the Wii U on the horizon, the Wii is nearing the end of its lifespan. There’s still a few aces in the cards – Zelda: Skyward Sword being the most noteworthy – but the system’s library is almost set. And looking back at the last 5 years, you know what games really stick out for me as truly ground-breaking? Wii Sports, WarioWare: Smooth Moves, and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games. Why? Because those titles were the ones that made the best use of motion controls. Those were the ones that actually felt like a fresh, new, never-before-been-done experience.

Back in my university days, I used to bring Wii Sports out into the residence lounge, get a group going and play bowling or baseball by the hour. It was a blast and anyone could easily join in. WarioWare, likewise, was good for tonnes of laughs, in spite of the fact that each minigame lasted only a few seconds.

The noteworthy thing about the three games I just mentioned is that they share a number of things in common. They are all mini-game collections, were all easy to learn and fun for multiple players, and were all released in the first year of the Wii’s lifetime. Wii Sports in particular was quite impressive because it was really little more than a tech demo. I took these games as a herald of things to come, and was very excited to see the results.

Looking back on it now, those games seem less like pioneers of the bold new age and more like odd, quirky little experiments that Nintendo decided to abandon. Sure, Wii Sports and Mario/Sonic got sequels, both of which largely retread the same ground, but we never really got to see innovative use of the Wii’s motion controls. I was waiting for a game that would take the motion control mechanic and apply it to something larger than a mini-game collection. I wanted to see a game that used meaningful motion controls for a full-length adventure.

That sort of game never materialized, or at least not in any substantial numbers. The gaming revolution I was waiting for never came. Instead, Nintendo seemingly made the right turn, saw brand new, uncharted territory, panicked, and tried to bee-line back for the old tried-and-true path. Thus we wound up with games like Donkey Kong Country Returns and Super Mario Galaxy – both sensational games, but when you get right down to it, they’re both simply bigger, flashier, more polished versions of Donkey Kong Country and Mario 64 respectively. Motion controls are still abound in Wii games, but they often miss the point; the reason motion control worked so well for Wii Sports – in fact, the entire appeal of the Wii in general – was that those controls mimicked real life movements and served to improve immersion. Wiggling the Wiimote to activate an ability – like one does in Sonic Colours – or slamming the Wiimotes up and down to roll, as seen in DKCR, is just substituting one surrogate action for another. You may as well just stick to pressing buttons if that’s your intention, as buttons less prone to error. Motion controls are only interesting when they’re actually mimicking the motion being performed on-screen.

In a humorous twist, Microsoft and Sony took the opposite route. Seeing the Wii’s success left them both scrambling to try and follow Nintendo, pushing out Kinect and Move. In my opinion, both companies completely misunderstood the whole appeal of the Wii. They assumed that the gaming public were suddenly wild for motion controls, when the truth of the matter is that the Wii garnered attention for being new and innovative. By comparison, the Kinect and, in particular, the Move are both fairly transparent Wii knockoffs, attempts by their parent companies to cash in on the gold mine that Nintendo unearthed, and this is why the Kinect and Move have only garnered a fraction of the Wii’s sales.

I mentioned Guitar Hero up there as the other example of this phenomenon. Like the Wii, it attracted large amounts of interest from both gamers and non-gamers. And like the Kinect and Move, it mistakenly attributed its success to the nature of its product, rather than the creativity of it. The whole appeal of Guitar Hero was not its button-matching gameplay; it was the ability to act out a rock-star fantasy supported by an immersive control scheme – something that, up to that point, had not been done before. Guitar Hero – and later Rock Band – were at their height when they were still innovating. Rock Band’s addition of a four-man band with completely new instruments revitalized an already thriving genre. But after Rock Band’s release, both franchises fell into the habit of releasing the exact same game, adding some new set lists, and calling it a sequel. They stopped being innovative or creative and, as a result, their sales plummeted. Now the rock-rhythm genre, in it’s GH/RB incarnation, seems all but dead and I doubt we’ll be seeing a comeback tour anytime soon.

Motion controls are pretty much in the same boat: they could have been an excellent innovation that would have sustained Nintendo for a generation or two. Instead, that boat has sailed, and motion controls are quickly becoming passe, even without having ever hit their prime. I blame all the development studios for this – including Nintendo. They were far too comfortable making “traditional” games and, thus, failed to properly make use of the tools at their disposal. This meant that the Wii, having boasted about a new, immersive gameplay style, played host to a deluge of games for whom motion controls were an afterthought, only added in so the game could claim to use them. Almost no one bothered to even try and make a game where motion controls were a meaningful, neccessary part of the control scheme.

I suspect the next generation of Sony and Microsoft consoles will pay lip-service to the popularity of motion control and have some token form of awkward, tacked-on motion control that will be poorly utilized and largely forgotten about, just as sixaxis was for the PS3. This leaves us in the exact same state we were in prior to this gaming generation, with no clearer direction of where gaming is headed. Nintendo is once again trying to come up with new, innovative gaming methods. The Wii U features a touch-screen tablet controller, and the 3DS makes use of a 3D screen to enhance immersiveness. I doubt either console will enjoy the success of the Wii. 3D is not a new phenomenon, nor does it offer any substantial innovations to gameplay beyond atmosphere. Accordingly, 3DS sales have thus far been below Nintendo’s expectations. Similarly, touch-screen tablets have been around for a while and, while they’ve never been used in conjunction with a home console, I don’t see a lot of room for new gameplay styles. The lack of single-console multiplayer is also of substantial concern. Perhaps Nintendo will surprise me and make lightning strike twice, but I’m not holding my breath.

To be clear, the Wii was – and is – not a total write-off from an innovation standpoint. There were a handful of games that used motion controls appropriately. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Soul Calibur Legends were primitive attempts at motion-controlled sword-fighting games and Skyward Sword may refine this concept with use of the Wii Motion+. Mario Kart Wii’s optional “steering wheel” control mechanism was surprisingly fun to use. And, much as I hate to praise a game I despise from the bottom of my soul, the Wii version of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed actually made tremendous use of the motion controls (for Force combat anyways; the saberplay still needed a lot more work) and was probably the closest thing I played to a “proper” motion control game for the Wii that wasn’t a mini-game collection. That’s the sort of game that the Wii needed more of (more specifically, it needed that game, but without the N64-era graphics, the unpolished gameplay, the 6-hour completion time, and the story that sounds like it was written by a 5-year-old). These were the games everyone was hoping for when they bought the Wii. And these were the games that none of the studios had the courage or creativity to step up and design. Now that I’ve finished writing about the merits of The Force Unleashed, excuse me while I go wash my hands and burn my keyboard in acid.

With nowhere else to go, gaming is going to need to get creative in the future, and the frightening prospect is that development studios are simply too set in their ways to adapt to new gameplay styles. The fact that the creative canvas offered by the Wii was so utterly ignored by development studios is dire tidings for the future.

One Comment

  1. Remarkable work, as always. I agree completely with innovation being the key to designing games–and so many other things–in today’s age. Have you read of Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind? It takes the same sort of idea, and argues it for today’s economy as a whole.

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