Gearheads of War's Tyler Bleszinski with his daughter Maya
One of the guilty pleasures of having a blog is when a Google Alert arrives in our inbox, pointing out that somewhere, someone is a) reading our blog and even better b) taking the time to write about it. All PR is good PR, as far as the staff of Level Up is concerned, but even more compelling than good PR is the opportunity to become e-quainted with other talented and compelling bloggers.
We made the acquaintance of SportsBlogNation president Tyler Bleszinski--yes, he's also the older brother, by three years, of Gears of War designer Cliff "Cliffyb" Bleszinski--after reading an eminently fair assessment that he'd written on his own blog Gearheads of War about
our critique of the dialogue in Gears of War. Since then, we've emailed
from time to time on subjects various and sundry. During one such
exchange, prompted by our inaugural Monday Morning Quarterback post about the April sales charts,
Bleszinski voiced his concern about the impact that the Wii--more
specifically, the tidal wave of casual game-oriented newcomers that
Nintendo's hit console was ushering into the market--would have on
hardcore gamers like himself. Intrigued, we asked Bleszinski to tackle
the following question, "Why do you feel threatened by the prospect of
a dominant Wii?" Here is his reply.
My brother Cliff and I have been into games long before he ever created Gears of War. He and I played through the original Zelda together and I remember having tournaments with him where we'd play the original Nintendo Ice Hockey game. I liked to stack my team with the fat guys because they had a booming shot that could score from anywhere and were really good at checking. Cliff went the skinny guy route and tried to skate circles around me.
But the times, they are a-changing. If Nintendo has its way, young males will no longer be the dominant segment of the console audience--and this transition appears to be happening faster than I expected. The other day I was in Target looking to pick up some games when I saw an older woman--very likely a grandmother--waiting for the clerk's attention. She wanted him to get her a couple of games from inside the locked glass cabinet. When he asked her which ones, she stated Cooking Mama and Wii Play.
I could barely stifle a groan. Don't get me wrong; I think it's cute that someone who likely had no idea what a video game was would suddenly plunk down her Social Security money so she can cook virtual meals, play a rousing game of table tennis and shark her little grandchildren out of their milk money in billiards. But honestly, I had refused to believe that grandmothers were buying these things as so many news reports have claimed until I saw it with my own eyes. My story may be anecdotal, but the plural of anecdote is data, and there are more than enough news stories on this topic to suggest that this phenomenon is real.
What's more, Nintendo has the sales figures to back up its hype. The NPD sales figures since November have been troubling to me as a hardcore gamer who loves new IPs and in-depth experiences. The Nintendo Wii has built up a ton of momentum in 2007, and despite the fact that it features an internal architecture that maxes out graphically around where the original Xbox did, it has quickly become the darling of the non-gaming press. There have been umpteen stories about the scrappy little Wii wooing non-gamers and bringing in hordes of new converts to worship at the altar of Mario.
I'm not saying that the videogame industry shouldn't strive to bring in as many new people as possible. It most definitely should, because new gamers mean a nice, healthy business. My problem is what this new crowd appears to be drawn to. Games like Wii Sports, Wii Play and Cooking Mama have become some of the biggest sellers, and that is what has me worried. If these are the type of games that become blockbusters, then you can count on other gaming companies who cater to the more hardcore gamer--aka me and the milions of others who've been driving this business--to promptly change direction. If we've learned anything about videogame companies, it's that they all are quick to follow each other if one is successful with something. I mean, Sony already imitated the Wii a bit with their Sixaxis controller; Microsoft followed Sony with their own EyeToy-like camera, albeit far less successfully; and Sony is now trying to replicate some kind of online service a la Xbox Live. If Nintendo winds up outselling the 360 and the PS3 by a wide margin, how soon will it be before we gamers are using the Sixaxis to chop up onions with in Metal Gear Mama? How long before we're frantically swinging waggle remotes for tennis, bowling and golf in Halo Sports?
Will games like Halo and Gears of War ever go away? Hell no. But publishers aren't stupid. They're going to go where the majority of the money is and if people want to play the WarioWare mini-games more than the meaty experiences that hardcore gamers love, you're inevitably going to see a corresponding shift in development. Publishers are in the business of making money, so if they can spend six months or a year developing a mini-game package for five-year-old technology and make more profits than they would by spending 2-3 years crafting a long and detailed experience, you can bet your Wiimote that that's exactly what they'll do.
If casual games become the industry's primary money-making vehicle, these mini-game collections and more casual games could wind up completely redefining the market. I don't think we're far off from the day when Hannah Montana Wii and Wii Sports 2 dominate the NPD charts. And as soon as that day comes, why would publishers want to continue to the time and effort to develop an in-depth, cinematic experience when they could slap together a bunch of mini-games with waggle and make just as much money, if not more? Remember, gaming is a love for you and me, but it's ultimately a business for these publishers and developers.
So while the business of the Wii has great for Nintendo--surprise, surprise--and a handful of risk-takers like Ubisoft, it's thus far been ugly when it comes to the experiences beloved by core gamers like myself. The Wii has been chock full of mini-games, PlayStation 2 knockoffs and PSP ports. Yes, there has been The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, but not much else in terms of lengthy, in-depth experiences. As for new intellectual properties, they've been pretty much few and far between, unless you consider Wii Sports and Wii Play new IPs; to me, they're more tech demos than anything else. At least the PS3 has Resistance and MotorStorm, with Lair right around the corner. The 360 has Gears of War, Viva Pinata and Crackdown. But for the Wii, most third parties would rather take the easy way out and continue to port older games with the waggle tacked on than devote the time and resources to creating great new experiences. The fact that the PS2 is still going incredibly strong isn't going to help the situation either, because it and the PSP will provide the Wii with an endless supply of ports for the Wii instead of forcing publishers and developers to think of new and in-depth experiences.
I'll repeat this again: I am not saying that the more hardcore games are going to die out. Smart developers and publishers will realize that they can make a mint off the hardcore, especially if more developers move towards the quick, jump in-jump out type of experience that many Wii and DS games offer. But they will be in the minority. Valve, Epic and others won't turn to making mini-game compilations, but I can definitely see companies like EA and Ubisoft realizing that they don't need huge development teams and hundreds of people working on a game to make a ton of cash in the land of mini-game moneymakers. It's like suddenly discovering that business plan behind McDonald's is applicable to video games.
Some will likely argue that these more casual games are a gateway drug for new users. They'll claim that we should be happy because it will bring a whole new group of people into gaming. I find it hard to believe that something like Wii Play could lead to someone like the little old lady I saw in the store playing Metroid Prime 3. I just don't see it happening. These same people didn't jump into hardcore games before the Wii, but they're suddenly going to do it now because they had some fun playing virtual bowling? I seriously doubt that. She's not going to go from creating a meal in Cooking Mama to saving Zelda. She's never going to defend Sera, guide Reggie Bush into the end zone, or venture into Liberty City. And should the product portfolios of major publishers become a zero-sum game, her tastes will represent a direct threat to my longtime hobby.
I sincerely believe that bringing new people to video games is a good thing. I like seeing the business continue to grow and be even more successful, because I'm old enough to remember the videogame industry crash between the Atari 5200 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. But ultimately, going more mainstream can have unintended consequences--ones that could negatively impact the breadth and depth of the kinds of games that I love, as do millions of others. I think Mike Myers' Wayne Campbell said it best in "Wayne's World" when he was talking about that tool Benjamin Kane, played so memorably by Rob Lowe. "It's like he wants us to be liked by everyone. I mean Led Zeppelin didn't write tunes everybody liked. They left that to the Bee Gees." That statement could very well apply to the Wii and its software lineup.
Me? I'll take "Kashmir" over "Staying Alive" any day of the week.