Why Nintendo seems to be winning

2007-01-15 19:11

I’ve been hanging out on a PS3 board (because I’m doing paying work on the PS3 right now), and I’ve noticed something. Many of the PS3 fans are absolutely confident that the Wii will “get boring” once people are “used to the controls”. They’re seeing it entirely in terms of novelty value; that the controls are attractive only because they are unfamiliar.

It is not so.

The Wiimote is not fun until you get used to it; it is fun because you are instantly used to it. Expecting people to “lose interest” and prefer games with traditional controls is like expecting that every computer artist and CAD designer in the world is going to suddenly realize that, in fact, they’ve pretty much gotten all of the novelty value out of tablets and they’d rather use a mouse.

Let’s use a concrete example. Since the earliest computers I can remember, there’s been bowling games. When I was a kid, we had a giant computer with a dishwasher-sized disk drive unit; a Wang Systems 2200. It came with a small selection of sample games written in their own variant of basic, including football, bowling, and golf. The bowling game worked like this. It drew 10 little vertical lines on the screen (these were probably just pipe characters — | — but I don’t know, not having seen them in twenty-five years; the machine definitely had no graphics, though, so they were text). A little line with a caret at the end moved back and forth at the bottom of the screen. When it was pretty close to lined up with a good spot, you hit F15, and the caret moved up the screen and you got points.

A number of systems have had bowling games since then. On the Atari 2600, you got ten little squares, and a very slightly non-square thing which rolled towards them. For quite a while, controls were not much more complicated than aligning the ball with the pins. On the gamecube, Super Monkey Ball had a bowling minigame, which had a line from your starting position bounce rapidly back and forth across the lane; you pressed a button and the ball shot out at whatever angle it happened to be aimed at; most of the time, this was not what you wanted.

In every one of these games, the control system was a fairly indirect abstraction. The more recent ones might have some kind of system for imparting spin, but it was always an abstraction; you would, for instance, press a button, or move a joystick.

In the fairly simplistic bowling game in Wii Sports (the pack-in game for the Wii in North America), bowling works like this. You hold your arm in front of you, in essentially the posture most people use when bowling. You hold down a button on the control; the button is held with your finger in a way consistent with a natural grip of the device, so it just feels like “holding on”. You swing your arm back, and then forward, and when you want to let go of the ball, you do. Spin? If you turn your wrist while bowling, you can impart spin to the ball. You use a joystick to set your initial position and intended angle, but once those are set, the actual control over speed and spin is essentially the same as actually going bowling.

My four-year-old nephew, Michael, is a big fan of Wii bowling. His accuracy rate isn’t very good; sometimes he rolls the ball backwards. But he can bowl, and he enjoys it. He enjoys it so much that he made us take him out bowling, in fact. (He’s not big enough; we eventually settled on having Matt pick him up and swing him, so Michael could drop the ball, and this allowed him to get it moving down the lane fast enough that it didn’t confuse the bowling machine.) But that’s the thing; apart from the four-year-old not having the physical size and strength to bowl, it’s pretty much the same. He does a little better on Wii bowling, because the minimum strength bowl is a little harder, and actually knocks pins over.

(And yes, I just compared Wang bowling to Wii bowling.)

This, I think, is why Nintendo codenamed the system “revolution”; because it really is a revolution in game interfaces. The variety of options is incredible. When you add in the secondary “nunchuk” controller, you have fully independent motion and tilt sensors for both hands, not to mention the Wiimote’s option of being used as a pointing device. Even in the early (and often fairly rough) games available for the Wii, the controls tend to be effortless.

For another example, let’s look at the “Marvel Ultimate Alliance” game, available for Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii. Like most modern games, MUA is based on a 3D engine; you see the game from an overhead perspective, at an angle. Many 3D games give the user a certain amount of control over the camera, and MUA is no exception. Most games implement camera controls as a sort of alternative mapping of the buttons on the controller; say, you hold down a given button, and while you’re holding down that button, the joystick that otherwise moves your character will instead move the camera. There’s other options, but what they have in common is that moving the camera pretty much always prevents you from controlling the game normally; it ties up a finger, or a thumb, or a button, and makes it so that certain game actions cannot be performed while using the camera.

On the Wii port, the camera is turned by tilting the nunchuk controller left or right. Tilt harder, it turns faster. This doesn’t interfere in any way with any other control the game has; you can continue interacting with the game normally while doing it. Not only that, but it’s essentially free of mnemonic load; you don’t have to remember it or think about it. You don’t have to remember which finger it’s on. By the time you’ve spent five or six minutes playing, the camera is just always facing the way you’re trying to look.

Sony’s “sixaxis” controller has accelerometers too, but it is in essence a traditional controller. It has no pointing device; you can’t aim it in the direction of the screen and expect a game to know where you’re pointing. However, that’s not the only way in which it’s an also-ran to the Wii controllers. The obvious one is simply that the Wiimote and nunchuk are independant; you can tilt them in different directions, you can move them independantly, and so on. So, of course, that gives you more simultaneous controls. There’s a more subtle difference, though. Like every controller since the Nintendo Entertainment System’s original rectangular box with a D-pad, the sixaxis is designed to be a two-handed controller. (There have been rare exceptions to this rule; many joysticks are one-handed.) What this means is that the motion sensing of the sixaxis has to be used as though you were wearing handcuffs. You can only move it to those positions and orientations in which your hands can retain their essential relationship of being about five inches apart, facing each other. You can’t move your hands separately, and you can’t even move them in many of the ways you can move a single hand alone.

So, Nintendo has the best controller the console world has ever seen. Yeah, there are a couple of games out there that might not play well on it, and Nintendo sells alternative controllers for use in those rare circumstances. Still, in a “number of playable games” comparison, the Wiimote wins by orders of magnitude.

That’s not the whole story. They have also done something innovative at another level; they have made development cheaper and easier than the competition. At a time when developers are struggling to recoup the costs of games which cost $5 million or more to make, Nintendo is offering mature development tools and a fairly straightforward system. The Wii is often criticized as being little more than an upgraded version of their previous system, the Gamecube. There’s some justice in this; the CPU and graphics hardware of the Wii appear to be very close indeed to mere 50% overclockings of essentially the same hardware the Gamecube had, although the Wii has substantially more memory. (They may have additional features, not just more speed; I don’t think anyone knows.) On the other hand, the Wii has wireless networking built in; neither the 360 nor the cheaper model of PS3 has this, so your next option over is to buy a separate gizmo and set it up, or to buy a $600 console instead of a $250 console.

But Nintendo’s decision to forego High Definition (HD) gaming is another big draw for developers. Even famous developers who are working on getting every last drop of power they can from the PlayStation 3 have been skeptical of the benefits of HD; Kojima Hideo, the developer of the Metal Gear Solid series, dismisses HD, claiming he is not at all interested in it — and that he plans to develop something for the Wii as soon as he can get his current project shipped. HD means higher resolution; that means that developers need to develop more detailed models and more detailed textures for those models. These are large portions of the cost of game development, and the costs of higher resolution models and graphics are higher. A system that simply doesn’t output high-definition signals could be substantially cheaper for developers to target. Throw in Nintendo’s lower price, and the extra years of polish their developer tools have (given the close relationship to the Gamecube tools), and you have a very attractive deal; developers get to work with something genuinely interesting (and nearly all game developers are interested in interfaces; you can’t do much with a game if you don’t care about how it is controlled), and they get to do it cheaply.

Tack on that the Wii’s impressively successful word of mouth campaign has it outselling the PS3 by at least a 2:1 margin, and you have all the components for a very, very, successful system. Developers like to target systems with a large user base; users like to get systems with a lot of games. The Wii may offer them both an opportunity to get what they want, at a much lower cost for both users and developers than the competition.

Playstation and Xbox fanatics dismiss the Wii as a toy. The “Revolution” codename seems especially apt when you consider the effect that Nintendo is having on the multi-billion dollar games industry simply by realizing that, yes: A console is, in fact, a toy. Here’s to a toy that is cheap, well-built, and fun to play with!

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. About 8 days ago, I finally got my hands on a Wii. You're absolutely right: it's amazing. Despite my gripes with Zelda--only really two of them: the jousting (..huh? why?!) and the fact that when you save and come back to the game, you don't restart in exactly the same place where you've saved.

    I played a bit of Ocarina of Time once, and I couldn't do any combat maneuvers beyond the basics. In Twilight Princess, I'm not only able to mix up melee strategies (I can't wait to try the shield bash!), but I can actually hit things with the bow. Even while riding around on my horse.

    Freaking amazing! And I don't care if Wii Sports does think I'm 41.


    — Goliath · 2007-01-17 21:41 · #

  2. Great article! Still trying to find someone who has one in stock.

    — FatBurger · 2007-01-19 15:30 · #

 
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