They’ve finally revived the Sam and Max franchise, in episodic form. One of the people in the gametap company has done an article in Gamasutra about episodic content. It’s been a long time and I’m sure all the Sam and Max fans are happy with the revival of their favorite series.

To me, one of the most interesting parts was at the end.

For two years we have been listening to Nintendo talk about broadening the games market. Their solution for this in the living room is a next gen platform with last gen features with a gimmicky controller that is less expensive than other next gen systems. All their rhetoric about broadening the market feels more like a justification for a product that competes with the PS2 for quality but loses to it for catalog of games and price.

This ties into what I’ve been saying ever since they started talking about how the Wii would have reduced graphics compared to modern systems. They’re doing a gamble by ditching 2 decades of game console tradition and trying a completely new model for gaming. 

The old model had some benefits to the game companies. It lets them serve the hardcore gamers very high end systems and amazing graphics, while also providing an inexpensive console that casual gamers can play that is a safe bet for developers. The mainline console is released at a high price. It is sometimes sold at a loss, it has lots of cutting edge parts in it. The first 2 years they build up a good range of titles and a solid base of installed units to attract more developers. The hardcore gamers get their high end graphics and pay quite a bit for it and the games that go with it.

In the second stage, the prices drift down for the parts due to economies of scale, advances in technology making the older tech easier to build, the companies either reduce the price to continue selling at a slight loss or a very narrow profit, or they can leave the price high for a little longer until the market is right for a price drop. The games enter the second generation and start to look more like real games and less like tech demos. For the PS1, this late 1996 to mid 1997. PS2, around 2002. PS3 will likely hit this phase in early 2008. Killer apps will start to become common for the platform in this phase and the middling gamers will start picking the system up. (The ones who were waiting and seeing on the console during the first stage.)

The third stage, the price drops between ½ to 2/3rds of the original retail price. 3rd generation games hit the console and start to get to the peak of what the system is capable of. Casual games start appearing, and casual gamers flock to the system. Hardware redesigns either visible or hidden internally make the system very inexpensive to create. This is the phase where companies start raking in the largest amount of profit. PS1, 1999ish. The PS2 hit this phase in around late 2004/early 2005. 

Most people only talk about the 1st through 3rd generation games, but there’s actually with the sony consoles at least, and others have done this as well, a 4th generation in the console’s lifecycle. This happens around 6-months after a new first phase console comes out. The 3rd generation games start to taper off, the last half-dozen or so of which are considered some of the best games ever made for the console. The console drops to well under half of its original price. The console is almost entirely the domain of casual gamers at this point. Towards the end of this cycle majority of the releases are cut-rate budget games, movie licensed games, ports from other systems. For sony, the 4th phase lasts about 2-3 years. The last year of the cycle, Sony continues to manufacture and sell the hardware in small quantities, but a game might come out once every 3 months at best. The hardware is no longer manufactured about 10 years after it was introduced in phase 1.

Nintendo’s Gamecube was certainly not the greatest success in the world. What Nintendo is doing with the Wii however (and the DS, for that matter) is much more like what Apple is doing with their Ipods than a traditional console release cycle. They took their 3rd generation hardware, put some small upgrades on it while leaving it mostly compatible, then released it. They’ve essentially skipped over phase 1 and 2 of the console release cycle and released what is a competitor not to the Xbox360 and PS3, but a competitor to the Xbox and the Slimline PS2. It’s a console that starts at the 3rd generation competing against consoles entering their 4th generation. It seems like a good strategy on the surface. After all, most of the money is made in the 3rd generation, and with the upgrades to the controllers they can likely push the Gamecube 1.5/wii’s 3rd generation out another 2-3 years. The danger is though, when the PS3 and Xbox360 both start getting into their early third generation in 2009, the Wii is going to start looking very, very dated. There’s nowhere for them to go with the Wii hardware, they’re already tapping nearly all of its available power with the current games. They could release a new console upgraded so that it’s comparable with the PS3/Xbox360 at that point, but then they’d be starting out with 1st generation games going up against 3rd generation games on comparably priced and capable hardware. Not a pretty long-term situation for nintendo. 

Graphics matter, and will matter more going forward. In 2009 the US cuts off all of its 480i analog broadcasts. Here in 2007, Digital televisions are already taking off, and low end digitals can be had at around 20-25 inches for under $150. High-Def TVs have fallen through the floor as well, my 27 inch dropped 2/7ths of its price the same week I bought it. By the 3rd generation 360/ps3, TVs over 27 inches with high def resolutions will be nearly ubiquitous, and the Wii will look just dreadful on them. 

The people doing comparisons between the Wii and PS3 don’t understand how much you can mask primitive graphics by using a smaller screen. One person even stated that in his comparisons he “gave the PS3 an advantage” by putting it on a 40+ inch screen, while the Wii was on a 19 inch screen. What he really did was give the Wii an advantage by masking how primitive its 480i and less detailed graphics were in comparison. If you take a PSone game and put it on a 3 inch screen (such as the one they were selling bundled with the PSone at the end,) or a PSP and it’ll look nearly as good as a PS2 game on a 25 inch screen. Put the same game on the 25 inch screen and it looks horrific. I’ve done the comparisons myself.

As NTSC approaches its twilight and more people are on ATSC/QAM digital TVs, the Wii will lose much of the positive buzz that it has gained through its 3rd generation games and fancy controller… If Nintendo survives depends on if they’ve thought these implications through and prepared for them, or if they’re going to be caught flat-footed like they were with the Gamecube. The fact that they’ve said they have no plans at all to EVER drop the price of the Wii indicates to me that they’ve not thought forward to their situation in 2009…