Stepping Up

With reports out of both Ubisoft and EA recently of flagging Wii game sales, a fresh round of “It’s a gimmick!” and “Casuals don’t buy games” has erupted on blogs. But the Wii situation is far more nuanced than the simplistic analysis that is often accepted.

In fact, I think the gaming masses have their analysis exactly backwards – the prevailing opinion is that the Wii is a gimmick, an aberration in the normal flow of the industry, peopled by idiots who don’t know what they want and who can be tricked into buying anything, and so the sooner it is swept off the stage into history, the better. Once the Wii is gone, they feel, everything can continue on as it “should”.

But they’re wrong.

In reality, the industry as it stands today (or as it stood three years ago, depending on how much the Wii has already changed things) is an insular environment that kills originality and creativity. The same people have been marketed to, in the same way, for years. Whether it’s out of laziness, shortsightedness, or fear, the industy has avoided “manning up” and setting their sights on something bigger, harder, and riskier – the mainstream market. With that risk comes the potential for far more profit.

Nintendo (possibly more out of necessity than true desire) stepped up. They took a deep breath and said “We’re going to move into the bigger mainstream market and try to sell to people that, rather than being stupid, are busy. They have divided interest, and don’t play games for 20 hours a week, and won’t spend two hours figuring out our control scheme, and won’t give us the ‘benefit of the doubt’.”

They decided to sell to, in many ways, a more discerning market, at least when it comes to accessibility and fun. And that’s scary. It takes a lot of work. You can tell Nintendo knows to what it’s committed – the executives often talk of the need to constantly strive to come up with fresh, surprising, fun products in order to keep consumer interest. But the rewards can be so much greater. Just ask Nintendo.

Wii Considerations

For companies that decide to step up to the challenge and sell to the mainstream market via the Wii, there are some unique challenges. Beyond the fact that both creating product for, and selling to, the mainstream market is harder than selling to “gamers”, the Wii’s attributes (especially in relation to the other consoles on the market) create unique challenges.

First of all, “hardcore” games (where “hardcore” means involved, lengthy games with a large learning curve) on the Wii that are merely a lesser version of an existing Xbox 360/PS3 game are unlikely to sell, because most of those interested in these games will buy the “real” version on one of the other consoles. If the game is still fun and technically competent, maintains all the features of the other versions, and suffers only reduced graphical quality, it has a better chance, as it may sell to those who are interested in the game but only own a Wii. If the game, however, is a “spinoff” or in some way a subset of the other versions, it has even less chance of selling, because even those that only own a Wii may lose interest in the title when they find out it is not the same as the game they’ve been seeing ads for and hearing about from their friends. Dead Space Extraction failed because of this dynamic.

Next, good, original games that are hard to grasp or overly abstract (MadWorld, Okami, No More Heroes) are unlikely to sell because they have limited appeal. You may sell to the small group of “hardcore” Wii players because there is not a “real” version on another console and because they read gaming magazines/websites and so know about it or use review scores for purchasing decisions. For the majority of Wii owners, however, if the appeal or fun is not evident with just a glance it is going to be very tough to sell.

Third, both poorly-made “hardcore” games and poorly-made “casual” games (where “casual” means shorter games with a small learning curve), in general, are unlikely to sell. Word spreads even among casual gamers about a crappy product (if the packaging doesn’t tip them off to start with).

So that leaves well-made, original (as in not a subset of another game, rather than new IP), easy to approach games. Well there aren’t many of those, are there? Most of what Nintendo makes, of course, and then what – Boom Blox? World of Goo? I can’t think of many.

Marketing

There are other factors. Marketing is a huge one, and what’s more difficult, an unusual (for the industry) type of marketing – mainstream marketing that targets just people rather than “gamers”. Creating a brand is much more important for the mainstream market. Recognizable mascots and a reputation of quality are two huge factors on Nintendo’s side that no other company in the industry really has. Given that, I think there is a lot of opportunity here. Nintendo has a reputation of quality and benefits immensely from it. Most people probably don’t even know the companies behind other games, though. If one of the companies out there could build their brand through quality and recognizable mascots, all carefully tied to brand awareness, they have a much greater profit potential on the Wii. Ubisoft has made progress on this with their Rabbids line.

Opportunity

The really good CEOs in the industry know that the Wii is an opportunity. They may recognize that its more than just a short-term opportunity – companies that through trial and error build successful strategies for the Wii will be that much more prepared for where the entire industry is headed in the long term.