The era of HD Gaming is a myth. Or, why there is definitely no Wii HD coming soon

Infendo

wiihdHD gaming, at least as it has been applied to this current generation of consoles by feverish marketing departments who overshot their markets by a mile, is a myth. Always has been. As such, there is almost certainly no Wii HD console coming out anytime soon. Can I be an analyst now?

Now I’ve said this ad nauseum before, of course, but today more than ever I’m supremely confident that if not for the Wii and Nintendo’s undeniable restructuring of the video games landscape, the HD Twins and their arrogant marketing departments could have very well dealt an industry near and dear to my heart an almost certainly deadly blow.

Actually, to elaborate further, this post was inspired by none other than Michael Pachter, that blowhard lazy journalist’s go-to guy for all things video games “analysis,” who just recently regurgitated, again, his prediction that Nintendo would soon traipse out some mutated “Wii HD” console, complete with 1080p graphicsz!1!! and a hard drive bolted onto the side. And that’s the thing about video games “experts” like Pachter these days. They sit on their cushy leather chairs and say the same thing over and over again for months or even years at a time, and then when something resembling their initial prediction two years ago actually happens (more because of inevitability than their skill as a seer), they crow and crow and immediately set about “predicting” the future again. And at no time does a journalist worth their salt bother to call them out, mostly because the stories that quote these analysts do so well for their traffic and their niche audiences.

In this current case, Pachter is again throwing red meat quotes to the only group of people who listen to him. Like an emperor, sans clothes, he revels in the Digg traffic he receives for every wild Wii HD prediction he produces. These page views are empty calories but damn it all do they feel good.

Naturally, anyone with Google and a brain can easily dismiss such drivel, and in doing so, understand that there is no Wii HD coming this Christmas, or next Christmas, or maybe even the next one. There is simply nothing out there today to support such a notion, and to continue to hold out hope that this prediction is even remotely true even in the face of so many contradictory facts is borderline unhealthy. We all remember facts, yes? I realize the vocal minority message boards and blogs often drown them out with rhetoric, but here are a few just for s’s and g’s:

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1. No Price Cut

Yes, this old chestnut. The Wii, now $50 more than the base Xbox 360, continues to kick its ass and the PS3 “desperation play” slim combined. From day one, as it’s been said to death, Nintendo made a profit on each Wii sold. Ironically, many people, often the same message board trolls mentioned above, curiously bought these $250 Wii consoles, and only after their purchase did they proceeded to complain the price was too high. Strange. If it was too high, what is it doing in your entertainment room? The price was not high enough to keep them from buying a Wii, of course, but it was high enough to apparently empower them to complain mightily in the forums when said console didn’t have enough green and brown killing games for their liking. Nevertheless, even as a hater or complainer, they paid the $250, as did millions upon millions of others. Put simply, when you are winning, and winning by such a margin that the next two competitors combined cannot top your sales, you do not cut the price&—especially so if consumers are voting with their wallets and saying en masse they have no problem whatsoever with your pricing.

Of course, I understand that the numbers are down. But they’re down for everyone. Yet even when Nintendo is down, it still outsells the competition, combined. There is no new console coming. Only new colors (well, maybe just one color: black). Nintendo, and the masses, are fine with that. Add to the profit fact that introducing a Wii HD console now would confuse new adopters and piss off existing ones and there’s already enough evidence that a Wii HD is never coming this generation.

So, to review, no Wii price cut means no chance in hell for a Wii HD. And yet…

2. Those Pesky HD Cables (or lack thereof, actually)

The second catalyst today is another brilliant newsletter out of GameIndustry.biz. In today’s letter, the ever observant online pub notes that in 2009, three frakking years since the dawn of the so-called “HD Era,” neither of the two machines capable of HD graphics come with HD cables. I repeat: Neither HD-enabled console includes an HDMI cable in the box. The newest launch, the PS3 Slightly More Slim, doesn’t either, not to mention all the other “hardcore” features that were cut from it on the liposuction table (Linux support, some ports, to name a few).

images-products-c-cbl-hdmi-mmBut why is this? How can this be?! We’re living in an era of life-like graphics where we vault over the Uncanny Valley with ease, right? Right?! No, actually, we’re not. As we saw in one of the more revealing quotes of the year, Epic Games Mark Rein said nay, and less than 50% of his hardcore customers play Gears of War 2 in HD. Less than 50%!!! On the flagship HD gaming title of our time! As GameIndustry notes, the mind boggles at how that less than 50% adoption rate plummets on less hardcore titles like FIFA and the Buzz! titles. Can we live in an “era” when the adoption rate is less than a majority?

These facts make me feel legitimately sorry for developers like Quantic Dream. In case you don’t recognize the name, they’re the studio behind the PS3-exclusive Heavy Rain, a more real than life title that hopes to defeat the Uncanny Valley for the first time ever and land comfortably in a pile of cash on the other side. Unfortunately, the pile is a mirage, constructed skillfully by marketing firms and Sony over the past three years to fool gamers and hapless developers into believing their multi-million dollar 1080p True HD titles have as big of an audience as the loud rambunctious forums would have them believe.

And this is where Nintendo comes in. Somehow, some way, they saw through the hype. They saw such efforts as foolish, at least for now, an decided to try and change the landscape for the better (and line their pockets, of course, as a business is designed to do). If the Wii had failed, god help all us gamers, because it’d be slim pickings in the years to come as more developers folded up and the big guns like EA were forced to create bloated games for the only gamers left: the “core.” Everyone else–all those grannies and girls and women and people with only a few hours to kill each week on video games–wouldn’t give two craps about video games, kind of like most people didn’t during the big PC “hardcore gamer” video games industry crash of the 1980s.

And there there’s this… fresh off the press today is more damning evidence that the era of HD gaming is a , manufactured myth, and that Nintendo is indeed laughing all the way to the bank:

Black Rock Studio’s (ATV, Split/Second) David Jefferies has, in his regular column on industry site Develop, revealed that Microsoft recently dropped the requirement, meaning games can – if they want/need to – be released in lower, standard definition resolutions.

Of course, some games on the 360 have already been released in sub-HD resolutions. Halo 3, for example, which Jeffereis says was thanks to Bungie, “who got it waived”. Editor’s Note: In other words, special treatment since MS owns them.

Oops! Is that 1080p high def egg on your face? Said Infendo reader Kale, who emailed this story to use today, “The irony of all this makes me laugh. Nintendo might know a thing or two about making game consoles, huh?” Indeed they do, but things get even worse for that never-going-to-happen Wii HD console.

3. The Early Adopters Are Done

Things will get worse before they get better. Sony and Microsoft are both comfortably through the early adopter phases now, and as a result, the percentage of HD-enabled customers is likely to fall sharply as they sell more and more consoles. The first 20 million consumers to buy each console were probably fairly tech-savvy and quite likely to be ready for HD. The next 20 million, however, will be far more likely to be plugging the Xbox 360 into an SD set, or using an inappropriate cable – or, perhaps most notably, plugging the console into a smaller TV in a bedroom. [Eurogamer]

True. And incredibly ironic, given all the Wii bubble talk bandied about over these past three years. What professional journalist would have thought that it was the HD bubble that was set to burst—not the Wii? Not many, which is a story in an of itself (the defections and even layoffs of several high profile games journalists from the profession, like N’Gai, only strengthen this belief).

For the Wii however, this dynamic does not exist. The owner’s TV may be SD, or it might by HDTV, but in the end it doesn’t matter. 480p is “good enough” in that developers can create great imagery (Demon Blade, again!) or captivating gameplay (Wii Sports) without worrying about HD graphics or inflated budgets. Freed from this item on their checklists, developers are not hamstrung into creating a movie first, video game second. They can focus on how the player interacts with the game, how they might enjoy themselves, how they might be challenged. And we wonder why Nintendo characters, by and large, don’t talk!

4. Wii will put it away in 2010

Lastly, there’s this incredible convergence happening right now around the Wii that I’d be remiss not to mention here. It’s one that will actually see Nintendo sales increase in 2010, as opposed to stagnate or remain flat like many consoles do year-over-year at the five year mark in their lifecycles. The convergence is happening around three pillars: game quality, indie development, exclusives, and a culling of stubborn old school game studios.

The first, quality, is probably the most obvious: Wii games are getting better. There were many excellent ones before, of course, but over time, and with some inspirational help from Nintendo first party titles, the big players are starting to “get it.” There was Tiger Woods 10, a staple of any Wii top 10 2009 list, but then are some—and I’m “predicting here, so watch out—solid titles on the horizon as well. Dead Space Extraction looks like it may fool a few people into thinking it’s a FPS, while Red Steel 2 gives the choppy original a cel-shaded reboot with MotionPlus-only controls. Demon Blade, another exclusive, demonstrates what a dedicated developer can do when given a standard definition toolkit. Indeed, instead of dismissing the Wii with a childish GameCube 2 barb, the Demon Blade guys and gals literally painted what could be both a visual masterpiece and a fall season sleeper hit. There are more, of course, including many of Nintendo’s evergreen first party efforts. To say otherwise today is to be either ignorant of the current and upcoming library or intentionally obtuse.

Indie games too will see a resurgence on the Wii, thanks in part to WiiWare—which has somewhat of a slow started, I freely admit. But no longer. As budgets tighten and the reality that HD gaming is a myth sink in even more, it will be the smaller shops that have the greatest opportunity. But don’t dare call these smaller shops “casual games” companies. That phrase too was the result of HD marketing efforts gone bad, as MS and Sony and their supporting third party developers sought to segregate those games that did not showcase the polish of their interactive movies.

Lost Winds and Lost Winds 2 comes to mind here; as does the recently revealed Lost in Shadow from Hudson. So too does Cursed Mountain, although I’m still waiting for a few more reviews from trusted sources (read: friends). Bit.Trip.Beat and World of Goo are both veterans by now, but they were responsible for building and showcasing what this short form, non-HD world could produce. And the great thing for Nintendo and it’s decidedly non-HD platform is that it is made for these games. Hard drive? Really? For these tater tot games that I can easily load in seconds from my 32GB SD card? Surely, Pach, you jest.

Lastly, the past two years have been tough for developers. Well, certain developers. Nintendo has shined, as have those in the employ of big publishing houses like EA, but there are those who drank a bit too heavily from the blockbuster mega hit model. Basically what that means is on launch day, the game must sell a million or else it’s a failure. When you’re marketing your game to a niche audience, this is how things work. Ironically, it’s the complete opposite of the Hollywood blockbuster model, which sees the $150 million movies being marketed to as large an audience as possible. With video games, the Grand Theft Autos ($100 million budget), are targeted at a relatively tiny population of about 20-30 million gamers. It’s no wonder that Grin, which IMO bastardized the Bionic Commando brand with their hard to control 3D dreadlocks fest, folded when that over hyped, over produced monstrosity failed to sell. There are dozens more just like them, unfortunately, and there will be dozens more in the immediate future as studios resist the urge to abandon big budgets, big movie storylines and big graphics for, well, games.

Dude, the Princess IS in this Castle

There’s more evidence, more facts and more hubris on my part, of course, but it’s lunch time. I’ll close by saying I don’t despise HD gaming, not at all. I very much enjoyed the original Dead Space, for example, and doubt that the atmosphere it created could have been done even half as well on the Wii. Gears of War 2, with the sound turned down and dialog muted, is fun, if not a bit of a rehash of the original. BioShock too was a visceral experience that I know could not have been duplicated on my that tiny white console without all that great dialogue and story. There are many great things to be accomplished with the format, now and in the future, when HD adoption levels more accurately reflect the bombastic, arrogant rhetoric of hardcore development houses and their enablers. But not yet. And as such, no Wii HD.

No, instead my ire falls on the misguided journalists, experts, analysts and console makers that nearly crippled video games in a way that hasn’t been seen since the early 1980s. And yes, it would have happened if Nintendo didn’t take the risk they did in 2006. As I’ve explained before, this more than anything is the reason I support and write about Nintendo today, not some silly fanatic’s love of plumbers or Metroids. When gaming historians look back on this period with their uber Googlers or virtual reality Minority Report encyclopedias or whatever, I’m certain it will be Nintendo they say defined and saved gaming from the jaws of mediocrity, recession and sameness.

My ire falls too on the enabling charlatans who selfishly perpetuated the Era of HD myth because it was the way they Thought Things Ought to Be. As they ridiculed and bullied Nintendo and its fans for the audacity of thinking different, their lack of innovation perturbed me; their embracing of a controller design that has not changed in 20 years offended my progressive nature; their willingness to shoot things in different ways and call that a “new game” made me go apoplectic. The dishonesty of the Blu-ray/HD gaming/horsepower debate is expected, of course–it’s marketing after all–but the fact that it remains today even in the face of such easy to execute Google searches and research (Innovator’s Dilemma, The Blue Ocean strategy, et al) is absolutely incredible.

The era of HD gaming was a myth before it became a meme, and it certainly won’t see a birth on any console out today. It will eventually match the hype however, don’t get me wrong, and then, on that day in three years or so, Nintendo will create a new console. It will have HD, sure, but by then people will not talk about HDTVs or high definition or “special formats” or whatever, in much the same way we stopped talking about “standard def” as a necessary TV feature years ago. HD will be ubiquitous by then, expected, and not a “selling point” for a console or a television. Games and gamers will be ready for it.

And then the pressure on console makers and developers at that time will be, as ever, to deliver on game play so they can truly provide the revolution they’ve been promising so emptily these past three years.