The Great Wiivide

On June 4, 2008, in Games, by peterb

This weekend, as I mentioned previously, I picked up a Wii Fit. I’ve been using it for a few days now, and I’m ready to talk about it:

I’m still overweight! This thing is useless!

OK, OK, I’m just kidding. Honestly, it is completely awesome. Here’s the interesting thing: gamers don’t seem to think it’s awesome. Only, apparently, normal people.

Most of the articles that I’ve read about the Wii Fit focus, understandably, on the fitness angle. It’s easy to see why. A game that helps you get in shape! True fitness enthusiasts may not understand what the fuss is all about. Technically, there’s nothing the Wii Fit “does” that you couldn’t do by yourself in a gym with a scale. What it provides, it seems to me, are three things:

(1) Structure, meaning suggestions on what to do next.
(2) Measurement and bookkeeping, in terms of weight/BMI tracking.
(3) Most importantly, it gives you a plausible reason to be working out in your house instead of in a gym, where you will be surrounded by the sorts of people who go to gyms.

For me, the importance of this last point can’t be overstated. I know there are all sorts of advantages to going to a gym with other people: the friendly competition, the socializing, the crushing despair of seeing people twice your age benchpress twice your weight, the filthy locker rooms, the athlete’s foot, and so on. But for me, all of these wonderful things just serve to make me want to run away. I am, fundamentally, an antisocial creature. No matter who you are, reading this weblog, no matter where you are, no matter how we know each other, there is a 99.99% probability that I don’t want to shower in the same room as you. Sorry. It’s the way I am.

So for the past few days, I’ve been waking up in the mornings and spending 30 minutes or so with Wii Fit as my only cold, electronic gym partner. Even when it is cruel to me—as when it plumps my Mii out into a little butterball-shaped porklet—I find it more tolerable, and more motivating, than the finest $5,000/year deluxe gym. And fundamentally, exercising is less about fancy equipment than about motivation.

Wii Fit divides activities into four rough areas: Yoga, which involves breathing and holding a pose for a period of time, Strength Training, which lets you do reps of some calisthenic activity, Aerobics, which are exercises designed to burn calories, and Balance games, which are about adjusting your balance to win an on-screen game, such as a ski slalom.

Interestingly, these four activities represent two distinct feels. Yoga and Strength Training both adopt a serious attitude, giving you a kind and impossibly fit Japanese trainer to demonstrate the activities in question, to urge you on, and to gently chide you when you give up on your push-up routine because you weigh 800 billion pounds and cannot possibly support the massive flesh drooping from your frame on your two, spindly, twig-like software developer’s arms. The latter two categories are “mii-based”, in the sense that they take place in a world populated by Nintendo’s Weeble-like cartoon avatars. One wonders if Nintendo expected people to stick to mostly one section or another, or if they were simply trying to provide variety. Either way, it works.

What I don’t think has come through in most of the reviews of Wii Fit that I’ve read is any sense of how fun the game is. The balance mini-games are all simple, yet both challenging and addictive. The board is uncannily sensitive, and the slightest shift in your position can cause dramatic moves in your onscreen counterpart as he or she skiis, or snowboards, or plays a variant of Super Monkey Ball, or slides around on an iceberg in a penguin suit trying to eat raw fish.

And yet, as I look around gaming forums and web sites, I see…nothing. No discussion of the Fit whatsoever. The straight press is fascinated by the game, but the reaction by the “hardcore gamer” community has been strangely muted. My only theory is that despite the bleating and whinging about wanting “innovative” games, when actually confronted with something innovative, they don’t know how to react. And they go back to buying the latest ultraviolent twitchy shooter with a bad camera. Maybe “hardcore” just means “retarded”?

I don’t mean to oversell the “difference” of Wii Fit as a game. It is much likeBrain Age, but with the promise of training one’s body instead of one’s mind. What I think is innovative about it is that it is one of the most successful attempts to merge “personal improvement” with actual unmitigated fun. “Edu-Tainment” has been the castor oil of the software industry for years (even earning a sarcastic and self-aware song outlining the history of naturalist John Muir in the original Sam and Max, Freelance Police). But Nintendo has created a self-improvement product that, I think, people will actually enjoy using. And that is no small feat.

Will I continue using the Wii Fit every day? Only time will tell. But at this early date, I’m impressed.

There is also a larger question here for the game industry. Significant parts of the industry—Sony and Microsoft, I’m looking at you—seem fully committed to making the same old garbage, but with higher resolution. Words can’t really describe how “special” this is as a business proposition: “Let’s make the same games that didn’t sell all that well last time, but let’s spend even more on art assets (and cutting edge, expensive hardware that fewer people can afford) to do it.” In the meantime, Nintendo makes games with simpler art assets on less expensive hardware, and is literally selling them as fast as they can make them. Customers (remember them?) aren’t buying the Wii because they are listening to the gaming press. They’re buying it because they recognize that Nintendo has created something different, and something innovative. And apparently, “different” and “innovative” sell better than physics engines that lovingly simulate blood spatter through particle effects.

I’ve heard it said that the games made for hardcore gamers are, often, made by hardcore gamers.

If that is the case, here is some free advice for Sony and Microsoft: I think it’s time for you to start firing your hardcore gamers. They’re costing you an awful lot of money.


8 Responses to “The Great Wiivide”

  1. psu says:

    I don’t get it. What’s the final boss like when you get past the grind mobs and through the last lava level?

    Anyway, it’s fairly obvious to me that even the more intelligent core hobby gamers (like over at GWJ for example) want “innovation” in the context of the genres and structures where they had their earliest game orgasms back in the day. So it’s a fairly narrow context, usually including some kind of muttering about open worlds, true interactive narrative and emergent stories. In other words, stupid stuff that you can’t actually achieve.

    Put something in front of them that really uses the interactivity of the medium well and inevitably they’ll just call it a cheap tech demo or a shallow mini-game collection and go back to the MMO of the week.

    That said, I hate exercising while standing still inside. But that’s a different set of problems.

  2. peterb says:

    the “running” minigame in Wii Fit provides a simulated outdoor environment. It is more interesting than any actual running outside that I have ever done. But I could understand someone not being into it.

  3. Weiguo says:

    an MMO developer I know comments that the most hardcore/endgame/dedicated gamers in MMOs are the ones that literally cost the company the most. They take up the most support time calling for balance changes, they burn through the most content so new additional development costs are spent mostly on them, and they feel the most entitled due to their hardcore/longtime fan status. But they pay the same subscription fee as everyone else.

    of course, an interesting reversal occurs when they inevitably get fed up over some (perceived) slight and quit in protest. But keep their account around “just in case”.

  4. logtar says:

    So I should stop reading this blog now that there is no chance of a shower together? or am I in that 1%… LOL

    Very funny and to the point review. I might just have to not go check out the gym that I want to transfer to and just drop the money on Wii fit.

  5. Nelson says:

    What you say is consistent with Nintendo’s whole approach to the Wii. It’s not that the hardcore gamer market is wrong, Sony and Microsoft and crew are making plenty of money. It’s that there’s this whole other non-hardcore market that until recently was relatively untapped, particularly in consoles.

    Wii Fit is something different again though. I haven’t tried it, but it seems to be more of a lifestyle accessory than a game.

  6. Maverick says:

    > Will I continue using the Wii Fit every day? Only time will tell.

    I know I won’t. I will not want to swap the disc in just for the instructions. Presumably I will remember how to do the yoga and strength training in real life and so the Fit Channel (which does not require the disc) will do the job for bookkeeping.

    The balance games are fun though. So I will keep the disc easily accessible.

  7. Alex says:

    Rode up an elevator in a nice office building in PDX on Friday and 40s guy was lugging a Wii fit package back to his office. My 57 year old boss was quizzing him on where where he had gotten it! I hadn’t even realized there was a shortage. Apparently they are using more capacity for Europe, since they prefer to get paid in euros.