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Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Ignored Potential of the Impatient Phoenix's Pillar and the Immature Public's Perception Problem

At E3 2004, Nintendo revealed their "Third Pillar". It was to be called the DS, and would have two screens placed vertically, the bottom one a touch screen. I read this on the internet and got very excited. Here was a handheld system that could actually improve gamism rather than just copying what consoles had already done. Old Forms could utilize the two screens to give much more depth than previously possible, while being much more intuitive than a conventional controller. I immediately thought of how my favorite Forms could benefit:

The Zelda Form (Or can someone please give me a better name for this Form?) is designed around immersion- that you should never be pulled out of the game by a change in controls, or a change in interface, but should feel that you exist inside the game. But until now, occasional changes in interface were practically unavoidable for a reasonably complex "zeldan" game because it is difficult to allow for actions such as switching items (The Legend of Zelda), trading items (Beyond Good & Evil), checking progress, checking maps, etc. without resorting to a menu. But on the DS, all this could be put on the bottom screen! That way, the main screen would never need to change, and the player would never be pulled out of the experience. This may sound like no big deal, but for a zeldan game immersion is king. Additionally, the touch screen could create unprecedented depth for many items. For example, imagine how much greater the combat of Zelda would be if once taking out your sword (from its sheath on the bottom screen), you could attack by swiping on the screen! Suddenly, you would be able to attack in many different angles and even styles of swordplay by moving the stylus in different directions, as opposed to the one-button swordfighting in current Zelda games.

Now imagine a platformer where the top screen shows the 3D environment you are playing in (with the character in it), while the touch screen shows a view of the main character from the back. You would jump by "flipping" the character around with the stylus. For instance, you could push from the legs upward to jump, and then spiral around to do a somersault in the air, and finally using the stylus to push the character so that he falls on his feet. This could be a deep, nuanced game beyond any conventional platformer.

For Myst, the DS would be ideal. The top screen could allow you to scroll through pictures you've taken of all the hints/maps/symbols you found, while the bottom screen would be the game itself, played with the stylus almost exactly as it is now with the mouse. Having your "notes" on the top screen would take away the need for a pencil and paper without cluttering up the interface, and voila: Myst on the go could finally be possible!

And so on, and so on. The ideas I came up with were all of how the system could be used to enhance current Forms, allowing gamists to bring their crafts to greater heights. But instead of taking this historic opportunity Nintendo has afforded themselves, they decided to reinvent the wheel. That's right, rather than perfecting their Forms they would like to throw them out and create lesser ones. The concepts for the DS they have demonstrated are all starting from scratch. They have shown a Yoshi game in which you don't move Yoshi around but draw clouds for him to walk on. They have shown a "Metroid" game which does not deserve the name but is just a mindless First-Person Shooter. They have talked about a Zelda game that will use both screens equally. They have shown a Mario game that goes back to 2D. And so on, and so on. The motto they're going by is: "Let's throw out everything we've worked so hard to build and start over". This is not what I was expecting, not what I would want from my favorite gamists. All of these games look reasonably fun, but of the Super Mario Bros./Wario Ware variety, not the Super Mario 64/Legend of Zelda variety. No Form can hold your interest for very long until it has been sufficiently developed. The new Forms they are creating, though, don't look like they have any room to develop! They are all designed to use the features of the DS as gimmicks. What I expect is that after one or two iterations of each new series, Nintendo will throw it out and start over again. This was they pattern they had a long time ago, and apparently they miss it. Back in the 80's, they made Zelda -a very promising new Form- and threw out the entire form in favor of making Zelda II a shallow RPG which was completely different and did not rely on the foundations they had worked so hard on. The same can be seen in Donkey Kong 1, 2, and 3. Nintendo likes the invention stage so much, that they're not interested in building up what they've started. (In case you're wondering, this is what I was referring to as Impatient Phoenix Syndrome.) I have no doubt that these games will be very fun, but they won't lead anywhere. It takes a long time for a Form to develop from "a fun experience" into something greater. Without those greater games, the DS has no appeal for me.

So who, exactly, is the Pillar for? (...other than the Nintendo gamists, who are doubtless having a blast with it.) These are intuitive, simple games which neither require nor develop good gaming skills. They would be good for people who have not experienced any Forms interactively before, and are not willing to invest too much time and effort into a game. I'll cut to the chase: I think the DS is perfect for girls and women. Don't believe me? I've been trying to get Miriam and Dena to play games for a very long time without success. There are only a few they like: Animal Crossing, Yoshi's Island, The Sims, Wario Ware, Mario Party. They both like Animal Crossing because it's very cute, not challenging and doesn't force them to do anything but lets them play as they likes. Miriam likes Yoshi's Island because it's cute and not too hard. (Dena isn't a good enough player for it, but she likes the Yoshi character a lot too.) Both girls like Wario Ware because it's simple yet fun. They like The Sims because it's simple but rewarding. They like Mario Party because it's easy to jump into, but allows for a lot of fun if you bring a few friends. All these games are simple, with not too much depth, but manage to be fun because they are new experiences. This defines pretty much the entire first-party DS lineup! There's an Animal Crossing game coming out, a Wario Ware game out, a Yoshi game coming which is very simple, a music game which allows many people with DS systems to play music together easily, a Kirby game which looks pretty simple, a "puppy simulator" called Puppy Times which simply allows you to play with and train virtual dogs, similar to the old Petz computer games (which, incidentally, they both liked). The DS lineup looks like it is tailor-made for my sisters. And I don't think it's just my sisters: these games can appeal to anyone who is not a very good gamer and isn't turned off by cute graphics/themes.

Nintendo has been, from the beginning, marketing the DS to twenty-something guys. Their TV ads featured the slogan "Touching is Good", and had guys in their twenties as the focus, or women as sex objects. Why? Why isn't all their advertising aimed at girls and women?! I could only conclude that their marketing was a bunch of morons, until I brought the issue to the Gamecritics forum and received a powerful rebuttal: Nintendo is probably afraid of being seen as a "girl's company".

At E3 2001, Nintendo unveiled the Gamecube. While its competitors (Playstation 2 and XBox) were painted in black with boring, ugly designs, Gamecube was a cute little purple box with a handle. I think the Gamecube is the most adorable console ever made. But I have read countless editorials assessing that the general public didn't like it for precisely that reason, and also because its main launch title was Luigi's Mansion, a "family-friendly" game with cartoony graphics. Whether or not this is true is by this point irrelevant, because Nintendo's heads have gone on the record saying that this was a bad marketing choice, and they are working now to correct the error they supposedly made. Apparently, this "mess-up" set in stone Gamecube's status as a "kiddy" system, which of course insults the maturity of many gamers. The legend says that the Industry's target audience was turned off by the fact that the Gamecube did not go out of its way to turn off younger gamers. This legend must be true to a certain extent, as I have seen many people calling Nintendo a "kiddy" company. Is this hurting Nintendo's sales? Maybe. Nintendo isn't doing as well as they used to when there wasn't such a demand for "Maturity" (read: sex, violence). So they're now trying to create a new, different image for themselves. An image which people who are insecure about their maturity won't be repelled by. Just one problem- this image doesn't correspond with the games they're releasing. Their new commercials all imply trashiness, but Nintendo's games are too good to live down to that image. The commercials imply that the games are unsuitable for kids, but to make such games would be going against Nintendo's style which they do so well. When Nintendo, at last E3, showed a video of the new Zelda game, which unlike the last game (The Wind Waker) which had bright and cheery cartoony graphics, is going for a more photorealistic approach, the fans went crazy with excitement. What they were cheering for was not a change in target audience -in fact, what was shown was too minimal to suggest much deviation from the great Zelda tradition- but a feeling that Nintendo has stopped being "for kids", because near-photorealistic graphics have a connotation of rated-M ("mature") games. The feeling, doubtless incorrect, was that Nintendo has abandoned their ideals of games that are appropriate for kids in favor of what the public wants of them. And this new Zelda was proclaimed as a correction of the "misstep" Nintendo took with The Wind Waker, which incidentally is a fantastic game.

What would happen if Nintendo were to point out the appeal their games naturally have for girls? In a worst case scenario, exactly what happened when they pointed out that their games can appeal to kids- they would alienate a large portion of their fanbase. So they would prefer to project an image which will not have any basis in reality. People may buy the DS expecting anti-childhood games, but they will find the games on offer seriously lacking. Will they appreciate Animal Crossing, or Yoshi's Touch & Go, or Super Mario 64 DS, or Wario Ware: Touched, or Kirby's Magic Paintbrush, or any of the other games scheduled for release? I doubt it. It is better to have an audience which expects something the general public will not approve of, than to have an audience expecting something the general public will approve of and finding nothing of the sort.



There's a happy ending to this story. Some time after this post Nintendo's marketing changed course, following the general approach I'm advocating here. Except they went even farther than I could have hoped for: They've been aiming not just at girls but at the elderly and the health nuts and all sorts of other historically non-gamer types.


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