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A Wii Bit of History

It may seem like a pointless exercise to ask "what if Wii hadn't launched with Wii Sports," but sometimes the decisions that led to a particular outcome were not so clear cut at the time they were made. Things might have been quite different.

Scott Pelland, Blogger

October 9, 2009

7 Min Read

In reading over a fun, speculative article on IndustryGamers.com entitled "What if Wii Never Launched" (http://ow.ly/tC7Z) it made me think about another "what if" that very possibly might have happened--what if Wii Sports hadn't been packed in with the Wii console in North America?

Wii Play was the demo pack-in game of choice for Nintendo Company Ltd. (NCL). Wii Play featured simple games and a wide range of controls with the Wii-mote, so it's easy to see why NCL wanted to go in that direction. But that choice would have been the wrong one for North America.

As a member of the marketing team that designed and executed Wii's North American launch, I was in the middle of a debate that was (perhaps surprisingly to many) still raging just a few months before the console's launch. The debate was whether to pack-in Wii Sports or, as Japan was planning, Wii Play.

To understand why there was a debate, I should take a few steps back and explain some of the core strategies that we had developed during the previous year as we considered how best to introduce something as radical as Wii.

Keep in mind that nobody at Nintendo really had an inkling that Wii would reach the levels of success that it has over the past few years; in fact, even though we thought we had something special, we worried that the popular perception of GameCube being just a "toy" for kids presented a daunting obstacle for us to overcome with respect to Wii.

Our group focused on a few key imperatives, the first being that advocacy for Wii had to come from the grassroots level. The E3 show preceding the console's launch taught us some crucial things about Wii: we learned that people really did instantly "get" the concept, they didn't mind looking silly swinging the controller, and they seemed to enjoy watching others play almost as much as playing a game themselves.

We also heard plenty of testimonials from people of all ages about how playing tennis, bowling, golf and baseball just felt like the real thing. When we measured people's enthusiasm for Wii (based on reported purchase-intent during focus groups) we found that it was through-the-roof for anybody who had either a chance to play Wii or who watched others playing. It wasn't the on-screen game action that moved these people; it was seeing how much fun people were having as they played. That was something new, and it blew away the old stereotype of lonely gamers huddled over a controller in a dark room.

Wii's lively action was instantly appealing to people who would never have considered picking up a traditional controller, and once someone picked up the Wii-mote, the game play was (as promised) intuitive, at least in the case of Wii Sports. That led us to our second key imperative: Wii had to be visible in the home. If the household's core gamer hid the Wii in their bedroom to play Zelda, Nintendo would lose. If the Wii was parked in the family room, where everyone could see the action, Nintendo would win. It was as simple as that...or was it?

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple, because NCL was about to throw a wrench into our plans. Our remarkable focus group data was based on people playing Wii Sports. We took Wii Sports to early demo events across the country and received the same enthusiastic response. Everywhere we went we discovered the same thing; people who had never played a video game didn't even hesitate when they saw Wii. They jumped right in and they enjoyed the experience.

It wasn't because the Wii-mote was so elegant (many might suggest that it's not elegant at all); it was because these people understood what they were seeing. They knew about bowling because they bowled. They knew about swinging a tennis racket because they had played tennis, and they knew how to hit a baseball or a golf ball. It was like riding a bike--these activities were part of the common experience, and they were activities that nobody ever forgot how to perform.

Not only did everyone know these sports, they liked playing them, and they liked playing them with their friends and families. The icing on the cake was that the control-balance on these simple Wii Sports activities was exceptional. NCL really hit it out of the ballpark on that score. When you made the motion of bowling a ball, it felt right. Even so, NCL wanted NOA to pack-in Wii Play.

Can you imagine the results if NCL had insisted on including Wii Play? Instead of spontaneous bowling tournaments taking place at retirement homes can you imagine seniors gathering around to play Laser Hockey or Shooting Range? Would moms have organized family game nights around Charge!, Tanks! and Fishing?

Wii Play sold extraordinarily well, but not because of its outstanding game play. It sold because it offered terrific value with its extra controller. Everyone wanted more controllers for playing Wii Sports! Had Wii Play been packed in with the console, it's likely that even if the Wii had remained in the family room it would not have inspired non-gamers to pick up a controller and join in. Wii Sports was a powerful proof of concept for Wii. Wii Play was really a toy. In North America, the choice would have been disastrous.

The debate between NCL and NOA over which pack-in title to include for the North American Wii launch was all about cost. NCL felt that Wii Sports was substantive enough to sell on its own. Profit-taking dictates that you don't give away something you can sell. But that, as it turns out, was a shortsighted view.

The launch team talked it over and decided that we had to fight this. Wii Sports would guarantee a place in the family room for Wii, and that would mean more people would try it, and that would build advocacy. Advocacy was the only way to change the prevalent "kiddy" image of Nintendo. Myself and the other "game" guys on the launch team insisted that Wii Sports was essential to the success of our strategy. Reggie had faith in us and in the end he managed to win acceptance from NCL. The rest, as they say, is history.

For everyone in the game business, this story illustrates several important considerations regarding product launches, and it may also hint at what the future holds. First, not all markets are the same, so creating identical launch tactics for every market could be a huge mistake.

Second, don't ignore the game guys. What you're selling is an experience, and understanding what particular game experience you need to communicate to the consumer begins with hands-on knowledge of the game; and it doesn't hurt to have a deeper knowledge of current and past games and a firm grasp of what appeals to players.

Finally, giving away a product that creates advocacy is not lost revenue. The day is fast approaching when all game publishers may be faced with a similar choice for every product they bring to market.

With the growth of digital distribution and the success of the iPhone model, free "proof of concept" games with premium follow-ons may rule the marketplace. As scary as that may sound, think of the success of Wii, which in large part has been due to the free, disruptive role played by Wii Sports.

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