I sat in a blue room on Monday, surrounded by what some more hardcore gamers might call artefacts of absurdity.
On walls around me hung a Wii bowling ball controller attachment, a Wii pool cue, Wii pom poms and more.
Who makes this stuff? Two amiable Orthodox Jewish brothers — black pants, white shirts, beards and an offer to their guest of some kosher pastries — sat across from me, cheerful about what they've built and the amazing gizmos surrounding us.
I was at the second floor offices of CTA Digital, a block from where Brooklyn, New York touches the East River, in a short, aged office building. I was in the spotless show room where Leo and Sol Markowitz's line of sometimes-ridiculous, sometimes-useful — and apparently hot-selling — attachments for the Wii and other electronics line the walls. (See their offerings online, then imagine a lot of that hanging on the walls of one room that's also big enough for a couple of couches and a big-screen TV.)
The brothers Markowitz are some of the guys who saw in the Wii not just a gamer revolution but a chance to make money selling people things to attach to their Wii remote.
They've sold 200,000 units of their Wii bowling ball controller worldwide. They say they were pleased to be surrounded by the plastic products of that opportunity.
"We smelled it right away," Leo told me, recalling his first sensations of the Wii's imminent success.
The Wii peripheral market is big and, despite other industry slumps, growing. Of the 58.4 million gaming peripherals sold so far this year in the United States, the NPD group reports that 18.4 million of those are for the Wii. That's up a million from the same date last year.
So even though Sol, an avowed Kotaku reader, playfully cut his brother off early in our meeting about Wii add-ons to remind him that "real gamers don't like the Wii", enough people do like these attachments. They like the tennis rackets and the baseball bats, the imitation light sabres and shotguns. Maybe not the pom-poms — a weak seller — but people like buying Wii peripherals and business is no joke at all. It's good.
CTA has more than 30 employees, a warehouse in upstate New York and design and development teams in Asia. Maybe most importantly, Leo noted, "We have five people who think of things to make 24-7."
They think of things like... the bowling ball. "Why wouldn't you buy it?" Leo said to me, when I ask him what the point is. I argued that people had been Wii-bowling with no ball-shaped shell around their controller just fine.
It makes the game fun for plenty of people, Sol said. "It makes it more exciting." He knows that "real gamers" won't care as much.
This bowling ball was a dream project, a year in the making and spurred by research that showed them that Wii Sports bowling is the most popular activity on Nintendo's console.
"We all knew that whoever comes out with bowling, it's going to be huge," Leo recalled.
Those CTA engineers got to work, trying to craft a bowling ball something-or-other that could fit around a Wii Remote. They didn't want people to chuck a bowling ball controller through their TV, so they tried to design a bowling ball shell that wouldn't function if you didn't wear the shell's wrist strap. Couldn't get it to work right, Sol said. They settled on a design that has two wrist straps and is sealed with a sticker that must be broken in order to first encase a Wii remote in it. You rip that, you assume the risks.
The bowling ball's good, though it's holes are positioned only for right-handed bowlers. An ambidextrous design hadn't worked. But have no fear, fellow southpaws. "We probably will get into the left-handed business," Leo told me.
I met with the Markowitz men and a helpful colleague for over an hour. Leo repeatedly bounded from his seat on a couch across from me to grab secret prototype after secret prototype of CTA gaming add-ons that will make the bowling ball seem pedestrian. They're secret still, but they're wild.
CTA's been in this business for 16 years, Sol explained. They started with mobile phone add-ons, then moved on to iPod attachments. Now they do gaming add-ons too, like PlayStation 3 chat pads, Xbox 360 cooling devices and iPhone steering wheels. The Wii's been the big one for them lately, and gaming's up to a quarter of their business, though they won't say how much money CTA makes. They sell their attachments worldwide to electronics stores that once ignored them or shunned gaming.
They say that even Bed Bath & Beyond is on board now. The brothers recalled that the retailer — not exactly a gaming powerhouse — consented last Christmas season to trying to sell 30,000 of CTA's Wii add-ons, simple things like controller charge stations, and sold almost all of them. The retailer asked for more — asked for the top sellers, even. So, the brothers told Kotaku, CTA has sold Beth Bath & Beyond Wii Sports kits to sell and even a Wii controller shotgun. No word if it's sold next to shower curtains.
Leo showed me a smart one: A belt and holster designed to hold a Wii Remote for users of Wii Fit. He rightly pointed out that the game requires players to use the Remote to start their exercising but then forces them to either put it down or needlessly hold it as they work out on the Wii Balance Board. The holster holds the Remote, freeing the user's hands. And it swivels, letting someone point the Remote to navigate menus without having to un-holster it. That seemed to address a Wii Fit user-interface issue.
I asked the brothers if they saw themselves as being in the problem-solving business, the fun business or — gesturing to the Wii Music Kit that lets you embed the Wii remote into shells shaped like a violin, a trumpet, a dog paw — the novelty business.
"We see what the problem is [with a game]and figure out what we can make for it," Leo began.
"We are in the fun business," Sol cut in.
Leo laughed. "We're in the business to sell and make money."
CTA's bowling ball controller may make the company stand out, but they are not the only creators of imaginative Wii add-ons. Mad Catz makes controller shells shaped like Ubisoft's Rabbids characters. Nyko director of marketing Chris Arbogast told Kotaku that one of his company's most creative Wii add-ons was going to be their Party Station: "a combination charging station/beverage container/chip bowl". It's not coming out. "Although it generated a lot of buzz and consumer response, it was not cost effective to produce and was tabled."
Arbogast noted that some of the more imaginative controllers, while fun or aesthetically pleasing, don't fit his company's strategy. "We decided on particular accessories that allowed us to incorporate new technology or offer features that were not previously available, like button relocation on our Action Pak pistol grip or rumble in our Kama." Their next big product is their new Charge Base IC.
CTA is well aware that some of this wilder stuff doesn't work. The Wii Music kit has been a slow seller, not helped by relatively slow sales of Wii Music.
The brothers seem undeterred. They say that their new Wii Sports Resort kit, which includes a bow-and-arrow add-on, a Jet-Ski-style handlebar and even a Frisbee shell, is selling great.
And don't worry, those of you who might feel you're too cool for these kinds of attachments. Leo and Sol are making some products for you in mind too. Just wait. Brooklyn's keeping busy.