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.