Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Gimmicks Shmimicks

With the announcement that Microsoft will be releasing a version of Xbox One without Kinect at $100 less than the current retail package, I'm going to go ahead and say the customers have spoken, and gimmicks aren't going to sell systems.

We've actually been seeing this coming for a while. Even the Wii, which was hugely successful, was a disappointment for a lot of people. Not because it was underpowered and standard def when everyone else was going HD, although that was disappointing enough, but because we never really got that 1:1 experience we all expected to have, where we swung the remote around like a real sword fight and our on-screen counterpart did the same. Instead we mostly got to waggle the controller around a bit and hope we didn't develop tennis elbow. That's not to say the Wii was without any quality software, but most of the games I enjoyed either used very little motion control, or let me plug in a Classic Pro and drop the Wii Remote completely. One area I did enjoy the Wii Remote was FPS games, using the pointer for pixel-perfect aim, and they released somewhere around 2-3 decent ones through the entire console's life. Go figure.

The 3DS was priced too high when it was released and people lashed back, saying they didn't want glasses free 3D anyway, so they weren't going to pay a premium for the technology. Nintendo answered first with a price drop, and more recently with the 2DS, which drops 3D from the system altogether. Personally, I like 3D in most games, and think it adds a bit of depth and makes the experience more immersive in some cases, but I figured I'd make the point that the 3D gimmick was NOT a system seller. It wasn't until the system built a library of some of the best games on the market that people started buying the it. Games sell systems, not gimmicks.

Nintendo is falling prey to this line of thinking once again with the Wii U. "Hey, we have a Gamepad with a touch screen and some cool features" they're saying, while not releasing a single piece of software that sells anyone on the tech. So far the best use of the Gamepad I've seen has been off screen gaming, which is fantastic if, like me, you like to play while someone else is watching TV, but useless if you have a dedicated TV for gaming or something like that. It's been cool to have a map in my hands, and there have been some neat uses for inventory and stuff like that, but there's absolutely nothing about it that screams "you need this to play games!"

Microsoft, as they tend to do, saw another company's success and said "me too!" What they didn't seem to realize was the Wii was an anomaly, and priced to kill when it was released. With Kinect, they have some cool ideas for sure, but 9.9 times out of 10 people are going to opt for the simple press of a button rather than flailing around their living rooms like a spider just landed on their face. And talking to your TV never makes you look cool. If I can quietly press a button to do the same function as yelling at a little black box, I'm going to chose the button, for fear that the men in white coats will come after me. I haven't played around with an Xbox One, but I'm sure the voice commands work wonderfully in a quiet setting, but I have a feeling I'f use them once or twice, then forget about it and go back to a controller for input.

Sony seems to have caught on to this, and just released a super powerful system with a standard controller that just works right out of the box and plays and controls like every game system before it but just looks better. And that brings us to the problem...

After all my ranting and ripping companies apart, what does this all mean for gamers? Personally, I think it's both good and bad. On the good side, I think when developers don't have to worry about integrating gimmicks in to their games, especially cross-platform games, they can focus on just delivering quality content and more resources can go to things like story and graphics. The same thing can be said for the console makers. When they don't have to spend time and money coming up with gimmicks, they can focus on making top quality consoles that are powerful and less expensive. Clearly, with Microsoft cutting a full $100 off the price of their console just for taking out Kinect, there is some room to save costs when you're not paying for a product you're likely not going to use much anyway.

On the bad side, it kind of kills the innovation. If Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony all stop gimmicks and put out ultra powerful consoles with pretty similar looking, standard controllers, where is innovation in the industry going to come from? Is all innovation just going to be graphical? If so, I think we're hitting a bit of a limit. I remember the jump from SNES to N64 and being blown away by real 3D graphics. I remember the jump from N64 to Gamecube and PS2 that smoothed out those rough edges and blocky textures and made things feel more real. I remember the jump to HD with Xbox 360 and PS3 that upped the realism and made things look amazing on my brand new HDTV. This recent jump to Xbox One and PS4... meh. Things looks amazing, don't get me wrong, but I don't think we're even going to experience those types of dramatic jumps where anyone, even someone that's never played a game in their life, can look and say "wow, that looks so much better than before".

That's why I love Nintendo. They don't care. They swing for the fences every damn time, and hope something connects. For the Wii, they had a home run. For the 3DS, it took some time, but they got there. Especially in a world where I can download a great looking game like Infinity Blade 3 to my phone in a couple of seconds, the success of the 3DS is a testament to Nintendo's quality. The Wii U might be flailing a bit now, but if they look at it like the 3DS, consider a price drop, and get some quality software out there, it'll be ok. At least they stick to their guns, and I can't wait to see what they come out with next.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has been just coming off as spineless this entire generation. Last year's E3 was embarrassing. I loved my 360, but have been strongly considering switching to PS4 for this gen simply because MS doesn't seem like they have a clear plan. They say something, get their ass handed to them, then say "yeah, we're going to do what they're doing too. We're still cool, right?" Make a choice and stick with it. Even this announcement is all over the place. I read something basically saying "we're dropping Kinect but we still think it's an integral part of our strategy". If it's integral, leave it in there. If you need to play catchup, drop the price and take a loss for a bit. Don't flop around and make desperate decisions. An art teacher I had in high school would always say "make a decision. Make a choice, even if it's the wrong one, and go with it." and I always try to remember that in life. You're going to make dumb calls. You're going to do things that don't make sense, or that other people don't get right away, or at all. But you made that choice. Follow it through. I think Microsoft could learn from both Nintendo and Sony. Right now, it's trying to have the best of both worlds, and it's not doing the best at either.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The State of Nintendo

Nintendo posted an annual operating loss of $457 million for the past year. They sold only 2.72 million Wii U consoles, missing their expectation of 2.9 million (which itself was lowered from 9). 3DS continued to basically keep the company afloat, selling 12.24 million units. Most people reading this will likely know how much I love my Wii U, but I know Nintendo can do better and I really think they've been their own worst enemy the past few years, making weird decisions and ignoring fans for the most part. They've stated that going forward they have a lot of work to do (duh) and they want to focus on titles that showcase how the Gamepad is different that anything else on the market, and also to make use of things like NFC (near field communications), which is built in to the Gamepad and is the same technology Skylanders use to make the figures communicate with the base stations. I actually ranted last year about how Nintendo is ignoring NFC and came up with a couple of very simple but cool uses I think could show juts how different the system is. If you'd like to read that to catch up, click here

I think Nintendo is shooting itself in the foot in a couple of other key ways as well, and of course, I'm going to list them here and I'd love to hear what you think as well.

So, aside from the ignoring NFC problem, one of the main things that bugs me about my Wii U is the lack of Virtual Console support. Didn't they solve this with the Wii (sort of)? I could write an entire post about the VC and how I've always wanted to see more titles with steadier releases, dating right back to the Wii, but even ignoring that I still don't understand how nearly 2 years after launching the Wii U, I can't just move my entire existing VC library over to the new console. There have been a few NES and SNES titles released, but where are the N64 and Sega titles? I love playing Mega Man X, Super Mario World, Zelda and the other handful of games on my Gamepad while watching TV. Having to switch in to Wii mode and play the other VC games that way is a pain and a nuisance, and instead of porting over GBA games (which are awesome, don't get me wrong) I think Nintendo should be focusing all of its porting power on getting N64 games running on their current machine. Retro gaming is huge, just look to the success of games like NES Remix and you'll see Nintendo is at least vaguely aware that it's past library is still as popular as ever. Stop porting over crappy NES games, bring your SNES and N64 libraries up, and get Sega in on the mix. I'm not even going to complain about the Wii U upgrade fee, because I don't care, just let me play the games.

The Virtual Console is the main focus of my next point as well. I think Nintendo needs to bite the bullet and stop double-dipping. If they sold 12.24 million 3DS units this year, giving them a total of a little over 43 million sold altogether, they're sitting on a HUGE potential audience that can be at least a little more tempted to buy a Wii U if their damn purchases were transferable! I'm not talking about every eShop game being able to port to and from both systems, despite that working for a lot of titles, I'm sure, since there are effectively two screens on both. Just allow people to buy Super Mario Bros 3 ONCE and have it on both systems, and I'm sure there will be at least a few of those 43 million people that say "ok, might as well get a Wii U if it lets me play my retro titles at home". It would be awesome to do save and/or freeze state transfers like I can do between my iPhone and iPad on certain titles, but I really don't think they have to go that far. If I'm paying $5 for a game that's 25 years old, put it on both of my systems, shut up, and take my money. As it stands now, aside from a couple of games that I'll buy pretty much any time they're released (I'm looking at you Super Mario Bros), I am really really picky when I have to decide if I want something on my 3DS or Wii U. I'm not spending the money twice regardless, but if I had it for free on both, I'd tell my friends about it.

The last thing I'll mention are the games. I know, I know, everyone says Nintendo needs more games, and I agree. The problem is Nintendo can only make a few games at a time, and good games take time. I really think Nintendo needs to dip in to its MASSIVE cash stocks and start paying developers to do exclusives. Seriously, Nintendo could have flop systems for the next 20 years and still not run out of money. Use that cash. Start paying developers to make games for your system. Sponsor indies. Do whatever it takes to make your platform attractive. Pimp out your characters, even if it's just as simple as being able to wear something resembling a Link costume in an Assassin's Creed game, having Mushroom coloured gun skins in Call of Duty, WHATEVER. Look back to the Gamecube, which wasn't Nintendo's best selling console, but games like Soul Caliber did fantastically well on that system, in a large part because Link was a playable fighter. Have I bought a SC game since? Hell no, but I was there to grab that game day one, and I would again.

There are many more things I could mention that Nintendo could do, like going back in time and changing the name from Wii U to literally anything else. Seriously at this point I think the Nintendo Game-a-tron would be a better name. However, I'll stop with those three things and ask what, if anything, you think Nintendo can do to make the Wii U more appealing to people.