Is it time for a Wii hardware upgrade?

Nintendo's seventh-generation games console, the oddly named Wii, was launched back in November of 2006 and became an instant hit. Since then it has sold well over 50 million units and enjoys popularity outside of the traditional gaming community. But is it time for the Wii to receive a hardware refresh or is there still plenty of life left in the plucky console?

Nintendo's seventh-generation games console, the oddly named Wii, was launched back in November of 2006 and became an instant hit. Since then it has sold well over 50 million units and enjoys popularity outside of the traditional gaming community. But is it time for the Wii to receive a hardware refresh or is there still plenty of life left in the plucky console?

Note: Just to put the Wii sales into context, PS3 sales so far total some 27 million and Xbox 360 sales are in the region of 39 million, but all are dwarfed by Nintendo DS sales, which topped 113 million.

While Microsoft and Sony concentrated on developing powerful games consoles to satisfy hardcore gamers (in other words, people who were PC gamers), Nintendo took a step back with the Wii and created a device that was aimed more at the casual gamer. The graphics and style of Wii games are more along the lines of Flash games that people might play on Facebook than your resource-heavy PC game. But the Wii had an ace up its sleeve - it offered interactivity through the wireless Wii Remote that used accelerometer and infrared receivers to detect motion through 3D space. This allowed gamers to play games like tennis in a more natural, real-world way (although some of the actions and motions involved in some games push the boundaries of realism quite a bit).

Between late 2007 and mid 2008 (depending on the market) Nintendo released the Wii Balance Board which added a new dimension to the Wii and made games such as the Wii Fit possible.

OK, so the Wii has, and still is, a successful console. But more than three years on, is it time for a refresh? Many tech and gaming pundits think that it is, pointing to its lack of high-definition graphics as one shortcoming. But this constant speculation of a Wii hardware refresh has prompted denials. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime shot down rumors by saying that "we are confident the Wii home entertainment console has a very long life in front of it." If that's not enough, he added:

"In terms of what the future holds, we've gone on record to say that the next step for Nintendo in home consoles will not be to simply make it HD, but to add more and more capability, and we'll do that when we've totally tapped out all of the experiences for the existing Wii. And we're nowhere near doing that yet. There's lots of ongoing opportunity for the consumer in the current generation with the Wii console."

Now the question is, does Nintendo need to update the Wii in order for it to remain attractive to consumers? After all, both Sony and Microsoft have said that their consoles will have a ten year lifecycle (the PS3 is about three years old, while the Xbox 360 is a bit older, at four). But ten years is a heck of a long time in technology. In fact, I can only think of one platform that survived anywhere close to that, and that was the Game Boy platform. That ten-year lifecycle is driven more by economics than anything else. Microsoft and Sony have both found it incredibly hard to make games consoles profitable, so there's no incentive to go through a development cycle just yet. This ten-year lifecycle statement doesn't preclude a console launch before this date, but that will no doubt depend on a number of factors, such as the economy and whether the companies think that they can do a better job of selling the new consoles.

The real question for Nintendo is whether consumers feel they need high definition gaming capability. To be honest, I don't think they do because the types of games that you see on the Wii don't really need better graphics. This "better graphics = better game" mantra is a holdover from the old PC gaming days. You can have a game with great graphics that sells poorly (think Crysis), but a game can have poor graphics and still be a huge hit with a really long arc (think old-school games featuring Tetris or Mario).

What I think we're going to see on all fronts in more add-ons and accessories for consoles (think along the lines of Microsoft's Project Natal). The Wii could also benefit from games from third-party developers that make more use of the Wii Remote and the Wii balance Board. So far, I feel that while Nintendo do a really good job of leveraging the capabilities of the Wii, other developers are lagging behind.

If we can trust companies with their promise of long lifecycles, then it's a good time to buy a console.