Wii gamers are said to have shorter "must have" lists than do hardcore Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 fans. So what does it take to develop a Wii game that's on everybody's short list?
It could be that it's less about the quality of the game itself and more about meeting the audience's expectations.
According to industry analyst Michael Pachter, a successful Wii game often scores big because it has a great concept, has a high recognition factor, and does a good job of utilizing the Wii controllers. Pachter is senior VP, research, at LA-based Wedbush Morgan Securities.
"The Wii audience isn't sophisticated enough to know whether the game they're buying compares favorably to, say Gears of War or LittleBigPlanet, because they probably don't own an Xbox 360 or a PS3," Pachter explains.
"They buy the Wii games that they buy for the same reason that people go to McDonald's. McDonald's doesn't win a lot of restaurant critic awards but they are approachable, they're consistent, and you know what they're going to serve you."
"I mean, who sells more food -- McDonald's or Ruth's Chris Steak House, which certainly serves better meat? Nintendo has become the fast food machine. Sony is very much the high-end restaurant. And Microsoft is somewhere in between."
The executive producers of three successful Wii games -- Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip, Game Party, and Game Party 2 -- don't necessarily disagree, but have their own take on why their titles won over their audiences.
At Midway Home Entertainment, Game Party -- a collection of seven mini-games -- has shipped over two million units since it was released on Nov. 27, 2007, while its sequel, Game Party 2 -- with 11 mini-games -- has shipped one million units since its release on Oct. 6 last year. On February 12th, Midway's Matt Booty noted that the franchise "has sold close to three million units in total."
Those are impressive sales, especially since critical reviews were less than stellar. Metacritic.com gives the initial game a 25-out-of-100 score, the sequel a 29-out-of-100. And GameSpot opines that Game Party 2 is "a completely unoriginal minigame collection just waiting to take advantage of uninformed casual gamers."
But Joel Seider, the executive producer of both games, says that the public's interest in them stems from the developers giving them exactly what they crave.
"We leveraged one of Midway's historic strengths and the fact that I had been at Midway way back when it was making the old coin-op games," he explains. "When you design and build an arcade game, you're trying to get someone to have a lot of fun in a short period of time; you're not trying to make some big, open-world MMO."
"And that concept translates well to the type of person who is a Wii gamer, a large percentage of whom would call themselves casual gamers. They may play Game Party for an hour or so, but in fact they will probably play a few of the mini-games in the collection for just 10 or 15 minutes each. So we had to design for a very short gameplay experience."
In fact, Seider claims that he chose his development team for the titles -- Big Bear Lake, CA-based FarSight Studios -- specifically because the 20-year-old company goes back to the old 8-bit console days and has experience creating arcade-like games, such as Pinball Hall of Fame.
"When I was doing my due diligence, they proved to me that they had a good understanding of how to attract the casual gamer," Seider added. "Not every developer knows how to do that."
As executive producer, Seider budgeted around his understanding of what the casual gamer would and would not accept.
"We could have made the graphics twice as good," he says, "and if we had been making an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 game then that would have been important since cutting-edge graphics and sound are clearly one of the selling points of their front-line titles."
"But if we had put a few extra really hardcore rendering pipeline engineers on the project, we might have had to charge more."
"Instead, we focused on our customers. In my mind, they are eight-year-old kids and their 40-year-old parents who are more concerned about getting good value for their dollar than photorealistic graphics."
He continues: "So we decided that we wanted the graphics to be good enough which enabled us to charge $19 for Game Party and $29 for Game Party 2."
"In fact, we have come to the decision that $29 is pretty much the highest you can go and still attract the casual gamer."
"Above that it's a very dangerous place to be -- people start comparing you to the other frontline games and clearly what we are creating is a very different type of game."
But while value for the customer's gaming dollar is important, says Seider, it's equally important for the game box art to shout that the game inside is no bargain-bin special.
"We don't spend a lot on advertising," he says. "So the product needs to have enough eye appeal that the consumer won't reject it just because it's cheaper than the other games on that shelf."
And because ad dollars are typically limited for value-priced Wii games, some of those interviewed believe that sales are more dependent on positive word-of-mouth than for other gaming platforms.
The customer needs to be able to load up the game, understand it immediately, and not be frustrated by the longer learning curves that are typical elsewhere. And then to tell their friends about it.
That is why, says Antoine Guignard, that focusing on the controller interface is vital. Guignard is the producer of the Wii version of Ubisoft's Shaun White Snowboarding, subtitled Road Trip.
The title released in November to positive reviews about how the game utilizes both the Wiimote and the Wii Balance Board. (IGN said: "The motion controls feel great and the balance board turns out to be a fine snowboard.")
In addition, Ubisoft's post-launch financials particularly mentioned the Wii version as a sales highlight as part of 'solid', if specifically unstated North American sales for the franchise.
While there are Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of Shaun White, the success of the Wii version, says Guignard, is mainly due to the decision not to port the game over but rather to make a version that showcases the Wii's strengths.
"Because the Wii doesn't have the horsepower of the other next-gen platforms," Guignard recalls, "we decided to use a more stylized, more cartoony art style. We knew that if we didn't do that, if we used a more realistic style, we would be compared negatively to the other versions."
Initially, because the Wii Balance Board was not yet on the market, the game's sole controller was the Wiimote, and Guignard's team planned to pack as many tricks into the game as the remote controller would allow.
"But the game became so complicated, we quickly realized that we needed to unlearn what we would normally do with, say, a PlayStation control pad with all its buttons and inputs," says Guignard.
"Unlearning what we had done when designing previous games and, instead, thinking differently about this new kind of audience was very, very important. Which is why we chose to go the opposite way and oversimplify the controls so that everyone could handle them and enjoy them."
When the Balance Board became available, the developers incorporated it into the mix so that virtual snowboarders could use either controller -- or both.
The secret to insuring that the controllers were easily utilized by the casual gaming audience was to "playtest, playtest, playtest using outside casual gamers," reveals Guignard. "Our challenge was to not require overly complex gestures and yet create great snowboarding sensations."
Ubisoft's Shaun White Snowboarding: Road Trip
For instance, the testers seemed to have problems using their balance board to jump onto a rail. The team decided to code an "automatic magnet" on the rail so all the snowboarder had to do was move near the rail and the jump would happen automatically.
"We were then concerned that we'd eliminated some of the challenge," says Guignard, "but the testers seemed pleased. When they told us they could pick up the game and understand it in the first 15 minutes of play, when they told us that both the Wiimote and the Balance Board felt right when they were snowboarding, we knew we'd nailed it."
But even more important than creating a game that "feels right," says Wedbush Morgan's Pachter, is coming up with a concept that the Wii audience understands immediately.
"If the concept is right, if the recognition factor is there, if you 'get it' from what's on the box, sometimes the game doesn't even have to be that good in order for it to sell," he admits. "When a housewife is in Wal-Mart and sees Jillian Michaels' face on Jillian Michaels Fitness Ultimatum 2009 for Wii, nobody has to explain it to them."
"They recognize her from TV's Biggest Loser, they know they have a Wii Fit Balance Board at home, and they buy the game. Do they know whether it's a good game or not? Doesn't matter."
"For example, I thought THQ's de Blob was a really great Wii game but Ubisoft's The Price Is Right outsold it 3-to-1. So did THQ's Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader: Make The Grade. That's sad. But it tells you who the audience is."