Will Wii Win?

Yes. But I’m not quite stooping to one word posts yet, so let me elaborate.

Just a day into my traditional but sadly cut short New Year break I had some good karma; I had spent a morning vigorously cleaning the house, the “osouji”, the traditional year end big clean, and with everything sparkly and shiny I went out to buy myself some lunch. On the way to the supermarket I figured I might as well try the local Tsutaya, a DVD rental shop that also sells games (game rentals in Japan don’t exist, not since the Dreamcast’s heroic attempt to start some). I usually avoid them as they don’t really have a good loyalty points system and their games are always slightly dearer, or seemingly so, compared to other shops. As I walked in there was a big sign with the usual “out of stock” in big red kanji but also a line telling me to ask at the counter. Glancing around a bit I spot a few DS Lite boxes, a few Xboxen, a fair amount of dusty PSPs but no Wiis. The shop was fairly empty and at least two cashiers were bored, one of them looking at me expectantly. So I go over to her and ask “You don’t have any Wiis, do you?” expecting the answer no. “Let me check!” she replies and as I turn I say “well, thanks anyw…what??!” she disappears through a door leading to a backroom and returns not seconds later carrying a brand-spanking new Wii. Inside my head the Zelda achievement tune goes off.

Even though I’ve had plenty to keep myself busy this short break I have had a jolly good go on the Wii and all in all I am fairly impressed; moreso than I was expecting to be, as an outed fanboy and not being entirely new to the machine. I sincerely believe, sales figures proving this fact already notwithstanding, the Wii will make a huge splash in Japan, and I’ll try to detail some reasons why this may be the case.

Image
With the massive and unparalleled success of the DS and DS Lite Nintendo already have a strong foothold in the games market, one they had almost lost with the Gamecube vs. PS2. The Gamecube did alright in Japan but not amazingly so. And I remember it was on the back of that that the announcement of the upcoming DS was met with derision and scorn. “Who needs two screens?” “Touch screen is so gimmicky!” “PSP will kill the DS.” These were all “predictions” I heard from people who should really have known better. It may have taken a little while but it is undeniable the DS rules the handheld market and, in Japan at least, left the PSP in the dust.
With some major selling titles out right now, including Nintendogs, Pokemon, Brain Training and a variety of other non-game product, Nintendo seems to be, once again, the by-word for gaming fun. The Wii and its marketing seem to enforce this idea. You want to have fun, as much fun as you’re having with the DS? Well, the Wii is your obvious choice, the adverts seem to suggest.

Whereas Sony and the unlucky but plucky Microsoft are pushing power over anything else, Nintendo has wisely focused on the products, the products that will sell the console. The Japanese, though exceptions exist of course, are really not that bothered about GPUs, CPUs and memory. 50 GB discs are really not worthy of mention compared to, say, DS/Wii connectivity or being able to play Mario by waving a white stick around.

User-friendliness
To paint a little too simplistic a picture, when Microsoft integrated on-line capabilities into the Xbox it took as its base the way PCs handle it: friends-lists, browsing, etc. It was all slightly computery. Sony copied Microsoft in this regard. Only Nintendo had the foresight to rethink the whole situation and came up with the Mii channel. Why have a friends-list when you can have little cartoony versions of you and your friends walk about in a virtual space? Little characters that are not only great fun to create but also turn up in a variety of games as players or audience. It’s such a simple and elegant gimmick I am not surprised the usually apathetic Japanese are suddenly coming acutely alive to the idea of on-line gaming and sharing.

Even connecting the Wii to your Wifi network is easy as pie. And once you’re on, you’re on. I have heard some people complain the interface is terribly childish and rubbish-looking. It’s true it isn’t all shiny, neat buttons and cool imagery, but think about it from a non-gamer’s perspective. It’s easy to navigate! Have you tried going from A to B on the PS3s (and PSPs) slick but obfuscated interface? Compared to that the Wii’s simplicity is obviously a strength. It may turn off some, what people call, “hard-core gamers”, but it’s fairly obvious Nintendo isn’t aiming at that market. They seem to be supplying fun for everybody rather than those few hard-to-please “hard-core” types who will, let’s face it, bitch and moan about anything and demand to be heard on forums and, ahem, blogs.

The simple, big-buttoned and easy to understand interface and on-line connectivity of the Wii will do a lot more to bring the Japanese on-line than anything the competition has tried so far.

IPs
Aside from the controller, which is novel, new and therefore exciting, Nintendo is sitting on a veritable goldmine of IPs, and the Japanese are hungry for them! Zelda, Mario, Pokemon, Animal Forest, only one console plays these. And what do the people in Japan want to play? Exactly.
Though we still have to wait for Mario (and as someone who’s played part of it I can say it will most definitely be worth the wait!) Nintendo is already providing a back-catalogue to keep us occupied in the Virtual Console channels. Harking back to the previous point, getting Wii points is easy; just buy a card, enter the serial number and download away! And though the selection isn’t so huge right now it does already offer old games of the kind people love. Mario 64, the pre-N64 Zeldas, Street Fighter, some classic shooters. How many times can I buy, play and complete “A Link to the Past”? Well, at least one more time, apparently. And at these prices it’s a pretty good deal too. If you find Maio 64, the original cartridge, expect to still pay 5000 Yen (US$ 42, EUR 32) for it, but in Wii points it’s merely a 1000 (US$ 8.4, EUR 6.3). Famicom games go for 500 each (US$ 4.2, EUR 3.2), and Super Famicom nearer 800 (US$ 6.7, EUR 5). On top of that it also offers PC Engine and MegaDrive games and soon MSX too!

But can old games sell a console? No, obviously not. But they do offer a cheap, impulse-buy alternative to gamers waiting for the next iteration of Mario or people who simply want to relive the glory days of the 8 and 16 bit eras. And though Microsoft is offering some excellent titles through their Live Arcade service they are more expensive and unknown IPs. Even their library of classic games cannot match Nintendo’s. With fashion-hungry people like the Japanese you cannot underestimate the power of an established IP. Just see how many copies Gundam for the PS3 sold, and hat is, by all accounts, a travesty of a game.

Size and price do matter!
Size maybe not so much, but image does. The Japanese like their slick designs and that may explain why the Gamecube wasn’t quite the success Nintendo was hoping for. But the Wii is small, compact, slick and clean. Exactly the kind of thing the Japanese go ape-shit over. Compare that to the curved, bulky designs of both the Xbox and PS3 and it may give a little clue as to the apparent early success of the Wii.

But that can only ever be a very small part of it though. Price is probably the clincher. If you’re earning little money, as a lot of Japanese are, and you have a family to support, 60,000 Yen (US$ 500, EUR 380) for a toy is simply too much of an expense. 25,000 (US$ 210, EUR 160) though reaching the upper limits of impulse-purchase bracket is a much fairer price to ask for a console and will probably push those people on the fence towards the Wii. So it is less powerful? But who needs power if the choice is between Resistance: Fall of Man and Pokemon Battle Stadium? You have two young kids and they want to play games; obviously the Wii is going to prove the best value for money with the most appropriate and loved games.

Rich Uncle Sam
Nintendo probably realized the major market for games these days is North America. Apart from maybe one or two major titles Japanese games sell by a factor of n more in the US than at home. Very few companies really know what to do with this and continue to focus on the home market rather than, as any successful publisher would do, the US one. Nintendo realizes the power of the American market and with the launch of the Wii acted on it appropriately: it released in the US first. Sure, Japan and Europe followed closely behind, in an interval short enough to not piss people off too much, but still, the US was first. This is not a dig at Sony for delaying the EU launch of the PS3 so much thereby enraging a vocal minority of hard-core gamer with internet connections, but it simply shows Nintendo’s level headed approach to the global market for gaming which is slanted towards the Americas. This does little to explain its apparent early success in Japan but it is worth mentioning. Having more units out there for this almost-global launch did put it ahead of its closest competitor though. Wiis were sold out everywhere but new supplies were being provided constantly. It’s true that even these sell out immediately, but they seem to be making more of an effort than Sony in keeping shops as best supplied as they possibly can.

Fan loyalty
In Japan companies know customers expect free goodies for loyalty. If you extent your newspaper subscription for example you get given all manner of household goods, washing powder, washing up liquids; all this after you have already pledged your money to them. It’s a little thank you present for being such nice customers. This goes a long way and Nintendo play that game very well. Club Nintendo in Japan is actually worthwhile; the presents you can get on points are usually pretty cool. Gold and Platinum members, which depends on how many points you accrue, get given extra freebies, probably at quite a cost to Nintendo. Last year it was a calendar and the Wiimote television remote control, this year a limited edition Tingle DS game, not available in the shops, or a customized Wiimote battery cover featuring your favourite Mii character. It’s all pretty useless but really makes the fan feel special and appreciated. They didn’t ask for this stuff but they get it, for free; it’s not available anywhere else so it has collectable value too.
So far neither of the competitors has instigated anything remotely similar to Club Nintendo.

~ ~ ~

The early victories of the Wii over the PS3 must be taken in context though. Don’t forget that Sony utterly dropped the ball with not supplying adequate units for its launches and the fact the PS3 sold less is very likely mostly due to there being fewer PS3 available. In the long run only a fool would predict the PS3 will fail; Sony has an incredibly strong brand in the Playstation and even their recent hubris and bad decision making can’t kill a whole console line outright. No, the PS3 will do admirable sales eventually, I am sure of it. The Wii though has a head-start and has already won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Japanese public, The year’s major purchasing season is over and Wii and moreso the DS ruled it. Sony will have to wait for the next big purchasing season or hope the constant trickle of sales throughout the year will bring them up to speed, but they really could have used this festive period for a big early push.

In the end it is injudicious to speak of winners or that hateful term “console war”. If all three players are successful the real winners are the gaming public and, in turn, the game developers and publishers. For me or any developer or gamer to wish for a clear winner or clear losers is self-defeating and unconstructive. I certainly hope the PS3 can keep its fair share of the market and the Wii will keep selling, as well as Microsoft finally cracking that Japanese market that has eluded it so far despite some heroic efforts. As a consumer though, my choice is clear: the Wii is providing me more value for money and fun than either of its competitors could hope to manage. It may change with the release of new titles and some much needed price drops, but this final financial year’s quarter Nintendo is rightfully laughing all the way to the bank.

8 comments:

  1. Mario 64 for 5000yen? Maybe a mint in box copy, but finding an n64 and copy of the game is certainly not hard. I've seen then for 1500yen to 2500yen in recycle shops, and I doubt the difference is much if you go to a game centre.

    The only thing the Wii Virtual Console offers is extreme convenience and the ability to buy a few titles at big savings. R-Type III is quite hard to locate cheap, and I'm sure some of the NES games are becoming quite rare, but having them all downloadable and playable on one tiny little box that sits unobtrusively by the tv is the main appeal for me.

    At the moment the VC is lacking many quality titles, with Nintendo and the publishers that are onboard the VC train releasing just a few games at a time meaning that you probably won't be able to get what you have been looking for - at least not for a while. Then there is the fact that some publishers (Capcom!) are intent on milking franchises they have already milked the god damned freaking fuck out of (Street Fighter) by releasing the earlier versions first and then presumably the upgraded versions (Super, Turbo) down the line when fans get bored of the slow speed and inability to play certain characters, etc.

    On top of this, if you live in Europe you are going to get 50hz refresh rates and black borders in a lot of your games, censorship coming back from the dead and not being able to get games quite as early as the Japan even to this day over a virtual console.

    Sorry... I'd better stop ranting about the VC. It's pretty good, but there are so many annoying things about it. I guess it's about the best thing as far as legal emulation goes, and I've bought two games on it so far (Gunstar Heroes and R-Type III), though I'm not sure if I am going to buy a game I already own on the SNES again.

    YMLL

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  2. btw, I meant 1500 for the game AND an n64. If you have a lot of room then you might be able to make some savings on later purchases and be able to get games that don't come to VC in a timely fashion.

    I hope there will be a Saturn emu for VC, and if not, the PS3. Saturn games are right proper expensive.

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  3. I was also going to moan about the 50hz Euro games, surely you remember those from before your migration? ;)

    Also, Nintendo already conned my once with Mario 64DS (and at a hefty £29.99 I might add), I'm not too sure I want it for a third time!

    Still, damn lucky at finding the Wii. Like an idiot I preordered from Currys here in the UK, and they've lot little support from Nintendo as they were so keen to drop GC support a few years back. Like many people I'm still waiting :<

    Enquiring question - what games did you manage to pick up? I notice from the Japanese charts Wii Sports has proven a massive success and Zelda failed to break keep in the top 10 (or 20?).

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  4. I haven't been checking sales figures really, but I'm not surprised Wii Sports is doing well. It's a lot of fun and precisely aimed at that audience Nintendo are hoping to grab with the Wii.
    As for me, I picked up a few titles. Zelda, of course, Sports, HajimetenoWii, Elebits, Wario. Also got me Maio64 (he), Bomberman 94 and Gunstar Heroes from the VC.

    I *have* forgotten about 50Hz woes by now, I'm afraid. 6 years of living in an NTSC country has made me very selfish in that regard. :)

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  5. Aw man, it's so cruel the way you translate those costs. Instead of keeping the same number and changing the monetary symbol as the Nintendo does in the way it treats other territories.
    Especially the SM64 thing. which isn't 6,4 euro as oine'd expect, but nearly double that here in europe.

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