Friday, May 29, 2009

Multimedia Mission Creep

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Over the past few years, video games have made huge strides toward becoming a widespread and socially accepted form of entertainment. What was once the hobby of a few basement-dwelling troll people has expanded its influence to include frat boys, grandmothers and everyone in between. This can be attributed partially towards the steadily evolving popularity of the genre, but the sudden surge has been more a result of a massive shift in focus for the game industry. This shift has been lead largely by Nintendo, and its focus on casual gamers.

In a way, casual titles like Wii Sports are an evolution of the earliest casual games. Like the computerized version of Solitaire, the title takes well known and well understood games that we play with our hands and gives us a well-translated version of the same game on a screen; it draws people in because it’s familiar, fun and simple. Wii Sports bowling, tennis, and so on are all played in a similar way to the real games.

But there’s another strange trend that accompanies the boom in the casual gaming market. There are more and more products being released for what are nominally game consoles that are barely recognizable as games. Also in the world of phenomenally popular Nintendo titles, Wii Fit shines as an example of a product that fails to justify itself as either a game or a non-game. Is it a video game or a workout program? You don’t achieve high scores, like in a video game; you simply lower your “Wii Fit Age,” which measures your overall health. And you don’t really get the exercise that you would from an actual exercise routine since the game only tracks your movements and activities through the balance board, which is an imprecise tool to say the least. Wii Fit lives in a strange in-between world, trying to provide value as both entertainment and tool. To me, it seems a silly, useless product. To the rest of the world, it is already the 5th highest-selling video game in history.

As gaming becomes more popular, these strange, mutated offspring of video games are also gaining ground. One example for the Nintendo DS is Personal Trainer: Cooking, which contains recipes, a shopping list and videos on different cooking techniques. Essentially, for many people, video game consoles are becoming more than just gaming machines. The Xbox 360 recently added the ability to play Netflix movies with an internet connection. The Playstation 3 was originally marketed as the center of a home entertainment center with Blu-Ray, which was considered a risky move before it came out, and either its lack of focus or its high price has caused it to lag behind the competition.

On the other side of the equation, the iPhone is meeting with huge success as a multi-faceted platform: besides making phone calls, connecting to the internet, giving directions and storing music, it’s becoming a viable and popular gaming machine. Some analysts have proposed that we are approaching a one console future, when we will leave the squabbling between Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo behind us. But what Sony is attempting with the Playstation 3 and what Apple is succeeding at with the iPhone hints at a one-piece-of-technology future.

I suppose that what ultimately makes me nervous about this amalgamation of interests is an already apparent lack of focus. Getting to watch Ghostbusters on my Xbox 360 whenever I want to is great, but Microsoft’s wholly-owned game properties have been mostly disappointing. The motion controls on the Wii are fun and exciting, but I still find myself annoyed when they’re thrown into a game just because they can be. The Playstation 3 looks like a great gaming machine, but they spent so much time and money on Blu-Ray and proving its importance that the console is still positioned as a machine that is too expensive and severely lacking in unique content. And who wants to get a telephone call in the middle of playing a video game, only to have to take the call on the same machine?

Some of the results of this cross-saturation are great: I’ve been having a blast making little tunes with the Korg DS-10 Synthesizer, which is essentially just a keyboard and drum machine, presented in stark black and white on the DS. I also appreciate the idea of bringing non-gamers into the fold with products like Wii Sports. Still, I want my deep, compelling, graphically luscious games in the future, not just non-games and casual titles. Do you think I have anything to worry about? Will the next round of game consoles and multi-purpose phones have even more scattershot features, or will they work on refining the ones they have now? I guess I see the advantage either way.

The question ultimately boils down to this: do you want more variety or more depth and care in execution? Is it possible that we can have our cake and eat it too, or is the cake a lie?

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