Wii Bitter

The sales figures that the NPD group (who exactly are the NPD group anyway? No one seems to know) came out this week and the result was yet again the same. Nintendo sold more units of their stuff than Microsoft and Sony combined, leaving Microsoft and Sony to fight over an increasingly small remaining share of the hardware market. This share is mostly made up of the so-called traditional gamer, whose reaction to this turn of events was as predictable as the events themselves.

The core gamers have a case of “Wii Bitterness”. But really, who cares?

The litany of complaints is familiar. The Wii is just a fad. All the games are just shallow mini-games. People buying the Wii are not “real” gamers, just “casual”. Really it’s just all so kiddie, and not deep and mature like the real game platforms.

I will admit that I, personally, don’t use the Wii that much. I will drop into the occasional bout with Mario Galaxy. I might go around the track once a month or so in Mario Kart. And who can resist the occasional session with the Bowling game. But it’s not really my main box. For the big sprawling games full of guns and blood and gore, the Xbox or PS3 better fits the bill.

We have to keep in mind, however, that these two types of gaming experiences are not directly comparable. As the sage Brian Hook once commented on this site, games are generally concerned with either content delivery or execution. Some of the best games combine these two concerns into a larger whole. But in general it has been my observation (since I read the comment) that you really can divide video games into content games and execution games.

These days, games, and especially “serious” games on the “serious” platforms are almost completely concerned with content delivery in the form of writing, characters, narrative and world building. With few exceptions, everyone assumes that the so-called “AAA” games will be structured in this way. Let’s look at the big games over the last few years:

- Bioshock - GTA IV - Fallout 3 - Halo 3 - Gears of War - World of Warcraft - Any number of JRPGs - Assasin’s Creed

and so on. Meanwhile, the best of the Nintendo games these days are arguably more concerned with execution than content. Even a bigger game like Mario Galaxy is really just dozens of small levels that you can play quickly and are mostly just a way for Nintendo to show off their creativity in level and gameplay design.

The core gamers, always craving content games, look upon these designs with scorn. They are called shallow, casual, “mini-games” or any number of other derogatory names. All this means to me is that the core crowd has made two mistakes. First, they equate “big” with “good” (or even more damning, they equate big with “deep”). Second, they have made the classic assumption that what they like is good for the industry. In other words, Nintendo is doing harm to video games as an “art form” by making a lot of money building game experience that they are not interested in.

But it turns out they were wrong on both counts, and the best evidence of this is that Nintendo is rich. Microsoft and Sony have built expensive machines that concern themselves primarily with the delivery of more content. More resolution, more graphics, more sound, more A.I., more dialog. Nintendo built a cheap machine on which they can execute. The Wii is perfectly able to support a bigger content game like Zelda, or a good PS2-style RPG. But where the machine shines is in executing more interesting game mechanics.

What Nintendo has realized is that the market for those big sprawling games with their huge worlds, epic narrative, and dozens of hours of content is inherently limited. Most people, even people with an interest in video games, have neither the interest or the time to invest in such adventures. Game experiences with less content and better execution fit today’s busy lives in a more practical way. And this is what Nintendo has delivered.

I, for one, find the trend towards better executed small games to be refreshing. Whether it’s on the Wii, or the DS, or most recently the iPhone, it’s great to able to pick up and play something enjoyable no matter where you are and no matter how little time you have on hand. If, for some reason, a small percentage of the gamer market can’t see this for the gift that it is then it’s their loss.