Feeling Ignored by Sony and Microsoft? Nintendo Loves You!

Nintendo Wii

As far as my wife is concerned, our PlayStation 2 is a device whose sole purpose is to play Katamari Damacy, a wonderfully whimsical Japanese video game that's almost impossible to describe and incredibly addictive.

Unfortunately, most of the other PlayStation offerings aren't like Katamari. They're about racing, sports, adventuring and fighting, and they're meant for the more serious gamer who wants to spend tens, hundreds or even thousands of hours on matches or missions. Go to any video game store or rental place and see if you can find what are being called “casual games” — videogames that you can play and complete in session lasting an hour, a half-hour or even ten minutes, most of which don't have any violence, such as Tetris, Bejeweled or one of my favorites, Bust-a-Move (a.k.a. Puzzle Bobble).

Both the XBox 360 and the upcoming PlayStation 3 are aimed at the serious gamer — typically male, single and having plenty of time to spend an increasing number of hours “grinding” on games whose virtual worlds are expanding. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas gave us a miniature state with facsimiles of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas with lots of backwoods and desert — it can take twenty minutes of real time or more just to get from one end of the map to the other. Just Cause makes you a sort of Che Guevara character and offers 21 missions and 12,000 square kilometers of banana republic to explore, and still the reviews say the gameplay is “too short”. The game vendors' message is clear: If you're not hardcore, we've got nuthin' for you.

The Economist has an interesting piece on Nintendo's strategy with their upcoming Wii: they're going after the gamers and Microsoft and Sony have chosen to ignore. They're applying the lessons from their popular Nintendo DS (at the June 2006 RailsConf, which had a number of the thought leaders in new-school web development in attendance, the DS was the second-most popular machine there, just behind Mac notebooks and ahead of Wintel laptops) to the console and capture a market segment made up of non-gamers and casual gamers. Rather than emphasizing features like new graphics engines and processor cores, Nintendo are focusing on simplified controls, games that appeal to women and casual gamers and non-game functions such as weather and other information channels. As the article puts it:

As it sets out to broaden the gaming population, Nintendo is not
fighting against Sony and Microsoft, says [Nintendo president] Mr Iwata. Its real enemy is
the indifference that many people still feel towards gaming. Of course,
says Mr Iwata, he would be happy if Nintendo became the leading
console-maker again as a result of its new approach. But a victory over
Sony and Microsoft in a shrinking market, he says, would not be a
victory at all.