Some people seem to hate on Nintendo's concept for Wii U, while others are excited. I think the skepticism is understandable because it's hard for people to imagine a new thing that's different from current things. I still am reeling from people on my forums who "couldn't imagine how the Apple iPad could be of any use," and now it's created a new category of device that may eclipse PCs. The gaming world in general couldn't really imagine the Wii catching on (what's with the weird remote and lack of power??), but it dominated for years. Even the *balance board* accessory outsold the entire PS3 platform, last time I checked. So perhaps its best to look at some history, first.
Nintendo has always made good games, but they've also always used a hardware strategy that sets them up for success. (How the hell they make such consistently good games, regardless of hardware, is beyond the scope of my post, but an interesting question, too). Their strategy has been to make new "verbs" and then design games for those verbs. This is actually their term, though I forget if it was Miyamoto or another Nintendo representative who used that term. What they mean is their hardware gives players a new way to interact with games, and so Nintendo can offer new experiences.
If you think back to E3 several years ago, Nintendo boldly announced "We won't be announcing the controller for the Wii at E3." Yes, they actually announced that they would not announce something, and that made news. Why would they not announce the controller? Miyamoto explained that Nintendo was the first system to have a d-pad, and now that's standard. They were the first to have rumble. They were the first to have an analog stick. I think there were other firsts in there somewhere too, but the rest of the industry copies them and they wanted even more of a headstart on the Wii, which is fair enough. We now know that the secret at the time was that they were the first to bring motion control to consoles and the mainstream.
In 2006 at the Game Developer's Conference, Nintendo's President Iwata addressed a packed auditorium about the future of Nintendo. At events like this, you can kind of feel the tenor of the room, if people are angry or bored or whatever else. In that room, the feeling was excitement and skepticism. Iwata's story of the future was exciting but, I think many (including me) thought it was kind of a fairy tale.
Iwata told a story about a company who was doing well and top of their industry, but then another company came along and took their crown. It was about Nintendo losing to Sony, remember that's what happened during the days of PS2. The punch line is that his story was really about Pepsi losing to Coke. Pepsi found itself on the #2 end of the cola wars, and Pepsi's strategy then, he said, is exactly what Nintendo's will be now (in 2006). Rather than sink more money into fighting Coke on the same battlefield, they diversified. Pepsico then created the #1 selling bottled water, the #1 selling sports drink, the #1 selling energy drink, and several other categories. They were fighting on a battlefield that Coke didn't even know they were supposed to care about.
The DS, he told us, is this kind of disruptive technology. It's not about power of hardware but about how the player can interact and getting new kinds of players entirely. And he said we shouldn't all be thinking about "games" as meaning only hardcore experiences. With two screens, one of them a touch screen, and a stylus, the DS can offer new experiences that other platforms can't. He said that hardcore games are really just one "planet" in the solar system of entertainment. Nintendo still cares about that planet, he told us, and he showed images of Metroid, Zelda, Mario, and Resident Evil 4. But there's a whole other world of software entertainment that goes beyond what we're used to right now. He announced for the first time that Brain Age for the DS would come to the US, and he explained how that's an example of another kind of software entertainment.
Well, he was right. The DS was huge. Things like Brain Age and Nintendogs were from those "other planets" he was talking about. Core games like New Super Mario Bros sold tens of millions, too. Then Nintendo carried this strategy even further with the Wii, a system that got your mom to actually play something. When you first saw the Wii, did you realize it would be an insanely successful platform for exercise-related software entertainment? More likely, you weren't able to even imagine such a thing, so you said it will never go anywhere.
So now a new Nintendo platform is upon us. As usual, it has new verbs. This time, it's hard to even pin down what they are. I mean with the Wii, at least I could encapsulate it as "motion control," but now there's two screens that have so many potential uses, I don't even know where to start. You can play a console game on it when someone else is using the TV. You can use Wii Fit away from your TV. You can play games with hidden information, such as card games where each player has his own hand cards. Even just having a map always visible, while not "exciting," is pretty damn useful (see: Castlevania on DS). You can use the touch screen to select a group of units in an RTS, something console games have always really struggled with. You can use the controller as a targeting reticule that you hold up to the screen, or a catcher's mitt, or a magnifying glass, or a steering wheel.
There are so many things you could potentially do, that it's hard to even predict what will become of it all. The thing that is a safe bet though is Nintendo will develop some compelling, interesting uses of these new "verbs" and do well financially.
The thing caught my eye the most, ironically, isn't anything new though. It's something old. The original Wii was successful at the mission of getting a whole new world of people playing games who didn't before. It was less successful though at retaining core gamers. Games with more meat to them kind of need some buttons, no matter how you slice it, and the limits of the wiimote are disappointing in that area. So what caught my eye the most is actually that they went back to 4 face buttons + shoulder buttons, and that it has two analog sticks in addition to a d-pad. It seems the Wii U is more poised to retain the market of core gamers than the Wii was, while still having the capability of "buttonless games" that involve moving the controller around in space and gesturing on the touch screen. Maybe it's awkward that the distance between the d-pad and buttons is so large, but I'd have to hold it myself to really know. In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing what they do with it.
Maybe someone should develop Yomi for Wii U, hehe.