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Mending Broken Promises

June 20th, 2009

Cross-posted from David’s blog, Game Tycoon.

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.

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