An Undersea Trip That Leaves Gaming Home

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, February 17, 2008

Some video game fans are puzzled over a new title for the Nintendo Wii system -- mainly because it's not really a game.

In the aquatic-themed Endless Ocean, you don't hunt for gold coins and there's no princess to save. There's no way to get your scuba-diving character in any trouble, much less get him killed. There aren't any bad guys.

Players spend their time exploring an ocean floor accompanied by the mellow tones of an Enya-esque soundtrack. Click on that fish or penguin or sea lion swimming by and you might find out a little about, say, its migration habits. The "game" periodically suggests tasks, but they can be ignored if the player is having enough fun learning about the real-world habits of the Oriental Butterflyfish in the fictional sea of Manoa Lai.

A reviewer on the video game news site Destructoid described Endless Ocean as both "amazing" and "extremely dull." Another critic, in the February edition of Electronic Gaming Monthly, simply found the title exasperating. "I'm not saying Endless Ocean needs to give players the bends, but it'd be nice if the occasional fish at least tried to eat you," wrote one of the magazine's editors, Crispin Boyer.

I'm not entirely sure whether to classify it as refreshing or boring, but Endless Ocean is another example of a relatively new experience that Nintendo has introduced to the world with its fast-selling Wii game console, the one that has players waving their arms around to control their game characters.

With its intuitive control system, the Wii has attracted such non-stereotypical gamers as mothers and senior citizens. To woo this new audience, game publishers are trying out some unusual software titles that don't quite fit under the traditional heading of video game.

"In the past, not many people paid attention to casual gamers," said Marc Franklin, director of public relations at Nintendo of America, in an e-mail last week. "But now that's all anyone is talking about."

So far the Wii has sold 20 million units worldwide, according to the company, and its handheld DS system has also been a hit. With an innovative touchscreen, the DS has also given its owners a new way to interact with games. The device is up to worldwide sales of 65 million.

In Japan, the Nintendo DS has already featured interactive cookbooks and a financial planning diary, and more such "non-games" are on the way. Square Enix, a game publisher more famous for sword-and-sorcery adventures, has announced it is working on gardening title for the system. Master of Illusion, released in the United States this past holiday season, comes with a deck of cards and teaches sleight-of-hand tricks that can be performed in the real world.

"This is new for us," said Adam Novickas, director of marketing at game publisher Ubisoft. "This is uncharted territory for every publisher."

Ubisoft, famous among gamers for hit franchises such as the Tom Clancy-themed Splinter Cell series, recently released a flurry of instructional titles for the Nintendo systems designed to increase a player's vocabulary or their command of foreign languages. One new music title from the company, called Jam Sessions, gives ear training lessons and teaches guitar chord changes to popular songs by artists like Beck and Bob Dylan.

Last week, the company announced it is developing a DS title aimed at helping users maintain a weight-loss regimen, a scaled-back version of a more ambitious title that was originally called My Life Coach. Ubisoft plans to package a pedometer with the title, which is scheduled for a release this summer.

Novickas cited the success of a quiz game for the Nintendo DS, called Brain Age, as a title that helped open publishers' eyes. "We realized there is a market out there for nontraditional games and people looking for an experience that is a little different," he said. The publisher might decide to release this type of title for other consoles down the road, depending on sales.

Aside from the large consumer base for the Nintendo systems, there's at least one other reason game developers might want to try out such nontraditional titles on the Wii first. Game publishers have often said developing software for the Wii is less expensive, because it requires less computational horsepower under the hood than the competition. By comparison, budgets for cutting-edge games designed for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 are up to 10 and 20 million dollars these days; such costs tend to make game publishers risk averse.

I like the idea of getting hooked on games that push education or self-improvement. But it's still too early to tell where this is going, or how big of a phenomenon this might turn out to be.

David Riley, a director and game industry analyst at research firm NPD, says "exploration" titles like Endless Ocean have already existed, though they have usually reached only niche audiences.

Still, Riley said he thinks the Wii's mainstream audience might help turn Endless Ocean into a big seller for the Wii system. He bought a copy for himself, in any case, and gives the title a thumbs up. In addition to the game's built-in appeal as a change of pace from the usual video game fare, Endless Ocean also stands to benefit from its $30 price tag, which makes it $10 to $20 less expensive than the average new Wii title.

Up next for Nintendo is a Wii controller that users stand on, shifting their bodies to control their in-game characters. Tentatively called the Wii Balance Board, the package will come with software, called Wii Fit, that offers balance-related games and yoga lessons.

That package is already on sale in Japan, where it has sold more than a million units since December. The controller is set for a U.S. release in the spring, though Nintendo has not yet announced a price or release date.

Based on early looks at video game industry trade shows, some think the controller will be another hit for Nintendo -- and one that appeals equally to both serious gamers and the mainstream. Boyer, the EGM editor who found Endless Ocean to be a bit of a bore, said last week that he's looking forward to Wii Fit. "It's going to be huge, no question," he said.

Riley agreed. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that one's going to sell well," he said.

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