Nintendo's Wii U: Revolution or Dreamcast 2?
At E3 2011 a few weeks ago, Nintendo finally unveiled their successor to the Wii called the Wii U. Interestingly enough, the actual unveil did not show the actual hardware or any live demos of software which was disappointing. All Nintendo showed was a few marketing video to illustrate what the system and it's new tablet controller can do.
What is the Wii U?
Well, for all intent and purposes it is aWii with better HD quality graphics and a new tablet like controller with its own screen. While actual hardware specs have not been confirmed by Nintendo, we do know that it is capable of displaying full 1080P HD graphics (finally), that it is fully backward compatible with standard Wii games and accessories, and that the tablet controller combines traditional buttons with motion controls and the new screen. In a sense, you can think of the system as bring the DS experience into the living room but with more flexibility in how the two displays interact with one another. Definitely watch the video below to get a real sense of what it is and what it is capable of.
Why the Wii U?
In its 4.5 year life span, the original Wii will go down in history as the fastest selling video game system ever. Despite coming out in 2006 with technology from 2001, sub-HD graphics, and a flood of lackluster third party games, one can argue that the Wii revolutionized how we play games with the introduction of the Wii Remote. A simple controller that was easy to grasp by everyone meant huge sales and "Wii parties" all over the world. It made gaming much more social and made people who would have never picked up an Xbox360 or PS3 controller want to pick up a Wii Remote to play games. The result is nearly 90million units sold to date while each the PS3 and Xbox360 are hovering around 50 and 55 million units sold respectively. In addition, some of the best selling titles in this generation of game consoles were sold on the Wii including Wii Sports, Wii Fit, and Mario Kart Wii (each sold over 20 million). So what's the problem?
The problem is that what makes the Wii a great system in the short term also makes it a lackluster system in the long term. The outdated and simple technology meant huge profits and low price but also means that the Wii ran out of steam to power modern games really fast. Developers are not able to develop games across the PS3, Xbox360, and Wii equally due to the technology gap. This means that developers have to invest more resources into making a Wii specific version of a title, a difficult proposition when a modern top-tier game already costs more than 20 million dollars to make. This would be fine if the Wii version sold a lot allowing the developer to recoup much of that investment. Unfortunately that was not the case for many third party titles due to other fundamental flaw of the Wii...it's audience.
The Wii's primary audience was the "non-gamer": mom and dad, grandparents, girlfriends, and families. However, these people traditionally do not play games and thus are not likely to save up and buy new games regularly. The larger problem with the game industry is that a very small portion of games (around 10% or less) make roughly 80% of annual revenue for the industry. These titles by and large cater to the "hardcore gamer". This is the guy who reads the gaming blogs, knows the release schedule, camps out at the store to buy a new system or game, saves his $50-$60 to buy that hot new game the day it comes out, and cares enough to complain on gaming forums regularly. Again, this is the guy that spends the money and keep the gaming industry going as a business. The Wii does not cater to this guy. In fact, most hardcore gamers only played their Wii for a few months when it first came out and then left it to collect dust for 3-4 years. Wii Sports is not the kind of deep engaging experience that a hardcore gamer enjoys. Neither is WiiPlay, Just Dance, or WiiFit. Thus, the hardcore audience largely abandoned the Wii and left many developers yearning for that revenue stream that audience brings.
Why should Nintendo care about this situation? Afterall, they are still selling a ton of hardware right? True, but the problem this siutaiton creates is with Nintendo's most critical customer: the game developers and publishers. As I mentioned earlier, the Wii has a surplus of titles that have just languished on the store shelves. Moreover, multi-platform titles that typically sell a lot on other consoles did not sell well on the Wii. So no revenue means no business. Thus, many developers either ceased creating games or greatly reduced the amount of games they were making for the Wii. Their cries to Nintendo over several years has been clear...they NEED a new platform. One with HD graphics so that they can make ONE game and spread it across all consoles to reduce costs and increase sales. In a sentence, the Wii U is Nintendo's necessary and desperate response to losing a great deal of developer support over the life of the Wii.
So is the Wii U the Right Solution?
It's still too early to tell just what the reaction to the Wii U will be when it is finally released next year but my take from what has been shown thus far is lukewarm at best. On the plus side, the new tablet controller does have some potential for cool and unique gameplay experiences. Using it as a "window" to see part of the game world that is not in view on the big TV screen is interesting. Being able to play full games, browse the web, and video chat on it without the main TV being ON or while being occupied with other content is also a plus. But is it a revolution? A fundamentally different approach to gaming that enhances the overall experience? My answer at this point would be No. In fact, in a lot of ways it is a step backwards. While the Wii did fundamentally change the game (literally), the Wii U reverts back to a controller filled with buttons modelled after the traditional PS3 and Xbox360 controller while adding the new screen, camera, gyroscope, and accelerometer.
Another negative is that the hardware power in the Wii appears to be just good enough to play at the same or slightly higher quality than the PS3/Xbox360, which are now 6 years old. Thus, the Wii U could end up being another Dreamcast, a stop-gap solution before the true next generation of game consoles releases. While the Dreamcast had superior tech to the N64 and PS1 by far and had cool innovations like a built-in Modem and memory cards with a screen (VMUs), the brute power of the PS2 and Xbox was simply too much for it. With the Wii U not coming out until 2012, the next Xbox and PlayStation will not be far behind and will almost certainly be a larger technological leap than the Wii U is offering. Again, technology isn't everything but it is a big deal to those hardcore gamers and developers Nintendo is desperately trying to get back.
So what do you think of Nintendo's future with the Wii U? Rosy or Bleak?