I don’t know if you've heard but… shhh: there's the three generation Curse going around.
Don’t tell anybody.
You see, this curse? It's a killer. Deadly. Like something out of a twisted Roald Dahl tale (is there any other kind?), it swoops down without fail, takes out leading console publishers and renders them beaten. Replaced. Forgotten.
"We're through the looking glass here, people."
Of course, this is mostly b*ll*cks. A wonderful bedtime dipped mythology that exists in our fair gaming industry, used to frighten the unwary and perpetuate an acceptance of inevitable change. Nothing is forever. Console publishers rise, they fall, and if they have enough money and sense, rise again.
The reason this has come up right now, is because we appear to be on the verge of another switch. Where one publisher/manufacturer takes a bow, exits ungracefully from the top spot to be overtaken by a rival. In this particular case, the word around the water cooler is that Sony, dominant for two prior console generations, is going to be usurped by Nintendo. So, PlayStation3 -obviously the third iteration of Sony's world beating console franchise- is to be superseded by Wii, Nintendo's young gun; despite being less powerful, having a 'new' brand against a proven and very powerful one, and fighting a rather unfair yet persistent image slant that it's supposedly more for kids.
At this point, it'd not be unreasonable to ask "why?" The odds are seemingly against Wii to do as well as this three generation Curse would imply. For the Curse to truly be as potent as we've seen before, it would mean PlayStation3 would be dominated quite noticeably by Wii. Which doesn’t seem too likely.
There are very few true certainties. And only a crazy person would put their stock in superstition. However, there are lessons from history to be learned. In fact, a closer look at the reasons behind why each console manufacture's fall every three generations is actually quite obvious when you take a look beyond our attractive folklore. The answer? The reason behind the Curse? Why each leading publisher appears destined to fail every third successive console it throws out? Come closer. This wont be a surprise, but it's worth getting as close as possible. For dramatic effect.
The answer behind all this?
More specifically, a new audience.
True, there are often issues that arise from the inevitable complacent mistakes a publisher will make. Overconfidence. Arrogance. Stubbornness. Misplaced faith in certain technology or media. Neglecting particular markets and then relying on them to make a difference without putting in the effort to woo them. These are all factors that could be applied to just about any company at numerous points in videogame history. But what it boils down to, the main large factor that changes everything, is the attraction of a new audience. Fresh meat.
Each successful phase follows a rather notable pattern. With the first machine, the publisher gathers a new consumer or new type of gamer and introduces them into the medium via its more specialised games, geared to them. That console then becomes a market leader from the sheer force of bringing in this 'virgin' blood. The mainstream dollar. More game genres are spawned from these opening gambits, further attracting this new audience and providing an interest in gaming that may not have been there before. Then between those types of game and the console itself, that becomes a brand; the buying market associates that console maker with a type of game they like, and follow it.
Come the subsequent generation, that audience is solidified. The publisher has its faithful new followers along with the hardcore gamers that every machine has, and any newbies who missed out the first time. As third party software developers follow the leader, the market gets flooded with identical game types to capitalise on the fresh genres and recently discovered people who love them.
Then, as with anything, this new market becomes old. And by the time the third generation console comes around, these sparkling new genres are just as old. Tired and over-produced. Still popular, but the law of diminishing returns often reaches its peak by then and the gamers the console maker found, that rich vein of gold, is now exhausted. Very little new blood is coming in and the software is effectively just variations of the same thing that attracted the audience the first time, years ago. Which still sells, but doesn’t boom, because the gap between a first generation and third generation is usually around 10 years – an extremely long time for any technology based field. It's only natural the market would want something new to boost things again, otherwise the snake eats its own tail. At which point, there's a need to discover a whole new untapped demographic. And so the cycle starts again.
The Curse is totally audience driven. This may seem obvious, but it's far more important than we're led to believe. Publishers are very aware of it, otherwise it wouldn’t happen. Which means, you're probably asking why a leading publisher would let it happen if it's so aware. The answer is often: stability. If you're a market leader, you'll keep on doing what got you to that position. It's down to the rivals to chase, not you. Arrogant it may be, but market strength is very hedonistic, and if something works you keep doing it until it doesn’t. Some visionaries will surpass that and accurately predict market trends before they appear, but the odds are often against you. And when you're dealing with that much money, why take an unnecessary risk? Losing your position from self harm is far more damaging and humiliating than losing it to a stronger competitor.
If we're to follow this all, Nintendo will probably be hugely successful against general expectation. The word of mouth is already strong for the little white machine, despite having the 'childish' Nintendo brand and being severely underpowered compared to its rivals. But where its true triumph will lie is simply from bringing in new, uncalloused thumbs to the industry. The company has openly stated it wishes to net 'lapsed gamers' and consumers that typically ignored or bypassed by developers on a whole (such as older and female gamers). Regardless of whether you feel the Wii remote controller is an effective vehicle for this or not, the philosophy behind it is sound: reduce the intimidation factor of a standard game controller and create titles that hark back to simplicity, ease of play and tactility. Gaming has evolved to the point where long, complicated, 40+ hour titles are commonplace, which turns off these new targets. Flip that on its head, create a machine around a more relatively basic ideal, and you have something far different to contemporary consoles. In turn, that offers something to a new audience that they couldn’t get before. Something they actually want.
Take a look at each leading console publisher and what they offered on arrival. Atari brought with it the age of popular home based gaming. Nintendo refined that, appealing to a wider demographic. Broader game genres, increased control (with its distinguished d-pad and more buttons) and the introduction of mascots, which were adopted by a younger audience. Sega (Europe in particular) increased on those ideals but never truly pulling free from Nintendo's market. Sony arrived and mined previously ignored potential buyers; the image conscious and more 'adult' markets; the 18-24 year olds (mostly male), that were alienated by the focus on mascots and 'kiddie' based games. Incidentally, this group consisted not only of new gamers who didn’t play games before, but those who were growing up with gaming but feeling disillusioned with the medium – a common trait to the ever present hardcore. Microsoft continues to do what Sega did prior and share the market via its Xbox machines, but never loosening the stranglehold by Sony because they're after the same target Sony has already ingrained from the start. And now, Nintendo replies with Wii, which is tackling the audience that Sony left behind in its pursuit of the older, male dominated marks. A two-pronged attack to bring in those who are even older than Sony's demographic and those who are totally new to gaming.
Every time there's a change of market leader, it's via certain genres that got the leader to where it was before said genre became worn out. Once Nintendo caught the market, beat 'em ups (Street Fighter, Final Fight), action RPGs (Zelda, Secret of Mana), karting (Super Mario Kart) and platformers (Super Mario World et al) were the rage. They were driven into the ground by the time we got the PlayStation generation, which popularised rhythm action (PaRapper), survival horror (Resident Evil), stealth (Metal Gear Solid), sand box games (Grand Theft Auto) and eventually the FPS (although that was more via N64's Goldeneye and Microsoft's Halo) to console gamers. Which are now, the dominant but utterly saturated genres. Wii will introduce mini-games and new, previously uncreated genres to the mainstream market, which will then become the norm until three generations later when we'll be relatively tired of them. But the opening examples of these genres are the crossover titles that casual gamers (the audience who ultimately decides whether a machine is successful) will be often aware of, that helps convince them to buy a console.
Funnily enough, these 'new' genres are actually older than they appear, but largely ignored in comparison to when a chosen console turns them 'native'. Sega tried to bring us adult oriented titles via the ill-fated Mega CD and then Saturn. But it took PlayStation to capitalise on it. Same with EyeToy and SingStar right now. They're appealing to the same demographic Wii is appealing to, but have yet to take off worldwide because a large part of the audience isn’t aware of their existence and third party support is low. The sheer force of marketing and promotion a new console brings bypasses those pitfalls, which is partly the reason why Wii was born (along with ingrained guaranteed support of third parties) rather than the remote controller just being tagged on to the already existing Gamecube.
If Wii succeeds, it'll not be because of the imaginary Curse, but because it will be doing what every successful videogames company does; appealing strongly to a new market. There are naturally other contributory factors, but that's the crux that much of everything else surrounds. The female/non/lapsed gamers have been a target market for publishers since 2003/2004 as the only way the medium will grow. And Wii will capitalise on that, being the first console aimed directly at that audience from day one. Xbox 360 and PlayStation3 are fighting over the same targets publishers have been going after the past 10 years. Nintendo and Sega did the same before and it took Sony for them to realise they were looking in the wrong direction to expand. Same difference here. It's not that the current audience is weak, it's just that it's been drained compared to the one Nintendo is now after - and by all means, has already got via its incredibly popular DS handheld, which appeals to that same demographic (a similar one fashionable online mini-game producing companies like Yahoo, MiniClip and PopCap have). Raw power doesn’t matter. Only a chosen target audience and their response.
Better yet for Wii is that third parties will inevitably follow where the consumer goes, especially because the profit margins for the console are potentially greater. With the cost of development increasing, more companies -especially smaller ones- are in greater financial danger. Wii is encouraging lower dev costs and games that require smaller time commitment (the latter is partly what the target audience is attracted to), so third parties have less to risk and a larger market to gain. Games can be made quicker for greater profit, which results in more titles for the console. And the wider the variety, the larger the potential customers. This doesn’t mean other genres will die off. Sure, we'll see more WarioWare/Wii Sports and other 'waggle game' clones than ever before, as they'll be among the defining genres for this new generation, along with whatever revolutionary genres are eventually created, but there'll still be room for larger, more time intensive titles. Even if it will take a ton of mass produced mini-game driven titles to fund them.
No Curse. Just smart, inevitable business. Nintendo is learning from history's mistakes and doing what Sony did before it, offering a Trojan horse console to get into the house of the ignored/unrealised gamer. Meaning another two generations of Nintendo leading the market, as the previously mocked name of Wii becomes household in every sense and redefines gaming. Sure, watch Microsoft and Sony follow suit with their own motion controllers. It won't matter; the bulk of the new audience will already be blindly following what they know. Even the subsequent generation will still have that momentum, as it always does. There's a comforting safety in predictability. This isn’t to say Sony and Microsoft will 'die'. Of course they won't. They're far too strong and have more than just videogames to rely on for income. But they'll take a backseat for a while by comparison, gathering good sales, just not as dominant as before.
No matter what the naysayers may think, the Wii name, motion controllers and Nintendo seem here to stay*. Enjoy it.
*Well, at least for around another ten years, before the Curse -sorry, I mean, 'cycle'- starts all over again…
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