Wii Sports: The Tech Demo That Changed How We Game
If 20 years ago, I were to ask you to picture what a gamer looks like, what would you see? Perhaps a teenage boy, eyes glued to a TV screen, numbing his brain with images of violence and warfare. Prior to 2006, the video game industry targeted this specific audience of young consumers. Console video games were for intense and serious players. You would rarely see parents or girls joining in on gameplay because they were being pushed out by both the market and these “serious” gamers.
Before the launch of the Wii in 2006, Nintendo began to fall behind Sony and Microsoft in terms of console technology. With the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 having higher quality graphics, better processors, and more storage capacity, Nintendo had to adapt to maintain its stake in the gaming market.
Knowing their limitations on graphics and processing power, Nintendo decided to shift focus to a more casual audience. With motion controls replacing complicated buttons and games targeted for broader audiences, Nintendo did just that. The Wii was designed to be played by families, and this intent is clear with the console’s launch title: Wii Sports.
Originally tech demos, Wii Sports consists of five simulation games that are exactly what you think they are: sports! Baseball, boxing, golf, bowling, and tennis are all universal activities that could now be enjoyed from the comfort of one’s own home. With common knowledge rules and easy, intuitive controls, Wii Sports was an accessible game for more than just the “serious” gamer. The Wii-mote would transform to a baseball bat or a golf club, and instinctively, you just knew to swing. Now, a family could bond over video games and spend quality time together with all members joining in on the fun.
The game’s graphics were simple and cartoonish. Wii Sports included “Miis” who were customizable characters with minimal features and circle bodies and limbs. It was a fun way to insert yourself within the game, while still maintaining lower graphics and processing power to accommodate most households technology at the time.
Gameplay followed this simplistic trend and depended heavily on motion controls. For example, to box with Wii Sports, the player just had to hold the controllers and throw some punches. Gripping the Wii-mote and Nunchuck accessory, you have two choices: physically move your left or right arm in a jabbing motion to have your character punch, or hold your arms up to block and defend your character. I have fond memories of my six year old self flailing my arms around and watching the Mii onscreen copy the wild movements. I also remember watching in awe as my brother would strategize and plan his punches and blocks.
Tennis operated in a similar fashion. As the player, you were in charge of the most basic yet important moves in the game: hitting the ball. The game controlled where your character went, but you decided when and how to hit the ball. Again, like most families, my brother and I hopped around the room as if we were on an actual court while our parents played comfortably on the couch.
Wii Sports sold 82 million copies and the Wii became a common household item. Reception to the game was overwhelmingly positive, with the exception of hardcore gamers. These players saw the game as being too easy and mundane, but at this point, they were not Nintendo’s target audience. They used to be the main focus of the industry, but with Wii Sports, Nintendo was ushering in a whole new type of gamer. Parents and grandparents, who although might not consider themselves to be so, were becoming gamers. After the success of Wii Sports, Nintendo continued to publish family party games with easy to understand motion controls (Mario Kart, Mario Party, Wii Sports Resort, and Wii Fit for instance). Gaming was becoming more mainstream, and not just something for your stereotypical angsty teen with no prospects left. Today, almost everyone is a gamer. With smartphones, people can play games anywhere they go. Without Nintendo transitioning to the casual audience, we would not see the surge in mobile gaming that we have now. No one would feel comfortable obsessively playing Candy Crush on their commute if it were to label them one of those nerdy, “serious” gamers.
Such a simple game about sports swept the world because its motion controls made it accessible to a wider audience. The gaming industry has been shifting towards more immersive types of gameplay ever since the success of the Wii. For example, In 2009 Microsoft announced production of the Xbox Kinect. Attempting to exceed the magic of the Wii, the Kinect would be a controllerless experience with the system tracking your movements and recognizing speech. The Kinect did not see the same success that the Wii did, but it is an example of the gaming industry trying to adapt to this new market that Nintendo completely disrupted. Moreover, Sony released the Playstation Move in 2010 to also capitalize on this shift and keep up with the changing space of video gaming.
Nintendo itself continues to create gaming consoles with a focus on motion controls. The Wii’s successor, the Wii U had its own version of Wii Sports to attract the same casual market Nintendo once captured in 2006. Nintendo’s latest home console, the Switch, features.
The next step of gaming is trending towards Virtual Reality (VR). Just as motion controls added another level of immersion by adding physical motion to gameplay, VR places the player within the game world itself. Without the revolutionary designs of the modest Wii Sports, we would not see such a push for this type of new technology in gaming.
On a more personal note, Wii Sports is a revolutionary game to me because without it, I would not want to become a game designer. My older brother was one of those more “serious” gamers. I always wanted to connect to him, but a four year age gap and whatever complicated Call of Duty game he was playing stood between us. It was not until we bought a Wii that my family could come together and play a game together. I finally felt as though I could understand my brother and bond with him over something he loved. Eventually, gaming became something that I loved and will always tie me back to my family.
A new generation of aspiring game developers are entering higher education and the work force. This generation was shaped by Wii Sports and its motion controls. Whether we play because it’s fun, simple, or to spend quality time with our families, the Wii shaped how we game and will continue to influence future developers.