Tuesday, November 07, 2006

How will Wii change game design?

Gamers, these days, are polarizing between two opinions on the future of video games.

There are the hardcore gamers, who became good at a few particular genres to the point where the games in that genre now have completely solidified conventions, with developers in those genres afraid of deviating or innovating too much on those conventions in order to avoid alienating their core audience. This segment of the gamer population tends to be comfortable with either a standard gamepad or, in case of PC gamers, a keyboard and a mouse. Since the hardcore segment is currently the one most likely to adopt improved technology, earlier in a product cycle, they are the people who have been targeted most heavily in the past ten years or so. These gamers tend to specialize in certain genres, like RTS, FPS, MMORPGs, and so forth. They will be experts at a particular game (Quake, Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament, Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer, Everquest, World of Warcraft) and have very little interest for the games lying outside of their genre of choice.

Then, there are the enthusiasts, who will occasionally play games that were created for hardcore gamers and enjoy themselves, although they will always be aware of being inferior in ability to the hardcore gamers. What these enthusiasts have found, though, is that they can easily have fun with many different games, regardless of genre. These are the people who are most likely to be excited at the idea of a new game type, or a new approach to an old type of game. These are the people who have been having fun with the Nintendo DS since its launch, who got that instead of a PSP because they expected the PSP to just play the same old games they were already playing on other systems. They are the people who enjoy quirky games like Katamari Damacy, Nintendogs or Wario Ware.

Naturally, many gamers fit somewhere in-between these two extremes, but I've seen the polarization happening since around the launch of the DS, and it has progressed at an accelerated rate since about a year ago, when Nintendo and Sony both revealed many of the main characteristics of the Wii (then still code-named Revolution) and PS3, while Microsoft released its XBox 360. Gamers everywhere started declaring their allegiance to one system or another, sometimes through logical arguments, but often with emotional fanboyism.

We've all heard that Nintendo is trying to target a completely new group of people with the Wii, in order for the gamer audience to grow substantially. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft are fighting for the same core group of gamers which isn't really growing all that fast, with new gamers entering the market at about the same rate as older gamers are cutting down on their habit, as real life catches up with them.

Nintendo realized that, to entice casual gamers and non-gamers to play more video games, a few things needed to happen:
  1. the controls needed to be simplified, and made more intuitive. This has already been demonstrated with the DS and its Touch Generation games, and is at the core of the new Wii-mote controllers.
  2. games and gaming had to be made less threatening, especially with all the current violence trends in hardcore games. So games like Nintendogs, Brain Age, and Wario Ware were created, and had major success. If a game is easy to get into, and doesn't alienate most people who aren't already big gamers, it has more of a chance to succeed with the new group.
  3. the games had to be fun, regardless of the initial talent or ability of the player. Hardcore games tend not to be much fun for newbies; ask anyone who's ever tried to get into Counterstrike and gave up after a few tries. Even though the game was popular, its community quickly became hermetic, making it hard for newbies to enter and learn how to play well, as the game itself had a steep learning curve. Contrast that with Wario Ware on the Gamecube, which can be picked up by almost anyone, and even the players who aren't as good will find the game exciting and fun, and because of that, these players are more likely to climb the learning curve up to a point where they're competitive.
So, what's going to happen to game design, when Wii proves that it can reach more people through its innovations? That's the revolution in the console's codename.

We'll see more and more games that use as simple a control scheme as possible, using as few distinct buttons as possible. Most of the gestures the Wii-mote recognizes will be the movements that come naturally to most people. For example, jerk the controller upward to jump, swing it like a racket to hit a tennis ball, point it at the screen to select or shoot something... Even the more complex gestures will seem easier to perform than all the special moves fighting game fans have become used to, which most casual gamers can't perform.

We'll still see some violent games, as that still has a wide appeal, but the shelves won't seem to be filled with such games quite as much as before. Less violent games are now less likely to use violent or sexy imagery on their covers or in their advertising, and there will be more focus on showing that the games are actually fun and easy to get into. The games that don't do this will just hit the same old gamer audience and rarely reach anyone outside of it.

More games will have smoother learning curves, and more people are going to have fun playing games, possibly with fewer thrown controllers and frustrated gamers. Some gamers are going to complain that games are getting easier, but in the end, the games will be more fun, and there will be more people playing them, so that all those hardcore games which many casual gamers find much too challenging to enjoy will start to sell less in comparison to games where it's easy to get far into the game without having to replay the same little bit dozens of times to get it perfect. Games that wish to keep the hardcore gamers in their audience, while appealing to the the rest of the now expanded group of all gamers, will instead place some very special challenges into the games for those who want a more intense challenge. An early example of this can be found in Super Metroid: the game isn't that hard, and most gamers who played the game didn't have that much trouble completing it, but finishing the game with 100% item collection, and in under two hours got the "best" ending, even though it wasn't much different from the other endings.

The last, big consequence of the Wii release is that developers will be forced to innovate, simply because the old control schemes won't work without some retooling, and because most good game designers will see the potential to make their games more intuitive. This innovation may temporarily alienate part of the hardcore audience, but these people will join back in once they have a chance to play the games.

After all, even hardcore gamers just wanna have fun.

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