At ten o'clock and on the busiest of E3 mornings, Nintendo unveiled their latest plot to further expand their business outside the realm of gamers: Wii Fit.
Along with the new Wii Balance Board, Wii Fit looks to do for fitness what Brain Age did for our math skills. Following the unveiling, Nintendo brain child and industry icon, Shigeru Miyamoto, took center stage, claiming Wii Fit held personal presidence over more widely anticipated titles such as Super Smash Bros Brawl, Super Mario Kart and even his baby, Super Mario Galaxy.
Like most people, "Uh-oh" was the first thing that sprang to the mind of Electronic Gaming Monthly's managing editor, Jennifer Tsao, but in a more observational sense. "[This] is exactly the kind of thing that annoys hardcore gamers, even though it's an interesting application for the quirky Wii."
Correct in her assertion, the hardcore populace had begun their meltdown.
To understand the dramatic reaction to a simple exercise title is to step back in time roughly 8 million copies of Brain Age. Following the incredible success of their puppy trainer, Nintendogs, Nintendo pressed on with their arithmetic experiment in an effort to capitalize on the burgeoning casual games market. Initially seen as a risky venture, Brain Age would explode out of the Japanese gates and with it, the "non-games" market.
For once, gamers complained about not seeing a greasy haired twenty-something chugging a Mountain Dew in their video game advertisements.
Later, with their dictionary software Kanji Sonomama, Nintendo made no effort to even mask it as a game. Shaberu! DS Oryouri Navi was a talking cook book that, for a brief period in time, was a popular facet of Japanese web boards where users would create photo essays featuring their creations. Going as far as Common Sense Training, Nintendo had come up with a perfect formula in which to reel in casual gamers by the boat load.
Wii Fit represents the culmination of their efforts in this new market, capitalizing on the incredible mainstream buzz regarding the potential of Wii itself and their uncanny knack for making even the most mundane tasks entertaining. No one in their right mind should question Wii Fit's retail performance: it's going to make a killing at the registers. So what does this say about our industry when a video game that isn't exactly a game becomes the killer app?
Eighteen years ago, Nintendo released Dance Aerobics for the NES. The world was not ready.
"It says the games business is about to enter a period of mass acceptance and prosperity." says Chris Kohler, editor of Wired's Game|Life blog. "Developers aren't tasked with a choice between 'casual' and 'hardcore' -- they have to choose between 'casual' or 'go out of business.'"
Though it sounds dramatic, Chris' statement isn't without merit. The largest publisher in the world, Electronic Arts, tested the waters in Japan last year with a three-part series on alcoholic drinks for the DS and have since reorganized their brand structure with a segment devoted to casual entertainment. Likewise, UbiSoft has built a new internal studio of their own for the development of casual games, beginning with a training series for the DS.
The Sarcastic Gamer offers up the view of the hardcore nation with their twisted trailer.
With Nintendo ushering forth a radical change in the industry, Wii Fit resonates a fear within gamers of a polarizing market -- the what-if scenario where the numbers of the casual overcome those of the "hardcore." Should Nintendo's goal to expand not just their slice, but the entire pie of the industry continue, would they scale back or even stop creating traditional video games if the traditionalists became the minority?
"I don't think gamers need to worry so much about keeping their hobby hardcore." says Tsao. "Variety is a great thing, and I just don't see the problem in having a segmented video game market. Just because my uncle is addicted to Free Cell doesn't mean I can't play Crackdown."
Nintendo of America president, Reggie Flis-Aime, may have been more comfortable announcing Wii Fit to Wal-Mart shoppers as opposed to the traditional gaming crowd that makes up E3, but the bottom line, as Kohler puts it, is that "Hardcore gamers should welcome with open arms the expansion of the audience, as it just means more success overall. A rising tide lifts all boats."
With developers like Square-Enix interested in developing for the Wii Balance board, the hardcore may lower their guard just yet.
At the end of the day, Wii Fit isn't "the cancer that is killing video games" as some have labeled it and if anything, it may just be another in a line of cures for a hobby that has become too tough of a nut to crack over the years. Jennifer puts the situation in a perspective that we can all appreciate.
"If a game is fun, it doesn't really matter whether it uses dice, a joypad, pencil and paper, or a bathroom scale as the controller. It only matters that it's fun. The problem for video games is when they're not fun."