Games have never been so popular. Electronic entertainment has been finding its way into the mainstream media channels, stirring up the interest of the general public. Hollywood has already been riding the wave for several years now: games based on movie licenses are a natural, expected development; however, movies based on original intellectual property from games are also commonplace these days. Some games rise to fame (and often to the American Senate) through the polemic of their subject matter; but TV and news channels are also beginning to explore the other multiple facets of gaming in special features, documentaries, and 24/7 dedicated channels.


Such a phenomenon brings up a question: is the world witnessing the art form of the millennium leaving its teens into adulthood? Do games fit among other expression forms that have reached the mainstream audience, such as movies, books and TV? Or is the industry only broadening and deepening its reach into the selected niches that will define games as cult, pretty much like what happened to comics during the last century? These questions have already been bothering us for a while, and a deeper analysis of the subject is mandatory if we intend to provide prospective answers of any kind.



A Niche Culture


Games started as a cool and cult sprout of the first adventures of computer hacking in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The word ‘hack’ did not have the negative, disturbed connotation it has today: it simply meant using the available resources of computers in original and smart ways, to achieve amazing, unpredicted results. And that is exactly how old-time hackers ‘discovered’ electronic gaming: by twisting and turning the old machines’ digital nuts and bolts in curious fashions. w00t!


It was just a natural development, then, that games became very popular among the earliest computer-aware individuals (a pompous way of referring to the old-school nerds). Several game-friendly computer systems followed, such as the Amiga and the MSX. By the time PCs arrived with their all-including nature, games already had a major cult following among computer users.


The games industry of our age can also be regarded as a mostly niche culture: we have hardcore games for hardcore players; casual, serious and child games have their own restricted markets as well. PC gaming is considered a mostly hardcore-driven market, and such argument is usually associated with the slower growing rate of this market compared to home consoles. The latter, however, are plagued by their own sub-culture definition as well, in such a way that it is now common to see discussions among console manufacturers and software developers about the utmost need of broadening the scope and extending the reach of consoles into more and more homes. Just take a look at the issues being discussed in the last two or three Game Developer Conferences.



Joysticks for the Masses


On the other hand, there have been several moments in the history of gaming in which games have appealed to a larger audience. Consoles of the first generations were released during the early ’80s to great mainstream success, until the industry became the victim of its own achievements: an absurd amount of games being offered without an appropriate process of quality assurance led the video-games industry into crisis. Had it not been that way, maybe the mainstream interest in consoles would live up into the ’90s and until today. Who can tell?


Still, there are other incarnations of mainstream interest in gaming today, exemplified mostly by the mobile and hand-held markets. Mobiles are everywhere, and the increasing availability of on-line services has enabled games to be introduced to the major public through cellular phones. This platform faces problems of its own, such as a multitude of mobile internal configurations, leading to the lack of solid development standards, relatively low hardware capability, and the lack of proper input devices for games. Hand-held devices, on the other hand (no pun intended), feature game-specific hardware and input/output capabilities that are usually one or two generations behind home consoles in terms of processing power. Software developed for such platforms, however, are generally aimed towards a broader audience than home consoles. Low prices, high availability, and the practical concerns of portability are other factors that contribute to the wider audience appeal enjoyed by hand-held games.



Nintendo’s Call for Gamers


If we wanted to ask a game development company about the past, present and future status of the games industry from a higher, broader standpoint, that company would HAVE to be Nintendo. The Big N has always been an absolute reference in terms of gaming innovation, and continues to play that part wonderfully with its latest hardware releases. Nintendo has been a major driving force in shaping the video-games culture and market as we know it, although such a position does not always mean commercial success (PlayStation, anyone?).


Such awareness of the big picture has allowed Nintendo to design a strategy that would lead to the next leap (as opposed to the next step) in gaming, which started with Nintendo’s newest hand-held console, the Nintendo DS. Not only is the DS a revolution in human-game interface, featuring a touch sensitive screen that enables game interaction in a multitude of new ways, but also the software developed for the system is truly original and amazing. Unconventional games such as Nintendogs and the Brain Training series are both a critical and technical achievement gameplay-wise, and an outstanding commercial success.


The Big N expanded its strategy further with the Nintendo Wii, a home console designed to bring together current gamers, former gamers that left video-games behind for being too complex and overwhelming, and non-gamers alike. Such high stakes are met with the Wii’s original input system, which combines old-school button-pressing with detailed and accurate motion-sensing. The console also features an on-line distribution system called the Wii Virtual Console, designed to enable gamers to download games from several Nintendo and third-party consoles from the past directly into the Wii’s hard-drive. Combined with a simplified game controller reminding that of the Super Nintendo, the package is a cheerful welcoming to former gamers from the 80’s and 90’s.





Are games cult or mainstream? As of now, the answer has to be “both”. Nintendo is helping us experiment deeper with broader audiences, and its challenges are far from simple. A careful balance between appealing to new customers and retaining the interest of hardcore gamers must be achieved for Nintendo’s strategy to succeed. We are definitely eager to see more and more DS and Wii software coming, aimed at both mainstream and cult followers, and perhaps it will be during the current generation of consoles that we will be able to decide whether the games industry is bound to remain as cult, embrace the masses, or branch into both of them.