“It’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about no wheel at all,” explained legendary director and producer Steven Spielberg. Those words were used to describe Project Natal. Natal, of course, is Microsoft’s bid to capture a piece of the market Nintendo originally sought out (and succeeded) back in 2006. And with Sony’s “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” mentality, Microsoft isn’t embarking on this endeavor alone. At last year’s E3, both Sony and Microsoft announced their motion-control interfaces, codenamed Gem and Natal respectively. Is this the next step in the industry? One thing’s certain: the future of gaming is in motion.
Nintendo’s Wii has been a massive success. There’s no way around it. There are over 50 million living rooms adorned with the little white console. Its success is attributed to its uncanny appeal to the “casual” gamer. But I’m not here to lecture you on things you’re already aware of. The point of this article is not to question whether the future of video games lies in motion controls – that’s already certain – but rather, can Microsoft and Sony find a balance this generation?
A balance of what? There are two types of people who play video games, the gamer and the game consumer. Let me ask you this: is it reasonable to assume that something can appeal to every single consumer? Will the 50-year-old dad who enjoys a couple rounds of bowling in Wii Sports equally enjoy a marathon session of heart-stopping, palm-sweating Modern Warfare 2? Probably not, indicating that there is in fact a gray line separating gamer from game consumer. Is it possible, then, to appeal to both? Perhaps, but certainly not all games are able to freely traverse this boundary. This is the balance I speak of.
Nintendo has recognized this. Instead of catering exclusively to the gamer, it has broadened its focus by employing nearly all of its efforts into creating experiences that are unprecedented. Nintendo has unlocked a whole new demographic. Now grandparents, soccer moms and other baby boomers are playing video games.
This is where the issues begin. Many of the gamers feel that Nintendo has turned its back on them. Whether or not this is really true is a debate in and of itself. Regardless, the mere accusation poses a question: is it possible to cater to both the game consumer and the gamer and do so successfully? Specifically, can “hardcore” and “casual” gamers coexist right now on the same platform while maximizing that platform’s success?
Clearly Microsoft and Sony believe equilibrium can be sought as they have been hastily working to earn their piece of the pie, but isn’t the Wii’s huge success directly related to its exclusive use of motion controls? And isn’t the success of the PS3 and Xbox 360 – in their respective markets — attributed to the near-photorealistic graphics and awesome gameplay of the titles in their libraries? Can one have the best of both worlds and expect to be more successful or, at least, as successful as it was before? Arguably no, at least not in this generation, which is why I expect Natal and Gem to be flashes in the pan.
That’s not to say it can’t be achieved, but Sony and Microsoft need to face the facts. They’re too late to the party. In fact, Nintendo has already left the party and taken all the hot chicks with them. No one’s going to go out any buy an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 solely because of Natal or Gem because the people who care about that type of thing already own a Wii. But if these new technologies won’t shift units, which is what they’re designed to do, then what’s the point?
Realistically, Microsoft and Sony need to continue developing these new technologies until they can be implemented in a way that’s appealing to gamers and familiar to game consumers. My greatest fear is that Natal will seem like a cheap gimmick at worst and a tech demo at best. If they implement it improperly, they risk losing it all. Right now, the Xbox 360 and PS3 are too “hard” for game consumers, but if they dumb their consoles down, they will lose the gamer. In the meantime, these two companies need to hold on for dear life to their core userbase, the gamer.
Some argue that the Wii will be in trouble when Nintendo decides to launch a new console because the consumers of the Wii aren’t the type to go out and get the latest and greatest games. This is a valid point, but a point that’s partly incorrect. Yes, the core users of the Wii aren’t going to buy the newest games, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ever upgrade. Just like people purchase a new TV every so often, they will purchase a new system. Living in a consumerist world, it’s in our blood. Sure, it won’t be as frequent as a gamer’s upgrade, but I think Nintendo is smart enough to realize that. They know how to play the cards they’ve been dealt.
What will happen next generation? It’s hard to say, but it will be interesting – and important – to see how the efforts of Microsoft and Sony play out. Will they find a balance between the hardcore and casual gamers, or will they fall flat on their faces? And what of Nintendo and its catalyst, the Wii? The answers to all of these questions depend partly on the lifecycle of this generation’s consoles, but even then, it’s hard to know when the future of gaming is in motion.