Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

I've already grown to like the name, but mostly negative reaction has greeted Nintendo's offical moniker for the console formerly code-named Revolution. "Wii" is certainly Nintendo's highest-concept name ever for a console. Apart from a fair amount of mispronunciation that Nintendo concedes the system will receive, though (I heard someone ask today if it's called "W2," and nothing says "fun" like an IRS form), the literal name of this game is not the figurative one.

A year ago, I commented on the Big Three console companies' efforts to court the casual gamer. Microsoft, for example, continues to tout initiatives such as Xbox Live Arcade as a way of bringing new (or maybe old) gamers into the fold. Microsoft cites the high conversion rates for the addictive Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved – a frenetic cross between Asteroids and Robotron -- as evidence that casual gaming has a home on the testosterone-siphoned Xbox 360.

However, while Microsoft touts the high adoption rate of Xbox Live as evidence that the Xbox 360 is bringing in new family members playng casual games, it concedes that such games are attracting other family members after its high-powered retail software has opened the front door for the 360. On the other hand, while it may not be expanding the gamer audience, Xbox Live's easily, if slowly available, game demo downloads embody the mixture of quick pickup and advanced graphics I advocated a year ago, and the company's commitment to work with independent developers announced yesterday will be a shot in the arm for this genre-worn industry.

Nintendo has been hammering home that Wii's name is consistent with its "virtual console" backward compatibility and controller design that will broaden its appeal beyond the core console fanboy. After all, "GameCube," while uninspiring, could not have been more descriptive, and that didn't help Nintendo escape a distant third place in the home console market even with a lower priced offering.

One problem has been that far too often Nintendo's definition of inclusion has reverted to its lowest common denominator of the kiddie core audience, and those players nostalgic to relive their days in it. Nintendo has proven adept at furthering its platforms' agendas with its first-party titles, such has been the case with the varied input methods of the Nintendo DS. But it also tends to fall back to the easy money of its franchises, and it will need to move beyond that to become truly inclusive. On the other hand, some of the more adult-oriented DS games, such as the brain-training series, have moved beyond kitsch without racing to the extreme of the horror genre..

Using motion-sensor controllers as proxies for real-world objects is not new. For several years, XaviX has sold a system that includes controllers that simulate baseball bats, ping pong paddles, and even a bowling ball. What Nntendo has added, though, is the flexibility and convenience of having one controller mirror many different devices and the advanced graphics of a next-generation console.

To do even more to capture the inclusiveness of early-day consoles, Nintendo should consider returning to an inviting feature of those machines, including a second controller and a game, one that demonstrates its unique operation. The playful Wii Sports games the company showed at E3 would work well without any chance of cannibalizing a more realistic league-licensed title from the likes of Electronic Arts or 2K Games.

Microsoft and Sony are investing millions in sophisticated multiplayer networks that allow strangers to play with each other, but a long-abandoned key to making family gaming fun again is out-of-the-box matchmaking for moms, dads and siblings.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.



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