Friday, March 19, 2010

Not that I don't own one

People that are really into video games, the sort that read Joystiq and Penny Arcade (which is to say, people like me) are often mystified by the moves that Nintendo makes, especially concerning the Wii.

That may seem odd to a more casual gamer, who knows the Wii as a global phenomenon, one that long ago surpassed its competitors in sales numbers.

But you must understand that for us, the system has always been something of an anomaly: No HD support, when the whole market is going that direction; No hard drive, when downloadable content is just becoming a big thing; A design that's just a boring white box, when all the other systems are starting to look like part of your home theater.

When these things were announced, months before anyone in the general public would know or care, "hardcore" gamers were already predicting it as Nintendo's folly.

And then, like a latter day Seward, the Wii took the world by storm, and they're competition is playing catchup.

Yet even now I see gamers and media questioning the company's maneuvers, certain that this time Nintendo's made a fatal error. But long ago I realized that Nintendo's decisions for the last few years make perfect sense when you see it through the filter of extensive, comprehensive market testing.

See in order to make something that appeals to everyone, you often end up having to make it rather bland. The search for the universal product is, in effect, the search for the product that is universally inoffensive. Not good, mind you, just inoffensive.

So with that in mind, think about the Wii. The device is small and unobtrusive, most dvd players have more buttons on them. Even the simple memory card reader feature is covered by a panel, you don't know it's there unless you go looking. Aesthetically it's plain, not pretty but not an eyesore either. You'd barely notice it.

It doesn't have HD, it doesn't have a hard drive, but for the average consumer those are almost a burden. Were you to market test the general public on those things, I'll bet most wouldn't have a solid understanding of HD, and wouldn't know why their game console would need a hard drive.

Even the Wii logo, grey letters on a white background, is nothing except inoffensive.

Nintendo has market tested their product into a grey paste, and they're making a ton of money as a result.

This concept, that wide appeal means making a bland product, is something I think about a lot. I think about it every time I see "Citizen Kane" on the top of a "best movies of all time" list, or "Ulysses" on a similar list for books. I think about it when I drink a Coke. In each case, I have the same reaction: rather bland, but wholly inoffensive.

So then to make something daring, something unique and interesting, I suppose you've got to accept that you're probably not going to be the most popular.*

*I'll take it.

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