How Nintendo Hopes to Postpone the Death of the Console Generation

Nintendo is placing high bets with the Wii U’s GamePad, but will it win over enough third-party developers and old-school gamers?

Upstart_ZombiU player from on Flickr

Ubisoft’s ZombiU has set important precedents for Wii U third-party developers. Courtesy via Flickr. From Frankfurter Buchmesse 2012.

Many experts have predicted the demise of the gaming console due to the availability of alternatives. Above all, the tablet PC and the smartphone—both touchscreen.

Nintendo seems intent on postponing those predictions with its touch-enabled GamePad Wii U controller in two ways.

First, it is positioning itself ahead of this emergent technology’s curve. While the benefits of tablet and smartphone games are cost and accessibility, the downside echoes the same criticism lobbed against the Wii’s motion controls: Touch controls are clunky, imprecise, and unreliable. But incorporating touch with a true game controller in the Wii U, Nintendo hopes, will attract both the casual gamer drawn to the accessibility of Angry Birds and the serious gamer who needs timing and reliable controls to jump a mustachioed plumber onto a moving platform above erupting fireballs and a sea of lava.

Second, and most ambitiously, Nintendo complicates arguments over the demise of the console by making the touchscreen not only a video game controller but a cornerstone of the family entertainment experience. The company’s stated goal: to congregate the family in one space and around one device rather than many different ones, refuting the notion that gaming is an isolationist activity—a thesis it has been championing since it first attempted to connect the GameCube and the Game Boy. With the Wii U, however, Nintendo has evolved the concept to encompass gaming and streaming television—and all the magic happens on the GamePad through Nintendo’s TVii (a service that was not available at launch and may not be in the United States until 2013).

TVii fuses live TV, DVR recording, and streaming video services like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. All are managed through the interface using the GamePad controller. With this new service, games can be played on the big screen while TV is watched on the small screen, and vice versa. If this sounds like media overload, that’s because it is. But Nintendo’s not creating media overload; it’s merely trying to facilitate and simplify the existing overload. Rather than send everyone to separate rooms to partake in their medias of choice, Nintendo hopes to localize the consumption and gather the family around the Wii U.

The GamePad Imperative: Woo the Players and the Developers

The Wii, as I’ve mentioned, appealed to an unusually broad demographic spectrum—from grandparents to grandchildren—because motion controls and smiley cartoon heads shifted gaming’s dire tone. Xbox and Sony controllers (which both contain no fewer than a dozen buttons each) created a barrier to casual entry that the Wii eliminated. The Wii remote returned gaming to the basics while adding the twist of motion control. The GamePad needs to seem nearly as innovative and easy to use. While the Wii U’s innovation and technology exceed the Wii’s, appearance often trumps truth.

To facilitate this understanding, Nintendo needs to immediately and heavily market Wii U game titles that make excellent use of the GamePad’s seamless, organic gameplay innovation in order to render the controller essential. But the company can’t do this alone, as it proved with the Wii. Third-party titles are imperative to Wii U’s success; if the GamePad can be used to improve a game experience, third-party developers will return. But Nintendo needs to foster an environment that emboldens creativity rather than shackles developers to clunky, ineffective controls. Developers don’t want their titles to be compromised by controls that cannot execute the demands of their games.

Of the third-party launch releases, Ubisoft’s suvirval horror game, ZombiU, has been the most important, showing great potential for creative use of the touchscreen while also proving that the Wii U can excel in areas beyond casual gaming. Early reviews are mixed, but all are generally unanimous in their agreement that Ubisoft has set an early precedent for GamePad incorporation. Scribblenauts Unlimited, on the other hand, takes a handheld phenomenon and forces the concept onto the console. In-game eye focus remains fixed on the GamePad, sketching out elements on the touchscreen that will appear in the game. On a television screen, however, the game is superfluous, one medium merely reflecting the other.

It’s unclear if the Wii U’s success will depend upon Nintendo’s ability to prove the console’s marketability to third-party developers. However, the brands Nintendo has relied upon so heavily in the past—Super Mario, Mario Kart, Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Animal Crossing, etc.—need to remain the backbone of its marketing pitch. These franchises have a devoted and consistent following, albeit one that has eroded due to a lack of momentum: Some of the brands flourished on the Wii while others languished under the mere addition of motion controls. If Nintendo develops these franchises innovatively rather than resting on weary gameplay with GamePad controls, the Wii U will sell on the strength of the company’s brands alone.

But don’t expect a Wii-like success story.

What’s More: The Technological Obstacles That Remain

Nintendo has consistently been a generation behind the online gaming phenomenon, and the Wii U does little to bridge the gap, although embracing HD is a nice first step, even if it is late to the party.

While Nintendo will finally register unique network IDs (rather than random character sequences that must be exchanged by any two people who want to connect for a game), voice chat remains cumbersome. The port for a headset runs through the GamePad. This means that even if the Pad isn’t being used, gamers must keep it in their laps, or at least nearby, to chat online. Voice chat is also reportedly not offered for every online multiplayer game.

As a testament to Nintendo’s weak online IQ, Electronic Arts has pulled a popular online mode from its FIFA franchise, citing Wii U’s “online infancy.” And while EA’s concern probably has more to do with insecurity about how it’s going to sell customers more digital content through the Wii U’s Nintendo eShop interface, the exclusion is a blow to early Wii U adopters who want full versions of their favorite EA sports games.

The eShop will offer an astounding amount of content—from full retail Wii U games to smaller, indie-published, online-only offerings. And many of its more impressive elements are still, admittedly, in their “online infancy.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Miiverse, a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter dedicated strictly to Wii U games, shows great potential for becoming a legitimate console-gaming innovation. But like many steps forward, this too has come with it’s share of growing pains. The inclusion of Netflix on the system might seem a bit like keeping up with the Joneses, but the ability for one person to watch a Netflix offering on a GamePad while someone plays a game on the TV offers an impressive amount of system flexibility and potential.

Accept It: Wii U Sales Will Disappoint

From a business perspective, the Wii U cannot possibly match its predecessor’s success. The Wii exceeded all expectations to dominate a very competitive gaming market; Nintendo sold more units than Sony and Microsoft and made more real-world dollars. But its control on this generation has been sliding for years.

Wii sales have dwindled and software sales have limped at the end of the console’s life span. Some attrition can be attributed to the push toward the Wii U. A case might also be made that the ancient (relatively speaking) console technology finally caught up with Nintendo. Those over-teched Sony and Microsoft boxes have life yet to live (both companies are expected to unveil their next generation consoles sometime in 2013), whereas the Wii now seems quaint. After all, cellphones and portable tablets can now surpass the power underneath the Wii’s hood.

Moreover, the casual gamers who made the Wii a retail success won’t translate into repeat business. Unlike “core” gamers, they’re not committed, multi-generation gamers and won’t feel compelled to purchase another gaming unit unless the GamePad wows them as much as the Wii’s motion controls did, which is incredibly unlikely. The GamePad is a draw because it offers a new way to interact with games, but it is not a fundamental change in the way people play those games.

Everyone’s default position is back on the couch, with a controller gripped between two sweaty palms.

Old-School: The New Way to Win

As with any new technology, the war is not won or lost in the opening weeks. Console wars take years to play out. How Nintendo responds to criticisms and flaws into 2013 will prove telling about the support and attention the company plans to bestow upon this new chapter in the Nintendo story. Even then, determining the Wii U’s success will prove challenging. The Wii was deemed an undisputed financial triumph, but it caused many Nintendo fans to question their loyalty.

To claim victory on any level, the Wii U must first restore faith in the brand. Console gamers want to believe in Nintendo. They want to chase after Princess Peach for the billionth time, take another lap on Mario Kart’s infuriating Rainbow Road, or journey back to Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda. But that’s not enough anymore.

These days, a console must be many things to a lot of different people in order to justify its place in the busy home entertainment center. Nintendo’s best customers are aging and into their thirties and forties. They’re buying systems for their own kids. Thus, gaming is the most essential activity for the Wii U. If on top of that Nintendo proves it can be more than just a gaming machine, the company can add another, albeit more modest, success to its storied history.

Without its old-school gamers in tow, however, Big N stands little chance of factoring into this potentially final battle in the 30-year-old console war.