Wii Internet system update — who cares?

HDTV irrelevanceIt could have just been my Wii, through chance or some weird defect that barred it from receiving the full firmware update from last week, but tonight as I prepared for bed in my Nintendo fanman Mother Brain boss chamber bedroom the ol’ blue light flickered to life once again. That’s three times in the past week and a half, for those of you still up and keeping score.

Anyway, after I finished up my DVR’d episodes of Entourage and Flight of the Conchords, I fired up the Wii, flicked my ancient Phillips HDTV tube over to AV5 (the NES, DVD player and SNES/N64 combo have the other AV channels — as if you care!), and watched what my newly updated system had to offer.

It was an Internet update, seemingly supplied by Nintendo to supplant the previous update, which was freezing up Wii’s that had tuned into the Internet Channel. Note I said “freezing” and not “bricked,” which is a term the world has reserved solely for the Xbox 360 and its robust new 3-year warranty program.

The update took all of 5 seconds to complete. How do I know? Because as I fuddled around with my Dell AC adapter to plug in my company supplied Latitude D620 for extended Infendo posting power, I knocked over my wireless router AND the RCN cable modem to which it has been faithfully attached for the the past year, and it became unplugged. I had thought this was directly in the middle of the firmware update, and I became angry. My swearing — which is usually reserved for cheap online Mario Strikers opponents who just love to use Dry Bones and Toad dekes against my goalie — was deemed largely unnecessary when I got back to the Wii. The system update, you see, was complete; a parental warning was staring me in the face telling me that the Internet was a bad place and that Dateline NBC was probably outside my door catching a predator or ten.

That’s all chaff though. Unimportant banter. Why? Because as soon as the update was complete I wasn’t thinking at all about the Internet Channel, or the Weather Channel or the News Channel (although I did check the New Channel to see if my Wii’s online connection was intact). What I immediately thought was “who the hell cares?”

Now, please please please don’t confuse this post with an attack on Nintendo’s online strategy. It’s not Xbox Live, we all accept that. It probably never will be. There’s positives and negatives in that admonition, but they won’t be rehashed, analyzed or nit picked in this post.

What this post is, is an observation. A timely one at that; one that could not have been made without a few select events from last week and today. But before we can begin, I need you all to say something out loud: “Online play is not important.” UPDATE and EDIT: I’m not taking anything back from this post, but I think as things stand now I wrote poorly. So, here’s an amendment: “Online play is not as important today as you think it is, but will gradually grow in the future. It will always complement gameplay. Today, however… not so important.” The number support this position. I’m not saying it as a matter of opinion, I’m stating it as a matter of informed deduction. Keep reading to see why with the links to Xbox Live #’s.

Done? Great. You’re well on your way to at least understanding what I’m trying to get at here. Many of you won’t agree, I’m sure, but you’re wrong.

Now try something else. Remember when I said that ol’ clunker of an HDTV earlier? Good. Now say something else: “HD gaming is overrated and unimportant to the success of a system.”

Very good. Now stay with me.

What I’m going to do next is pretty crazy for a fanman, or fanboy, or even the message board zealot that I was back in 2005 when J B Cougar terrorized the then-exclusive message boards of Kotaku and Joystiq.com. What I’m going to do is use facts to dismiss whatever doubt remains in your mind about HD gaming and online play.

First, we learned last week that only 30% of Xbox 360 owners know their system is capable of HD. What this means is that even with all the marketing and Mountain Dew Halo 3 collector’s cans and HMDI ports, the overwhelming majority of Xbox owners do not know what their system is capable of producing on a screen. Who knows if that screen is itself capable of putting out 720p images, or even 480p, but that’s a question for another day. More than a year’s worth of HD marketing has gone to only 30% of the Xbox 360 population. That is a failure.

Want more? How about this: Only half of all PS3 owners know there’s a Blu-Ray drive in their system. Of that, HALF use it. Why is this important? Because when the PS3 sputtered earlier this year, company execs rested on their laurels, saying that the system could survive on its Blu-Ray chops. No one was listening. This is a failure for a failure of a system.

Second, today we learned that a third of these same Xbox 360 owners have never even heard of Xbox Live Arcade. GameDaily BIZ,which is like GameDaily.biz but isn’t British and hates periods, said this:

We present data here from a national online survey of 1800 U.S. households, of which 149 owned an Xbox 360, over 64% of whom indicate they play games online with their Xbox 360. We also present data that shows that 70% of owners have used Xbox Live Arcade ”“ both to try free games, as well as to buy games. However, the larger group (42%) have only tried out free games. While 28% have actually bought a game at XBLA

But remarkably, 30% of Xbox 360 owners report that they have never even heard of XBLA. Considering these buyers of the Xbox 360 are serious, if not hard-core gamers, and all the attention given to XBLA, it is surprising to us that still almost a third of Xbox owners are not familiar with XBLA.

Since I’m no expert, I’m going to ASSUME (which usually makes an ass out of you and me if we were journalists, but we’re not, so it’s ok), that the numbers are comparable to the PS3’s. Even if they’re slightly better for the PS3 it’s a moot point today, as the number of PS3 consoles sold are a pale shadow of what Microsoft has sold thus far.

Let’s bring it back though. Let’s bring it back to Nintendo. The Big N in Redmond has been positively lambasted by the gaming press for the better part of the past year for not offering both of these capabilities from the get go. Nintendo foolishly left out HD, they said, and would suffer for it. And when they suffered, they would rush to include it in a firmware update at a later time or release, *gulp*, another version of the Wii hardware! Tell me, oh great educated gaming gods, how a company can suffer from a lack of HD when the LEADING console — both in sales and time on the market — cannot make 70% of its owners aware of one of its signature features?

In light of this information I find the current “debate” about HD gaming and online play absolutely foolish. It is representative, again, of a gaming media that is a gamer first, and journalist second. Sure, they matter to YOU, but if that’s the case you are officially the minority, and therefore do not affect the strategies of these big powerful companies. Well, I take that back. Two off these three companies have decided to TELL you that online gaming and HD visuals are the future of gaming and make it central to their “video game console as a media hub strategy,” while one has decided to simply show you their product and let the masses decide for themselves what system is worth the investment.

Does HD work in gaming? Does online play? Of course they do. Look no further than BioShock on the 360 for proof that HD graphics can work in this generation — so long as the GAMEPLAY is addressed first and foremost by the developers! Hint: All signs and portents and little birds have told and shown me that it has been, at least in BioShock. And online play? I’d argue that Mario Strikers Charged is one of the most impressive and fun feats of online gaming in 2007 (penis-faced Mii’s be damned!). But online in that case is complementary to a very robust gameplay mechanic. What other noteworthy online offerings were there this year — that WEREN’T FPS online multiplayer?

Who would have thunk it though — a 480p widescreen soccer game on “last year’s hardware” running on a Friend Code addled pseudo-anonymous online system is currently kicking ass, no pun intended.

But even with Strikers success this Internet Channel update got me thinking about how irrelevant online gaming or functionality is to TODAY’s gamer. Will the watershed moment arrive next year, or 2009? Possibly. It might arrive on the day when people deem it “worth it” to buy not only a $2,000 LCD television, but also a $500 Blu-Ray DVD player for all those special movies they’ve seen advertised at Best Buy. But it’s not going to arrive this holiday, when the sales are going to start really counting and the installed base really starting to matter to the bottom line. That’s too bad for people who have made a investment, because I’m seeing developer dollars go elsewhere as the support for HD gaming and online play erode or, in this case, never materialize at all. People run the risk of being left with another Game Gear that plays TV shows, I think (i.e., something expensive and cool but largely worthless).

So forgive me for not caring one lick about online gaming. Do I enjoy it? I sure do, but I also know what a video game system is for, and that fun to play games are its core responsibility in my household. Online? HD? DVD playback? All great, but they are features of a video game machine, and I treat them as such. They hold a smaller % of the bigger pie, which for video game consoles will now and forever be dominated by fun factor, escapism, and imagination.