Note: I wrote this a while ago and never had any place to put it. This was written before the Revolution controller was shown to the public.
"Dengeki reported that Nintendo has successfully acquired the female and adult market for Nintendo DS in Japan…”
What is it about the DS that appeals to women and adults? Why are they gravitating towards a machine that most of us mock?
My girlfriend is a programmer for a videogame company and needless to say she understands technology and is not afraid of it. And yet even she – a woman who makes videogames – does not play them. Why? “There are too many buttons” she tells me. We have evolved into an era of videogames where not only are they too complicated to understand, but even controlling them is frightening.
I remember the first videogame I played; it was Pac-Man at the local convenient store in 1980. It had one button to push, “Start Game.” This button needed to be only pressed once to start the game and after that it never entered gameplay again.
The first videogame console I ever played was the Atari 2600 in the early 80’s and the controller consisted of one joystick and one button. In 1985, the second console I owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System and the controller had a d-pad and two buttons (4 if you count select and start). The first console I actually purchased myself, was the Super Nintendo in 1991 and the controller came with an amazing 6 buttons; 4 face buttons and 2 buttons placed on the edge of the controller that came be known as “shoulder” buttons. Those shoulder buttons sure felt funny to press in the very beginning, especially the left one.
I’ve been playing videogames for the past 25+ years of my life and I’ve experienced the slow progression of going from no buttons required to being comfortable to using 14 buttons (L3, R3, and even the 4 directional buttons on the Dual-Shock controller have become buttons in games) on the PS2 pad. When I watch my girlfriend who is new to videogames hold the controller, it looks she is choking a poor dog to death that won’t stop barking.
It is no longer a secret that women actually do like videogames. Some not only like watching videogames being played but some also like playing games themselves. Not all games mind you (I don’t even play all games) but without sounding too stereotypical in my experience women tend do enjoy playing puzzle games, The Sims, MMOs, etc. I firmly believe that if The Sims had been released simultaneously on PC and console the PC version would still be the best selling version.
People who do not play games, for the most part, do use a PC on a regular basis. They have become common not only at work but in the home as well. People are comfortable with using a keyboard and a mouse, which is why casual gamers will gravitate towards what they already feel comfortable with. Another reason is the cost issue. I’ve been buying consoles my whole life and I’ve yet to buy one solely for a single game, which given the sparse pickings for women on today’s consoles, could be a real proposition. People are much more compelled to spend $40 on a PC game because if the interface is familiar and if the game doesn’t work out, they have only lost $40 in comparison to $200+ it would take to buy a different console and a game.
Recently, Katamari Damacy that quickly grabbed the attention of not only game designers everywhere but also women due to how simple it is to play. Granted they have to actually hold the PS2 controller, which is daunting, but once they realize no buttons are required to play they are instantly hooked. Unfortunately, even with a game as simple as this is to play, it still has yet to sell well. My personal theory is that even if women find it accessible, it is the only game on the PS2 that they are attracted to and why bother buying a whole console just for one game? I wouldn’t either.
Look at the success of racing games, particularly Gran Turismo. Gran Turismo basically said, ‘screw the PS2 controller!’ altogether and threw it out of the equation. Many people play the game with the steering wheel controller, which is instantly comfortable due to its familiar replication of driving an actual car.
The Gameboy has been dominating the market for the past 16 years and never even had a close competitor until the recent PSP. Many technically ‘better’ handheld consoles have been released, featuring color screens, fancier graphics, etc., and yet the Gameboy still stands as #1. The killer app for the Gameboy, Tetris, only required one button. Not only that but the Gameboy dominated the market for 12 years with only 2 buttons. Coincidence?
This brings us to why I think the DS is good for the industry. While there are more buttons on the DS in comparison to the Gameboy, the main form of input is the stylus. The stylus is immediately comfortable as it feels like a real world device, the pen. There are already many games which require you to draw really fast on the screen, much like coloring, which is not only fun to do but very intuitive. What the DS is bringing to the table isn’t revolutionary gameplay or even for the most part nothing we haven’t seen before – what it is doing is packaging it in a way that is more appealing to women. The DS will be the gateway drug; getting women hooked on DS games mean that they will be more willing to try out other games.
Now that E3 2005 has passed, we have seen the controllers for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. One interesting thing to note is that there are no new buttons on either controller. Sony and Microsoft both feel that this number (note that they both have the exact same number of buttons) is the magical number that will attract new gamers and sustain long-term gamers. Since this is an industry first, where we go from one generation to the next without an addition of buttons I am curious as to if this interface is still too complicated to attract new players.