Mar 15 //
It's certainly not a new idea for videogame character designers to borrow from the "Hollywood leading man" archetype. Like I mentioned in the video, Pitfall Harry brought his brand of Indiana Jones stylings to the gaming world long before the creators of Nathan Drake were out of short pants. Things got even more Hollywood in the '80s and '90s.
Konami really excelled at the co-opting of Hollywood actors and movies in the pre-PS2 days. The original Solid Snake looked exactly like Rambo, while his nemesis, Big Boss, was played by a sprite-based Sean Connery. A different Rambo look-a-like starred in Contra, also from Konami, but he was paired with an Arnold Schwarzenegger clone. Almost the entire monster squad of the original Castlevania was lifted from classic Universal Pictures horror films, and that's just the list from their bigger games. Konami was even bold enough to change Solid Snake from a Rambo-type guy to a Kurt Russell-type guy, starting with Metal Gear Solid on the PS1. Just as several actors might end up filling the same role over time, we've already had multiple virtual actors take on the role of Snake (four in total, if you count the Rambo-styled original Snake, the Michael Biehn-inspired art on the box of the original Metal Gear, Kurt Russell-Snake, and Sam Elliott-Old Snake).
Using characters that look like Hollywood actors in videogames was different in those days. For one, it wasn't as common as it is now. "Hollywood" games were the outliers, whereas purely gameplay-focused games were the face of gaming. Developers also tended to use more interesting virtual actors back then. Konami worked hard to utilize specific virtual actors for specific virtual situations, as opposed to the "make a generic handsome brown-haired guy who vaguely looks like Paul Rudd/Ben Affleck/Ed Burns/Chris Klein and have him shoot guys" character design technique that we see so much of today.
Perhaps more importantly, back in the '80s and '90s, there was still heavy use of abstraction in the creation of these "realistic" characters. Even Snake's depiction in Metal Gear Solid involved mosaic-style texture maps, and heavily stylized ink-and-brush portraits in the codec cutscenes. There is an inherently expressive component to these two art styles. As I know from experience, when you're limited in how many pixels (or lines) you have at your disposal, the pixels you choose and where you choose to place them say a lot about you and how you see things.
I'm not sure I can say the same thing for the way that Nathan Drake, Alan Wake, the Shadow Complex guy, the guy from Heavy Rain, and the multitude of other nondescript, "realistic" characters of today are designed. Sure, they're all written in very different ways, and they have a variety of different facial expressions, but in terms of the way they look from a design perspective, they express almost nothing.
Looking at these characters reminds me of a dream that a friend once had. In his dream, he went to work in his car. He drove there on his regular route, perfectly recreated in his subconscious mind. In the dream, he arrived at his regular cubicle at the regular time. Then he played some Tetris while sipping his coffee, still feeling pretty tired and not up to working. After an hour or so, he got to work on his data entry. Then he took a long lunch break, played some more Tetris, got freaked out that he was going to get caught goofing off at work, finished his data entry for the day, and went home.
Then he woke up.
After telling me about this dream, he looked at me with a very serious face and said, "Jonathan, did something happen to me? Did I somehow become... boring?" I told him not to worry, that this was probably just a fluke, and that tomorrow night, he'd be back to dreaming about Grimace from the old McDonald's commercials levitating upside down and pooping lasers at him while a horde of robot zombie hookers tried to French-kiss him on his armpits with snake tongues.
It was easy to tell my friend that he's not boring, that his "realistic" dream was just a fluke, but I'm not sure that I could say the same thing about the game studios churning out all of these "realistic" games today. I understand that next to motion controllers and new online features, the biggest selling point in gaming today is replicating the "blockbuster" experience. I understand that all the segments of gaming (developers, press, and players) have often felt like the red-headed stepchild of the film industry for a long time, and now that consoles and PCs are powerful enough to outdo Hollywood, developers can't help but want to show the film industry that they can beat them at their own game. I get all that.
My question is, do we really need to get rid of the red-headed stepchildren (and Native Americans) of gaming to prove that we're not the red-headed stepchildren of the entertainment world? Did Ryu really need to go from being a crazy-eyed ginger to just another average-haired, average-faced, average karate man in order to win over the public?
The issue speaks to the inherent sense of inadequacy that game developers (and gamers) are often stricken with. It doesn't help that so many game developers make a fraction of what filmmakers earn, and that the amount of bad press that games still get on a regular basis is staggering. The list of reasons why gamers and game developers feel like second-class citizens is far too long to get into here. Suffice it to say, I think we can all agree that a lot of game developers, reporters, bloggers, and players have bought into the idea that gaming isn't as legitimate and respectable of an art form as film, books or music.
Personally, I think the way to show that videogames aren't a lesser art form is for developers to play to the strengths of the medium. Realism is not, and never will be, a "strength" of videogames (or any computer-generated imagery, for that matter). Still photography, motion pictures, and of course, real life will always look and feel more "real" than videogames do. Of course, there's no harm in trying for realism, if that's what you're truly interested in. Just as there is something to be said about the pursuit of painting the perfect still-life, there is something admirable about the pursuit of crafting a perfectly realistic polygon-based character model. That said, anyone who tells you that the greatest use of paint, a brush, and a canvas is the pursuit of depicting a realistically shiny fruit basket doesn't know a hell of a lot about painting.
As for how videogames could play to their strengths better, that's not so easy to pin down. Videogames have so many strengths as a medium that it's impossible to pick just one. I guess we could start with the way that the medium allows you to feel as though you have physically entered the imagination of another person, providing you with the opportunity to get to know them from the inside out. As I mentioned in today's episode, the way that videogames break down the barriers between on-screen characters and off-screen characters (off-screen characters meaning "you") is arguably the one thing that videogames do better than any other medium. Because of the way that videogames give us a mainline into the world of the game (and therefore, the internal world of the developer), you don't need realism in order to form an emotionally charged connection between you and the on-screen world. All you need is a controller in your hand, and the will to play.
This allows for game developers to provide almost any kind of content to the player, with the guarantee that we'll be able to relate with it on some level, so long as the controls are good and the game world is engaging. In short, you can make a game about anything, and as long as it's interesting and fun to control, people will play it. We live in a world where the most popular game series of all time has practically no written dialog, and stars a fat, baby-bodied plumber who stomps turtles to death while eating mushrooms that he finds stuck in brick walls. That kind of wholesale surrealism isn't likely to gain mainstream acceptance in other media. It's only because the Mario games came to us in videogame form (and because the games are so fun to play) that the franchise has gone on to become one of the most powerful forces in the entertainment world.
As usual, I've prattled on for too long, but I'll close by saying that just as female videogame characters don't need to be sexy or sexless in order to appeal to the mainstream market, male videogame characters don't need to be bland, standard leading men. Videogames is the one form of art where your only limitation is your own imagination, and absolutely anything (from enraged, white-skinned, bald, god-killing men to round, fat, pig-hating birds) can go on to gain critical and financial success.
There is no reason why the greatest form of expression yet devised by human beings should ever be trapped in the same boxes that confine film and other, lesser forms of art. That's just silly, right?
Constructoid: Helping the Xbox 360 to sell in Japan
Constructoid: Helping Nintendo win back the Hardcore
Constructoid: Peach and Bayonetta talk Women in Gaming
Constructoid: Big Daddy and the Katamari King on Parenting
[Constructoid is a pixel-animated show about Destructoid editor Jonathan Holmes and various videogame personalities. They've got some constructive criticism for the world of gaming. Check it out.]
There's a lot going on in ...
Mar 01 //
I'm hoping we're in the last generation that has to even think about parenting as it relates to gaming, or at least, the last generation that looks at the topic in the ways that we do now. There was a time when books, movies, comic books, and "rock and roll" music carried the pariah status in our culture that videogames currently hold, but over time, they've all grown to be seen as beneficial at best, or "mostly harmless" at worst. I'm sure that in time, videogames will become accepted by everyone as well, but we'll need a new pariah to take their place first. Maybe the new pariah may be something really amazing, like direct-to-brain download of information, experiences, or even energy. For now, though, we've got to settle with videogames for our "art form that the mainstream media and middle-aged people don't care about and/or actively dislike."
There isn't much I could say to anyone out there to try to get them to stop scapegoating videogames. I'd have more luck explaining to someone with self-diagnosed ADHD that the bottles of Ritalin they buy off the street every month might be a sign that they're addicted to stimulants. People hate to lose their excuses and scapegoats, and trying to get someone to do something that they hate almost never works. Thankfully, people seem to love being given advice from random strangers, so let's go with that.
We can start with advice from an expert. I've been lucky enough to meet with Cheryl Olsen (co-author of Grand Theft Childhood) in the past, and she had some particularly enlightening things to say about parenting in the age of gaming. The main thing I took away from both her book and our conversations is that like comic books, TV shows, and action figures, videogames can be powerful things in the lives of children, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. That power can be used just as easily to enrich a child's life as to damage it. Toy therapy is a common technique in child psychology. Videogame therapy could be just as effective, if not more effective, if people only chose to explore it.
As recent studies have shown, videogames can be used as a coping mechanism for people going through difficult emotions. As recent studies haven't shown -- but every gamer knows from experience -- video games can also be used to explore different themes and narrative concepts in a way that's more involving and engaging than other media. They can build problem-solving skills, confidence, and -- depending on the game -- even social skills. Perhaps most importantly, at least to parents, videogames can be used to help get to know people -- specifically, their children. The games that kids choose to play reflect their interests, and in some cases, their psychological needs. If a kid is obsessed with violent videogames (or violent anything), a parent shouldn't worry so much that the games are damaging the kid. They should be worried that the kid is expressing some unresolved anger or other potentially damaging emotion through those games. Instead of taking the games away -- or worse, dismissing the kid's interest in video games (and in the process, dismissing the kid) -- why not find out why your kid loves those games in the first place?
A little while back, when I was getting my Masters degree in social work, I did an internship at a school for "Special Ed" kids, but probably not in the way you think. These kids didn't necessarily have any developmental disabilities. These were kids who had refused to go to school, refused to take tests, assaulted their teachers, destroyed school property, pooped on their desks -- that sort of thing. As you might have guessed, violent videogames were a big hit with this group. I can't remember which Grand Theft Auto had come out that year (I think it was San Andreas), but whatever it was, it was all the kids were talking about; about the game's "gangsta" characters, the game's sexual and violent content, and a lot of times, how they knew they weren't supposed to be playing it.
The two major controlling forces in these kids' lives (their school and their homes) both had strict rules against kids playing M-rated games. Generally, though, these two forces had two distinctly different attitudes toward dealing with those rules. At home, the prevailing attitude was to try to stop the kids, to force them not to play the games they were most interested in. It didn't matter if the the kids lived at home with their families, or at residential programs funded by the state. In either circumstance, it was the norm for the kids to be constantly barraged with rules and commands, and for someone to always be monitoring (and correcting) their behavior.
Obviously, that technique didn't work. If anything, turning GTA into forbidden fruit only caused the kids to love the games more. Just like smoking in the boys' bathroom, half the draw of GTA for this group was the fact that playing it made them feel grown-up. The other half came from the fact that grown-ups didn't want them to play it. Rebellion against adults and assertion of adulthood in one package; it's attracted millions, maybe billions, of teenagers to drinking alcohol, sneaking into R-rated movies, and stripping in front of webcams. It's also done wonders for the sales of the GTA series.
But I digress.
At school, things were a little different. When you're trying to actually teach people something, it's important to pick your battles. Trying to get the kids to not like M-rated games was the least of our problems. Just keeping the students physically in the school, but not physically assaulting each other, was our number-one priority. Bonding over a mutual love of crime simulators wasn't something we encouraged the kids to do, but it was a hell of a lot better than witnessing them try to kill each other.
Being the risk-taking dumbass that I am, benign neglect wasn't enough for me. I wanted to acknowledge that our kids were playing violent videogames, and try to make that work for them. One kid in particular (let's call him Bobby) really, really loved GTA. He'd go on and on all day about how much he loved the music, the violence, the way that it felt when he killed people, and how all of it was "so baller." I felt like he was trying to get a rise out of me, but I didn't bite. Instead, I asked him if he'd ever played Resident Evil 4. As I recall, his response was something like, "What? Evil? THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!"
I let him borrow the game. I found out later that I had violated the rules of his residential program by doing so. Luckily, neither of us got in trouble for that, but Bobby still wasn't too happy with how the situation played out. He didn't get punished by his program, but he did get punished by Resident Evil 4. He hated the game. He said he hated it more than any other game he'd ever played.
As a huge fan of that particular game, I thought that was really interesting, though not entirely unexpected. As anyone who's played both games will tell you, the "action" violence in GTA sets a very different tone than the "horror" violence in Resident Evil 4. That difference in tone struck a chord with Bobby, and that chord gave both of us the opportunity to better understand Bobby as a person.
Bobby told me that Resident Evil 4 wasn't fun because there were always more people coming at him, and that they weren't afraid of him. He said that he felt angry and guilty when Leon inevitably got his head cut off by the chainsaw guy, and that he never felt like he was safe or fully in control. The game didn't really seem to scare him, but it definitely made him feel bad. He said he was tempted to play it again because he hated the characters in the game so much that he wanted revenge on them, but that he doubted his own ability to ever take that revenge without getting killed in the process, and that pissed him off.
Now it probably goes without saying, but Bobby bullied the other kids sometimes. Every kid in this school did, even those at the very bottom of the pecking order. These kids would bully inanimate objects if they had to. It didn't matter, as long as it made them feel better. It also goes without saying that in a school of bullies, everyone also gets bullied, but very few of them seemed to understand that cycle. They were so out of touch with their behaviors and their emotions that they didn't even notice how their behaviors created their experiences. As it turned out, Resident Evil 4 was the perfect catalyst to help change that, at least for Bobby.
I tried to explain to Bobby that in GTA, he was like the bad guys in Resident Evil 4: a relentless killing machine that the normal people were powerless to stop. I explained to him that when he hurt people in real life, scared people, or made fun of people, he made them feel as powerless as the villagers did in Resident Evil 4, and that making people feel powerless starts a potential cycle of abuse that will always come back to bite you. Just as he wanted to go back and kill the villagers in Resident Evil 4, a lot of the kids whom he made feel powerless wanted to come back and kill him, and that's maybe why he got a chair thrown at him the other day. Linking his virtual experiences in videogames to his real-life experiences seemed to help him make sense of himself and his life.
At least, that's what he led me to believe. Whether I "got through" to Bobby or not, he definitely seemed to appreciate the effort. More than any sort of simplistic counseling or insight-building, I think what was important about my time with Bobby was that he felt that we connected. When you're trying to understand someone, it goes without saying that it helps to not make them feel judged or otherwise threatened. I think that's the part of counseling, and parenting, that most consistently makes a difference in people's lives: the part where you try to put the other person first, and understand them.
There is obviously a lot more to parenting than that, but it's still a key to dealing with the generation gap, especially when it comes to something as divisive as videogames. Parents, don't make your kids feel judged for being gamers. Don't make them feel inadequate based on their interests. That will only push them farther away from you, and closer to whatever it is that you think they should be avoiding. The directing and censoring aspect of parenting is important, too, but more so with kids ten and under. After that, it's time to stop connecting with your kids like a little alien army that you command, and more like fellow human beings -- or you won't be connecting with them at all.
The one thing almost all the chronically violent people I've ever met have had in common is a feeling of emotional disconnection from those around them. Sometimes that's because they're sociopaths -- they simply aren't capable of forming real emotional connections with others. Other times, it's because they just don't have people in their lives whom they can connect with. Whether you have a "problem child" or not, I think it's sensible to make sure your kids don't feel alone and/or unsupported in whatever they're doing.
That's just common sense, right? Or is there something big I'm missing here? Parents, how do you go about relating with your kids when it comes to gaming? Those of you still living with your parents, how do your parents take to your interest in gaming? Do they accept it, judge you for it, or just ignore it?
[Constructoid is a little animated video show about Destructoid editor and pixel artist Jonathan Holmes and his featured guests delivering constructive criticism to game developers, characters, and players.]
This week's Cons...
Feb 15 //
Jonathan Holmes Let's start with a story. I was taking an art class about ten years ago, and one of the assignments was to create a visual metaphor to express the idea of femme fatale. I drew a curvy knife that looked like a naked woman's body. I thought it was crude, but hopefully a little bit clever.
When it came time to grade it, of of the professors on my year-end critique reamed me out. She said that my image was one of the most sexist things she'd seen in a long time -- that equating a woman's body to something dangerous, to equate her sexuality to something that kills -- was totally misogynistic. I know that wasn't what I was trying to say with that image, but what matters to me is that's what my professor heard.
Of course, by that professor's definition, the whole idea of femme fatale is pretty misogynistic. I wracked my brain for ways to visually sum up "A woman of great seductive charm who leads men into compromising or dangerous situations" in a way that didn't imply that women use their sexuality to hurt men. I don't think it's possible.
I feel like that's what's going on with a lot of game developers in their efforts to create "successful" female videogame protagonists. As game developers are a largely male group, they usually can't speak to their own experience in crafting a female character, so all they have to go on is what they're taught will resonate as "female" in our culture.
That usually breaks down to three types of leading women in videogames; the sexually evocative "bad girl" (Chloe from Uncharted 2, Morrigan from Darkstalkers, Lara Croft, Bloodrayne, Hanna from Fear Effect); the noble, sexless "good girl" (Elena from Uncharted 2, Princess Peach, Aerith from Final Fantasy VII, Zelda); or women who start off sexless to later become sexual (something I've dubbed "the Black Swan syndrome").
This transformation can happen at any time, but what's important is that it happens. For instance, Bayonetta starts off her game as a nun, but with in the first ten minutes, she's gets all her clothes ripped off, and for the rest of the game she's an angel-killing, gun-toting sexpot. Samus from the Metroid series is another, more subtle example (though just about anything is more subtle than Bayonetta). It usually takes Samus a little longer to strip down to a pin-up girl posture in her games, but it almost always happens at some point or another.
We see the same thing in pop culture as a whole. "Girl" pop stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus start of sexless, then a few years into their careers, they become "women," and the sex comes out (usually by the bucket). It doesn't just work for pop stars either. Presenting yourself as "a regular, innocent girl" then planting a sex tape on the internet is a sure way to get your own reality show. Innocence sells, sex sells more, and the transformation from sexually repressed to sex machine sells the most.
There are a couple of reasons why that may be true. The most obvious reason is that in nearly every culture, for almost as long as recorded history, women have been put into either the sexually chaste role of "mother/daughter" or the sexually charged role of "mistress/lover." Combining the two roles makes for a simple character arc for a woman in any story, one that will presumably resonate with the majority of the population.
There is also the idea that sexual expression is more genuine and intense from someone that was once sexually chaste. That's true for both men and women. I know a lot of women that love the idea of (usually gay) men repressing their sexuality due to fear of rejection or being socially ostracized, only to eventually "give in" by unleashing the full force of their sexuality (usually on another man). In short, it's one thing if someone who has been stripping all their lives gives you a lap dance, and it's another thing entirely if someone who normally keeps their sexuality bottled up sudden starts grinding on you.
For women, I'm guessing that the transformation from "sex-free good girl" to "sexpot bad girl" might resonate in a different way. Women are still sexually repressed in most cultures. Girls are taught from an early age that sex is scary and dirty, that if a girl gives into her sexual urges that she is endangering herself, or maybe worse, her family's reputation. Then there's the whole "sex is a sin" thing that women of certain religions have to deal with. The list goes on and on.
With that in mind, it makes sense that some women would look up to someone like Bayonetta. She defies the idea of sin from the start (I'm pretty sure shooting angels in the face is a sin). She's as sexy as she wants to be, as mean as she wants to be, and as tough as she wants to be, all on her own terms. If our society equated "sexually repressed" with being "good", then of course people are going to want to be bad, because bad feels a hell of a lot better. I think it's pretty obvious that Bayonetta is having a lot more fun that Peach is.
One of my many problems with this whole "sexy bad girl" deal is that it still buys into the idea that a woman's sexuality is bad. It may look like Bayonetta is living by "her own terms", but she's still buying into the whole "sexy bad girl/chaste good girl" trap. Like my old art professor said, equating a women's sexuality with evil and danger is not all that empowering. If anything, female characters that pair violence and sex only validate those of us who would tell the world that a woman's sexuality is "scary" and "bad."
From a more personal perspective, I can say that the "sexy bad girl/chaste good girl" routine has become boring at best, and painfully distracting at worst. I mean, is there anything more formulaic at this point? After a while, I start to tune out formulas without even thinking about it.
Sometimes it's worse is when I can't tune out the "sexy bad girl" stuff. I tried to tune out Bayonetta's constant sexual behavior while playing her game, but I couldn't. Her constant orgasmic moans and protruding lady lumps were so distracting, I could barely focus on the rest of the game. Sure, her over-expression of female sex-power was funny at first (in a Ron Burgundy sort of way) but it got overwhelming fast. How can I pay attention to the rest of Bayonetta's character when she's acting like swollen-assed baboon in heat for the entirety of her adventure? I like cheese on my pizza, but if it's six inches thick, then you're not doing to be able to taste anything but cheese.
That's what happened to me when playing Bayonetta. I was overwhelmed by the cheese.
[Image by Rathan Marxx]
There are plenty of better ways to have a female video game character be sexual, playful, and rebellious, and it can be done without buying into the whole "sexy bad girl" stereotype. In fact, if done right, a sexual, self-assured female character can work to say that there is nothing "bad" about a women to be openly sexual. And more importantly, that their sexuality can truly be theirs,instead of belonging to their audience.
Take Mighty Jill Off for instance. The name of the game is itself playful and sexual, but in a way that is totally owned by the female lead of the game. It's a half-tribute to Mighty Bomb Jack, and if you swap Jill for Jack in Mighty Jill Off, you get the idea. There's no question that masturbation is something people do for themselves. The rest of the game does well to carry on this theme of a woman expressing her sexuality for her own gratification, and not necessarily for the player's.
It does that in a lot of ways. For one, Jill is far from your stereotypical pin-up girl. She's a little overweight, and she's pretty much covered from head to toe. Still, I find her attractive, but not necessarily in a sexual way. She's not attractive as an object, but as an subject.
Jill is on a mission to please herself and her love interest (the queen) and in doing so, she ends up getting impaled on spikes again and again. That may sound awful, but the thing about Jill is, she enjoys it, and she's not ashamed of it. As a life long fan of games like Mega Man, Ghouls and Ghosts, and now Super Meat Boy and Bit.Trip RUNNER, I can relate with the way Jill finds pleasure in being hurt again and again by her game. In effect, Mighty Jill Off equates playing a super-hard platformer with having sex, and the message that both of things are not only OK, but are in fact totally awesome.
That's my idea of an near-perfect female videogame character. She is attractive without being stereotypically sexy, she's sexual without being exploitative, and most importantly, she doesn't come off as a "good girl," "bad girl," or "good girl gone bad." Instead, she's her own person. Like her or not, you can't say that you've ever seen a videogame character quite like her.
I'm not saying that it's a bad thing for a female videogame character to be "girly." I'm not saying that female characters should be more like male characters just for the sake of being "un-female," or to otherwise defy their true natures. Quite the opposite. What I want are female (and male) videogame characters that show me 100% of their true natures. Being weighed down or otherwise altered by attempts to live up to any preconceived concepts of gender only diminishes how well I get to know them.
Gender isn't something to be ignored, but the idea of gender as an absolute set of rules for males and females to follow is limiting, boring, and just plain silly. Gender is an experience. We all experience being male, female, or something between, in our own ways. Our unique experiences are what make us interesting, and expressing those experiences as honestly as possible is what makes us real. Being honest usually means stepping off of the paths that we've been told we should walk down. That's what I want from my videogame characters.
Before I go, I have to say that it was incredibly fun to write, animate, and do voices for Peach and Bayonetta in this video. I definitely have a little bit of both of them in my true nature, as I think a lot of us do. There both great characters; great icons in their own right. That said, I want to see more of who they really are than what their creators have shown us so far.
I also want more for them than I could effectively pull of in this video, but that's a whole other issue.
Today's episode of Constructoid is a little different. For starters, it's longer than the two previous episodes put together. That's largely because my two guest panelists (Bayonetta and Princess Peach) are the characters ac...
Jan 27 //
Jonathan Holmes Before we begin, a little more about the current situation
Like I said before, this is the first time in my 30+ years on this earth that I've seen a true, definitive split in audiences on home consoles. The Master System was more or less like the NES, just with fewer games. Nintendo didn't allow blood in SNES games, but other than that, its games were more or less like those on the Genesis in style and substance. The N64 couldn't do FMV or much pre-recorded voice acting, but it was still a part of the "polygon revolution" that the PS1 and the Saturn were pushing.
No, the current console race is the first one to have a group of consumers on one end with one set of priorities, and an equally large group of consumers on the other end with an entirely different set of needs, with very little overlap between them.
There was a similar split in portables back in the early days of handhelds, with the "non-gamer" audience quickly adopting the Game Boy (mostly for Tetris), while a slightly smaller "dedicated gamer" audience flocked to the Lynx and the Game Gear. It wouldn't take too long though before the Game Gear and the Lynx went unsupported, forcing most handheld gamers to migrate over to the Game Boy and Game Boy Color.
With the Wii, that migration doesn't seem to be happening. 2010 was definitely a better year for "dedicated" gamer adoption on the Wii, with traditional games like Super Mario Galaxy 2, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, and Monster Hunter Tri doing well with both critics and at retail. Still, those four games were far from being as successful as titles like Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, Super Street Fighter IV, and the PS3/360 versions of Call of Duty: Black Ops, amongst many others.
It all boils down to the fact that for the first time, we have two opposing ideologies on game development going head to head in the home console space. The Wii sells on its easy-to-pick-up controls, iconic visuals, reliance on classic gameplay motifs, local co-op, and a Pixar-like focus on an "all ages" audience. The PS3 and the 360 tend to actively reject all of those properties, focusing instead on highly detailed control schemes, "realistic" graphics, multiple online features, and the pursuit of proving that gaming is as "grown up" as other popular forms of entertainment (like movies and television).
With Kinect and the PS Move, the 360 and the PS3 are closing the gap between those two ideologies. It's time for Nintendo to try to close their gap as well, and I've got plenty of ideas on how they could do that.
Nintendo has likely done as much as they can with the Wii, so the bulk of this article is pointed towards what could happen with their next console -- but there is some Wii-specific stuff in here as well. Oh, and in case it isn't obvious, this stuff only applies to the home console side of Nintendo's business. When it comes to portables, they don't need advice from anybody (particularly a goofball like me)
OK, so, here we go. Time to tell the most successful game and console developer on the planet how to do its job!
Never utter the name "Wii" again
The Nintendo "Wii" may mean "an all-inclusive console for people of all ages, races, genders, and cultural backgrounds," but to most dedicated gamers, it means "pandering to my parents and my younger siblings because the GameCube failed so Nintendo has given up competing with Sony and Microsoft for my attention." In short, Wii equals "Nintendo's betrayal" to a lot of people, and it always will. Just uttering the word causes some people I know to recoil in disgust.
Nintendo needs to show these gamers that their next console is not "the Wii 2," but is instead something that's tailor made for them from the start, and what better way to do that than with a new name? Even better, Nintendo could go with something that doesn't mean penis or urine this time. They could probably get away with something like Wii (that doesn't sound quite as limp) if they want to maintain name recognition (Iiw, Fiido, Ziip, etc.), but that's still going to be a turn off for a lot of people.
Anything with weird spellings and/or unnecessary usage of the letter "i" will seem gimmicky at best, or a straight copy of Apple's "i" line of products at worst. Combine that with the potential for confusion with the multiple Wii knock-offs already out there (Zii, Qii, Tii, etc.), and Nintnedo's probably better off with going for a name that's totally new.
How about "Frank"? It's accessible, simple, but not overly soft or goofy. I know I'd immediately be interesting in a new videogame console named "Frank," regardless of who produced it. I think that gamers of the world would feel the same way.
Realistic Acne or GTFO
For an ex-illustration student like me, I look at drawing, sculpture, and videogame graphics in one of two styles. There's "hyper-realism" style and "iconic" style, each with very different goals. In the 1950's days, these two styles went head to head in newspapers -- the "hyper-realism" style being championed by Alex Raymond and his students, and the "iconic" style pushed forward by Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame. Back then, newspapers were the closest thing the world had to today's "console wars."
You could say that the simplistic Mii-driven games like Wii Sports and Wii Party are the equivalent to Peanuts, and Halo, Uncharted and Heavy Rain are the equivalents to Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, and Jungle Jim. For a variety of reasons, Schultz-style eventually become the victor in that battle on the newspaper front, but I'm not so sure the same will be true in the gaming world.
There was a time when gaming occupied the same space in people's minds as newspaper comic strips; light diversions for adults, fully engrossing for kids, and a career path for artists. With this console generation in particular, gaming has become much more than that. While gaming may still be comparable to the porn industry in terms of how much respect it gets from the mainstream media, it's much closer to the realm of Hollywood films in terms of how much money they cost to make, and how much money the generate, and how deeply they've penetrated our culture.
Just as people want variety in their blockbusters, they want variety in the games as well. People want the option of seeing Toy Story 3 and Avatar. If Nintendo wants to keep up with Microsoft and Sony in the next console generation, they're going to have to provide those options, and every option in between. Speaking of which...
Publish one T- or M-rated game, just to say you did
This one is really just for Nintendo of America. In Japan, Nintendo publishes all kinds of games, from the ultra-violent Zangeki No Reginliev, survival horror favorites like Fatal Frame, auteur-produced RPGs like The Last Story and Mother 3, obvious long-time favorites like Mario and Metroid, and of course, the sterile and tame Wii Play and Wii Party titles that have become the public face of the Wii brand.
Starting about six years ago, Nintendo of America began cutting down on publishing anything but those last two categories. I can think of at least ten Nintendo games on the GBA, DS, and Wii -- many of which are amongst my favorite titles of the past six years -- that I had to import because they were passed on by Nintendo of America. It seems that Nintendo of America is suffering from an ever-narrowing focus on what games are, and what they should be. That not only goes against their application of the "blue ocean" strategy, but more importantly, against the growth of gaming in general.
That would be so easy for them to change. The most simple tactic would be to start publishing more games from Nintendo of Japan, but sadly, I think it's come to the point where Nintendo of America needs to do more than that to prove themselves to self-identified "hardcore gamers."
I think they need to hire a big-name Western developer. Either second-party like Retro, or third-party like BioWare. Have them create a big-budget, Hollywood-style "epic" exclusive (with online multiplayer), and market the crap out of it. That's what it's going to take for Nintendo to prove to both gamers, and third-parties that they're ready to embrace the side of gaming that they currently appear to have little grasp on.
Nintendo of Japan seems to understand this already, as The Last Story is such a big-budget epic with online multiplayer. The fact that Nintendo of America may pass on the game shows just how far gone they might be. Before I get to pessimistic, I'm going to move on.
Never force us to waggle again
The success of the Wii showed the world that motion controls are legit. Likewise, the simultaneous success of the 360 (particularly in the United States), and the PS3 (particularly in Japan), have shown the world that traditional button and analog stick controls are also legit. There is no way to create a console that will please everybody without equal focus on both control methods.
Again, Nintendo of Japan already seems to get this, as the 3DS comes complete with an analog stick and a touch screen. Likewise, the next Nintendo home console needs to come packed in with some sort of dual-analog set up from the start. To be clear, Nintendo has never been as all-in for motion controls as some people make them out to be. It was a brilliant idea to make the Wii remote a functioning NES-style controller when turned on its side, giving both a traditional gameplay option and a solely motion-controlled option in one package.
Still, there are millions and millions of gamers that see the NES controller as far from adequate. They won't touch a home console unless it comes armed from day one with a dual-analog stick controller, and an army of games to go a long with it. If Nintendo can find a way to make their first motion controller have the built-in functionality of an NES controller, I'm sure they can find a way to put motion controls together with a traditional dual-analog set up. Don't ask me how they could do that. They're Nintendo; I know they could pull it off if they wanted to.
Go overboard with online
Nintendo has shown some curiosity in online services, but thus far, they're yet to fully commit to any of them. They offer WiiWare demos (sometimes), they give out free DLC (very sometimes) and they even let you play a few of their games online every once in a while. Next time around, they're going to have to do more than just dabble. They're going to have to go above an beyond to compensate for the bad reputation for online support they've earned with the Wii.
Obvious stuff like the end of friend codes; beefed-up development of online-only titles; the implementation of achievements; packed-in Wi-Fi and LAN compatibility; streamlining the online shopping experience; demos for retail and downloadable games; and online modes and free DLC for all major titles. These are all a given. (That's just the list of stuff they'd need to keep up with Microsoft and Sony.)
Beyond that though, Nintendo needs to innovate in the online space if they want to really impress gamers. Give us a home console that is 4G compatible, for the people who can't or won't bother to figure out how to get their home consoles online via the traditional methods. Give us the best netcode and servers on the planet. Give us Club Nintendo stuff if we get a high enough score in certain games. Give us things we've always wanted, and the things we could have never even imagined.
It would take nothing less than that to get a die-hard 360 or PS3 loyalist to buy Nintendo's next home console.
For the record, I couldn't care less about a fair amount of the features I've just outlined. The Wii is my favorite home console of this generation, for both its top-notch first-party support, and the incredibly varied and experimental third-party library. That said, I'm not your typical "hardcore gamer," and I know that. There is a brand of gamer who sees Nintendo as everything that's wrong with gaming today, and judging by the combined sales of the PS3 and the 360 worldwide, there are just as many gamers out there with that mentality as their are gamers who subscribe to the strengths of the Wii.
That's why we won't have a "new PS2" of this generation. There is no one home console out today that has all the games and all the features that every gamer considers essential. That doesn't have to be true for the next console generation, though. The first company who can put out a console that meet the needs of the online-focused gamer, the old-school gamer, the blockbuster-budget gamer, and the motion-controls gamer -- and everything in between -- will be the one to truly claim the crown once worn by the PS2.
With Kinect and PS Move, that race is officially on, but it's far from too late for Nintendo to win it. All they need to do is truly embrace that "blue-ocean strategy" they talk about so much, and make a console that's truly built for everyone, including PS3 and 360 owners.
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