Childs Play: The Casual Gaming Conundrum

the weather warms and my mind turns longingly to summer, free time and gaming,
I find myself pondering the fate of the gaming industry. Longtime readers of this column will no
doubt be aware that this is hardly a noteworthy activity for me, as I always seem to be ruminating on this
topic in some capacity. This time,
however, I’m thinking of it in terms of a wide, blue ocean—vast and deep beyond
belief if one can only properly plumb its depths.

that makes no sense, allow me to be a bit more explicit. Last
summer at the annual Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3), held in our own
stomping grounds of Los Angeles, Nintendo announced the birth of a new console:
the WiiU. This somewhat less-than-revolutionary evolution of the Nintendo Revolution was said to sport guts
stronger than both the PS3 and Xbox 360, and a bastion of third-party deals
meant to bring “serious,” “hardcore” games back into the Nintendo harbor. “Eureka!” the Internet summarily cried, “Nintendo’s pulling a blue ocean strategy!” This particular business strategy involves venturing forth into a new
market heretofore untapped, thereby leaving the bloody competition of the “red
ocean” for an unexplored “blue ocean.” The subtle part of the strategy, though, is this: once a presence has
been established in the blue ocean, Nintendo then drops a net and reels all
their new customers back into the red ocean—thus expanding their market base immensely. Or, to use a slightly more crass metaphor:
the Wii was the gateway drug, and the WiiU is the more addictive hard drug to

the face of it, this strategy seems foolproof and hugely beneficial not just
for Nintendo, but for the entire industry. After all, what could be better than reaching out to a whole market of
non-gamers and turning them slowly and subtly into consumers of the latest and
best video games? It means money for the
industry and more friends for us to chat with, right? In theory, yes. In practice, however, the results of this
“blue ocean” strategy have been worrying.

put it bluntly, Nintendo’s master strategy left its core market base flat. By focusing almost exclusively on making
titles like Wii Sports Resort, Wii Play,
Wii Music
and Wii Fit, and other such “casual” titles, Nintendo left players of
Mario, Zelda, Metroid and other such
“hard-er core” titles without much to play on their console of choice. But who cares, right? Nintendo’s core was always smaller than the
core of either the PlayStation or Xbox, so what does it matter if they lose it
in favor of a much larger and more profitable casual audience? Perhaps that logic works from a financial
perspective, but from a gaming sociology perspective, it doesn’t hold up.

changing their gaming focus, Nintendo removed a great deal of the choice and
variety that the market offered a gamer. Pre-2006, the gaming landscape was fairly evenly distributed and also
fairly high quality. The GameCube
provided well-designed platformer, adventure and third-person shooter games,
none of which were particularly mature in their subject matter, but all of
which were well-designed, consistently enjoyable experiences. Up one notch on the maturity scale was the
PS2, which provided RPGs, more mature adventure games and some first-person
shooters. Finally, at the top of the
scale was the Xbox, which specialized in providing realistic military shooters
in first- and occasionally third-person perspective. With the removal of Nintendo for all intents
and purposes from serious game production, however, the landscape developed a
serious rift. Nintendo games, with their
new casual focus, were now “kids’ stuff,” games too easy or gimmicky to be
taken seriously by any true gamer—even Nintendo’s former core.  Thus, the maturity scale lost its middle
ground, with Sony and Microsoft now competing for the “hardcore” segment that
had previously lived only on the Xbox and Nintendo picking up the gamers
nobody else wanted with their “casual” titles. Granted, there were a lot of
gamers that Nintendo picked up, but their decision to sideline their more
“serious” or “core” games has led to a very worrying phenomenon amongst
contemporary gamers. 

few developers now producing the sorts of games that used to be considered
Nintendo’s “core,” nearly all games that are not either military shooters or
dark, gritty violence fests have been lumped into the netherworld of Nintendo’s
casual, “kiddy” image. As an engaged
gamer, this mentality makes me sick, almost literally, as this seems to be an
admission by mainstream gaming society that good design and creativity no
longer matter. When games like Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Megaman, Sonic the
Hedgehog, Kirby
, Final Fantasy and others from the former Nintendo core can only be viewed from the lofty
pedestal of nostalgia, the gaming industry loses some of its greatest
legacies. It loses the painstakingly-constructed levels, carefully calculated difficulty curves, meticulous
attention to detail and years and years of experience that have gone into making
games fun and challenging regardless of control scheme or gameplay style. After all, what are video games in the end but a series of code instructions set up to grant the
players escape into a world over which they have control and power? So which would you rather see: a fertile
landscape of choices which you, the gamer, can use to live out any number of
escapist fantasies, or a monotonous desert where military shooters are the only
form of expression considered to be “valid” by the majority of the gaming
crowd? I know which one I’d pick.

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