Counting Rupees: Will the real Wii60 please stand up

Each week Jeff Engel and Geoff Brooks contribute Counting Rupees, a column on the business behind gaming:

With the Wii's apparent runaway success this generation, there's no doubt that both Sony and Microsoft are trying to figure out just what they can do – either in this generation or the next – to tap into the formula that's worked so well for Nintendo. Sony, in a seemingly obvious attempt to blunt the impact of Nintendo's newly styled controller, added motion sensitivity to their controllers before the PS3 launched. More recently, there have even been rumors that Microsoft may be prepping their own version of the Wii Remote to launch later this year for the 360. Is this really the answer Microsoft is looking for to combat the Wii?

There are a lot of problems with this, although the common "doomed console peripheral" theory actually may be the least of them. The success of Guitar Hero and Rock Band has proven that, at least when bundled with an attractive game, console owners are just fine with buying new controller peripherals for their systems.

No, the biggest problem for Microsoft here is simply a matter of audience. Microsoft has been working hard on wooing the "casual" audience, and has only rarely succeeded. Even a "hardcore" game like Halo 3 probably wouldn't sell 7.5 million copies without some "casual" players. But a quick look at the top-selling software for each system makes it extremely obvious how different the audiences already are for the two systems.

"Of those top ten Wii games, nine are Nintendo-developed and published while the other one prominently features the endlessly lucrative Mario"

For the Wii, the top ten games include two casual sports compilations, three minigame compilations, a 3D platformer, a 3D action game, a "casual" 2D fighting game, an RPG/platformer, and a puzzle/brain game. Of those ten, nine are Nintendo-developed and published while the other one prominently features the endlessly lucrative Mario (Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games). The 360's top ten games include three first-person shooters, three third-person action games, a racing simulation, a sports simulation, an epic RPG, and Guitar Hero 3 (which happens to be number eleven on the Wii's list too, actually). Microsoft published three out of ten of the games.

What does this all mean? Essentially, the Wii's audience seems to be made up of mostly Nintendo loyalists and some casual players, while the 360 is made up of more "hardcore" genres like FPS or third-person action games, as well as fans of sports and racing simulators. There's virtually no overlap as far as the top best-selling genres go, Guitar Hero 3 being the only game that's actually on both top ten lists (if you discount Wii Sports since it was included with the Wii in the US).

The stark contrast presents a bit of a chicken and egg conundrum for Microsoft. If the "casual" games are already unpopular on their system, how likely is it that they'll become popular later? On the other hand, if they don't produce more of these kinds of games, how can they ever expect to attract the portion of the Wii audience that they feel they need?

Microsoft has already tried a bit to attract a "casual" audience with games like Viva Pinata: Party Animals and Scene It with somewhat limited success. The issue is that the chicken basically already hatched when the consoles were launched. These "casual" games probably sell more to traditional gamers who want a party game for their more "casual", less gamer-friendly friends. They probably won't cause those friends to go out and buy a 360. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band might, but both of those games are, or will seen be, available on the cheaper Wii system that has more games that appeal to them anyway.

"Nintendo has been courting 'casual' game players ever since Tetris came out."

Despite the Wii being Nintendo's first major home console success in a couple generations, they have, for better or worse, always been known as a "family friendly" company. Nintendo has been courting "casual" game players ever since Tetris came out. Many of these "casual" game players ended up leaving Nintendo for PS1 and PS2s because as these gamers aged, the Nintendo games looked more geared towards the games they used to play as kids. The PS2 didn't sell over 120M consoles by appealing only to hardcore gamers. Casual gamers could pick one up, maybe grab a few sports games and a GTA game and just have fun with it.

The Wii was able to re-attract a portion of this "casual" audience not only with a new intuitive interface, but with an attractive price point and simple games that didn't seem like it was built just for kids (or gamers). Had Nintendo simply created the Wii Remote but only released their standard "Nintendo" properties on the system, it probably would've gone the same way as the Gamecube: successful with Nintendo loyalists, but probably not the huge hit that they've managed to create today. Instead they created "mature" games, not in the same sense as GTA or Halo, but rather simply games that an older "casual" audience didn't feel embarrassed to play. Wii Sports and Wii Play, ironically, probably attracted the same people that bought a PS2 just to play around with GTA. These casual gamers are already entrenched with the Wii, and it seems unlikely that a Wii-like 360 controller will do much to change people's opinions on the matter, particularly as long as the 360 remains more expensive than the Wii.

I think Microsoft's best bet is to continue working on their core audience of "traditional" gamers. Perhaps that can actually still mean creating a Wii-like device, but then they should use that device to basically enhance the kind of "traditional" games that the 360 audience craves rather than simply trying to imitate what Nintendo has done. Mapping motion and "pointer" controls to genres that are popular on the 360 is something that the Wii has not been able to do very well thus far. With the exception of Metroid Prime 3, for instance, there have not been any universally regarded FPS games for the Wii. Nintendo achieved its success without these gamers, but the 360 thrives on them. If Microsoft is intent on creating their own version of the Wii Remote, they may want to start there.

As co-editors of A Link To The Future, Geoff and Jeff like to discuss, among many other topics, the business aspects of gaming. Game companies often make decisions that on their face appear baffling, or even infuriating, to many gamers. Yet when you think hard about them from the company's perspective, many other decisions are eminently sensible, or at least appeared to be so based on the conditions at the time those choices were made. Our goal with this column is to start a conversation about just those topics. While neither Geoff nor Jeff are employed in the game industry, they do have professional backgrounds that are relevant to the discussion. More to the point, they don't claim to have all the answers -- but this is a conversation worth having. You can reach them at

This article was originally published on Joystiq.