Analysis: How much further can the Wii go?

Posted by Mark Raby

Since its launch almost one year ago, the Nintendo Wii has certainly been the big surprise among the three major game console contenders. As we approach the one-year anniversary, TG Daily game expert Mark Raby reviews what has made the Wii the success it is today and how much room there is for more in the future.


The Wii's one year anniversary


There's not doubt about it - the Wii will be prominently featured in video game history books.  It's an astounding success story for Nintendo, which ended the last console cycle on the edge of a sinking ship.  Close up until its launch, critics assumed the Wii would completely drown Nintendo and it would be out of the hardware market.

As we know now, it all came different. The console, which was long believed to launch under the “Revolution” name, has been outselling the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 so far this year.  According to NPD Group, year-to-date sales of the Wii, through September, totaled 3.44 million units, compared to 1.17 million units for the PS3 and 2.22 million units for the Xbox 360.  That means in the US, the Wii has not only outsold its two competitors this year, it massacred them.  In fact, the PS3 and Xbox 360 unit sales, combined, only totals 3.39 million, which is still below the Wii's figures.  When we look at global sales numbers, the success of the Wii is even more impressive.  In Japan, it has been outselling the PS3 by margins of three-to-one.

The Wii has become something of a cultural icon already, and it's because of the system's innovative control style.  Immediately following the Wii's public demonstration at E3 2006, Nintendo proved the console could do more than joint point-and-click games.  The Wii has quite successfully been able to reproduce bowling, tennis, golf, and even fishing in a way that video games have never really done before.

Traditional games

So, the Wii has proven that it can deliver games that are tailored to the "non-traditional" crowd, offering an experience not possible on the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.  However, those latter two consoles are still quite obviously in the game.  There is something to be said for the solidity and reliability of "traditional" games.  That's a genre in which the Wii has been considerably lacking.

Let's take a look at the most recent big titles for each console.  

For the PS3, there's Ratchet & Clank Future and Folklore.  On the Xbox 360, we're talking about Half-Life 2 and Halo 3.  The Wii, meanwhile, gets things like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games and EA Playground, which are fun but not exactly games that pull you into an immersing environment.  It's kind of like being at a movie theater, where the PS3 and Xbox 360 are the amazing multi-million dollar flicks with dazzling visual effects showing in the biggest screening rooms, and the Wii is the Slurpee machine at the concession stand.  Nintendo once referred to the PS3 and Xbox 360 as going down the same road, but at better speeds, while the Wii took a completely different road.  But that time-tested road is still what many gamers crave.  After all, Halo 3 smashed opening day records for entertainment sales.  The frenzy around that Xbox 360 mega-hit was more prevalent for Halo 3 than for any Wii-related release so far.

The Wii was sort of put through the "traditional games" test with this year's release of Super Paper Mario, an RPG platformer originally built for the Gamecube.  That worked, but only because the controls were kept extremely simple.  Of course, before that there was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which really showed the Wii's ability to be used for epic adventures.

That's two games out of more than 100, both of which were created by Nintendo.  Third party publishers have not really been able to use the Wii for more than casual side-games.  Some of these have been really amazing, but they completely overlook one of the main draws of a modern-day video game, which is to fall into an intricate and compelling storyline.  Sports game compilations just don't provide that.

It puts the Wii in a questionable position of a "complementary" console that cannot really stand up to the gaming crowd on its own.  It makes a great system to have on the side, but the main course seems to only be provided by the PS3 or Xbox 360.

Keeping a comparative advantage

The question is whether Nintendo will be able to maintain its position as the only innovative console out there.  Sony and Microsoft have been developing some interesting things that will make the Wii's uniqueness a little less unique.

For example, the Playstation Eye has already impressed me with the free Eye Crate video capturing software and the innovative Eye of Judgment game.  Gamers can play the Eye of Judgment trading card game with the Playstation Eye looking over the game board, and the PS3 can instantaneously tell what cards have been played.

Also, Rock Band is poised to make a huge splash this holiday season.  Talk about unconventional game play - the Wii has nothing on this game, with the ability to connect two guitars, a drum set, and a microphone into the PS3 or Xbox 360 at the same time.

"Scene It" for the Xbox 360 also came out this week, bringing with it the "big button pad", a special easy-to-use controller used for simple tasks like answering multiple-choice questions.

Sony has already upstaged Nintendo with regard to connectivity.  The integration between the PS3 and PSP is extraordinary, while Nintendo leaves its Wii/DS connection options as a minor footnote to its lone Pokemon Wii title.

The Wii may have come into this console battle with a completely new and unique concept, but now it's out in the open, and Microsoft and Sony can do everything in their power to take a crack at the casual gaming treasure chest that Nintendo has opened.

Room for growth

To be fair, though, the Wii is expanding innovation right alongside the PS3 and Xbox 360.  The "Balance Board" will be introduced with Wii Fit next year, bringing yet another new controller idea to the gaming scene.

The Wii also has room to expand in the online scene.  In fact, it needs to expand.  The lack of online compatibility is already starting to make the Wii less attractive than it was a year ago, especially as the PS3 and Xbox 360 continue to make their online services more attractive.

I also would like to see more growth in terms of role-playing games, action adventure titles, and hardcore strategy gameplay.  This is where the Wii needs to grow the most.

Nintendo continues to market the Wii as a console for everyone, but in a way they're kind of moving away from an obvious crowd - the hardcore gaming audience.  This is part of what killed the Gamecube.  The Gamecube had great Mario titles, party games, and mini-game compilations, but failed to provide a huge breadth of content.

They obviously have a much better foundation in the Wii, and can really grow with that to offer titles that could leave gamers content to trek through for hours at a time.  At the moment, though, that doesn't seem to be Nintendo’s core strategy.

Conclusion

There's at least a good half-decade left in this console cycle, and the Wii is locked in at its technical specs, which are really last-generation numbers.  The PS3 and Xbox 360, on the other hand, have the ability to expand much further.  It's very possible Sony could come out with some new technology a couple years from now that makes motion-sensitive-controlled gaming look like yesterday's news.  It's just the nature of the beast.  Sony and Microsoft both hedged their bets for the future a little better than Nintendo did.

I don't even need to list some of the more infamous "fads" that were huge at their peak of popularity and are now a punchline.  I'm not saying the Wii will ever be looked at as a failure, but I am saying that it is dangerous not to be well-rounded.

The Wii certainly has potential, as well as already defined success, but if it wants to continue to be a serious contender when this console cycle actually gets in full swing, it may need some strategic re-organizing.