What is it about a console launch that brings out the worst in us?
Case in point. Take a guess at which games machine the following complaints are levelled at:
"There's too much third-party shovel-ware."
"There's like, only one game that takes advantage of the control method."
"God, this is the worst launch ever. The games are terrible and other than ****** there's probably not another title I want from that whole line-up."
"I think I'm going to wait a year before I buy it."
Chosen your format? Chances are you may have said "Wii" – after all, this is a Wii site, so it's not too great a leap of assumption. In reality, I was talking about DS, so congratulations if you avoided the (very) obvious trap. But it's telling that these commonplace moans can be fired at Nintendo's handheld, Wii, or even the PlayStation3. It's one of the few things all three formats share, and despite their differences, there's nothing any of them can do about it. Mainly because, well, we're really just being awkward. We want everything right now, working perfectly with no problems, and heaven help the internet gods if that's not what we get.
In a day and age where fast food is the most commonly consumed edible product, flying across the globe takes less than a day, shopping can be purchased without leaving our homes, and we can voice our ever-present bitching within seconds in the public domain, we're a want-everything-quickly culture that's impossible to please. And it's only getting harder for console manufacturers as they try to find that sweet spot between providing a service that's attractive to us without showing their whole hand too early. Nintendo is the latest to be on the wrong end of our vicious collective internet tongue lashing. There's been a constant burble of discontent over the past few months leading up to what has been a successful launch for Wii (erm, quickly rectified WiiConnect problems notwithstanding). I've seen people whine that there's not enough software. That there's too much third-party crap. Too many titles that don’t use the Wii-remote. Not enough Virtual Console downloads at launch.
But let's be real about this for a moment.
It's not my job to defend one of the biggest games companies in the world. It's large enough and ugly enough to be able to take the slings and arrows of us petulant masses without a sole writer trying to pitch up the barricades. And at the same time, no company or person is above criticism. We're sure even the holiest of holies have made mistakes at times.
But honestly, let's take some of these arguments and flip them around for a brief second.
First of all, "not enough software". Now, as old as this will probably make me sound, it doesn’t seem too long ago that we were lucky to get three games -full stop- for a new console, and even luckier to see a catalogue that ranged in double figures for at least another month. Especially if you were -heaven help you- based in Europe, which is often treated like a fall-crested maggot-eaten leper by most companies outside of our wide boundaries (and yes, for the record, I'm a dirty yet proud member of the Eurotrash family myself). At current count, in most territories, there are at least 21 Wii titles on the shelves at one time when the machine touches retail. Yes, 21. Which is, from what I remember, around 18 more games available than what was on offer when Nintendo 64 was released. Around the same deficit from when Super Nintendo graced us, and half extra to what launched alongside with GameCube (about 12). To me, this shows several things: one, Nintendo has come a long way since those days. Two, third-party support is greater than it's ever been for the opening of a Nintendo machine. Three, the company is aware that diversity is essential if you're going to release over 20 titles at the same time, with examples of racing, sports, shooters and so on available.
The funny thing is, during those times where we had a choice of barely half a dozen titles at launch, we did a number of things. We first mocked the fact third-party support was so damn low and Nintendo wasn’t popular with its partners. Then we praised the fact at least one game was special enough to own the machine for (whether that be Super Mario 64, Super Mario World, Super Monkey Ball or whatever else tickled your cliché). Then we lamented there was nothing else to play. Now, there's a very good reason certain games are released over others being held back at such an early stage. One of the main reasons is attach rate. Each console that gets fired into our homes has a varying attach rate which tells the companies on average how many titles a consumer is likely to buy with their console and what selection that's likely to be. The average attach rate for consoles on a whole is currently hovering around 3.0. That's about three titles per console. Which makes practical sense; you may be bored with one game after a short while, but alternating between two or three keeps things fresh. Much more than that tends to venture into the realms of 'overkill', 'excessive wealth' or 'overzealous games journalist' (all of which keep the attach rate average growing). If there's a stand-out title from the launch line-up, you can expect that to be the system's killer-app when it comes to attach rates, which is why most consoles these days come without a free game; it allows manufacturers to gauge what's an effective market title while making far more money than packing software in.
Which is the opposite of what Nintendo has done with Wii. Hmm.
Wii Sports coming free with the machine is a very shrewd tactic. Wii isn’t a large multimedia machine, true, so without software you're going to have to work to get much out of it before going online, but we never got a free game with GameCube or Nintendo 64 either, and they were much more limited in non-gaming capabilities than Wii is. So if you look at what's been created, taking in mind attach rates and the amount of software for launch, it paints a strange picture indeed. Free game (regardless of whether you think it's a 'tech demo' or not – the Japanese still have to buy it separately). Over 21 titles at launch. A large number of third-party games at that, with a wide show of genres.
And we're still complaining?
On more levels than usual, the launch is geared towards consumer rather than company. Sure, the price is higher than what it would have been because we're getting Wii Sports, but throwing in gratis software only makes sense from a marketing point of view because typically it's a money losing move. Also risky is having too many titles available from day one, because it can backfire and create a lower attach rate; one free game makes a consumer less likely to buy extra because comparatively few people buy three titles with a machine. Third-parties have thrown out software by the dozen, knowing that they're fighting for that 21-to-1 place that's left open. And let's be frank, most gamers will go for The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess if given that choice. Yet despite that risk, developers and publishers are backing Nintendo's machine from the start, more than ever. Which says a lot. And for the record, that makes Wii's launch roster larger on average than any other machine this generation.
With third-party support so relatively strong (also witness smaller developers throwing in budget titles already for the UK kick off in a couple weeks, which is a promising sign), we should be a little more content. After all, wasn’t this the same Nintendo that had publishers abandon it in droves the past ten years? Wasn’t this the same Nintendo that we complained didn’t have versions of our favourite titles that were on Xbox and PS2, barely 12 months ago? We moan about the lack of third-party backing for our Nintendo machines, yet when we get it we moan about the ports and shovel-ware. Of course it's not great to have quick cross-platform titles shunted on to a machine, especially if they're lazy and ill-advised. But we can't have it both ways. Not for a console launch, especially one touting a new and unfamiliar control method. At a machine's retail conception, you can count the number of games that make true use of its fresh abilities and power on one hand… maybe a couple fingers; and it's rare for third-parties to be among that number. We either take the fact companies will only dip their toes in the water and take their sweet time with releasing more unique software for the system, or we concede that the quickest way for a company to establish itself is to make the most of its popular franchises with something that won't take long to develop. Because if those companies want to create what we want -unique titles that make use of the Wii controller- they've got to get funds first. And if that means a fast track conversion of Call of Duty 3, Far Cry or whatever, then as long as they're competent and not totally diabolical, then so be it. Because to be honest, very few people are going to be buying Wii just for those games anyway. They're the extra discs you may pick up after a few weeks. They're the bargain bin titles that get thrown in the New Year/Easter sales baskets. They're not meant to be flagship examples of a new machine. They're meant to supplement the costs of developing new franchises. And we should accept that reality, or go prepare to go back to launches with just three titles to choose from. A middle ground is exceptionally tricky and costly to pull off. It's far more viable for companies to wait for a machine to find its feet within a year and then flood the gates with games. For them to commit so early in the face of such strong opposition is downright astonishing.
On top of all that, we have the criticism about killer apps from Nintendo. Zelda may well be a GameCube game at heart, but like it or not it's a Wii title now. And as such, it's incredible. A must have. Wii Sports may get more attention with your family this festive season, but Twilight Princess will be the one you'll be playing when they've all gone to sleep, stomachs full of stuffing and wine. There may not be another triple-A game on the cards until Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Super Mario Galaxy, but Zelda at launch is not to be sniffed at. Because again, we're being unrealistic. We spent the whole N64 era complaining that the big guns didn’t come quick enough (along with no third-party support) while Nintendo perfected its games. So in reaction, the Kyoto based company rushed out its killer franchises for GameCube and we griped that they were either unfinished or not as good as their N64 counterparts, resulting in the oh-so-surprising 'revelation': quality takes time. So several years were spent over making Twilight Princess as good as it is, we even get a Wii cross functionality thrown in to make it an invaluable launch game, which in turn gives more time for Mario Galaxy to be perfected, potentially avoiding the shaky critical trappings its predecessor, Super Mario Sunshine, fell into. The big names have to be spaced out otherwise we're left with likely superlative titles all at once competing for the same cash, leaving the company with conflicting sales and us with little to look forward to, resulting in an eventual commercial flop. Same with the Virtual Console games, which have caused a mild uproar. While I don’t agree with some of the pricing choices, the title selection has been unfairly condemned partly because our favourite software is missing from the off. Taking in mind that most games are someone's favourite (unless it's Superman 64… *shudder*), it's impossible to make everyone happy, but at the same time there has to be an element of restraint. From a library of literally thousands, 12 or so for the first week isn’t bad considering there'll be updates each week after that. So along with the 21 odd games for Wii, that makes it over 30 titles in total to pick from when you bring your little white machine home. Including at least one version of Mario, Sonic, Zelda and Donkey Kong from day dot. Not a single format ever released can boast that. Throw in some very difficult backwards compatibility functionality (which is exceptionally hard to put into a console) and there's a motherlode of poorly selling yet superlative quality GameCube classics to pick from, too. If you get bored of all those before the end of the year, still with more games on the way, you certainly have more time and money than me. In which case, would you care to swap wallets?
Gaming is currently better than it's ever been. Fact. Because despite ever-present problems, we have faster release dates, more gaming variety, more options, better prices. And with a little effort we can still play many the games history has gifted us while indulging in the evolution of the medium that can be experienced now. The best of both worlds and there's only more to come. There's plenty to complain about still, that's only natural otherwise things will never improve, but there's far more vital stuff to focus that negative energy on than suggesting a hypothetical launch consisting of 30-plus games that we probably won't ever buy, five simultaneous killer apps that leaves us nothing else to build up to and no/large third-party support with tons of ports.
Enjoy the early fruits of Nintendo Wii now. Because as a start, this isn’t bad by any means. And it's only going to get better. It just takes time – and it's worth remembering that many a launch is literally just to get things off the ground. After that, the virtual sky's the limit.
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