08 February 2010

Hidden Potential (And Why the Wii Doesn't Have Any)

I watched the Super Bowl yesterday with a friend of mine who works as a game developer here in Vancouver.

One of the many benefits of living in Vancouver, besides near constant rain and high taxes and all the natural beauty your eyes can take: Becoming friends with developers.

A couple of things about watching the Super Bowl in Canada:

1. The commercials are completely different here and, for the most part, lame. (I had to watch all the "real" commercials online after the fact, including the Dante's Inferno commercial.)

2. It's very difficult to find anyone who genuinely gives a rat's ass about the Super Bowl in Canada.

My friend, who I will refer to as "Thumb-Blaster" in order to protect his identity, is probably the only person on earth to have finished No More Heroes (the man found every damn collectible in the game) and to also suffer from a pathological Modern Warfare 2 obsession. He's a terrific human being, full of curiosity, neuroses and savvy insights into life, and more importantly, how games are made.

As you've probably guessed, Thumb-Blaster isn't much of a football fan. To keep Thumb-Blaster engaged, I did my best to make nerd-centric small talk during the game's idle moments (i.e. during the Canadian commercials). We discussed Battlestar, the merits of The Saboteur, The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess (he loved it; I'd rather have my taxes done than play it again), and so forth.

Yes, it was an old fashioned, boot-stomping, nerd-style hoedown.

During halftime, as we consumed sausages at an almost alarming rate, I asked Thumb-Blaster why Wii games haven't evolved the way that games typically evolve over the lifecycle of a console. In other words, Twilight Princess (2006) and, to an even greater degree Metroid Prime 3 (2007), looked terrific, but more recent Wii games don't necessarily look, or play, any better than those first-generation Wii titles. Early games for the PS2, 360, and PS3 have all made significant strides over time. Yet the Wii appears to have stalled out. How come?

Thumb-Blaster's response: "It's because the Wii just kind of laid it all out there."

Explanation: "It's an easy machine to understand, and to program for. Therefore, there are no hidden possibilities in the hardware to be uncovered. Basically, with the Wii, what you see is what you get."

On the other hand, Thumb-Blaster continued, the nuances of both the 360 and the PS3 are still being sussed out. "We don't really know what [these machines] are capable of yet. We're still trying to figure them out. Truth is, no one really knows what to do with the cell processors yet. Nobody really knows how to use them. People are starting to experiment, but we're still a long way from having a handle on them."

I went back to my sausage sandwich. I'd never thought of these machines as being mysterious before. I liked the idea that both machines hold some hidden, unrealized potential. Neither machine seems even remotely tapped out yet. (Hell, I'm still convinced that the PS2 has some life left in it.)

I once loved my consoles. The Super Nintendo? Man, I would have married that thing, and kissed it and loved it all night long in the honeymoon suite at the Radisson.

I've never been in love with the 360 or the PS3; not like that, anyway. Both seem a little cold and distant and distant and alien. They're like attractive women at a party who won't talk to me, but instead prefer only to peer at me askance. I've never loved them as objects; I don't think I ever could. I need them, but I'm indifferent towards them. If either one broke down, I wouldn't mourn the loss. I'd simply head to the nearest store and buy a new one.

Still, after Thumb-Blaster's words of wisdom--Thumb-Blaster is so very wise--I'm not exactly ready to rent out the Radisson honeymoon suite just yet, but I am just a tad more fond of both machines today.


  1. I would imagine top-tier developers for the Wii don't really see any financial advantage in evolving the games. As it is they put out a popular title and it sells like gangbusters. Is it worth the extra costs of development for a negligible increase in sales? I think most people who would really care about the increased performance aren't playing the Wii much to begin with.

  2. the canadian commercials always suck. that's why you watch the american HD feed.

  3. "Hell, I'm still convinced that the PS2 has some life left in it."

    If that is true then there is potentially life left in the Wii as its graphics and processing capabilities are roughly equivalent to the original Xbox and PS2. Don't blame the hardware for the shovelware. It's the developers that create it. A simple programming model should make game development cheaper which unfortunately the uninspired game developers seem to take advantage of. There are plenty "inspired" titles for the PS2 and original Xbox - games of the same caliber should be possible for the Wii, especially if waggle controls would be suitably de-emphasized and the Classic Pro and GameCube controllers would be more universally supported. I suspect however that the "inspired" developers are too busy developing games for the "cooler", more challenging platforms. They will only start to pay attention to the Wii install base once it starts to have a better attach ratio - but that may require a greater variety and (on average) better games.

    "I liked the idea that both machines hold some hidden, unrealized potential."

    That potential will be left unrealized unless the platform has a sufficiently long life cycle. And the hardware has lost its glitz long before that potential is realized. The unrealized potential tends to inflate the platform's price when it is introduced which in turn impedes its adoption as only early adopters will purchase it. I suspect that the Sega Dreamcast's potential was never realized and all the unrealized potential of the PS3 almost cost it its commercial viability. Which one of the current "sales generation" has been making the most profit? Early adopters are expected to pay for "potential" that they cannot immediately exploit (other than through bragging rights) - hopefully their platform will not fail in the market leaving that potential forever unrealized and hopefully their unit will not fail until they can exploit the potential they paid for. From a consumer perspective it makes more sense to acquire a platform when it is closer to realizing its potential as the technology is cheaper and the selection of games is wider and more varied. The PS2 has been an absolute bargain for the past few years.

    Most of us would love to drive a Formula 1 (up to date and maxed out PC gaming Rig) or (and) a Sportscar (Xbox 360, PS3) but most of the time that Toyota Corolla (Wii, PS2) will do just fine.

    So far it seems that the software developers simply followed their existing target audience from the previous "technology generation" - former PS2 and Xbox owners who just can't get enough eye candy and on-line multiplayer action and others with similar cravings. From that perspective the more "advanced" platforms are a safer choice.

    Doesn't it seem the slightest bit odd that we need a PS3 to play successful contemporary titles like Pixeljunk monsters (granted now also available on PSP) and Pixeljunk shooter?

  4. SCOTT Grow your beard again! Friggin pimp brother!