"Casual" gamers are a fickle bunch--you won't find the brand loyalty associated with veteran gamers in that demographic. To make these folks happy, you have to give them something new as often as possible, and you have to seamlessly fit it into their lifestyles. That's how iPhone become a major player in the gaming space practically overnight.
Enter Facebook into the equation. Throngs of people spend tons of time on the service already, so why not offer games? Even with the (relatively) limited selection of (mostly) free games on Facebook, gaming on the service has become insanely popular. Games like Farmville are among the most actively played games on the internet.
Electronic Arts has taken notice, and looks to offer it's popular Madden franchise on Facebook. I think it's a brilliant move--I know people who own a video game console and buy only one game each year: Madden. Can you imagine the impact this could have on traditional consoles if football fans could get their yearly fix of Madden via a service they use regularly each day anyway? Veteran gamers will argue that Facebook is incapable of offering a capable Madden experience. But Nintendo has already shown us that the photo-realistic simulations veteran gamers covet aren't important to the average gamer.
And speaking of Nintendo, how will the rise of social network gaming affect the current caretaker of the mainstream gamer? It can be argued that people chose a $250 Wii over a $600 PS3 or a $500 Xbox 360 out of simply a practical approach to gaming. But with the increasing popularity of netbooks and other affordable PCs that are very much game-capable, isn't it more practical to game on a device you probably already own and work with than to buy a standalone console and deal with the closed architecture and nature of console gaming?
Could we be on the threshold of a resurgence in PC gaming? While many of us have had our heads buried in the sand in consoleville, PC gaming has gotten a lot smarter. Practically gone are the days of game releases who’s recommended system specs wont be available in mainstream PC’s until years after their release. PC gaming has been “dumbed down” (where have I heard that before?), to take advantage of cross-platform releases from their more popular console cousins. After all, a 360 is just a 4 year old PC that wasn’t that advanced even when it was released; and though Sony fans will argue for the yet untapped “Al Capone’s vault” that is the Cell processor, it hasn’t really done anything that the 360 couldn’t.
Today, you don’t need a $500 video card to play the latest releases at full resolution and with DirectX 10 eye-candy. Bioshock 2 was released last week and it plays beautifully on my 3 year old laptop in full 1080p resolution—not that scaled down “1080p” stuff you get on 360 and PS3. My main gaming machine sports a quad-core Core i7 processor with a Radeon HD 4890 and 12 gigs of RAM. Sound expensive? I picked it up at Best Buy last year for $700 and spent less than $200 on a RAM upgrade. The days of the $2,000+ gaming PC are pretty much done, unless you’re a masochist. If you go out and buy a sub-$1,000 PC today, chances are you can play the latest games on it.
And services like Steam and Games for Windows Live are streamlining and practically automating the traditionally cumbersome processes of installing and patching games. Buy a game on Steam and with one click it downloads, installs, and patches the game to the latest version. Don’t want to give up your XBL achievements? Games for Windows Live lets your PC gaming achievements contribute to your Xbox 360 Gamertag score the same as if you were playing on a console. And perhaps best of all: if your PC dies, gets destroyed in a fire, or gets stolen, when you buy a new PC you’re just a few clicks away from getting all your games back on your shiny new PC.
But I digress—although PC gaming has made great strides to win back veteran gamers, it’s the casual gamer who stands to benefit most from the approachability and convenience of the next generation of computer gaming. Exactly why would Joe six-pack go through the hassle of buying hardware, figuring out the special cables and connections, navigating compatibility issues, or dealing with the snot-nosed punk at GameStop, when they could get their gaming fix on the PC they do their taxes on? Digital distribution has made it as simple (if not simpler) to play a game than popping in a game disc and pressing “start”.
So where would that leave Nintendo? They’ve practically burned their bridges with a large cross-section of veteran gamers at this point for their “one night stand” with the casual gamer. When the newness and trendiness of Nintendo’s offerings this generation wears off in the eyes of popular culture, will they be able to climb their way out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves with “good ‘ole reliable” core gamers? Far be it from me to question the unchallenged market leader the past three years and more, but Sony showed us a few years ago that the bigger they are, the harder they fall—and Sony fans are among the most bitter gamers you’ll find today. I personally know gamers who once counted themselves among Nintendo's biggest fans who go so far as to say they "hate" the company today due to the direction they've taken this generation. Every player in the industry who’s been around for 10 years or more has seen peaks and valleys in terms of popularity, but it’s entirely possible that if Nintendo doesn’t take a step back and think about the future, we could be looking at a replay of what happened with Sega when they exited the hardware business and focused on publishing games for other console manufacturers. Mario on Playstation, anyone? I feel dirty just thinking about it hehe.
Over the next few months, Nintendo will have several opportunities to provide glimpses of the future. With a Media Summit on deck in a little over a week, GDC next month, and a crucial E3 2010 happening in the summer, they can choose to ride the status-quo or give us something more than cryptic statements and rumors about what Nintendo has in store for gamers while Microsoft and Sony play catch-up with camera-based motion control knock-offs. Wii Relax with a packed-in Vitality Sensor is an example of the worst-case scenario, in my opinion. Gamers want announcements that will get their hearts racing, not a way to measure that effect.
I’ll never forget Iwata’s famous statement when fielding questions shortly after Perrin Kaplan sprung the news that Wii would not feature high definition support. He said “When you see the graphics, you will say wow”. For many gamers, that’s exactly what they said—only not in the positive way Nintendo’s President intended. Gamers will need more than ambiguous promises if Nintendo hopes to hold, and perhaps more importantly, build on their success of the past several years.