Nintendo's hot home console hasn't just ushered in a strange new era for gamers — it's flipped the tables on game designers like Jean-Charles Gaudechon, who find themselves trying to redefine what makes a good game.
At EA Montreal, Gaudechon just served as lead designer of "Boogie," a dancing game for Wii that's been getting some very mixed reactions since it was released last week. The first review "Boogie" got was a 3 out of 10. The next? A 4 out of 5. "When I see a 3 out of 10, I think it's people completely hermetic to it, just not getting it," Gaudechon said in an interview with GameFile late last week.
That negative review, from 1up.com, states "this game is fun for exactly 20 minutes." The 4 rating, from GamePro, noted that "for the short time that Boogie lasts, the game is fun to play." GamePro loved the dance-based gameplay but 1up.com rejected it.
"Boogie" may prove to be just another game that is striking different people different ways. But it may also prove to be the game that typifies the new, uncertain standards of Nintendo's unusual console. What do people want out of a Wii game? What's a success and what's a failure in the eyes of gamers? What about in the eyes of developers? Or in the eyes of anyone still not sure just what is the ideal experience on the oddest video game system in years?
Take the issue of controls. Nintendo's system has asked gamers to do strange things with the controller, such as using it as a virtual tennis racket, a game-pausing flashlight or a make-believe steering wheel. The system led the EA Montreal team to make a dancing game that didn't use a mat, à la "Dance Dance Revolution," but instead is controlled by shakes of the Wii Remote and Nunchuck.
"My philosophy in terms of design: Controls shouldn't be a showstopper," Gaudechon said. "Difficultly should come from the game. It should be easy to dance. It should be tough to dance on a certain level of difficulty." He said the team faced a challenge syncing dance moves to flicks of the Wii remote. "Is it cool to shake it left and right and up and down? And how do you link dance moves together? And how does that look like choreography?"
Developers at EA Montreal are well aware of the difficulty in implementing Wii controls and getting players to use them properly. Over the winter, the studio's "SSX Blur" snowboarding game was criticized for asking players to execute complex gestures during the brief time their characters caught air after a jump. Was the game simply guilty of asking too much of players not used to motion-based controls? "I think it was an awesome idea to draw a big heart to do the biggest combo in SSX. [The controls were] an awesome idea on paper," Gaudechon told GameFile. "But it didn't get well-communicated. And maybe ... people are still discovering these controls."
The "Boogie" solution was to give players a deeper tutorial. If anything, Boogie's two-handed motion controls, which sound complex on paper, have been accused of being too simple in execution. In a strange way, that might be a sign of progress, and it might be a license for EA Montreal to push things further: "When you see 'Boogie,' you say, '[The game]'s dancing is in just a quadrant. Can we do more? Can we do crazy stuff in the air?' Maybe in a year or a couple of years from now we will ask someone to do much more difficult motion with the Wiimote."
Gaudechon said the current controls for "Boogie" are ideal for the game's target audience, a group that sounds as if it matches Nintendo's own broad view of the Wii consumer base. "When we did focus groups, we had 5-year-olds and 77-year-olds coming here. Twenty-nine-year-old hard-core gamers are not going to help us very much."
One of the odd aspects of the Wii's popularity is that the games that have succeeded on the system don't look as good as new games on the more powerful competing consoles, the Xbox 360 and PS3. "Boogie" stands out as the rare Wii game with high-quality graphics. "We did push it, and I think it's pretty obvious from what we've done," Gaudechon said. "I think it's the best-looking game out [on the Wii] now."
So how does he explain why so many other Wii games don't sport better graphics than those on the allegedly less powerful PlayStation 2? "Maybe the Wii platform hasn't been taken that seriously by developers at first," he said. "You'll get the quality from the effort you put into it. So that's a possibility."
He considered a second rationale that would explain why "SSX Blur" and Nintendo's upcoming "Super Mario Galaxy" have been among the few Wii games praised for their visuals: "Wii is maybe not great at doing realism. Nintendo is not doing realism. 'SSX' has taken the franchise into a more cartoony style. Our game is a cartoony style. 'Medal of Honor,' or maybe I shouldn't name any games, but maybe realistic games wouldn't be as good as they look on PS3."
"There's room for improvement," he added. "This console has a lot to give."
Yet being one of the Wii's graphical showpieces didn't help the game in some reviewers' eyes. And then there are the odd things being praised, such as the console's use of the remote's speaker. In order to help players stay on beat as they shake the remote to dance, EA Montreal programmed the remote to emit a clicking metronome sound. "We tried different sounds, from very annoying to less-annoying sounds," Gaudechon said. He is happy with the results, even though it was one of the last brainstorms his team had, just a couple of months before shipping. Another feature Gaudechon thinks the team nailed is an in-game video editor, a feature praised even in the 1up review.
When asked by GameFile why the game doesn't free players' hands by making its packed-in microphone a headset, Gaudechon volunteered a potential criticism he would agree with. "We pick our battles for the first one," Gaudechon said. "And I'm sure we're going to talk about online [playing], too. We could have pushed for it. It's just that at one point we just made sure we could nail what was important for the game. That's why the first version of this game is what we could do in the time we had for it."
So what does a Wii game need to have to make a difference? Novel controls? Hard controls? Top graphics? Odd innovations? A combination of features — dancing, karaoke, video editing — not seen in one game before? "Boogie" presents one set of answers. In these early months of the Wii, there's still plenty of time for a few more opinions.
More from the world of video games:
The Entertainment Consumers Association, a membership group supporting the rights of video game players, is trying to get a question about games into the on-again/off-again CNN/YouTube debate among Republican presidential candidates set for next month. Last week, ECA site GamePolitics.com announced a contest encouraging game fans to file their questions and let the group know about it. Anyone who submits a question is promised a free ECA T-shirt, but the bigger prize might be getting the top Republican candidates to discuss the regulation of video games. Go here for more information and to see submitted video questions. ...
Microsoft has loudly trumpeted the September 25 release of "Halo 3" and last week claimed that the game has received more than 1 million pre-orders. "Halo 3" has appeared on major gaming magazine covers and has enjoyed a steady stream of promotion that dates at least as far back as the game's Super Bowl commercial in January. Nintendo, on the other hand, has been quiet about its first-person game, "Metroid Prime 3: Corruption," which launches August 27. At E3, Nintendo representatives claimed the title would be the best first-person game released on any platform this year. The claim wasn't a complete stretch, given that the first "Metroid Prime" was better-reviewed than the first "Halo," according to ratings aggregator GameRankings.com. But is Nintendo really acting the part of a company backing a stellar title? On Friday, the company sent a message to all online-connected Wiis announcing the availability of a downloadable "Metroid" channel. The channel includes four streaming videos of the game and says that the Nintendo Entertainment System's "Metroid" and the Super NES' "Super Metroid" will be available to download and play for a few dollars each this Monday and next.
Be sure to check out Multiplayer, which will feature a new vs.-mode debate between MTV News and Newsweek's N'Gai Croal on the resurgence of small games like "Super Stardust HD" and "Geometry Wars," and what they mean for the big games.