Wii Wii Wii All the Way Home

Since the beginning of summer, I’ve been occasionally stopping by various local retailers and asking if they have a Wii in stock. Nope, nope, nope. I’m not going to go chasing the thing like Ahab after the white whale, nor do I want to pay twice the retail price to get it from some skeevy dude off eBay. Yesterday, I joined the family for lunch at a mall restaurant and afterwards I wandered into a GameSpot and asked the ritual Wii question. Sure, I’ve got a couple, says the guy. Whoa.

So. I’ve played the Wii and read a great deal about it, but yesterday was my first detailed exploration of the console. First, yes, the conventional wisdom is basically completely right about the console. Nintendo has the right idea and the other seventh-generation consoles have the wrong one, at least as far as the future development of video games as a medium. Processing power and graphics do not make the same basic gameplay experience of a standard shooter any more interesting unless you’re an aficionado who has played every shooter and can appreciate the incremental differences that photorealism or processing power make possible. If the next game requires that you already have a huge grammar of game-mechanical conventions under your belt to even start playing it, then the audience for games is limited to people that already play games.

The Wii’s simple but effective technological hack of a remote that reproduces the physical action of players within the game interface cuts through the encrustation of game designs in a swift stroke. It’s a single change along a single axis of interface design, but it has potentially massive implications.

However, I can see a big problem with the Wii as well. It’s not so much that the graphics are too simple, or its capabilities too weak, though there’s a bit of that. The bigger issue is whether the economics of the game industry will actually encourage the production of games that realize the potential of the Wii fully.

After playing the five basic Wii Sports titles, I had the same feeling that a lot of experienced gamers have had when they encounter the Wii. I wanted to go out right now and buy a Wii version of a first-person Star Wars game (along the lines of the Dark Forces series). I wanted to play a more sophisticated fighting game than the Wii Sports boxing game. I wanted to use the controller in all the ways I could see it being used where the action of its use would make the “magic circle” of gameplay more powerful.

And is there anything out there that allows for that? To be honest, not really. What I see in the existing Wii library are multi-platform games where the programmers have added a few little Wii-mote bells and whistles but haven’t really designed the game around the Wii. Or some more amusing and whimsical games within the core aesthetic of Nintendo’s design paradigm that use the Wii-mote more fully, like WarioWare: Smooth Moves. I don’t see a lot of evidence in the next six months of Wii games that will break that trend to make full use of the Wii-mote to fuel new rhythms and structures of gameplay.

The ideal Wii game paradigm, from what I can see, is:

a) game mechanics that have a mimetic relationship to physical action in the world, where the use of the Wii-mote intuitively matches the action that the player is enacting within the game. I should have to spend little to no time on a tutorial that instructs me on how to match the use of the Wii-mote to action I want to take on the screen. Playing a little of the Wii version of Zelda: The Twilight Princess, I was quickly irritated at the extent to which the Wii-mote was being used as a souped-up gamepad. E.g., in order to act within the world, I was forced to remember non-intuitive ways to align, move or use the Wii-mote that broke the relationship between my action in the world and my actions in the game.

The problem with this is that a really great Wii game is therefore going to have to be native to that console and no other. If it is a cross-platform game, then it’s just going to use the Wii-mote as an exotic gamepad. In that scenario, the Wii is actually a less compelling console than its seventh-generation competitors. If I have to play a non-intuitive, non-physical interface, I’d rather do it with better graphics and more processing power. The Wii’s only remaining advantage at that point is price, which is significant but not sufficient. But what’s the incentive to design a really great game for only one console unless the designer is Nintendo (or compensated by Nintendo for a non-competitive design)? Unless the Wii becomes so dominant in this generation that it is the new Playstation2, most developers will not work on games which make full use of the Wii’s potential.

If that potential is fully tapped, there are games which really will not work well on the console. I don’t think a driving game can work well, for example. But there are other kinds of physical action that could be superb. Anything that involves swinging the arms or using a device with the hands (swords, punching, guns, swimming, running in place, climbing) could be a completely unique and totally intuitive experience if a designer does it right.

b) A really great Wii game, it seems to me, has to be social. I’m really surprised at how few of the games in the existing Wii library are multiplayer or social in their character. There’s a long-standing wariness in the industry about multiplayer games on a single console because of the difficulties involved in representing simultaneous actions by two players (especially if those players are antagonists rather than allies). But Wii games are going to have to overcome that reluctance.

Still, it’s a damn fun little device, and I really hope that 2008 sees the advent of new games that really, really take the console’s innovative potential and run with it.

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15 Responses to Wii Wii Wii All the Way Home

  1. Tim – first congrats on the Wii! I was lucky to stumble across one in a mall music store in January…

    I agree that the best Wii games will use an intuitive interface, not just port conventional game action with some slashy moves. But I think the console has become hot & widespread enough that developers will start making Wii-intuitive games and porting them to simpler conventional interfaces like PS2/Xbox, rather than the reverse. I also think that the more innovative developers will latch onto the system to try new things now that it’s clearly more than a novelty & Nintendo’s being more open to external developing than in the past. I can also think of PS2 games that standout for doing something new with the controls, like Katamari Damacy or Okami, which could easily be adapted to the Wii, or a paradigm-shifter like Guitar Hero being emulated as a Wii model (Drum God with Wiimotes as sticks?). And as a primarily solitary gamer, I don’t think Wii games need to be inherently social, although they do lend themselves to it well. But I agree that there doesn’t seem to be a game that seems both totally new and more than a short-term novelty for the Wii… yet.

    Now you’ve got to post your Mii!

  2. Laura says:

    We finally got a Wii a month ago and I love it! I, too, would like to see some more social games. The most fun we have with the Wii is playing it with the family or friends who stop by. Even my father-in-law, who’s 67, had no problem figuring out how to play tennis or bowling. We also like the Everybody Votes channel, which isn’t really a game, but it also is a lot of fun.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, Everybody Votes is amusing. I’ve created a little psycho Mii that we use as the foil of our voting–he votes contrarily to the rest of us. We’re going to try to make his predictor score as low as possible.

  4. Heh, I’m still waiting for onechan to get old enough to justify buying whatever video game systems become in 4-6 years. But I can tell you I’d be very tempted if there was a good Wii golf game.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The Wii Sports golf game is not very good per se. I dunno if there’s any plans to implement a Wii-mote adapted version of Tiger Woods?

  6. There is a Wii Tiger Woods game, but the reviews I’ve read say it’s quite difficult to control. Basically, you’ve got to be good at golf to be good at the game…

  7. mjh says:

    On that last point: I suspect Wii versions of games are going to seem hard to control in general compared to versions that people are used to. (partly: the tilt controls are kind of laggy; the pointer’s a bit laggy, too, but it’s precise enough to make up for it.)

    I’ve heard that a lot of Japanese developers are moving away from the PS3, because the install base isn’t very large. And they’re not going to the 360, they’re going to the Wii. We’ll probably start seeing an influx of original Wii games in another cycle or so.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    The good at golf=good at the game is going to be the interesting design puzzle to crack with a Wii game.

    If the physical action of the remote is mimetic to the action on the screen, you either have to keep the gameplay simple (as with Wii Sports) or you’ve got to use the Wii-mote to imitate the full complexity of an implement or bodily motion. But if you do that, how do you allow players to become better at playing something in the game than they might be in the real world? Because you want mimesis PLUS amplification. I should be able to get the thrill of fighting a Dark Jedi with my lightsaber/Wii-mote, but if I have to be Jedi-like in the real world in order to produce the speed and fluidity of Jedi moves in the game, it’s a non-starter. But if there’s a huge gap between what I do in the world and what happens in the game, then that breaks the pleasurable of the mimesis, plus contributes to a sense of lagginess. It’s an interesting problem–It’ll be intriguing to see what they do with it.

  9. JasonII says:

    i have to disagree a bit. nintendo has it right and wrong. nintendo is operating under the assumption that the only way to innovate is with the controller. that’s not necessarily so. their goal of expanding the gaming world is admirable, and lots of people say the Wii is fun, but how long will that last. if (and i realize that’s a big if) the Wii is just attracting people because of its novelty what happens when that novelty wears off? lilke all other trends it could fade rapidly.
    judging by their presentation at E3 nintendo is adding all kinds of peripherals to the mix which means that for social gaming everyone would have to bring their controllers, pads, nunchucks, Wiizappers, etc. not to mention the space all the Wiicessories will take up. minigames and collections of minigames will only atract new gamers for so long.
    nintendo has also put online play on the back burner–and is really missing the boat on that aspect of gaming (yet again).
    the power of the other systems isn’t just about graphics; it’s also about things like how many people can play at one time, size of maps, vehicles on maps, variety of maps, etc. (for shooters, anyhoo). when you play call of duty 3 12 on 12 it’s a blast, and not just because of the graphics. you can’t do that with the Wii (the Wii cod3’s crappy graphics interfere with the experience).
    sorry for the rant–if i had time to play two consoles i would get a Wii, but i get tired of hearing people (mostly gaming “journalists”) sounding like nintendo pr people.

  10. We’ve had a Wii since they first came out, so I’ve had a little more time experimenting with the controls in different games. You’re right that the first wave of games do not take advantage of the full possibilities of the Wii remote. A lot of them are so-so hacks of existing games. The whole multi-player experience, including networked play, has been more or less punted until late this year.

    We’ve introduced the Wii to a lot of people and the same games are always the hits:

    1) Rayman Raving Rabbids is the best of the mini-game style of games, bar none. (Skip WarioWare Smooth Moves. It’s cool for about a day, but everyone I’ve talked to gets bored with it quickly.) Rayman is a lot of fun, has brilliant style and flavor, and is an EXCELLENT multi-player experience.

    2) Excite truck. It’s not a precision racing game, but if you want a fun game with quality gameplay, it’s worth getting. It also does a good job of allowing you to be successful at the early levels precisely because you’re quite bad, but it requires a lot of skill to conquer the upper levels of the game.

    3) Resident Evil 4. This is just a re-release and a port, but it actually improves on what was already a revered game on the PS2 and Gamecube. A definite exception to the rule that ports are always inferior. A great game made greater. Just not for the squeemish.

    The Tiger Woods Golf game is very good, but not perfect. But I disagree that it’s difficult if you’re not good at golf. I’ve never shot under a 100 on a real golf course, and I’m almost a scratch golfer in TW. If you set the difficulty to easy, you can learn the basics of course management, but it’s very forgiving for slices and hooks. As you set the difficulty levels higher the game becomes more sensitive to the flaws in your swing. Casual gamers with an interest in sports games will like this title on the Wii. It’s a better conversion that the first instance of Madden Football (07).

    One title that I’m most looking forward might show some of the possibilities of Wii game design is the anticipated release of Boogie from Electronic Arts. It’s a combination dance/karaoke game, but unlike Dance Dance Revolution, you don’t have to memorize and follow a pattern set by the game. Instead, you build up a vocabulary of dance moves, and so long as you stick to the beat and vary what you do, you score well. It might be a nightmare for those with a bulky rhythm in their hearts, but it sounds really cool to me.

    The other thing to watch out for in the Fall is how well the new Super Smash Brothers works on the Wii. Nintendo has always been better on gameplay, in my opinion, than the other platforms, and Smash Brothers AI was really incredible at adjusting for skill levels of players. My brother was much better than I, but we could fight head-to-head pretty evenly. If Nintendo can pull off a Wii SSB with excellent responsiveness on the Wii, I think that will show the way for a lot of what follows on the platform for games that include fighting.

  11. Maybe one step toward a solution for a golf game would be to focus on putting. There, it seems to me you should make it as mimetic as possible, because, really, how athletic do you have to be to do a putting stroke? Of course, then you’d need to have good enough graphics that you can “read” greens and the game has to teach people about “break” and all those other fun terms golfers use to describe the short grassed areas near the hole, but gamers love to learn, so I don’t see that as a problem.

    Improving chips and pitches and sand shots would also be a big deal to me. Anything that elevates “feel” in a golf video game to something approaching what it means to the real sport would appeal to me and many serious (ex-)golfers.

    The full swing problem is a real one, especially b/c everyone’s swing is so tied to their actual body. Short of a Snow Crash Black Sun solution, or even better, a Star Trek Holodeck Virtual Golf experience, I think designers in our world can learn from on-line RPG here and allow you to design a character, improve your equipment, take lessons, etc. That is, make the learning curve part of the game. You can experience what it’s like to be a power player, a precision player, a great putter, and so on. But you have to make choices about what to keep normal and what to enhance–you only have so much room for enhancement. (Me, I’d enhance my iron play the most and driving accuracy 2nd most.)

    Following up on this idea, I would make access to courses dependent on skill improvements. So you start on a local muni or some kind of relatively easy public course. You earn a handicap, and as it goes down you get to play other, tougher courses. Save the Augustas and the Pebble Beaches for truly advanced players who are ready to appreciate and attempt to handle their challenges.

    Then the online part comes in. You can enter your best personae in tournaments and compete against others with similar handicaps. You can form a team and practice together at the same course–and enter into team competitions. And so on.

    In short, if the designers mimic the elements of competitive golf that only the better amateurs even get a chance to experience, they can open it up to many more people. They could even imitate the “professional” experience by holding tournaments at tough courses, allowing no enhancements to your persona, and having qualifiers under those conditions that weed out the wannabes.

    That is, distill the crack-like elements of the real golf into a video game version and whammo profits without any sock gnomes getting hurt….

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I’ve found some the past versions of Tiger Woods on the PS2 pretty close to that without the physicality that the Wii-mote allows.

  13. Chris Segal says:

    Oh man, the venerable Excite name.

    I’m also new to Wiidom, as I first tried it at a friend’s house on Saturday and then my brother unrelatedly picked one up on Monday. Thinking mostly of Wii Sports, I see two major problems.

    First, I agree about the realism question, in general. Specifically, I’m concerned about realism vs. playing stamina. I have tried and have enjoyed pretending to pitch and bat, swing a racquet, throw a bowling ball, and swing a golf club. (Except for putting – what is up with the putting?) But it is so much easier to just flick the wiimote and save my energy.

    The other question is closely related: based partially on the golf game I find myself worrying about the accuracy of the sensors in the Wiimote. In many cases I feel as if tricking the wiimote is itself a sub-game of all the games, and it isn’t one I find rewarding.

  14. My last console was an Atari 2600 Wait, maybe we upgraded once. I depend on the kindness of friends. Most of whom moved far far away. So I can only say hats off to the Tiger Woods game development team and hope they figure out how to make the Wii approach virtual golf….

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