Converting the Mainstream

I’ve been thinking about audiences and demographics lately. The Wii U is launching in a few weeks and if there’s one thread I’ve noticed running through the various podcasts I listen to it’s “who is going to buy that thing?” Of course there’s the obvious answer—Nintendo faithful. Those folks will buy any system with a new Mario or Zelda game on it, but the brand loyalists will always turn out for new products from their favorite thing maker (see: Apple).

The mainstream cultural success the Wii saw isn’t something you can easily duplicate. Ask Rovio. Ask Groupon. Ask Ty. It’s tough. Nintendo will certainly sell enough units to justify its existence, that’s not what I’m questioning.

I’m questioning the audience needed. I don’t know the economics of researching, developing and selling a system, so I’m not sure of the ratio of mainstream/niche adoption required to call a system successful. I’m sure it’s still heavily weighted on the mainstream side, and it will be for years to come. And that leads me to my next question.

Who is the mainstream?

I’m an excruciatingly nerdy 28-year-old white male. I love video games and art and writing. I despise CSI, Two and Half Men, Fox News and The Big Bang Theory. I listen to chip tunes while I work. I thought the Doctor’s romance with Rose Tyler was weird. I’ve loved Spider-Man as long as I can remember. For some reason I keep up to date on what new phones are coming out despite only buying a new one once every two years. I think io9 and Lifehacker are the best Gawker Media blogs. I love Regina Spektor. I am not mainstream.

I would bet if you made a quick list of some of the things you are in to (and some of the things you are not), you wouldn’t define yourself as mainstream either. The entertainment world is fracturing, chasing specificity. I rarely turn on my TV and cruise the 500+ channels DIRECTV pumps into my house. If I’m going to turn on the TV, it’s because I already know what I’m going to watch. I know what I like, where to find it, and who’s making it. That’s probably not mainstream behavior.

Kickstarter has shown us that sometimes a niche product can thrive if it finds and caters to a vocal audience. But that’s not always the case. While the success of Fox News and shows like Two and a Half Men have shown us that mainstream audiences don’t care for thoroughly researched news or smartly written shows. Which is why it’s easy to think of fans of those things as uninformed, culturally stunted dullards, but that’s snobby and elitist, also untrue.

We all have our obsessions (I think I’ve made it clear how much I love Call Me Maybe), and some of them are dumb, like Sean Hannity’s show, but that doesn’t make you dumb for liking them. That being said, I think capturing everyone’s attention with anything other than a sporting event is only going to get more difficult as technology and the Internet become more ubiquitous. Ten years from now, a third of Two and Half Men’s viewers might be considered a mainstream success.

Until our entertainment landscape fractures into a zillion tiny pieces, and the cost of the technology used to make consumer electronic products and high production-value shows drops to bargain basement levels, companies like Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft and Apple have to play to the mainstream. They can foot the bill.

We can do our part by excusing some of the mainstreamness from our favorite products. Thing making ain’t free, and sometimes our thing makers have to throw the mainstreamers a bone. For every five witty one-liners in Borderlands 2, there’s at least two groan inducing “jokes” that feel like they were manufactured and stuck in there for the “I laugh at Charlie Sheen’s awful and lazy sexual innuendos” mainstream people (that goes for just about every AAA video game or somewhat geeky blockbuster movie).

We excuse those things in hopes that they’ll convert some mainstreamers. Turn them in to full-on enthusiasts. The more enthusiasts we have, the healthier our hobby becomes, and the fewer groan-inducing gags we’ll endure.

The conversion test

The big question mark is hovering over the current casual mainstream Wii owners—there are tens of millions of them. There’s never been a video game console as successful as the Wii. Grandparents and soccer moms don’t buy Playstation 3s. But I’m not sure they buy fancy new tech upgrades either.

The Wii U is going to be a great conversion test. Can they bring some of the many mainstream Wii owners into the enthusiast space? The Wii U is confusingly similar to its predecessor. It’s got a dumb, samey name (you would have thought they learned from the 3DS, which should have been called Gameboy 3D or something), and it uses some, but not all, of the original Wii’s peripherals.

Look at this hilarious video Game Informer put up this week. Yeah, it’s going to be an uphill battle for Nintendo.

Can Nintendo pull it off? Or are Sony and Microsoft’s all-in-one entertainment box strategies better conversion tools? I like video games, and I like when other people like the things I like. So I hope the Wii U can convince some of those casual Wii owners to take a deeper look at this gaming thing. Let’s fracture that mainstream just a bit more and pump some more life and longevity into our hobby.

Achievement Unlocked: You Left The Mainstream