Wielding a wand-like remote controller, Nintendo (NTDOY) exec Bill Trinen created a digital likeness of the actor Samuel L. Jackson. Within minutes, he had given the on-screen character a droopy mustache and black clothes and added "Sam" to his growing virtual family. Trinen didn't write a single line of code, it took place entirely inside of Nintendo's new Wii video game console, which launches in November.
What Trinen, Nintendo's manager of localization, showed off at a Sept. 14 promo event in New York could end up transforming game-console technology. Nintendo execs say the feature, dubbed the Mii Channel, will let any user populate games with cartoonish 3-D versions of oneself, friends, film stars, or pro athletes.
It's not the first time console makers will let gamers mess with content. Online versions of The Sims and Everquest have been allowing gamers to customize in-game characters since the late 1990s. But none has ever found a way to let a character from one game step into another…until now. "You can populate your own Wii console with your Mii's," Trinen said. "You can take them on your Wii remote over to your friend's house and let your Mii's populate your friend's Wii console. And then you let your Mii's populate your video games."
ANYONE CAN PLAY.
That may seem old-hat to PC gamers. For years they've rewritten the code of countless games, adding their own characters, redesigning scenes, and trading virtual goods for real money. The sense of community built around Doom and World of Warcraft helped transform those games into international bestsellers.
But the programming skills required were beyond most ordinary people's abilities. Nintendo is clearly betting that the Mii Channel makes enthusiasts out of the least tech-savvy of gamers and hopes to get entire families involved in game play.
Why would a console maker such as Nintendo suddenly try to emulate PC games? For starters, console makers worry that blogs, wikis, and other interactive online activities are luring the industry's traditional audience of 18- to 35-year-olds. As people gain more control over what they do online, they're likely to get bored with the old closed box, plug-and-play model for game consoles.
These days, "user-generated content" has become the buzz-phrase among industry execs. At the Tokyo Game Show on Sept. 22, Sony's (SNE) Ken Kutaragi described how gamers might one day use 3-D maps of their own real-world neighborhoods as the backdrop for online games. "In the past, only game developers created content," Square Enix (SQNFX) President Yoichi Wada said in a keynote address at the conference. "From now on, gamers will be able to join the creation process."
If it sounds as if game creators hope to refashion themselves into Web 2.0 companies, it's hardly a surprise. "As a game developer, the goal is to become the YouTube or MySpace of games," says Simon Jeffrey, chief operating officer of Sega (SGAMY) of America. "It's not purely about just delivering a great game. You've got to also build online communities around the games so there's credibility, communication, longevity. That's the holy grail."
Perhaps the most sophisticated evolution of that idea is Spore, the upcoming game from Will Wright and Electronic Arts. The game is said to let anyone assume the role of designer, creating and customizing the creatures that inhabit the game universe.
Not everyone agrees all this is good for the industry. In fact, some say that as the line blurs between gamers and game designers, gamers face the prospect of going up against developers and publishers. Players who sought to auction their virtual assets on eBay (EBAY) have reported run-ins with game publisher Sony Online Entertainment and developer Mythic Entertainment.
"Obviously the publishers don't want to lose control," says Stephen Rubin, an intellectual property rights lawyer in McLean, Va., who follows the gaming industry. "But this is an area in which economics, not the law, is the driver. I think increasingly technology is making it clearer that there's more money to be made in allowing gamers to have a vested interest in what they create online."
Nintendo's Mii Channel is just a first step for console makers. Company execs say only two titles, WarioWare and Wii Sports, will work with Mii avatars. But they're counting on outside developers to add to the roster. Even Microsoft (MSFT), which is notoriously protective of source codes, appears to be experimenting with low-cost developing kits that could bring similar features to its own Xbox 360 machine.
But for now, the Mii Channel remains a crude tool, more akin to attaching body parts to a Mr. Potato Head than working with the sophisticated 3-D CAD modeling of car designers and movie special-effects crews. The burning question is whether it is interesting enough to click with consumers.