Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Nintendo WiiU: What's It All About?

Ever since it was formally unveiled at E3 this past June, there has been much debate and discussion regarding Nintendo’s upcoming successor to the Wii: The confusing and confusingly-named WiiU. With its bizarre tablet controller and near-PlayStation 3 level specs, gamers and industry followers alike have been scratching their collective heads trying to figure out exactly what Nintendo’s strategy is, if there is one, and what this new console is actually for. Nintendo are rarely ones to leap into a major launch without a game plan and are certainly ones to buck convention, so in many ways this is a logical move by them, and yet, for many this isn’t quite enough to justify the WiiU’s existence

I’ll freely admit, even as a Nintendo fan from the very beginning and someone who staunchly defended the Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameCube and Wii, even I was baffled by the reveal. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the purpose was meant to be, why Nintendo was releasing another underpowered machine after how the Wii turned out in the minds of many and what on Earth the point of that ridiculous tablet was. In the months since, however, I may just have done an about face on the WiiU and now think it may just be one of the most brilliant moves Nintendo have yet done. I think I at long last “get” the WiiU and what its purpose is, and it’s all due to three seemingly unrelated bits of industry news. Let me explain:

One person who isn’t at all uncertain about the WiiU’s future prospects may also be one of the most surprising: John Carmack, the legendary co-founder of id Software and one of the many talented folks behind groundbreaking games like Wolfenstein 3DDoom, Quake and the upcoming Rage, has enthusiastically and completely thrown his support behind Nintendo’s new project. In an interview with IndustryGamers from earlier this month, Carmack made the claim that the WiiU is a “slam dunk” for id Software titles and Tech 5 games. He seemed particularly impressed by the controversial new tablet controller, stating:
"I think there may be more good uses of that [Wii U tablet] than [there are for] the current generation with Kinect and Move... there’s clearly a subset of games for which things like that are appropriate for,"…"We’ve been going on with how can we use those types of motion things with Rage and it’s hard to take a game that’s fundamentally designed around a controller and get value out of doing some of those other things, while adding extra touch interfaces there, that seems like something that almost every game could make some use of without it being just like, 'Oh, we have to do something like this.' Because if you remember, when the DS came out, there was a lot of talk about how, ‘Isn’t this going to be just a gimmick?’ But really it did turn out to be quite a good interface to build on."

Carmack’s comments came the same week as some other buzz he generated regarding mobile gaming and cloud computing. Carmack believes that not only is it “unquestionable” that mobile technology, like Apple’s iOS-capable devices and its legions of competitors, will continue to increase at an exponential rate, but will soon eclipse what is currently possible on home consoles. At the same time, however, interest in Triple-A titles on consoles like the XBOX 360 and PlayStation 3 has not decreased, but rather increased, stressing that the two markets are growing in parallel. Most interestingly, he sees the future of these developing technologies as arriving at a very unique place indeed:
“Could the bottom drop out on the triple A market because everyone’s playing Angry Birds? It doesn’t seem to be happening. The numbers don’t show that. We’re selling more big titles than ever before, despite having all of these other platforms out there. So it looks like it’s parallel growth rather than one stealing from the other. But platform wise, you could certainly imagine a future where, instead of having your console, you have your mobile device and it talks to your TV and when you want the experience on your big screen with the surround sound coming out of there, it’s still on the same device."

That last comment is particularly important to my overall theory, and I’ll return to it a little later on.

The third piece of what might seem like totally isolated news pieces that got me thinking is the minor upset caused when it was announced earlier this month that Nintendo would be releasing Pokémon-themed app for Japanese iOS and Android devices. This bombshell announcement caused quite a bit of a stir, with some claiming that this is the first sign Nintendo might be eyeing to get out of the console business, much as SEGA did a decade prior. Nintendo quickly issued a follow-up, assuring fans and investors this was not the case. Rather, the app came about because The Pokémon Company is technically a separate entity from Nintendo which only holds partial control over the franchise and can’t actually prevent TPC from releasing a game if there’s enough internal support for it. Despite Nintendo’s assurances, though, I can’t help thinking there might be an even greater plan at work, and it was John Carmack that got me thinking.

If Carmack is right, then what we think of as a video game console at a fundamental level is soon going to change and change dramatically. In the not-too-distant future, there will come a day when consoles will basically be interface ports from mobile devices to the television. What does this have to do with the WiiU and The Pokémon Company’s interesting, though perhaps questionable, choice of platform? Well, for one, look at that controller. What’s the one, universal reaction everyone in attendance at Nintendo’s E3 Press Conference had to it? What is the WiiU controller, essentially? That’s right: An iPad with control sticks and buttons. As soon as I remembered that, suddenly John Carmack’s cryptic comments and the bizarre move by The Pokémon Company made total sense: What the WiiU is, and the reason it exists is quite simply to provide the first steps into that mobile-centric future Carmack imagined. That’s also why TPC is making overtures to support Android and iOS: neither they nor their parent company are at all thinking about dropping out of the hardware business: Rather, they’re keeping a close eye on the booming mobile market because they are envisioning a day when those machines will be the dominant gaming platforms and will link directly with Nintendo’s home consoles. The WiiU and its tablet controller then are by no means mere me-too gimmickry on the part of Nintendo; instead, they are an essential gateway into a new era in the industry that increasingly seems not only possible, but probable and unavoidable.

In the time since I originally started drafting this piece, quite a number of other sources have added their voices to Carmack’s in their support of the WiiU: Reps from EA, Activision-Blizzard, Ubisoft and Insomniac have all come out to heap massive praise on Nintendo’s new console. While the bottom line stresses the more developer-friendly appeal of the system, there does seem to be an underlying interest amongst all these developers that this controller is something special. We’ll all have to wait and see how it turns out and I’m certain there are many gamers still unconvinced, but, at the moment and at least to me, there’s a strong possibility that the WiiU could in fact become, in the words of Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, a “…huge improvement over what can be done in the console business today”.

Sources: IndustryGamers, Gamasutra, GamesRadar