Nintendo surprised us with a pre-release of detailed information about the concept of the Wii U, which answers the question how a tablet for the living room TV can be unique, but left others about player types still unanswered. The big news may be that Nintendo is branching out and is going much more after the enthusiast gamer again. This is no Wii 1.5. The Wii U is a legitimate successor for the Wii.
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has captured the initial interest of E3 with a presentation that was low on effects and high on content. A 30 minute video posted on YouTube lays the foundation for the company’s E3 keynote and may not have been just a marketing move to steal the thunder from the competition, but simply to educate enthusiasts on the Wii U, its controller and the MiiVerse social fabric that will tie the Nintendo Network together. The keynote, scheduled for Tuesday, will likely focus on content in a traditional Nintendo fashion. While the company was criticized for not delivering more hardware news especially in 2009 and 2010, a content-heavy keynote will be very appropriate this year.
There was not much demonstration of the Wii U in the video, but it is one of the best explanations of a new product we have witnessed in some time and worth the time to watch. Even at 30 minutes, it is packed with detail that describes a very complicated concept and product that carries the task of creating something unique for gamers that is immediately familiar at the same time. It will have to compete with the high-end and precise motion concept of the Playstation Move, as well as Microsoft’s Kinect, which owns the mindshare of controllers today. The success will be determined by its differentiating approach, the transparency of the concept and the content that can take advantage of it.
Wii U: The basics
Compared to the initial prototype, the production version tablet controller has a slightly larger footprint with a centered 6-inch touch screen. The main changes include two controller joysticks instead of knobs, NFC buttons, as well as a few added buttons that allow the tablet to function as a TV remote. Not immediately visible, but very apparent in some video sequences is the fact that this is not your average tablet. It has a very different purpose than an iPad. Nintendo compromised on the form factor, making it thicker than a regular tablet and, most likely, heavier.
On the hardware side, there were no details, but the device will take advantage of a graphics update of the entire Wii U system, turning the Wii U into Nintendo first HQ graphics, and likely HD graphics, gaming system. Since the tablet can stream content from the TV in real time and can display high quality graphics on its screen, the device is likely to carry current multi-core processor technology, which impacts pricing and battery power of the Wii U.
The concept of a second screen
Given today’s gaming scenario, it will be difficult for Nintendo to convey the idea why a game system needs a second screen and how this idea could be “cool”. A key problem for using the tablet as a game controller is its size and weight. The tablet will be a challenge to be used comfortably even for small adult hands, and will be impossible to be used by kids. Fatigue caused by its weight will prevent it to be used in longer gaming sessions. However, it could be an interesting addition when a second screen could aid the game to become more interesting. Imagine a golf game, where the environment is shown on the TV and the tablet is on the living room floor showing the golf ball in front of you. There is a neat example in the video that exemplifies this idea. It will be up to game designers to leverage this idea and make the Wii U a compelling product. We are not so convinced yet that it is a great new game controller by itself, simply because of its limited usability.
Of course, it is not just a game controller. It can receive streaming content from the TV (reception is apparently only available in the same room) it is a TV remote control, an NFC reader/writer, a chat device as well as a web browsing device.
Secondary usage: A social device
Perhaps more important than the basic game controller and second TV screen is the tablet’s feature set that does not directly impact gaming, but aids the gaming experience. Nintendo will be introducing its own social network, called MiiVerse. The network, which builds on top of the existing Mii implementation, will connect players via their Miis.
The first level of connection are players on a certain Wii U system, the second are the Miis of friends and the third are Miis of players playing the same game. Nintendo views this as an extension of the idea to create a social experience, which has been created locally with the Wii, and is now leaving the home. Of course, this will not be just a communication system. It will also be a marketing system that Nintendo will use to pitch new games. The MiiVerse will also show popular Wii U games, even those that are not owned by the local player. We would expect a direct-purchase option via DLC to be available at launch.
The MiiVerse will be on other devices as well, including the 3DS, as well as PC and popular mobile device platforms, such as Android. While the idea is reminiscent of the failed Apple Ping network, and there may be reasons to question the thought why Nintendo would not just leverage larger social networks, the MiiVerse is a substantial effort that will be widely available and, if executed well, could be attractive to Wii U gamers around the world.
Wii U Pro: Courting the Enthusiast Gamer
An enthusiast game controller has long been overdue for the Wii. The Wii U will offer a Pro controller that very much looks like the current Xbox 360 game controller. In part, this seems to be a concession to current motion technologies that may not be suited to deliver a high-end gamer experience, but it is a critical element for Nintendo to appeal to mindshare-creating enthusiast gamers who drive third-party game sales. The company needs those gamers to be able to win flag ship game exclusives, which should now be much more possible, particularly if the Wii U can deliver on the graphics front.
As much as Nintendo has lost traction in the console race in the past two years, the Wii U is now in the position to win over gamers again.