Friday, April 17, 2009

Battleship, not Axis and Allies: Nintendo and the expanding market

News came down today that Sega's latest attempt to make a mature, hardcore-aimed game for the Wii, MadWorld, sold 66k copies in the US it's opening month. This is lackluster even when compared to relative flops for the 360; in it's first month Too Human, just such a game, sold over twice that number of copies. A similar piece of news dropped regarding GTA: Chinatown Wars, a mature title for the DS, which sold only 89,000 units in March.

Many have discussed the Wii and DS audiences' apparent resistance to hardcore games. Discussing the sales of Nintendo games in February, TWG News' said, "t will be very interesting to see how well MadWorld and GTA: ChinaTown Wars do on the Wii and DS in March. If these hardcore games can’t sell well on each of these systems, then people should just give up trying." I wouldn't go that far, but it's clear that, despite the fact that there are more Wiis out there than any single other console and the DS crushes everything else, the people that own these Nintendo platforms are not using their consoles in the same way that 360 and Playstation owners use theirs. To get a better sense of that difference, I find it helpful to think about board games:

You've probably played Battleship. It's a simple game where two players, unable to see each others' boards, fire shots at coordinates, discovering and trying to sink his opponent's ships based only on knowing whether each shot hit or missed. It's a classic for a reason; the game mechanics themselves are time-tested, having been invented in the early 1900s, and so simple you could play the game with a pencil and paper if you wanted to.

It's easy to learn, takes a minute or two to start up and to take down, and games last maybe ten or twenty minutes apiece. It has this in common with most of the other board games that you might find in the board game aisle at your local Target.

Contrast this with another game of naval warface:

Where Battleship's rules take a minute or Two to explain, the first time you play Axis & Allies you will likely spend ten to twenty minutes -- the time of a full game of battleship -- listening to someone explain the rules or reading the directions of Axis and Allies. After this, you will still need to refer to the rulebook or a knowledgable other player frequently to clarify details. Axis & Allies comes with charts, graphs, and cards that can change how a piece works in the middle of a game. It also takes 4-5 hours to play, which are often spread across several days as the board is left on a table somewhere.

Axis & Allies is by no means the most complex board game out there. There are a lot of great complex board games: pretty much any board game put out by Fantasy Flight Games, Avalon Hill, or any game company from mainland Europe is going to fit that description. All of these games require a lot of time buy in just to learn how to play the game, and usually take a lot of time to play through each game. Backbreaking amounts of time.

People love these games. Some people love to play them all the time. Other people, like myself, enjoy playing them every once in a while. Most people, however, look at an Axis and Allies board, or see the hour it takes just to break all the cardboard markers out of their cutouts when first playing Arkham Horror, and they run for the hills.

Many of these people who run away would happily play a game of Battleship, or Connect Four, or Pictionary, or Sorry, or, well, you get the idea. It is these people that form most of the audience for the Wii games out there.

When I use Wii games, I also use them more like board games. When I have a friend from out of town come to visit, and we're looking for something to do, I'll break out Steven Spielberg Presents Boom Blox. When my fiancée's parents come down for the weekend, I might put in Wii Sports. I played MadWorld, but I rented it. When I buy games for the Wii, it is to play those games with other people and, these days, the other people I play games with aren't usually "hardcore." I am not alone in this.

When you look at the top selling Wii games, you don't see a lot of single player or traditional game titles. What you do see are, for the most part, games that you can pick up and play with other people who happen to be around. Even Wii Fit, which I use mostly for personal exercise, has a serious set of minigames that can be enjoyed by a group of people.

In short, as consoles become more accessible and penetrate the market deeper, the difference between video games and regular games is shrinking in peoples eyes. The Wii is being used the same way that cards and board games have been used for millenia. Looked at in this way, the Wii isn't the odd man out, it's a "market correction," showing the hardcore gaming market to be the niche that it really is.

All of this is not to say that hardcore and mature games do not have a place on the Wii. Sega was, reportedly, happy with the apparently meager sales of MadWorld. Considering what they must have saved on asset generation in that game, between the lower res and polygon requirements of the Wii and a pallete made up of four colors (one of which is reserved for UI), I'm sure they are happy. The trick is to manage your expectations.