With its motion-sensing Wiimote and simple but addictive gameplay, it’s no overstatement to say the Wii reinvented gaming. It trashed the industry’s fixation on graphics and horsepower with the simple premise that games should instead be both fun and playable — not pretty and unapproachable. Among the current generation of gaming consoles, the Wii has raced ahead of the pack with more than 50 million consoles sold, causing Microsoft and Sony to question their decisions to bet on more powerful, but more expensive consoles.
However, while Nintendo showed everyone cutting-edge graphics aren’t a requirement for success, it appears this generation’s early leader has gotten winded halfway through the race. At this year’s E3, Mario and company turned in a yawner of a show, dropping the collective pulse of a packed house by announcing, well, a pulse reader.
Meanwhile, Microsoft had its best E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) ever. The software giant released a barrage of announcements, including its own motion-sensing technology called Project Natal, the integration of popular social networks Twitter and Facebook, and 1080p HD video streaming. The sheer volume and scope of announcements was so impressive that Paul and Ringo’s arrival onstage to announce Beatles edition of Rock Band hardly counted as an opening act.
So, with Microsoft’s strong showing, and Nintendo appearing to be running out of gas, was the Wii’s early coronation as this generation’s winner premature?
It’s hard to fathom Mario and company squandering a 20 million console lead, but with a console cycle that’s expected to last at least 7-8 years instead of the normal 5-year stretch, the Xbox 360 may have more time than normal for a comeback. Part of Nintendo’s concern should be slowing sales. While partly due to a slowing economy, there’s no doubt the early novelty of the Wii has waned, a fact best illustrated by the lack of overall engagement by Wii owners compared to other consoles.
And while Nintendo’s early bet on gameplay instead of graphics was a wise one, the console’s lack of high definition is becoming a liability three years in, as more consumers trade up to HD. Project Natal may have received the most press, but it was the 1080p video streaming that was perhaps the biggest news. With this announcement, Microsoft is saying Sony’s win of the optical disc wars is not the game-changer the maker of the Playstation 3 had hoped for.
To be certain, Microsoft has its work cut out for it. But with the Wii’s inability to match the strong media-hub capabilities of the Xbox 360 and (as the Xbox’s Avatar makeover and Project Natal have showed) Microsoft’s continued desire to emulate Nintendo’s user-friendly games strategy, Nintendo should be worried about maintaining its lead in what’s turning out to be a long game.
Microsoft may just have enough time on the clock to make things interesting.