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I got a lot of feedback on my previous column about the weak dollar possibly accounting for the Wii shortage here in the U.S. So much that I thought I’d look at another way the economy might be affecting gamers, particularly Nintendo fans.


Gaming blog Kotaku.com ran some quotes this week from a Japanese game industry analyst who said that a slowing economy in that country seems to be primarily driving off casual gamers.


Hard-core players are going to get their game on, even if it means subsisting on ramen and rat milk to keep their game budget intact.


But the casual fans - and in Japan casual gamers mostly buy the Nintendo DS - are turning away from gaming, which is a fairly expensive hobby.


“Casual gaming growth has been driven over the last three years by the Nintendo DS platform,” the analyst said. “Demand has peaked in Japan and, we believe, is currently peaking overseas.”


Well, if the DS is the casual platform of choice in Japan, the Wii is clearly the console for the casual gamer in the U.S. If this analyst is correct, and a slow economy really does drive off casual gamers, then it would suggest that demand for the Wii, much more so than demand for the Xbox 360 or PS3, is likely to cool here in America before long.


Remember, Nintendo deliberately marketed the Wii as the system for people who’ve never considered themselves gamers, people who want something whimsical and social and can have a blast just creating their little Mii avatars with the cartoon eyes and invisible arms.


Now, there’s been absolutely zero sign so far that demand for the Wii is slowing. But the economic slowdown here in the U.S. is just beginning to really bite, as job cuts have only recently started to outnumber job gains. If the recession-slowdown is brief and mild, the Wii may never surrender its chokehold on the popular consciousness.


But if the economy goes into a severe contraction, it will be interesting to see whether the casual gamers who made the Wii a hit suddenly find themselves more concerned with their mortgages than their Wiis.


___


Microsoft again shot down rumors last week that it is secretly developing an Xbox 360 model with a built-in Blu-ray drive. While Microsoft rumors are almost invariably true, I do think this is one case where we can believe the denial.


A Blu-ray-equipped Xbox 360 makes no sense. Assuming Microsoft could get the machine on the market by Christmas, that would be roughly halfway through the 360’s entire lifecycle.


The console launched in 2005, and I expect the Xbox 720 (or whatever) will be coming in 2010 at the latest. With the successor system (which will surely have Blu-ray built in from the get-go) only a few years away, why bother shoehorning Blu-ray into the current 360?


The console would suddenly be nearly as expensive as a PS3, but the Blu-ray drive would only be usable for movies, not games, because Microsoft wouldn’t want new Blu-ray games to be incompatible with the DVD-based 360s already sold.


Of course, now that I’ve confidently strutted out onto this limb, Microsoft will no doubt announce the Blu-ray 360 in a week or two.

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