Friday, January 12, 2007

Wii: the opposite of a "niche product"

Stopping by the annual madness of the Black Dog’s customer appreciation nite, I got wrapped up into a brass-rail conversation about videogames, mostly regarding the Wii. Standing me a shot of Jager, he gave me a line I’ve been starting to hear around a bit: Wii is a fad that’ll fade, it’s too “niche” to have legs, soon Wiis in their millions will be gathering dust in closets around the world.

Now, inasmuch as I get out to the bar anymore, this guy’s my bartender, and I respect bartenders’ opinions very highly – as information aggregators and transmitters of popular wisdom they’re peerless. But in this case he’s kind of got his head up his ass. The Wii doesn’t appeal to a niche… it appeals to the opposite of a niche – its appeal is general. Multimillion-dollar hardcore blockbuster gun-man technical showcases like Gears of War are the niche products; it’s just that the niche they appeal to happens to have a lot of money and the willingness to spend it. With its pick-up-and-play wireless controller and a packed-in party demo like Wii Sports, Wii is aimed straight at an even greater prize: the millions of people who aren’t playing (and buying) games right now, but who would be if they were presented with games whose aesthetics they could tolerate.

Game aesthetics extend beyond graphics into an aesthetics of experience. The whimsical art direction of something like Katamari Damacy can provide the necessary mass-friendly face, but what’s really driving the migration of videogames from nerd-niche to social acceptance – beyond the simple demographic mathematics of a come-of-age vidiot generation – is a growing understanding of what it takes to get non-gamers gaming. In this area -- with wildly successful E-for-Everyone experiments like Animal Crossing, Nintendogs, Brain Age, the entire DS concept and now Wii – Nintendo is leading the way.

At least, it’s leading in the console and portables segments; the real megamarket is still the PC “casual games” space, the rough-and-tumble chaos of desktop downloadables churning in the foam of umpteen riffs on color-and-shape matching puzzles, the roiling fight to be THE THING people do while they’re pretending to work. Here, in the hands of thousands of indie developers and solitary games artisans, countless recipes for videogame crack are being cooked up and distributed every day.

I have a buddy (“Bob the Angry Flower” creator Stephen Notley, to be specific) who works in this industry, and for the last two years pretty much all I’ve heard from him is a constant stream of anecdote after excited anecdote about this great project, “Bookworm Adventures”, that he’s been grinding on for Seattle’s PopCap games. He’s been a real evangelist, talking the ass off anybody who’ll stand still long enough to hear his spiel.

“So, this is… what? Dungeons & Dragons meets Boggle? A game where you, like, defeat the minotaur and rescue the priness by spelling ‘astronaut’?”

“Yeah! It’s awesome! Dude... [tight cigarette drag]... trust me... [pffft]… it’s awesome.”

“And your job is to fill it with wisecracks?”

I was skeptical until I loaded it onto (appropriately) my office computer at the end of a workday; as it turns out, D&D Boggle, blasting through monsters with sheer word power, is pretty damn fun… or, at least, hypnotic. It’s a very easy game, pretty much a cakewalk through the hours I’ve played so far, but it does much to create The Zone, the clicktrance space-out that leads to obliterated productivity. Addictive.

At about six p.m., two hours after I could have left the office, I hit one of Bookworm Adventures’ several minigames, a word-matching challenge. Was it Steve’s doing, or a cosmic message emerging from randomness that the first word I had to guess was “BONED”?

Of course, timewasting games like this are a decadent drain on humanity, right? A useless pursuit that separates people and kills culture? A lot of people think this. That’s the sign of an emerging genre or artform’s relevance: a lot of people think it’s destroying society. It happened historically with rock n’ roll, jazz, cinema, the novel… The thing is, people who see the doom of current culture in videogames may be right. In fact, they certainly are right; barring global catastrophe that knocks civilization back a tech level or two, the un-rebottlable genie of videogames is going to transform the way humanity interacts with itself. What we don’t know yet is how that will play out -- our culture hasn’t finished having that discussion.

And that’s what I’m enjoying most about Wii in these early days… it catalyzes discussions on the nature and role of videogames -- and on the aesthetics of the videogame experience -- among people who would never have otherwise entered the conversation. By being so accessible while being simultaneously so different than what came before, it offers us an opportunity to talk about not what videogames are, but about what videogames could and should be…an opportunity for those who had no stake and no interest in having a stake to get curious, or excited, or horrified as they choose. As far as niches go, Wii’s seems pretty important and valuable.

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