Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why I am cautiously optimistic about the Wii U

So now we know all about the Wii U. Nintendo announced the price, launch date and other details. And, last Friday, I had my third and longest hands-on session with the console yet. Here is a little video clip I produced at the event (in German), if you are interested. And here is a German podcast about the Wii U which had invited me. At first, I was fairly skeptical about the Wii U. After last week’s event, though, I feel a little more confident with a few reservations remaining. Here’s why.

Gameplay > graphics, a winning formula?

When I played the console first at a post-E3 event in Cologne, the graphics were clearly underwhelming and, to a large extent, they still are. I can promise that you will not see a game that will immediately convince you that this is a step up from the current generation, graphically. While the next Xbox and the next PlayStation may have a similar problem, this is a real concern for Nintendo. Obviously, titles coming out after the launch window will look better. But a title like ´Super Mario Bros.´ with its simplistic design style is hardly the best vehicle to show off HD graphics. And Nintendo made the big mistake of developing all first party titles for the launch window in 720p resolution only, for whatever reason.

Some third party games, like ´Skylanders: Giants´, do not look much better than their Wii predecessors. And others, like ´ZombiU´, are a mix of great graphics (when the player is using the tablet like a torch) to some plain awful textures that would have been an insult on the Gamecube (take a closer look at a piano inside a big lobby when you play the game).

Of course, some games look great. My absolute favourite is ´Rayman Legends´, which is a stunner with wonderfully layered two-dimensional backgrounds scrolling fast at a rock-solid framerate, dozens and dozens of enemies on-screen and beautifully rendered particle effects. But, in general, the first wave of games will not wow anyone. Nintendo has clearly invested as little in the graphics hardware as possible to keep the price down without having to subsidise. But, Nintendo would have you believe once again, graphics are not everything.

What is only the more convincing, is the idea of asymmetrical gameplay. There are plenty of mini-games in NintendoLand, where one player has a bird’s eye view of a map and is on the run, with other players having only a third person’s view chasing him. Asymmetrical gameplay can just as well relate to mature games. ´ZombiU´ also makes innovative use of this feature, where one player becomes the Zombiemaster and can spawn various types of zombies on a map and another is the survivor who has to defeat them and capture the flag. This aspect of the Wii U is clearly the strongest argument to buy one and I expect Nintendo to market the console accordingly.

The idea of one privileged player within a group is reminiscent of a number of board and family games as well as pen and paper roleplaying games and the Wii U might enable those ideas to finally be incorporated into console gaming. This strength only relates to local multiplayer, of course. But it was local multiplayer that became the Wii’s killer app. The bottom line is that Nintendo is clearly making the point with the Wii U that gameplay outweighs graphics power.

Pricing and SKU strategy

Discussions about gameplay and graphics aside, I consider pricing the most important issue. A great console with great games can easily be priced out of the market and become a flop. Vice versa, a mediocre console can sell well at a budget price. Remember that the original GameBoy won against two far superior competitors, the Atari Lynx and the Sega GameGear, only on account of being cheaper and having a longer battery life. At any rate, the Wii U is fairly competitive in terms of its price tag. In 2006, the Wii launched at €250 / $250. The Wii U adds 50 bucks to that for the basic model and twice that for the premium bundle. It is more than I would have hoped for and a cheaper price tag would have practically guaranteed success, but neither the next PlayStation nor the next Xbox will be able to match that, for sure.

What I consider a huge mistake, though, is the strategy of selling two different models, so-called Stock Keeping Units or SKUs. Nintendo has never before opted for such a strategy and even frowned upon Microsoft and Sony for doing so, if I remember correctly, calling such a move confusing to consumers. The PlayStation3 launched with two SKUs in each territory which added up to at least five distinct models being available worldwide at the same time. From launching in 2006 up until now, Sony apparently released six different SKUs in North America alone.

In the case of the Xbox360, the original Core bundle was only ever meant to establish a low starting price for marketing purposes. It made no sense to buy it, since it came with no hard drive and no memory card, the latter cost at least $35, reducing the price gap to the premium bundle by more than a third. The basic Wii U bundle makes a little more sense, but only a little. No game is included which is a cost of around $70 / €70, which already exceeds the price difference between the basic and premium bundles. So, here too, Nintendo simply wanted to tout the Wii starting at 299, even though the vast majority will be opting for the premium bundle. Consumers which are less tech-savvy may even be confused. They cannot simply buy THE Wii U, but will have to choose which one they want. This, I am sure, is a question that can only put some of these people off.

Excuse me, which gen is this?

The media reception has been pretty good, though. With the Wii U, Nintendo received some fairly positive reception in the mainstream press. And it is clear that Nintendo insisted on the Wii U being the first next-gen console, since this crops up in many articles. Of course, some critics have already denied the Wii U the next-gen status. But it all boils down to definition. Remember that both Will Wright and American McGee called the Wii the only next-gen system for its innovation.

I personally define the generations the only way that makes sense, by mere count. Completely irrespective of what the console has to offer, this will be Nintendo’s sixth home console and it ushers in the eighth console generation. They could choose to bring no more than a calculator to maket. If they call it a home console, it is a successor to the current model and constitutes the next generation. It really is as simple as that. Who would have considered calling the PlayStation2 last-gen because it lacked the power of GameCube and Xbox?

Late to the party: competition not before 2014

And as far as competition within this new generation is concerned, Nintendo will not have any before late 2014. I am sure that Microsoft or Sony both cannot bring a console to market in 2013. Nor do they want to. They have lost billions with their current consoles. They will not want to burn any more money, before the current consoles have even started to earn them any profit, for a change. So the timing might play out well for Nintendo. The Wii U might not get any new competitors for two years, giving them a solid headstart. Being first worked for Microsoft this generation, at least for a few years. It might work for Nintendo now. In terms of pre-orders, the console was sold out in the US at Toys R Us, Best Buy and Target, only days after becoming available, according to Joystiq.

These figures are a pretty good sign, albeit an early one. The only downside to this strategy is that when the competitors do come out, they can be expected to be far more powerful, creating a similar situation as in this generation. The Wii U will not get any cross-platform titles, because it will not have the power to compete with the new PlayStation and new Xbox. It will have to get exclusives or nothing. By then, Nintendo hopes, the Wii U will already be a huge success, though.

Software: great third party support and Nintendo on a buying spree

The Wii U will have 23 launch titles in North America, which is a decent amount. And the third party support for Wii U is phenomenal in Nintendo terms. With ´ZombiU´, ´Rayman Legends´, ´Bayonetta 2´ and the new ´Monster Hunter´, there are some pretty nifty second and third party exclusives. But the Wii U gets also multi-platform titles like ´Darksiders 2´, ´Assassin’s Creed 3´, ´Call of Duty: Black Ops 2´ and ´Mass Effect 3´ at launch or within a launch window. However, I foresee a possible problem related to that. With the Wii, precisely those games never made it, for lack of hardware power. And that may have been an asset rather than a liability. Now that any PS3 and 360 game can be ported over, will the Wii U get enough third party exclusives? The Wii didn’t get ´Resident Evil 5´, but it got two exclusive rail-shooters in the series that were both great fun and made fill use of the unique hardware. Will the Wii U realy flourish as a console that will also have the next Resident Evil, like the other consoles, but will most likely go without an exclusive installment in the franchise? I have my doubts. With such original hardware, the Wii U relies on exclusives making good use of it. If there are not enough of these titles, there simply is no reason to buy a Wii U over a PS3 or 360. ´ZombiU´ is an extremely clever idea, because it incorporates the tablet screen distracting from the television into its gameplay and thus vindicates this hardware setup. But with cross-platform games, the tablet functionality may only have been hastily tacked on and offer a real distraction from the main screen. Then, the tablet would turn back from an asset into a liability.

While that is a valid concern for third party relations, Forbes is noting that Nintendo has changed its strategy and is widening its portfolio of first and second party studios. After recent acquisitions, both the ´Xenosaga´ and ´Fatal Frame´ franchises (the latter also being known as ´Project Zero´) now belong to Nintendo. Also, the ´Dragon Quest´ series is now, apparently, exclusive to Nintendo consoles.

Although the exclusivity deal on ´Bayonetta 2´ caused quite a negative backlash, people may hopefully realise that Nintendo saved the game from being cancelled and in doing so probably saved the developer Platinum Games in the process. The game will not become a huge seller for Nintendo, but they still chose to step in and save what undoubtedly is a hardcore game. This sends a clear signal to the industry and to gamers where this company is heading.

On top of that, Ubisoft, Capcom and Namco Bandai are “gravitating towards Nintendo”, the Forbes article notes and mentions the rumours of Nintendo wanting to buy back Rare in order to gain access to the ´Banjo Kazooie´ franchise. And let us not forget that Nintendo still owns the two best-selling videogame series of all time. So, software-wise, Nintendo is certainly doing well.

Don’t call it a gaming console: Meet Nintendo’s multimedia home entertainment system

Funnily enough, the Wii U seems to have the potential to become a better multimedia hub than Xbox360 and PS3. While Nintendo has always remained focused on their consoles being gaming devices first and foremost, the Wii U could beat Sony’s Microsoft’s efforts in multimedia functionality hands-down. The main reason is the TVii service, announced for North America. With it, users can compile all the different television content sources they have access to, ranging from their cable provider to services like Hulu, Netflix or YouTube.

Coupled with the built-in second screen, which is the biggest buzzword in television right now and a market still almost completely untapped, this may become the hottest feature of the console. If this feature will be available in other territories including similar deals with local content providers, the Wii U will definitely be a success. This is the killer app your television and computer have been waiting for. And while the content deals may not be exclusive, the competition will not be able to offer a similar service until 2014, if I am right.

Final thoughts

The media reception has been largely positive, both in the general and special interest magazines. And the week after the launch announcements, Nintendo shares rose five percent in one day. Within days, online preorders for both models were sold out with most retailers in the US. But all this is no guarantee of success. The biggest problems Nintendo might face is that of communicating the Wii U’s appeal. With the Wii, it was simple: Here is the controller. It looks like a television remote, so it is familiar. Here is Wii Sports and here is tennis. You know what to do. The Wii U, with its emphasis on asymmetric gameplay, is far more complicated and, as such, the gameplay experience nowhere near as self-explanatory. So, more than ever, good marketing will be the key to making the Wii U a success. Here, Nintendo needs to invest some, before they can earn some.

There are many aspects about the Wii U that make me quite optimistic. There are some that are highly questionable. But, all in all, I will say that I am cautiously optimistic about the console’s ability to become a hit and win the race for market domination once again. I am very interested in what you think, though, so please share your thoughts in the comments.