Tuesday, 15 July 2008

E3 2007 - Nintendo Conference Analysis

It was almost like the last 12 months never happened.

The reaction to Nintendo's E3 conference was expected, yet somehow, not. Much like the conference itself, really. It was full of stuff that we pretty much predicted, a few bits that weren’t, but stuck mostly to a tried and tested format. Although to some fanboys you would have thought the world had collapsed under its own gravity and we were all going to die.

"This is so borrrrring!"

"Nintendo has forsaken meeeee!"

"I hate Nintendo!"

"Casual games, nooooooooooo!"

"Why Nintendo, why!"


And so on.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a little. First of all, the conference was not particularly worse than usual. It could have been better in terms of content spread and pacing, but if anything it suffered from the usual over-expectations. Not to mention the lack of an excitable audience which killed most of the buzz, and the fact Sony showed off the stupendously exceptional looking Killzone 2 on PlayStation3 earlier in the day, which understandably raised the excitement bar quite high.

No conference comprises of killer-game announcement after killer-game announcement. You'd think that much would be common fact, yet many seek to express how tiresome the summit is, during and after. Well, yes: it's a bloody conference! They always consist primarily of stats and tables and pie charts and figures! Yes, even in the videogames industry! Conferences are often the bane of any games journo, as it usually means sitting in a warm, stuffy room, making notes on all these dull, yet essential bits of information which we know most readers will just gloss over anyway (until it's time for the format wars, in which case they're broken out with proud aplomb). This year's reaction was the same as last year, which will be the same as next year. Just that you guys get to join in the tedium too thanks to the wonders of the internet, and now you see what you've been missing out on the past decade; ain't it special?

That aside, Nintendo's allocated slot was laden with a tone that reflected its ethos clearly: 'our strategy is working and so, you know, we're going to continue doing what's keeping our machines number one around the globe'. That's to say, Nintendo is aware of its new market and going to pander to it. Not sacrificing everything and everyone else, but when you only have a couple hours to blow your own trumpet and make projections there's only so much you can show. And to be frank, when you're trying to expand your audience, it makes far more sense to focus on the mainstream; the ones who are making Wii's hardware sales record breakers.

No doubt it was jarring to see big names like Super Mario Galaxy (not delayed, thankfully putting my prediction to pasture – it's nice to be totally wrong sometimes), Smash Bros. Brawl and even the now officially announced Mario Kart Wii get relatively small segments in comparison to Nintendo's new big mass market push; the health regime software, Wii Fit. Watching several trainers/models demonstrate for far too long was hardly enthralling entertainment when that time could have been used to show us a little more of the utterly stunning Galaxy (which is currently squeezing superlatives out of jaded show-goers as I type). Or delving deeper into Mario Kart Wii. But after the rather muted reaction of the racing game's unveiling, I'm starting to see why NOA President Reginald "Reggie" Fils-Aime didn’t bother. It's a new Mario Kart, and half the reaction appeared to be a resounding shrug of the shoulders, clearly not helped by the slightly bizarre looking steering wheel peripheral that was shown with it. But new Mario Kart, kids! Online, no less! And it looks wonderful! It would seem that's not good enough for some anymore.

Which is symptomatic of our attention seeking demographic, especially when it comes to the knee-jerk time period that is E3, and also a good indication why Nintendo will continue to shy away from making its conferences more hardcore driven. Because after studying the conference and making notes for this column, I made a little bet with myself regarding the type of coverage Wii would get. And the following morning, I saw it come true. Message boards everywhere were slating the big N for its focus on more casual, 'non' games, declaring the company has abandoned them and leading to failure, while conversely the mainstream American newspapers were praising Nintendo for effectively "winning" E3 via the likes of Wii Fit. The same game that had so many stating the Kyoto based company had lost its collective mind.

Which is an amazing presumption.

And shows one thing: nearly a whole year later, and many hardcore gamers STILL don't get it.

It's like watching Bart Simpson trying to take an electrified cupcake by repeatedly touching it and expecting a different result each time. The internet reactionary hyperbole crowd is repeating, near verbatim, what it said last year when Wii was shown, substituting the disdain of Wii Sports and Wii Play, for Wii Fit. And when Fit goes on to sell like very hot cakes, that same crowd will be scratching their heads, crying tears oh so bitter and wondering why. Again. Nintendo knows it has a winner in Fit, to the point of pre-emptive self-congratulatory back patting. I'm already hearing tales of how spouses' and partners' eyes lit up at the sight of a health programme through Wii, barely a day after its announcement. Should this get out on lifestyle TV shows and magazines -and there's no reason it won't, seeing as Wii itself has already done so many times- you're going to witness a sales explosion never before seen. Like it or not, as long as Nintendo prices the package correctly, Wii Fit has pretty much sold another few million units for the machine already.

As a hardcore gamer, I agree it's not the most appealing of titles. And I also agree that the games that DID appeal to me were given a very understated showing during the conference. But the point is, Nintendo doesn’t need to flaunt its hardcore titles to us. They will sell regardless, especially when they're such big established names. It would have been great for the company to suddenly spring Kid Icarus or Pilotwings on us. But it realises it doesn’t need to do that, at least not yet. To get the big numbers, it needs to focus on its wider audience expansion plans, making sure titles like Wii Fit get the exposure they require, which is exactly what's happened. It's almost guerrilla style marketing tactics in approach; while the national everyday media does the heavy lifting for Nintendo's big casual games, the videogames press will no doubt be telling you how great the actual hardcore software is via show floor previews and playtests, building back that confidence some were decrying barely a day before. And the disparaged conference itself, a very small part of the actual software we play, will fade away as quickly as those ill conceived cries of Nintendo going third-party, as some myopically predicted (hoped?) last year.

The late 2007/early 2008-bound Wii Fit is a rather curious thing in itself, admittedly. The included Balance Board peripheral it comes with is certainly something few would have expected, and takes away the simplicity and charm of just using a Wii remote for its duties, but widens the range of such tasks considerably as compensation. Over 40 activities are said to be included, which is a vast amount for a title of this genre given Sony's generally excellent EyeToy Kinetic series was more specific at heart. But even though Fit is apparently peripheral dependant, its versatility and practically will offer the sort of mass appeal few games can only dream of - it's a far more compelling 'mainstream' package than Wii Play and has what many would deem real life benefits. Exercise DVDs have long become standard practice, and while Wii Fit will be more expensive than such (around $50 for the whole deal is the current rumour, with a cheaper alternative without the Balance Board being mooted), the price will likely be weighed up against something like a gym membership, in which case Fit is far more favourable - as with any health-based entertainment which allows you to escape the potential embarrassments of public gyms. Don’t' be fooled into thinking the only people who will be interested will be those overweight or totally out of shape; Wii Fit is an extension of society's ever-present fixation with exercise routines and dieting. Add the popular Wii name, the ability to track your fitness progress (remember how many people are addicted to their 'fitness age' in Wii Sports) and various family oriented sub-games such as the football-heading inclusion… and you've got a recipe for instant success.

Amusingly, the hardcore that hates Wii Fit are also the same people missing out on what could be a peripheral that brings us closer to 'virtual reality' in our homes and expanding the boundaries of what a hardcore game could offer. Fit doesn’t just use the Balance Board, but also the sensor bar AND the Wii remote in some of its activities, effectively giving a projection of your whole body in-game. Now imagine removing all that from a fitness programme and slotting it inside a first-person shooter, where dodging movement can be mapped to how you position yourself on the Board. A third-person action game where puzzles can be activated by your own pressure and body, for example. How about something like Time Crisis, where you no longer have to press a button to hide, but by crouching on the Board instead? Boxing and other sports now have limitless potential. Snowboarding? Skateboarding? Surfing? All perfect for Wii Fit's accessory. One imaginative forum-goer even suggested that a Star Wars lightsaber style game could be implemented, where shifts in your bodyweight equate with sidestep attacks, while your remote obviously acts as the lightsaber itself, freeing up a number of buttons for other things. Of course, this would also apply to any title which uses a sword, too. Smart.

Sure, much of this is speculation, but the realisation may not be as far away as you think. Given the potentially high market penetration of Wii Fit, and thus the Body Board, it will be more viable to third-parties and so increases the likelihood of seeing games like this in the near future, should Nintendo be open to such possibilities. Which is probably something the company itself is already thinking about. Pressure sensitive gameplay in Zelda Wii, anyone?

Nintendo isn’t turning its back on hardcore gamers. Really. It isn't. And if you think that, you're ignoring the fact we're getting Mario Kart, Fire Emblem, Metroid, Galaxy and Brawl all in the next ten months, to name a few. All look fantastic and polished, and this isn't even taking into account the rather nice looking third-party titles out there too. The only thing Nintendo is guilty of is looking outside the box. And as uncomfortable as it may be, the sooner we do that too, the better we'll all be for it. Especially during events like E3.

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