A look at how the Wii's success and popularity has impacted the game industry. Has the Wii gone a long way to saving the gaming industry?
Let that question just linger in your head for a short while.
What's likely to be the response is a barrage of other related questions. Has Wii 'saved' the games industry in ANY way? How can it? Does the industry even NEED saving? And from what?
All valid points, none of which yield immediately obvious answers. But there's a level of noticeable change in the industry that Wii is instigating to strongly suggest evidence of the machine's importance.
The most recent NPD report showed Nintendo not only did 'good business' for North America in April; it absolutely dominated. At 360,000 units, it sold over twice what Xbox 360 did (174,000) for the month, and left PlayStation3 eating a large amount of crow after it only managed a rather shockingly anaemic 82,000; a number beaten even by Nintendo's creaking Game Boy Advance.
Taking Wii away from that equation paints a disturbing picture of the home market. Xbox 360, while stabilising over the past half year, had a bad month, while PS3 suffered a terrible and utterly humiliating one, rather unfairly to boot. Both are fantastic machines with some brilliant games -Xbox 360 in particular, given the larger amount of time on the market- and deserve higher sales than that.
So… it's just a slow month. It happens.
Well, yes… and no. April is rarely a great time for shifting consoles, given it's on the borderline of what usually ends up the slowest and most barren season for the games industry. The spring-into-summer dry spell factor cannot be underestimated.
Yet… Wii sold all those units. In April. It didn’t just move a small number compared to its rivals; it pushed an OVERWHELMING number. An effect of Super Paper Mario? Well, looks to be that way, or at least in some form; the Nintendo game sold an impressive 352,000 for the month, which would ratio an attach-rate of nearly 1-1 to machines sold (although obviously that's not the case in realistic terms, but in number correlation it's an interesting factor). But Wii Play also had a large following in the same duration, at 249,000 units. So while software for other formats track at around the number of units shifted in that same month for their respective machines, both Wii Play and Super Paper Mario's strong showing suggest the absence of either one arguably wouldn’t have had too large an effect on Wii's sales for the month when you factor in the 'free' Wii Sports as well. It may not have sold as many machines without all three influential titles, but it likely would have still sold a large amount by comparison to others.
The question you have to ask is this: if Wii never existed, where would all of those new Wii users have migrated to?
And the most likely answer happens to be the scariest one; they mostly wouldn’t have gone anywhere. They probably just wouldn’t be playing videogames.
This may seem a little disingenuous, so let me explain before anyone starts revving up the flame engines of war. Wii's demographic is a curious one, mixing hardcore, casuals, lapsed and non gamers alike into one giant melting pot. Each games console does this to a degree, so nothing new there. However, Wii is easily the most prominent and successful console to do so and has clearly not only found an audience that had not truly been acknowledged before, but that audience has responded in turn by being far more noticeable. It would be a very myopic person who would deny that Wii has 'created' more gamers than any other console this generation. As I've stated many times before, when consoles are this obviously popular it's because they've found a new market and are sustaining its interest – we've seen the same effect with DS, PlayStation2, PS One and other big hitters.
Consider many of these new gamers disinterested in gaming before, as pretty much Wii's mantra. Not hard to believe: history dictates a potential market leader will find a new type of gamer (either ignored or just apathetic to the medium) faster than its rivals and explore them. Wii is doing for these untapped gamers what PS One did for their equivalent around ten years ago (albeit in a different niche)… just that instead of the 18-35 demographic, clubbers, adults and 'cool kids' that Sony courted, Nintendo has swooped in and got a large blot of flypaper for lapsed, female and non gamers.
Yes, PS3 and Xbox 360 may have got a very tiny percentage of them with overlap, but their main targets are the same hardcore that their predecessors appealed to. Which in the eyes of the audience that Wii currently has in its entirety, is nowhere near as appealing – otherwise their sales would clearly reflect otherwise. Without Wii, chances are they may have shrugged their shoulders and just not have bothered buying a console at all because prior to that they're conspicuous by their absence. And so the sales you see for April probably wouldn’t have been too much different from what you see now, leaving just a bare few extra units sold for Xbox 360 and PS3, and minus Wii's impressive batch.
I'm not saying that every single one of Wii's current six to seven million plus owners wouldn’t have purchased another machine had Nintendo's alternative one existed. I'm willing to bet there still would have been a decent number of migrations, not to mention those who own more than one console. But of that number, we'd be picking out the hardcore and casual gamers ALREADY interested in gaming, rather than the non and lapsed ones who are spiking Wii's sales and keeping them so consistently buoyant. There would have been increases in units shifted, but not the large number Wii seems to push on a monthly basis.
Without the little white machine, this driving audience would have just continued what they'd been doing the past fifteen or so years… and ignored gaming. In terms of sales figures, they just would have ceased to exist.
If you think differently, ask yourself if all the people who thought our medium was 'geeky' or 'childish' before they saw the light of the brilliant PS One when it came out would have bought Nintendo or Sega's new console.
Of course they wouldn’t. In their eyes, gaming would have remained 'geeky' and 'childish' and they'd not bothered. Replace 'geeky' and 'childish' with 'inaccessible' and 'insular' and you have what today's market feels about gaming. And to them, Wii is neither and thus worth their time and money. As a result, the industry grows and potentially avoids a worrying state of stunted growth where sales are too minutely incremental to sustain the medium. What potentially follows from that is painful stagnation and eventually an industry crash dangerously similar to what we experienced in early to mid 1980s. Wii may well have saved us from such a bullet.
Before cries of "bias mi'lud!" ring out, this isn’t something that can be attributed to any fanboyish 'Nintendo effect' either. Had the Kyoto based company released a highly powerful machine without motion control, games industry sales would still be in the comparative doldrums because it wouldn’t have attracted the same audience Wii does. This is primarily off the careful and well devised creation/use of the Wii remote, given the back-up of accessible hardware and a powerful image. The latter two are important, but without the remote they begin to flounder substantially as an industry expansion factor.
This isn’t to say there's no bad side to all this. Wii's positive effect on the industry doesn’t come without question marks over how third-parties will deal with the fact Nintendo's software often sells far more than their own offerings. April's figures show a startling difference between the numbers moved by the big N's titles compared to those via third-parties, especially given the lack of non Nintendo Wii games in the top ten all format charts. If third-parties struggle, how can Wii be the 'saviour' of anything when it makes things more difficult for the majority of the development community?
It's not something that can be answered easily. If third-parties fail to capitalise on Wii's success it does indeed create a vacuum effect that both PS3 and Xbox 360 have comparatively fewer problems with (neither format has to directly deal with the intimidating strength of Nintendo's games), which could damage certain companies and do more harm than good.
However, the counter balance is that if Wii is expanding the industry as much as it is, then it means greater opportunities and a more forgiving atmosphere for error. It's better to do 'average' on a format with 10 million users than it is to do 'decently' on one with 5 million. Nintendo may not be the easiest publisher to work under, but when it houses a format that has an audience as swiftly growing as it is, the rewards are far greater than the risks. And if that means some devs would be willing to take a few more adventurous steps in design as well to stand out from the crowd or hell, just make BETTER games to force their way past Nintendo's first-party juggernauts, then we're the ones who benefit.
Not everyone will like it, but Wii's achievements ARE good for the games industry. It may be too early to say whether it's 'saved' it, or even if it needed saving in the first place, but given how large our medium has grown -and essentially so- from its influence, one thing is very clear: we're far better off with it than without…