For Nintendo, The Glory Is In the Game

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006

It's almost a radical thought in the video game industry these days: What if a new game console were actually just about the games -- and not about having a zillion other multimedia features?

That's the question posed by Nintendo's new console, scheduled for debut later this year. The Wii -- pronounced "we" -- does not feature scorchingly advanced technology, compared with its rivals, Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3. And, unlike the competition, the device does not push a DVD replacement technology or strive to be the living room's all-purpose media center.

It's almost as if Nintendo is sometimes in a different industry than Microsoft and Sony.

"Those companies really have their eyes on each other," said Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo vice president of marketing. "They want the same place in the home. We just aim to be the best at what we do -- the gaming experience."

Kaplan would not say how much the Wii will cost, except that it will be less than the competition. Microsoft's Xbox 360 costs $400. Sony has warned that the PlayStation 3, which does not yet have a price tag, will be expensive when it is released later this year. Some analysts think the price of Nintendo's device will be about $250.

Nintendo's biggest risk with the Wii may be the game controller, a radical departure from the two-handed, button-covered ones that come with most consoles. Wii players will have a motion-sensitive controller that can be used with one hand. To swing a bat or cast a fishing pole in a still-hypothetical game, players might be able to make a similar motion with their controller, rather than pushing buttons and pulling triggers.

Some analysts predict that the innovative device will allow for new kinds of games -- especially the kind that might be more light and social, a contrast to long and intense solo-player games such as Oblivion, the recent Xbox 360 hit from Bethesda Softworks. "The controller makes the box significantly more interesting than the other two consoles," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities. Game publisher THQ Inc. is developing games such as a new SpongeBob SquarePants title for the Wii. Kelly Flock, executive vice president of publishing at THQ, said the Nintendo controller inspired some of the game's action, though the SpongeBob game will be available on at least one other console.

The Wii's lower-tech profile gives it another advantage that game publishers may appreciate: Costs for developing games for the Wii could be a fraction of what it takes to develop games for the other consoles.

In an industry where game development costs are approaching $20 million for the Wii's more complex rivals, that gives the Wii a definite appeal.

"It means that people will be able to make creative risks" on games for the Wii, Flock said.

That could be a good thing for the industry. Chantilly game fan Nik Carr-Voigt, a high-school student, sounds like a fellow who is getting slightly bored with the recent titles he's seen: shooter games that take mostly the same old World War II or sci-fi themes, and the Madden football game that appears to be nothing more than a pricey annual update.

"Gamers like myself are left begging the developers to do something different so we don't spend $50 on a game that we basically already own," he said in an e-mail exchange this week.

Nintendo's bold moves haven't always paid off: Years ago, for example, there was the Power Glove, an innovative controller released with Mattel Inc. that was viewed as a flop. More recently, Nintendo offered ways for owners of its Game Boy Advance to connect with the GameCube consoles. The technology allowed for a new type of game experience, but game developers didn't latch on widely to it.

Recently, Nintendo's attempts to offer something different have been more successful with a series of titles for the Nintendo DS, a handheld gaming device with a touch screen and built-in microphone that can be used to interact with games.

Nintendogs, a game in which players control a pet dog, has been a particular hit for the company. Thanks to the game's microphone, owners can "talk" to their dog. And the device's touch screen allows players to use a stylus to "pet" their virtual companion. Nintendo credits the game for a 25 percent increase in female users of the Nintendo DS system -- a significant feat in an industry that still depends mostly on a core audience of young men.

"There's no question that Nintendo is expanding the market," said Pachter, who offers his wife as an example: "She likes Nintendogs, and she never picked up a video game console in her life."

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