Wednesday, June 15, 2011

More critical look at the Wii U

Nintendo's Wii U: The Nintendo console for the hardcore?

The E3 show has come and gone and the adrenaline rush and heady euphoria has all but worn off. Now it's time to take a more critical and objective look at some of the show's major announcements. First up is the Nintendo Wii U - and again I have to think to myself, people are getting paid to come up with this stuff. It certainly boggles the mind.

On the positive side, Nintendo has finally come up with an HD capable console. However, many are critical (and rightly so) that this is a move Nintendo should have made years ago, but didn't because the Wii gravy train hadn't been completely milked yet. This is a fair assessment since Nintendo is the only one of the big three console makers that actually makes money on the hardware it sells. Both Microsoft and Sony heavily subsidize their hardware, counting on software licensing fees to cover these subsidies and to make money.

Michael Pachter, Wedbush Morgan analyst, has said for years that Nintendo was late to the HD party and has missed a huge opportunity. I would tend to agree. While this is seen by many Nintendo fans as a good move, it isn't enough to satisfy the hardcore crowd which Nintendo is making moves to address with this latest hardware. Nintendo has claimed that this console is superior in performance to both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 platforms, but nothing shown by Nintendo to date has been able make a solid impression in that regard.

The end result is a general consensus that Nintendo is several years late to the party and is just now reaching parity status with Microsoft and Sony. Both Microsoft and Sony are expected to release new hardware in the next 2 years. These platforms will undoubtedly set the performance bar even higher, and will make the Wii U look dated just as it is starting to hit its stride. Next generation hardware from Microsoft and Sony will prove problematic for third parties that will also need to support the Wii U, the reasons which we will get into a little later.

For it's part, Nintendo is hoping the new Wii U controller with integrated 6.2" touchscreen display will make enough of a difference to convince the hardcore crowd. I question if this is really enough. Nintendo demonstrated enchanced functionality and interoperability at E3 between the Wii U, the new controller as well as with the Wii-Motes from last generation's Wii. The game demos on display using the new controlers were said to be fun and engaging. Nintendo is obviously bringing their dual screen DS gameplay paradigm over to the bigscreen. While the new controller brings lots of added potential to change gameplay in new and exciting ways, the amount of support by the third party developers may be questionable. Again, more on this later.

The move to a 25GB "Blu-ray like" optical storage medium is a welcome sign. It addresses storage issues for modern HD games. However, all the Wii U specs that have so far come out on the web have not mentioned the inclusion of an internal harddisk. Loading huge textures and art assets from optical discs is slow. Sony's PS3 games have data duplicated throughout the game disc to reduce load times. Microsoft uses DVD drives which have much higher read speeds than current Blu-ray drives, even then an option is available to load the game directly to the built-in harddisk on a 360.

This tacit omission doesn't mean that the Wii U won't support harddisk storage, after all the Wii U features built-in USB ports like its predecessor. What it does mean is that Nintendo expects the customer to pony up for it. All current generation HD consoles include harddisks, and for good reason. This is a major failure on Nintendo's part as the decision points to them not thinking too far beyond their own bottom line; and certainly makes their claims that this console is superior to both the 360 and PS3 somewhat dubious.

The Wii U is obviously using Blu-ray optics, but like the Wii, it won't allow you to play standard movie discs. Nintendo's continual omission in this regard leaves me dumbfounded. Most consumers already have a huge library of DVDs and a growing library of Blu-ray discs, and they will want to watch these on their consoles. I specifically bought my PS3 because in addition to being a game console, it also plays back my movie discs. Nintendo's President, Mr. Iwata, recently stated that consumers already had many playback devices in their homes so he didn't see the point of paying additional licensing fees to enable this feature on the Wii U.

I think Iwata missed the point entirely. Most consumers are trying to simplify their lives, not make things more complex. I would rather have one machine as my central media hub, as opposed to having multiple pieces of fixed function electronics cluttering up my entertainment center. The wording in Mr. Iwata's statement again leaves the impression that these decisions are driven more by profit motive than actually caring about what consumers want. Nintendo continues to ignore this convergence at its own peril. In its current state, the Wii U won't be replacing Xbox 360s and/or PS3s as the central media hub in the livingroom.

On the software side, the Wii U looks very similar to what developers are already accustomed to with the Xbox 360 and the PS3. In fact, the Wii U probably looks more like the Xbox 360 as it is using a Watson 7 derived, PowerPC-esque CPU from IBM and a graphics chip from AMD (ATI). This makes porting current hardcore HD titles to the new Wii U a relatively simple affair. But this ease of porting may not necessarily be a good thing, and certainly may not play to the strengths of the platform.

Wii U Touchscreen Controller: But would you want to play an FPS using this?

Keep in mind that what makes the Wii U different from the current Xbox 360 and PS3 is the new touchscreen controller. This controller offers new ways to interact with games, but a straight port of current 360 and PS3 titles won't be able to take advantage of these new interactive possibilities. To take advantage of the new controller and put it to best use would require building in those capabilities from the start, not just tacking them on at the end of a development cycle while doing a port. What Nintendo needs are developers with DS style experience.

Unfortunately, the hardcore publishers and development houses that Nintendo are targeting to support the Wii U have probably never developed anything on the DS. This could translate into a fairly long learning curve for these developers. It is a given that a small initial Wii U install base guarantees that software for the 360 and PS3 is ported to the Wii U, instead of Wii U titles being feature cut and ported back. And since this is a money making proposition, you would have to question how much development time and effort would be expended to add truly unique and compelling features for Wii U to a current generation multiplatform release.

I applaud Nintendo for continuing to push the limits on how we interact with our entertainment experiences. Unfortunately, the only way for us to get truly incredible, built for Wii U gaming experiences would be for games to be designed specifically for the Wii U and then ported back to the 360 and PS3. I rate the likelihood of this happening in the early life of the Wii U as slim at best. It is likely for reasons of experience and probably also cost, most third parties won't be able to make effective use of the new Wii U touchscreen controller. All we need to do is look at the history of third party development on the Wii to get a clue of where all this might be headed.

If we take this argument to a logical conclusion, we'd have to wonder why any hardcore gamer would buy the Wii U if they can get nearly the same experience already on the Xbox 360 or the PS3? Despite the inclusion of two analog nubs, the size of the Wii U controller could make extended use uncomfortable, especially if there isn't a compelling enough gameplay mechanic to use this controller in the first place. In this case, the Wii U controller becomes nothing more than a clunky novelty.

Nintendo's troubles on the software side don't end there. History has shown that the only companies that really made any money on the Wii were Nintendo's first party developers. Most third party developers derived little benefit from the enormous Wii install base. We could argue over the reasons the third parties fared so poorly, but the end result was alienation and diminishing third party support. While Nintendo's stable of first party developers continued to release mostly excellent content, these releases were few and far between. Most Wiis, mine included, spent more time gathering dust than being played. This general lack of content, which has dogged Nintendo for the past 2 years or more, had finally taken it's toll with demand for the Wii drying up rather precipitously - sales of the Wii console have continuously fallen for the past two quarters.

Which is why I find the timing for the recent Wii U leaks in the run up to E3 too coincidental and view Nintendo's motives in a fairly cynical light. The maturity of the hardware shown at E3 and recently rumored release in summer 2012 could only mean that Nintendo had been sitting on this console for a while. I fully believe Nintendo was waiting for the cash cow that was the Wii to finally die before announcing the Wii U. Nintendo's profit motive seems to be the key driver for their hardware releases, which is a shame. Strategically, they would have benefitted more in the long run had the Wii U come out earlier. This, I believe, will come back to bite Nintendo in the ass.

Certainly within 2 years of the Wii U's release, the market fully expects new consoles from Microsoft and Sony. Sony sort of let on that a new console would be out in 2014. I expect Microsoft may have something as early as Christmas 2013, again to beat Sony to the market by a year or more for the next, next-gen. This strategy worked well for Microsoft in the current cycle against Sony, and coming out sooner rather than later would also cut the legs out from under the Wii U. Next generation hardware and graphics capabilities would far surpass the capabilities of the Wii U, and at this point, developers will be left wondering if they want to continue to port over to the Wii U with the decision point probably being the size of the install base.

These trends don't bode well for unique content on the Wii U. Again, the history of the Wii is littered with failed third party titles. Whatever the cause, it stands to reason that if third parties continue to have a bad experience on the new Wii U console, Nintendo will eventually be left again being the sole software provider for their new platform. We will end up getting some stellar first party titles, along with a whole gamut of ports from Nintendo's past library. But this won't make the "U" part of the market very happy and certainly wouldn't incentivize them to buy into what Nintendo is peddling. So who is the Wii U really catering to anyway?

The answer to that question might surprise you. Despite Nintendo's messaging and most pundits predicting that the Wii U is aimed squarely at the hardcore, I have come to an entirely different conclusion. Given the problems Nintendo is likely to face both on the hardware and software front, I find it highly unlikely that the hardcore gaming segment will be moved to buy the Wii U en masse. The addition of an expensive touchscreen controller that may not offer much more in terms of interactivity on hardcore titles would keep most hardcore gamers away. Everyone pretty much assumes that by 2014 latest, the new next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony will be out and that will set the new performance bar for the hardcore.

The only conclusion that I can really draw from this is also a fairly cynical one. Nintendo, despite saying otherwise, is really selling the Wii U to their current Wii customer base. Like Apple's iPhone, Nintendo wants to upgrade their casual gaming customers to a DS like experience on the bigscreen. The "hardcore" aspect of the Wii U just gives Nintendo more talking points. Nintendo isn't stupid, and given the installed Wii user base, Nintendo could make oodles of money just replacing all the Wiis currently out there without worrying at all about converting any of the Microsoft or Sony fanbase. As a business gambit, this is really downright brilliant; but for the hardcore gamer, sorry, the Wii U really doesn't seem to be for the rest of us.

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