Wii don't need no education

Written by Brett Thomas

May 21, 2006 | 13:13

Tags: #name #revolution #wii

Companies: #nintendo

Ok, I have a confession to make: I wrote a column avoiding E3, the Wii, and everything else related to consoles altogether. I think you might even like that column, as the market is inundated with fifteen million takes on the show and its deeper meaning to the industry and consumers and all that jazz. But here's another confession: this isn't that column. I wanted to avoid it, I really did, but I can't... after E3, the Wii permeates my thoughts. So, you'll just have to wait until next time to hear my theory on how MS and Macintosh will join forces and take over the world.

For now, I want to talk about history, marketing, games, violence, the male ego, and Nintendo. I got to thinking about this in depth during a discussion with my friend Hiren (many of you will know him as -H- on bit's forums) in regards to our recent E3 coverage over at NBS-Review. Last week in our podcast, we had touched on how different Nintendo's lead-up to launch has been compared to Sony and Microsoft. In the interest of staying on the technical topic, though, we didn't descend into how and why. But Ninty's launch tells us a lot about our industry, and about what we really want as gamers - and how much we have settled for the pretty, flashy, often content-lacking programmes handed to us by the industry. Many of us rail at pop music and reality television, but I don't think we've ever stopped to consider the ultimate marketing hype and machine that is the gaming industry.

"Has anyone bothered to notice how aggressive, particularly in western culture, the gaming industry has become?"

First, a brief history lesson. Back in the early 1980s, the video game market was dying. Games that were written were no longer of any quality, several of them even lacked much input from the player and were almost "tech demos" of what the systems at that time could do. Many games almost completely copied each other, sometimes with little but a small graphics change in one enemy being all that separated one game from another. Video game makers went bankrupt, publishers followed, and stores stopped carrying them. That was, of course, until a Japanese company by the name of Nintendo stepped into the ring, bringing its "Famicom" (short for "Family Computer") console over, renamed to us as the NES. With its "Seal of Quality" program, it was easy for people to buy video games that were entertaining and maintained to a particular level of professionalism. In a nutshell, Nintendo saved our beloved industry. We've come a long way, haven't we? From Space Invaders clones to Mario to Doom 3 to Gears of War.

But along the way, has anyone bothered to notice how aggressive, particularly in western culture, the gaming industry has become? I don't mean just violence in the games themselves, though that certainly is a part of it. Everything in the industry has become super-saturated with aggression. Even in nomenclature...the term Super (denoting some type of hierarchy) no longer cuts it, it must also have some connotation to battle or conflict. For instance, let's take a simple and what seems to be a rather harmless name such as X-Box 360. The letter X carries a semantic stigma - the letter itself denotes conflict by its very sound. This was chosen with a reason, of course. A huge research group was undoubtedly used to find something that could be simple but yet still sound powerful (another strong aggressive emotion). And if you look at many of the games in production for the 360, such as Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto 4, it gets its point across. X, War, Battle, Blood... and then we can get into the PlayStation (a fairly innocuous name by all accounts), where we have titles like Killzone, Battlefront, etc. In fact, most of the top rated games for sale today (and anticipated titles for tomorrow) depict or elicit some high amount of aggressive tendency.

No, I don't believe in Jack Thompson's idiot parade of "Games create murderers," I'm simply talking marketing strategy for a little background. These games and their names all denote a feeling of power, which caters to the alpha-male in all of us (no matter how big or how small, it's there... even in women). Something about it speaks to us on a primal level. Even the companies themselves duel in epic battles now, with Sony and Microsoft in a power struggle that could only be reminiscent of an old American Gladiators jousting contest. And in these fights for power, many of us have commented at how the content is slipping to dangerous levels again. The first GTA was edgy and incredibly creative. But the fourth, now? And how many times will Lara Croft's breasts continue to take our $50, when the best thing that can be said about her latest outing is that it's "much more like the first game than the last 3 or 4 were"?

"Nintendo did something that provided almost instant and total market penetration"

It is in this Brave New World that Nintendo brought forward the concept of the Revolution. From a marketing standpoint, the word "revolution" inspires a feeling of resistance, of a changing of command and authority. To me, this is why the name got changed: all of that is a description of more alpha-male tendencies, which isn't much of a revolution at all. No, they wanted this console to be completely different.

When the Revolution's name changed to the Wii, I commented in our forums what a brilliant idea it was. Nintendo did something that provided almost instant and total market penetration and yet managed to completely remove any hint of ego-centric, alpha-male nomenclature. It was not offensive, grotesque, testosterone-laced, or aggressive. What it lacked in those things it made up for with simplicity, creativeness, uniqueness, and being all-around catchy. Less than two weeks before the same E3 conference that Sony practically blew off with a bunch of "been there, done that" tech-demos, Nintendo had the whole world talking about its Wii.

Now, many people laughed at the connotation that this could have, with everyone wanting to Wii, and many even said that Ninty must not have thought of our possible translation. I think they may have known exactly what they were doing, as now everyone in the west wants some of Nintendo's Wii. And after Steve Ballmer's comments about his family not owning an iPod, can't you just wait to see him stand up in front of a press conference and talk about how his kids aren't allowed to Wii in his house?
All perverse jokes aside, the name change was a great marketing tactic. The overarching alpha-male tendencies were removed, and you were left with something that sounded almost like a partnership: Wii. This is a big change from the rest of the gaming world, who want you to feel like you dominate with their superior graphical power in high definition (notice those words again...) Instead, Nintendo are offering to team up with their consumer, their very advertising talks about things in a "paired" sense - Nintendo and the player, revolutionizing gaming together. We. Wii. Seriously, Ninty's marketing team deserves a medal for this.

"Sony talks to us like we would be lucky to own their system"

While all this has been going on, they have spent almost no effort bashing the other consoles or trying to tell you what not to buy. We are left with the feeling of this big war between Sony and MS, where Nintendo is an unfortunate bystander just trying to make fun games. The whole thing leaves you feeling positive about your choice to purchase the Wii, almost as if it doesn't need to compete in such paltry tactics.

In contrast, Sony talks to us like we would be lucky to own their system, and what value a $600USD Blu-ray player provides the average home. Seriously, I couldn't make hubris like this up if I tried. Before I bash them too much, I want to note that they are not coming out of left field, here. This is an authentic marketing tactic. By putting on airs of superiority, they are leaving us to infer that the superior people will buy their console. Believe it or not, this strategy actually works surprisingly well in certain cultures - the only problem is that over here, I tend to get a little annoyed when someone tells me I should be lucky to own a $600 George Foreman grill look-a-like. I've got real one, thanks, and it didn't cost me $600. In most western cultures, advertising works by building respect and desire for the product through respecting the product's potential purchasers. It's a two-way street over here, not a kinky bondage club where a leather-clad Sony rep with a whip asks us to lick her controller.

But its name is not the only way that the Wii has altered the norm. Everything about the console screams that it wants to be a part of how you live and play. Even its understated looks and simple design echo this: it looks like something that would be at home in many entertainment centers, without dominating your view. The games are catchy, fun, and unique. The possibility of playing some of the old greats is a temptation almost too much to resist. The price was designed to not break the bank. From the ground up, Nintendo built this system to complement any household with even the slightest interest in video games. The controller no longer requires complicated button sequences; instead, it focuses on how you would naturally move to perform an action. Not only is this just a whole lot more fun and immersive, it also drops learning curves incredibly, making the games become more accessible to everyone.

As for the games themselves, the launch titles alone (many of which were playable at E3) are poised to make these consoles fly off the shelf. Zelda, Mario, Metroid... even if these were the only games to get released, the console would be a smash hit. Add on top of those a Wii Sports package, and a download center for all of your old classics, then there's a little something for everyone, and that's just at release. Casual gamers will certainly be intrigued by the unique Nunchuk controller addition, older gamers will find the “old school SNES style” one familiar. What's more, the majority of the games released are really family games, things that you can have your little brother watch you play without feeling like you've just stolen away his innocence at a very young age. Of course there will be “adult” games on the Wii from 3rd party developers to prevent the console being labeled with the “kiddie” tag: Red Steel from Ubisoft certainly seems to be promising the Wii’s fair share of bullets and guts.

"People walked out of the Wii booth at E3 smiling, laughing, and jovially talking about how fun the game was"

This, my dear friends, is brilliance in action. From design to marketing to production to sales, this product is revolutionizing our concepts about what a game company should be, and about what we expect to receive from that company. Despite all of our initial insults and all of our disbelief, Nintendo has marched forward slowly to the beat of a very different drummer: us. People walked out of the Wii booth at E3 smiling, laughing, and jovially talking about how fun the game was, as opposed to how they completely owned each other. Even if the Wii should fail in terms of sales numbers, it will go down in history much like the Dreamcast for being inventive and ahead of its time. I hold that probability between "slim" and "none", though, as Sony and Microsoft are taking turns talking about how their system is the better one to be paired with the Wii. Both claim that the Wii will be the best second console... but if, by definition, most people who buy either the PS3 or XBox also buy a Wii, then clearly the Wii will outsell both of them by a considerable margin. So who is the second console, again?

Back in the 1980s, Nintendo single-handedly saved the industry of video games from its own self-absorbed destruction. As console prices reach new highs, games become ever more shiny and ever less creative, it looks like they just might do it again. Saturo Itawa-san, we are in your debt.

Vive la resistance. Vive la Revolution, sorry, Wii.
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