The Nintendo Wii has been a game changer
There is no doubt that the way people interact with computer games has changed dramatically in recent years. However the influence of motion controls and more immersive online gaming can now be credited with fundamentally changing the way gaming companies think about their industry.
When the Nintendo Wii was properly unveiled to the world in 2005 many gaming fans and makers reacted negatively. A lot of the criticism voiced at the time said that the motion controls would be an awkward gimmick that would make it hard for companies to develop games and harder for customers to play them.
However the bulk of the criticism focused on what was under the machine’s hood, which ranked well below what Microsoft and Sony were offering in terms of raw power and graphical capabilities. The Wii was never going to be able to compete with the other two consoles in creating detailed, life-like worlds and as this is what they customers wanted it was doomed to failure.
Or so the presumed wisdom of the time suggested. Each new generation of consoles that had come before sold themselves on their ability to over-power what had come before and what their competitors were currently offering and everyone assumed this would be the case again.
Even Nintendo subscribed to that logic and at the time of its launch said that the Wii was a niche product that would not compete with others; rather than suggest that the graphics a machine could deliver did not matter as much anymore.
When the Wii finally hit the shelves in 2006 it was a sensation and still is to this day. According to gaming chart compilation site VGChartz.com Nintendo have sold over 51m consoles worldwide and hold nearly half of the current home-console market.
Nintendo proved, in a far bigger way than they even expected themselves, that processing power was not as important as people thought. What companies that had engaged in an arms race for years had failed to realise was that their technological improvements were for a reason other than having one up on the competition and that the benefit of being more powerful was nowhere near as great as it was 10 years ago.
Three years later and the industry is now turned on its head, in more ways than one. Microsoft and Sony, which are both guilty of dismissing the Wii and its motion controls as a novelty are now in the early stages of releasing their respective answers to the Wii’s motion sensitive controller.
For Sony’s Playstation 3 that is taking the form of a Wii-mote-like device that uses the console’s camera as part of its tracking abilities. For Microsoft’s Xbox 360 the development is far extreme with the company working on ‘Project Natal’, which is a sensor bar that tracks full-body movement and does not require any handheld devices.
Nintendo itself is not standing still either and has unveiled the ‘Wii Motion Plus’ attachment, which is added to the existing controller aid is said to give it better functionality.
Of course it is not just the control system that has helped push the gaming industry into a more considered approach to what they do. Improving internet connections, which coincided with a cost reduction in good quality PCs and even games some games consoles have also taken gamers out of the traditional ‘new release’ cycle.
Where before games were bought, played, finished and then put to one side the many varieties of online gaming have given good titles indefinite lifespans. This means that people no longer have to buy the latest game in a series – and perhaps the latest console or computer to ensure it works properly – just because they like a certain franchise or game genre.
Halo 3, for example, came out two years ago on the Xbox 360 and yet still remains the most played game on Microsoft’s online gaming platform Xbox Live. This is despite the prettier or more processor-intensive games that have arrived on the shelves since then and it sends a clear message to developers that the graphical polish does not matter; the quality of the game does.
Likewise World of Warcraft, the massively-multiplayer online role playing game, is by far the dominant force in its genre despite being five years old. What is even more interesting is the fact that members pay a monthly fee to play the game, proving there is still money to be made even if you resist bringing out a slightly upgraded game every few months.
The standard console ‘generation’ has had a lifespan of around five to six years in recent times and by that calculation we are half way through the current one. However with console makers focusing on more innovative ways to present their games there is a chance that this generation will last a whole lot longer than normal as a result.
The industry has realised that as important as graphics and processor power is there is a point at which people stop noticing. Most importantly, however, the realisation has been made that spending more time on how a game looks as opposed to how it plays is not a way to convince people to part with their hard-earned money.
Does this mean that games will be better in the future than they have been of late? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that developers will have fewer opportunities to regurgitate old ideas in a new package and will have to do something fresh if they want to stay ahead of the curve. They may not always get it right in their attempts to do so but you can be sure enough of them will to keep things interesting.
An edited version of this article was published in Business & Finance magazine on the 30th July 2009.