Why does Nintendo win despite being hated?

On December 9, 2010, in General, by Neil Stevens

Follow long enough most any popular online discussion of video game consoles, and eventually the same theme will come up: the popularity of Nintendo’s Wii console is supposed to be ridiculous because the games are terrible. Serious “gamers” (which is what people who like to play video games call themselves when they want to sound more serious than that) are supposed to prefer Sony’s Playstation 3 or Microsoft’s Xbox 360 consoles.

I think those people promoting these ideas are wrong, and they’re wrong because of one specific flaw in their perceptions that can be difficult for anyone to overcome. They grew up.

Before I elaborate on why growing up skews the perceptions of Nintendo’s critics, some history.

The story of video games has been one of ever increasing popularity. Originally available only to a few with the specialized resources needed, the rise of home games playable on ordinary televisions brought video games to the masses. However the Pong clones of that first era were more of a novelty to most, not an engaging pastime. It took the advanced (relative to those early home consoles, of course) and specialized hardware in the arcades to make the games appealing and engaging even to kids with pockets full of quarters. That arcade industry created names we still know today: Nintendo, Sega, Namco, Atari, Midway, and more. After that, the complexity of video games both in the arcades, and in their home-based counterparts, have moved steadily upward.

Game makers rushed to include ever more power and complexity in their games and systems. Designers and graphical artists wanted the ability to do more than they could before, creating new mechanics, more engaging interfaces, and more flexibility with old classics. This required constantly better hardware and larger development teams. Games needed higher display resolutions, more memory, larger storage options, and of course faster processing. This became a habit of thinking: more became better. When the Wii, then called the Revolution, was announced, critics dismissed it completely. By the numbers it was less than its competitors in every way.

While the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 were capable of outputting full high definition resolutions with 720 and 1080 pixel heights, the Wii lagged at 480p as a best output format. Microsoft and Sony provided consoles with optional hard drives, allowing games to make installs of data. Nintendo provided just 512 MB of flash storage. The Wii included just 88MB of RAM compared with the PS3’s 256MB and the 360’s 512MB. The Wii’s processor was just a single cored PPC-based chip with a 729MHz clock, weak compared with the 3.2GHz PPC Tri-Core of the 360 and the specialized 8 cored Cell system of the PS3. In every way, the Wii’s raw numbers were inferior (all hardware figures here courtesy of Wikipedia).

Nintendo hopped off of the carousel and instead innovated. Years ahead of Sony’s Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, Nintendo came out with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck control system. Using a combination of Bluetooth wireless communications, an accelerometer, and an infrared sensor to pick up the infrared lights on the accompanying Sensor Bar, the Remote made video games a physical activity like never before. Sure, in the past there were niches like Dance Dance Revolution and NES Track and Field, but those required specialized controllers which saw limited use. The Remote was the standard system controller available for every game to use.

The games did use it, too. The games appealed to children, to their parents and grandparents, to groups of teenagers playing together. Not only was playing the Wii a physical activity, but it was also a uniquely social activity. Socialization on the Playstation Network or Xbox Live so often involves being called a homosexual by a 14 year old brat with a headset, but socialization on the Wii was with your friends and family gathered together in the same room. The Wii was a hit with families, for a long time the core market of video games.

With that, we come back to the original point. The Wii’s critics were once in that traditional core market of home consoles: children who controlled sizable amounts of discretionary income through their parents. But then they grew up, and as they grew up some game makers changed their games along with them. They became sophisticated, or in some cases, simply became graphically violent and full of profanity to pretend to be mature and for adults. The makers of these games also tend to push for the greater screen resolutions of the PS3 and 360, so they shunned the Wii. Left to dominate the console were Nintendo’s own games, which tend to be bright, cartoonish, and cheerful for a whole family to enjoy.

In other words, the Wii continues to make itself appealing to kids the same age as these critics were when they started playing games. If it weren’t for Nintendo forcing the issue, video games might have been in long term danger of losing popularity. Without the players now derided as “casual,” there would be fewer so-called hardcore players left in 20 years.

Nintendo innovates while making itself appealing to the young who grew up playing Super Mario Brothers and Contra, who now play Gears of Duty at War of Honor 2 today. Sony and Microsoft play catchup. It’s time we moved on from the blind rush for more numbers, and continued to demand innovation, not just more triangles pushed by the GPU and fancier shader processing for hyper-realistic visual effects. So while others may scoff at the Wii and hate Nintendo’s success, I’m glad of it and wish for more of the same emphasis on making games fun for a whole family. Only with that broad market out in front can the niche games follow.

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