I’m a greedy gamer. I love to chase the next audiovisual high or high-impact feast, but as I hurtle towards the next generation of consoles I wonder if I have too much of a good thing. The “just good enough” technology movement tells me that efficient design rather than horsepower can create just as much fun and excitement.
I’d heard about the idea before, but was reminded how widespread this approach to tech was when I stumbled across Robert Capps’ article in Wired. Although he makes a great case for “just good enough” websites, gadgets, music and media, game consoles went unmentioned.
Being a gamer, I immediately thought of Nintendo. Its restrained approach to gaming mirrors those magical devices that succeed with a “just good enough” user experience. It’s an approach I like because it means game design becomes about the player rather than the technology. In fact, they seem to have been reading from the same playbook. Capps’ comments about disrupting existing industry values could just as easily have come from Reggie Fils-Aime.
A lot of this is gaming history now, but go back a few years and the idea of low-fi gaming was unheard of. Before the Wii and the DS broke onto the scene, everybody clamored for fidelity, resolution, and hardware features in new gaming consoles. Each new generation had to outgun the last and deliver previously unimagined graphical realism. Go back to the GameCube, though, and you can hear Nintendo quietly building its vision of games not dependent on horsepower. Its big idea: fun from ideas and implementations rather than processor speed, polygon count and frame rate.
I remember that my response was intrigue and skepticism. It sounded more like the marketing hype platform manufacturers often roll out rather than a genuinely new idea. But then, while Sony and Microsoft were releasing hi-spec machines, Nintendo came to market with the DS and Wii – hardware that lagged behind a generation.
It took a while for the penny to drop for me – this was a revolutionary approach that would deeply affect the games I held dear. Nintendo had left the power race and instead played to its strengths. It knew that Sony and Microsoft could out-punch it in the hardware ring, but it would always be the king of in-house first party games. Its answer was to create this now-familiar concept of “just good enough” by focusing on gameplay and convenience rather than graphics.
This was as much a new gaming paradigm as it was a new piece of hardware. Developing games for the Wii was an entirely new animal, as were the buying habits of its customers. The games that worked were those that understood that ports of existing PC and PS2 games weren’t enough. To succeed in the world of “just good enough,” games had to deliver the feature that gamers had bought the system for – accessible gameplay.
Nintendo understood this. Wii Sports was a system seller because it proved the Wii could deliver simple, accessible gameplay. EA also understood the required investment in game design that the Wii demands. Grand Slam Tennis, Tiger Woods Golf and Boom Blox are all games that offer control schemes that simply aren’t possible on other systems.
Those of us who have been playing games for some time understand the benefits of the Wii, but I often find myself wanting all this with high definition visuals as well – Wii HD. When I do, though, the idea of “just good enough” technology helps me understand why this is the right move for Nintendo. While the lack of fidelity on the Wii is hard to swallow, it has been key in establishing a new take on gaming – both developing and playing.
The completely new take on video games means I’m happy to forgive Nintendo for ignoring some of the more traditional staples of gaming law. In the short term, price and lack of HD appears to be a significant flaw, but as with other “just good enough” products, the Wii’s effects won’t be fully appreciated until years later as their innovations migrate into other products. I’m even more excited to see the release of Natal on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation Eye/Wand combination on the PS3 next year. Microsoft and Sony are reacting to our appetite for more accessible ways to play together.
The challenge Microsoft and Sony face is preventing these motion controls from becoming a novelty against their impressive visuals. Perhaps this will answer the question of whether the Wii Remote should have been a new GameCube controller rather than the basis for a new system. We will see how committed Microsoft and Sony are to this concept through their long term delivery, support and branding for both Natal and the Wand.
Nintendo has now paid the price of entry into the halls of “just good enough” design. This was no toe-in-the-water affair; it has designed both product and brand strategy around being just good enough; hook, line and sinker.
And because of this philosophy the Wii has reminded us all that gaming is essentially about people. The ‘we’ in the Wii name is significant, not least in comparison to Microsoft’s ‘Box’ and Sony’s ‘Station’ that envisage impressive technology. Nintendo is in an interesting position now with the potential of continuing their revolution into affordable HD and safe, accessible online gaming. If it learns from its own lessons and stays focused on the people that play their games, there’s no reason it can’t keep writing the gaming history books – that long-cherished privilege of the victor.
Game People is a rag tag bunch of artisans creating awesomely bizarre reviews from across the pond.