Saturday, December 08, 2012

Season’s Greetings: A corporation thanks its fans

Maybe it is just me, but there is always a certain emptiness and consumer regret every December.  This is usually the month after I’ve just spent a few hundred bucks buying the year’s hottest releases and it is a time where corporations who sold me those goods slink away into their money vaults to count their sales, where marketing machines of said products wind down, and we don’t hear a peep from them for the rest of the year, plus several more months the next year.

Satoru Iwata, Reggie Fils-Aime & Satoru Shibata
Therefore, it was nice to have an early December NintendoDirect with the corporate heads from my favourite multinational thanking fans(me) for giving them money this year and giving us a preview of their Q1 2013 lineup of things they want me to spend money on.  Heck, between splurging on an 3DS XL despite already owning a launch 3DS and a Wii U, not to mention the games I bought, I would say I ‘deserved’ the thanks, but it’s really nice to hear it anyways.

It also didn’t hurt that my ClubNintendo 2012 Platinum reward, a nice deck of glossy plastic Nintendo themed playing cards, arrived in the mail this Friday, with my Golden Wii Nunchuck also on the way sometime next-week.  The pictured deck of cards doesn’t capture how snazzy the plastic playing cards look.  Note the Nintendo logo printed with a spade on the playing card.  A memory of the company’s roots as a playing card manufacturer, a business the company is still in.  This is why I like Nintendo, despite their sometimes nonsensical decisions with on-line, Wii U accounts migration, and what have you, they know where they came from and it is why I remain fairly confident I’ll get my fill of great Nintendo games for many years to come.  As an aside, I wonder if these cards were printed in Japan by their playing cards division, rather than being unceremoniously farmed out to a third party manufacturer.

A week before the Nintendo Direct, in the last week of November to be exact, there was a rather nice ‘free’ DLC coinrush pack for New Super Mario Bros. 2 that remixed old levels from previous Mario titles, including the now iconic 1-1 opening for Super Mario Brothers, as well as Mario 3 and a homage to Bowser’s castle from the original Super Mario Bros game. Nintendo certainly knows how to push the buttons of their fans when it comes to this kind of stuff.  The pack is great fun. Not difficult, backed with lots of nostalgia and it hits my compulsion to keep collecting coins. 

Then there was also Wii U system update a day before their Nintendo Direct that addressed some of the concerns I had with the Wii U.  The error message I get on the GamePad on Wii U boot up due to attachment of an external HDD is no longer there, as the update seems to address lots of compatibility issues with external HDDs, including adding support for HDDs that are >2TB.  Exiting applications is now faster and Miiverse load times have also been reduced, though still 5 seconds too long by my count! And system stability is vastly improved. After all this, I feel thanked enough!  You're welcome.

Anyways, here are my thoughts on their last Nintendo Direct in a few short paragraphs.

Q1 looks way too empty, and lack of any featured 3rd party title for Wii U is worrying.  Did they choose not to feature any or are there none to show off? We certainly know of a couple of multiplatform titles coming next year.  Aliens Colonial Marines and Injustice from WB.

Also, it’s really disappointing Animal Crossing New Leaf keeps getting pushed back.  It makes me wonder if they have no big games to release in Q2 so they’re just filling a slot with it, while punishing fans of the franchise with more months of waiting.  Remember this is a game that is out in Japan NOW.  

Finally, something of a personal wish is for them to have Miiverse for 3DS ready sooner rather than later.  It's a great app on the Wii U, and I can see 3DS integration making the platform much more dynamic.  I'd gladly lose the Notepad function on the 3DS to have Miiverse replace it on the OS level.  Heck, the notepad function proves 3DS can handle screenshot posting just like the Wii U!   The 3DS hasn’t had a major OS update since folders were added, and one way to keep a platform interesting is to add features.  Just ask Microsoft and how well they’ve managed to keep the 360 fresh by constantly improving the platform’s OS.  3DS certainly needs it given it lucklustre sales.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Wii U - Things to Improve

As promised, here’s the second part of my Wii U impressions focusing on things for Nintendo to improve.  For the first part, click here. 


As noted previously, it takes too long to exit games. Since my last blog post, I have also installed a brand new 1TB WD My Book Essential external HDD with 1 downloadable game installed and nothing else so far.  The addition of the Hard Disk Drive (HDD) seems to make the OS boot up take several seconds longer.   Upon exiting a game to return to the main menu, I can hear the HDD spinning and the status light flash as the console boots/access the drive. As I am typing this, I quickly booted up New Super Mario Brothers U then exited.  It took 33 seconds to return to the OS menu, about the same amount of time for the game to load up.  And again, my hard drive’s light was blinking and I can hear it spinning.

Given Nintendo’s rationale for not including an internal HDD outside of the 8 or 32GB Flash memory was because of the abundance and low cost of external HD, an admirable course of action given the 360’s outrageous proprietary HDD prices,  one should also expect that consumers who do install a HDD should not be penalized for it.  Or put differently, the OS should be optimized to anticipate for external HDDs and load times should be optimized to accommodate the extra seek times required to access HDD on boot up.

Then there are also the freezing issues.  I’ve experienced it on Miiverse a couple of times and a few more times in Nintendo Land.  This is certainly Nintendo’s most complex piece of hardware and OS, and stress testing new hardware is part of the occupational hazard of being an early adopter, but the freezing issues are widespread and occur often enough (with Nintendo Land) that they should be addressed sooner rather than later.

There are also a couple of minor annoyances.

First, I was heartened to see the Wii Remote controller works for navigating the Wara Wara Plaza. However, when entering the OS level apps like the web browser, eshop and Miiverse, it no longer works.  This tends to break the seamless experience of the OS.  While the Wii Remote no longer working can be expected for games that don't support it, simply moving in and out of the utility/OS level apps shouldn't force players to use the Game Pad!

Brief connection error message on system power-up
Second, adding the external HDD also had the impact of causing a delayed feed to the GamePad on initial power-up of the Wii U.  Prior to attaching the 1TB, the GamePad and TV would be in sync. After attaching the external HDD, the GamePad would for a few seconds give an indication that it is not receiving data from the console  (see pictured) before finally catching up with the TV.

I have hope Nintendo will continue to optimize the OS to at minimum halve boot time of the OS when exiting games to around 15 seconds. But ideally, it needs to be even faster than that.


As I noted in my previous blog post, this is a great idea and a great ‘community’.  I like the idea of building an online community around games in the way Nintendo is doing.

However, the service could use some speeding up.  A cold boot, that is, pausing a game or an app to go to Miiverse takes anywhere from 15-20 seconds for the Miiverse to load.   The load time is shorter for games like Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Brothers U which have native Miiverse support.  When they prompt you to make a post/commentary of your achievements in-game, it only takes a few seconds or so to get to a screen for me to start posting.  This is how fast it should be for every game.

Once in Miiverse, navigation can also be slowed down by server side issues.  Pages and Mii icons will often fail to load properly, and moving from one page to another can be slowed if the server is busy.  The Miiverse experience needs to be seamless, as if the whole thing is running on the Wii U.

Just like the OS, this is something within Nintendo’s power to fix. As this is most likely a combination of server capacity and the web-based tool Nintendo is using to run Miiverse, I have hope this is something they can address with more resources and code optimization.

Performance issue aside, there are some material improvements I’d like to see on Miiverse as well.

  • One’s favourited communities should be easily accessible from the Miiverse sidebar, rather than having to go through our profile screen

Tezuka's Miiverse post has received hundreds of responses.

  • Friend requests searched through Miiverse will show up as a request, yet when someone adds you through their friendlist, not notification is sent.  The two should be one and the same.
  • I found and replied to Mr. Takashi Tezuka’s welcome Message on Miiverse (pictured), but since, I’ve received daily notifications someone has replied to his thread.       The feature is actually useful for small scale community-level communications to ensure responses to Miiverse posts aren’t lost and everyone participating in the conversation is notified when someone has made a new comment.  However, on popular posts, or in this case, a post by a Nintendo personality, notifications on responses becomes overwhelming.   
  • Although the Miiverse system is smart enough to aggregate comments made in a short time span into a single notice, it still sends out multiple notices if comments are made with large gaps of time in-between.   A good solution is to simply limit all notifications to a single notice that gets updated/bumped up on the notifications list if there’s been recent activity.  This will reduce the amount of notices in Miiverse. 
  • I saw someone comment on-line, and I agree, that in the long run, a lot of Miiverse postings are just going to get buried in the sheer number of new posts being made as well as because of the passage of time.   Will anyone still read posts made this week three years from now? Members should have the ability to archive, curate and file  their own feed for historical purposes and perhaps even advertise them in a 'greatest hits' section based on number of 'Yeahs' they have received.
  • An ancillary point here is that there should be a keyword search feature.  Miiverse already supports tags for games such as New Super Mario Brothers U.  This is how the system sorts the comments to show in the game.    Users can currently access posts sorted by tags if they happen to find a post with a tag and click on them.  However, tag search and tag listing (a good example would be an Index of all the tags for NSMB U’s levels) and sorting posts within those tags by popularity, date of post, country etc. still aren’t supported features but need to be as Miiverse begins to get busy.

Photo Channel

If a Nintendo console needed a photo management channel, it is the Wii U.  Between the great screen captures we can take, and the top notch web browser (probably the best console browser out there right now), there is no option to save photos.  Let's bring this one back!

Nintendo Network ID

I’m not going to spend too much time on this because I think Nintendo is probably already hearing a lot about this.  I feel like there’s been a bit of a bait and switch here, even though no one from Nintendo ever confirmed this.

We did get our accounts we wanted and shouted from the rooftops for, but for now, it appears our accounts and the digital games we purchase on the Wii U are still tied to the hardware.

This really needs to be addressed in some way or form.  It need not be as liberal as Steam where simply logging on in another computer grants you the right to re-download all the software attached to the account.   A more reasonable approach is to provide a web application and telephone service line for people to log-in /call and transfer their Nintendo ID profile from one Wii U console to another by keying in the serial code.

This would avoid all the pain of people having traded in or lost a Wii U and not being able to recover their digital content.   Rather, from  Nintendo’s point of view, all they need is to ensure our Nintendo ID is only linked to one piece of hardware at any one time.   And when a console is stolen, Nintendo can simply allow us to link it to a new machine, while deactivating access of the old console.

For trade- ins, all we need to do on our end is to unlink our account and re-link it to the new hardware.
I am sure Nintendo has good reason to stick to their draconian and cumbersome practices.  But let me say this as someone who has long tolerated it, has never traded in my consoles, or lost my digital downloads because of a lost/stolen Nintendo hardware.  Nintendo, you need to fix this and link purchases on an accounts level and allow people to migrate those accounts as needed.   

Well that is it for now.  Wii U is a fantastic proof of concept for what Nintendo wants to do as a follow up for the Wii and I’m fairly happy right now.  The technical analysis of what chips are in it is kind of irrelevant to me at this point so they don’t make my list.  I hope Nintendo can get to work on the issues raised above as soon as possible and give us something to smile about in 2013.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Twenty-Four Hours with the Wii U

I failed to secure a Wii U at launch, but thanks to daily supply replenishment and a very hand store availability tool, I managed to grab a Deluxe set from a freshly replenished store a day later.  As I returned home from my local Best Buy, Wii U Deluxe in tow, the unit’s weight was striking.  It’s a  heavy piece of gear, GamePad, console, cables, altogether. Even my lighter wallet didn’t help.

In my day-long delay to obtain a Wii U, I had followed the launch day reactions closely.  Reviews from media leaned positive, but specialty forums elsewhere were abuzz with technical minutiae, long launch-day patch, and inferior ports.  The heads up was helpful.   I hastily opened the box,  unwrapped the console, and let in the new AV electronics smell as I set-up my console to link to the internet.   A few set-up screens later, the patch was downloading.  

In the meantime, I busied myself cleaning the niche where my Wii sat for several years and prepared its retirement.   Two and a half hours, including a Wii data transfer later, I was ready to dig in.  And despite negativity in some corners about the console and my own reservations about buying a Nintendo console on launch day (I felt burned on the 3DS), the Wii U has had a solid first impression.

Wii Transfer & Backwards compatibility

The process itself, including the Pikmin movers is whimsical and straightforward.  The only pain point in the transfer process is that the Wii > Wii U Transfer channel  needed to be downloaded ‘twice’, once on the Wii itself and again in the Wii (subconsole) in the Wii U channels list. 

Other than that, the on screen instructions were clear and the process itself was painless.  I was very disappointed however several channels, including Nintendo Channel (useful for collating gameplay data) did not copy over and it looks like my game history and message board history did not come over either.

As noted elsewhere, the Wii BC in Wii U lives up to the promise of Backwards compatibility, but falls short on functionality.  The loss in data, lack of Wii Shop integration into the Wii U eshop and inability to play Wii games on the GamePad is a hard pill to swallow.

One item worth pointing out is the improvement in sharpness of the visuals of Wii games on HDMI output, even if it is upscaled from 480p.  This is a nice surprise, and a welcome one.


I love the Mii Wara Wara plaza.  Cynical gamers probably could care less, but like the Wii Menu, it does something to capture the zeitgeist of the period.  The Wii was launched at the dawning of the age of YouTube, and the channels format was fitting and it still often voted as one of the most pleasant console UI of the current generation (or more appropriately last-generation).  With the Wii U Wara Wara Plaza   you could say Nintendo is somewhat late to the party in  terms of making a social network, or ahead of the curve,  in terms of creating and integrating social networking specifically for games.  Either way, the console is conceptually on  a different plane that the 360 or PS3 (even if you include Home).  Social networking is integrated, and doesn’t live in a separate app, and the Miiverse itself is always on (more on this later).

Luckily, I also didn’t experience the first day problems (slowness, timeouts etc) with the OS.  By the time I got my Wii U running, the plaza itself was working.  I immediately got a sense of the popular apps and games.   Nintendo Land / NSMB U were the busiest with the most Mii’s around, followed by ZombiU and BLOPS 2.

I also avoided most of the timeouts and errors from launch day, but having used the OS for 24 hours now, I can say that aspects needs optimization.   It takes too long to exit apps, and jumping from  a game/app to Miiverse to make a post can take 5-10 seconds. Ideally, it should be instant, though 3-5 seconds is probably acceptable.   

Given Wii U is perfectly updateable and it’s OS will undoubtedly get patched many times in its lifetime, I have no doubt this will be fixed eventually.  I hope it is sooner rather than later.


There’s been lots of talk and speculation about this Miiverse feature. I had opined  at E3 this year that it could possibly be a game changer for Nintendo.

Though the jury is still out, my early impressions are very positive.  Like any social network, it requires people to ‘buy in’ , so sceptical users and people who hate Nintendo on principle will likely wonder what this ‘fad’ is all about.  That said, it is fair to say most users who spend at least $300 + tax on a Wii U tend to have bought in to the idea or are at least open to it.

The result so far are vibrant communities for every app and every game released, even with only one region and roughly 2 days of sales under its belt.  Even indie eshop games like  Nano Assault Neo already have 700+ posts in its Miiverse community.   The larger games have thousands.  The largest, Nintendo Land and NSMB U have twenty thousand posts each.  It’s likely the most popular games in the future will have hundreds of thousands and millions of comments.

It’s also been noted that the off-game commentating isn’t that ground breaking and Steam does something similar.  That’s very true.  I think Steam communities is a good analogue for Miiverse. However, Miiverse ultimately does it better.  The communities portion in Steam is largely out of the way.  There’s more emphasis on Workshop for Mods and Patches (for the game I play the most – Civilization V) than the community aspect.  I’ve played hundreds of hours of Civ5 without ever reading a post in the Steam community, largely because I use specialist website/forums for my Civ discussions.  Besides, the Steam apps runs worse than Miiverse in terms of ease of access to comments.  It's not really designed for feedback, but more of a Facebook wall for various things to be thrown at it,  which slows down the load times even more.

Off-screen capture of a zoomed-in Wara Wara Plaza
In contrast Miiverse excels in is how the postings melds in with the Wara Wara OS level plazas.  As the Mii’s congregate around the apps on Wii U start-up, speech bubbles pop up with various twitter sized comments (text comments are limited to 100 characters).  The size of the crowd and tone of the comment give a quick overview on game popularity and the mood of the community.  Unlike twitter however, Miiverse also allows the space for the block of text to be used for hand written notes.  And many Miiverse users have instead used the allocated space to draw some pretty impressive pieces or art that can get across ideas that would take more than characters words to explain.   And it’s not all Mario or Zelda art either, although the quality of art for those two franchises is off-the-scale just two days in.  The Netflix community has plenty of in-jokes and art ranging from Breaking Bad to Arrested DevelopmentZombiU has a series of excellent Zombie related art with a strong crossover of Walking Dead discussion.   This is something I think that is ‘new’; although it’s been happening on gaming forums for ages, it’s unique to see a console’s entertainment apps directly reflected in comments made in the gaming side.

Unlike Steam, it is also very easy to share and comment on pretty much every app/game on the Wii U, even if the software doesn’t support Miiverse natively.  The Miiverse itself sits on the OS level and is always-on.  Pausing any game allows players to make a quick post about the game to the game’s community, and attach the current screenshot.   

Some games such as Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Brothers U, built with Miiverse integration in mind, brings those comments directly into the games themselves.  The game prompts users to post comments at the end of each level, to create level specific comments, and in Nintendo Land, a sampling of the NintendoLand Miiverse community is brought into the game, Mii’s and all, into the theme park, creating something of an asynchronous on-line community.  

Finally, nothing in Miiverse is console specific, which makes Nintendo’s promise to bring it to the PC, Smartphones and 3DS credible.  The interface is rather plain, but utilitarian.  From the hub, players can search for friends and add friends without the need to exchange friends code (thank heavens), message friends directly (essentially a Private Message feature), and access the ‘Activity Feed’ which is more or less, the Miiverse equivalent of the Twitter feed.  The feed funnels posts of yours friends posts, plus the posts of people you are following.

And here’s the last major light-bulb moment for the Miiverse.  Mingling in the Wara Wara plazas are Nintendo certified personalities.  They can be told apart from regular Miis by an extra green checkmark next to their portraits.   They can’t be friended but can be followed.  So far, people have found the accounts of Katsuya Eguchi (Nintendo Land ) and Takashi Tezuka (New Super Mario Bros. U).   They haven’t said much, except welcoming users in French, English and Spanish to their games.  It’s not something that’s immediately obvious when Miiverse was revealed, but the kind of close interaction game designers can have with the community is certainly interesting even if we expect most of their posts to be put through ‘official’ PR filters.  

Nintendo Land

I have done a 180 on this in under 24 hours.  I barely played my WiiSports disc six years ago and really felt the extra $50 I was paying for my Deluxe was mostly for the GamePad charging crade, the stand, extra memory and the Digitial download promotion.  But between NSMB U, ZombiU and Nintendo Land, I’ve played  Nintendo Land the most.

Pikmin Adventure
Much to my surprise, there is a healthy number of single player only attractions and all appear to be quite challenging with plenty of depth.   'Balloon Trip Breeze' and 'Captain Falcon’s Twister Race' are unforgiving and difficult.  'Takamaru’s Ninja Castle' is easy to play through but difficult to master. 

Of the multiplayer attractions, several have single-player modes.  My favourites so far are 'Pikmin Adventure' and 'The Legend of Zelda Battle Quest'.   Controlling Pikmin’s with the GamePad touchscreen is amazing, and gives something of a preview of what a DS Pikmin could have been.   Both games looks gorgeous, and dare I say, I prefer the Nintendo Land’s Pikmin aesthetic to the Wii up-port Pikmin 3 (I’m sure I’m going to hell for saying that)

Utility Apps

NintendoTVii is still offline, but I can comment on the Internet Browser.   The browser is neat on the game pad. It’s pretty fast.  It allows for multiple tabs (up to 6 max), and most sites fast.  YouTube support is excellent, though there will be a YouTube app rolling out later this year.  Note that the browser is HTML5 compatible, but no flash.

Wii U chat is a surprisingly cool and utilitarian app.  The app uses the GamePad’s built in Mic and Camera for video chats. The quality is surprisingly good and it even lets users preview the video feed  to position their cameras appropriately before they make a call.

Netflix is what you’d expect, but GamePad viewing is a neat feature. 

All in all, the Wii U has provided a very pleasant 24 hours for me.   Does this mean everything is great?

No. I have plenty of concerns as well, and I had planned to put them all in one posting.  But it looks like I’ve ran long on this one, so my concerns and critiques will be posted next time.

Friday, November 16, 2012

YouTube App Comes to Wii (Updated)

For all the talk of WiiSports selling the public to the Wii, one of the Wii's early killer-apps was the Internet Channel and it's YouTube support making it the earliest current-gen console to allow people to watch YouTube via their consoles on their TV.

As the internet has evolved and formats advanced, the Internet Browser struggled to keep pace.   The release of a TV friendly YouTube XL page by Google in 2009 designed specifically for console viewing of YouTube acted as a stop-gap for awhile.  More recent viewing of YouTube on the Wii via the browser has shown it's limitations, with very low resolution feeds and choppy framerates.

In recent years, YouTube has slowly rolled out it's apps on other consoles. With the Xbox 360 getting its own YouTube app in December 2011 followed by the PS3 in August of 2012.  The release of the Wii app today rounds out YouTube on the 'big three' consoles.

It appears the App is currently for the US-only, with rollouts to other countries in the coming months.  There is an easy workaround for Canadians (at least).  As my Wii is registered for Canadian use, I switched my country to US and I was allowed to download the app.

Linking the Wii YouTube App to my YouTube account was easy.  The Wii App generated a code and directed me to a page on YouTube. All I had to do was log into my PC, key in the string and YouTube did the rest.  In a manner of seconds, It had imported my playlists, favorites and subscriptions.

The interface is slick, and moves surprisingly fast.  Video quality will naturally vary depending on source content.  Old videos that are sub 480p will still look as they are.  However, videos in HD or 480p looks very good in the Wii app.  Not only is the framerate much improved from YouTube XL (it appears to be running at 30fps), the video quality is very much in the same ballpark as Netflix videos played on the Wii.

A nice surprise for Wii owners this late in the game, but it also shows Nintendo is still allowing Wii support for interested parties.

Fun Fact: YouTube App is published by Google and Licensed by Nintendo and is not a Nintendo product.  

YouTube's official announcement of the app on their YouTube blog.

Additional Thoughts:  (11-16)

  • Before linking your account, the default menu provides some basic categories such as Gaming, Politics, Trending.  These categories go away after linking to your YouTube account, replaced with your subscriptions instead.   It would be nice to have a separate screen for these categories as it encourages browsing rather than viewing through set-lists.
  • There are no Like/Dislike options ; Although comments is not necessary  I think including Like/Dislike would be nice.
  • Netflix videos are synced to when you last watched. I could watch up to a point on my PC, and switch over to my Wii or 3DS and continue where I left off.  The Wii app doesn't have this option.  Not a huge issue, but nice for longer videos.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Wii U Demo Station Impressions

I've had a chance to try out the Wii U (my first time seeing a unit in person) with the demo stations finally arriving at my local Best Buy and FutureShop here in Canada.

The Good
  • The controller is very comfortable to hold and surprisingly light
  • The size of the controller seems bigger than I had expected, but in a strange way, it looks less bulky than the forced perspective shot of the GamePad on the Wii U marketing materials
  • I've heard a few commentators disparaging the resolution of the GamePad, but my impression is that it looks quite bright and sharp and very comparable to a smartphone screen.  And it is certainly quite comparable to iPad 1 and most laptop/notebook screens.  I have a hard time seeing how a casual user is going to know it's not retina or hold that against the product in a significant way.  This seems more like a tech geek issue that only exists for people living in a bubble.
The Bad
  • Similar the early demo units at the Nintendo World Store in New York, these Canadian demo units only have Rayman Legends as a playable game.  Irony 101 - As I walked up to a demo unit, a father of 2 was fiddling with the GamePad and looking at Rayman Legends.   Next to him was a copy of Rayman Origins for the 360 that he was about to purchase.
  • The resistive touch screen does in deep feel a bit cheap if you're expecting to feel glass on what is very clearly a tablet looking GamePad.  The surface is plastic, similar to every Nintendo DS and 3DS device.
  • The menu is sparse but does include a video previewing Wii U accesories, the Wii U and the GamePad.   On-line features,  Miiverse and NintendoTVii are conspiciously missing.  This feels like a missed opportunity here for Nintendo to rope in casual users who might be interest in features.
The Ugly
  • While I don't doubt Rayman Legends is a good game to interest a segment of the core gamer set, every other game including marquee titles are in video form.  Worse, titles like ZombiU and Assasin's Creed III start with a slide show video.  I'm not sure if the slide show gives way to a full on video demo, I didn't stick around for it, but it just feels so... wrong to be treated to a slide show with a demo station.
While I walked away impressed and reassured the hardware, and especially the GamePad is a great product with a more than acceptable screen,  I can't help but feel Nintendo dropped the ball with planning their demo content.

Apparently, these units can get updates overnight via the Internet.   I would highly recommend Nintendo roll out more and better content for these units as soon as possible.   Rayman Legends is not going to sell Wii U to the public.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Final Word on The Last Story

The Mercenaries 

After years designing games Hironobu Sakaguchi had arrived at a crossroads at the start of the production process for The Last Story.   “I just felt like I was at a slightly different point from everyone else. As if I was surfing alongside the others, but had ended up riding a different wave from the one I should have aimed for,” he admitted to Nintendo president Satoru Iwata.  “This project came about just at the moment when I was becoming aware of this,” Sakaguchi added.  “That’s why, if I'm honest, I feel a real sense of gratitude towards this game.”

Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi
Image courtesy of Nintendo
His first game as director in 18 years,  The Last Story is not a typical Sakaguchi game.  “We knew that we wanted something that differed from the way things had been done before. We wanted to express the game world and story in a whole new style.”   The result is a more modern take on the Japanese RPG, with elements borrowed from western RPGs such as branching decision points.  That said, The Last Story is not an open world exploration role-play[ing] game. It remains a story-driven game in the classical Sakaguchi style. “I’ve always attached great importance to the story,” he noted   “It was no different with this title.”  

Sakaguchi however did go in different directions in the structure and focus of the story. The game is an episodic fantasy with many chapters that can be played out of order, bound by an overarching narrative of war, friendships, intrigue and betrayal.  The game offers a vignette of events at a crucial turning point in history at a place called Lazulis Island and the player is dropped in-media-res with a band of mercenaries on their way to meet the island's powerful Count.  The game alludes to a wider world where a human empire won a decisive victory against a another race of humanoids generations ago at a high cost. This is a world in which Lazulis Island is a key player, but only just a player.  Yet the story remains focused on the island and its surroundings. The world-spanning Final Fantasies are condensed into a single city of Lazulis, a city worthy of a massively multiplayer on-line game.  While it does not share the world maps of other Final Fantasies, it is in a way a far more intimate and richer game than any of Sakaguchi’s previous efforts. Quests abound, storylines interweave, and the winding alleyways and side streets all come together to create a living world.   It is this Majora’s Mask-esque familiarity with people and places that really works to the game’s favour.

Lazulis City Market
Despite having what may on the surface appear to be a typical RPG plot, it manages to engage in a way many other RPGs don't.  At its core, the game is a human drama as much as a struggle of the forces of good against evil.  Whichever side wins is less important than the person who wins the victory.   Virtues such as avarice, ambition, courage, love, temperance and honor can be found in nearly every character in the game.  The band of mercenaries the players lead are hired to fight in a racial war.  There are echoes of Chrono Trigger’s racial dichotomy of an oppressive human kingdom discriminating against non-humans.  The leaders of the land are torn between ambition and duty to protect the people, and in this tension the script weaves an excellent narrative and character arc as key characters sought to combine their ambitions, motivations and their duty to advance their own interests.   

While the turncoat or the morally conflicted character is not new to the genre, the way in which Sakaguchi and his script throws the players knee deep into this duality is fresh.  There are entire segments of the game where there are no good choices. And in order to proceed, the player must choose the lesser of two evils.  Making a less than desirable choice knowing the alternative is ruination of the kingdom.  In the back of the player’s mind, we know the decision is not right, but we are taken for a ride anyways. In the end, the script finds a way to extricate the hero out of the moral quandary. However, the tensions between doing what others expect of you and what you know to be right creates the core of the game’s narrative conflicts and plants seeds of an emotional journey that reaches right into the Epilogue, aptly titled "The Last Story".

This is a notable achievement for a game that is essentially linear with many dead-end choices.  Despite this, I rarely felt a decision was forced to serve the game, the decisions that progress the game serves the overall narrative arc and enriches the overall experience.  It makes the revelations  to come even more bittersweet.  It is also this play on human drama rather than a focus on lore or an overwrought mythos and backstory that makes this game enjoyable.  There's not a lot of high-fantasy babble and convoluted plot lines. The story is far simpler, but just as rewarding because of its emphasis on human drama. From Sakaguchi’s point of view, the fantasy setting is merely a vehicle for the story.   By giving the world at fantasy setting, it is “actually easier to bring out realistic human dimensions in a fantasy setting,” Sakaguchi explained.

It’s worth noting the top notch voice acting done for the English edition of the game. With a cast of BBC actors, the leads played by Jack Ryder (Zeal) and Alix Wilton Regan (Callista) fit the part with subdued neutral voices that almost anyone can identify with.  Kelly Wenham (Syrenne), Daniel Curshen (Therius), Nico Lennon (Dagran), Montserrat Lombard (Mirania) and Derek Riddell (Lowell) are perhaps the strongest of the bunch as the voices of the game’s supporting characters.  Wenham’s Syrenne is particularly well done as the peppy, ‘nothing will get me down’ party member that by the end of the game, I have grown fond of.  This also makes her moments of weakness even the more poignant.   The ancillary voices too are top notch. There’s variety and life in the sounds of everyday life in the city of Lazulis.  They curse when the player bumps into them while walking on the street. Later on, the same citizens will apologize profusely  and praise the player when the player has become much more well known.

Taking a cue from the real-time battle systems of Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XII, Sakaguchi’s battle system blends the strategic with fast-paced action where it feels more like a hack-and-slash ARPG than a RPG.  “I would say it’s all about order and chaos” noted Sakaguchi.  “In battle, the side that manages to impose ‘order’ on the battlefield will secure victory. Or to put it the other way round, disrupting the ‘order’ of your enemy so it degenerates into ‘chaos’ is the key to victory. That’s something I wanted to express in the battle scenes in the game. But I didn’t want this to be achieved in a logical, methodical manner like Japanese chess. I was looking for a more intuitive battle system in which you can feel the flow of time.”

The result of this innovation is the emphasis on strategy and placement of enemies and kills orders that is more deliberate than the lock-on-target and whack away real-time battle strategies in the recent Final Fantasies. As a result, some have suggested The Last Story’s innovative battle mechanics is perhaps something the Strategy-RPG genre can look to in place of the deliberate and contemplative turn-based combat mechanics popular in the genre.

In an unusual move, Sakaguchi further emphasizes the flexibility of his battle engine by inserting an on-line multiplayer mode, allowing players to replay the game’s many boss battle with several other real people over the internet in a co-op mode or against each other in a deathmatch mode.  Winning reward players with special weapons and craftable materials that is otherwise unobtainable or difficult to obtain outside of the game’s story.  All loot earned can be used in the single player game.  With a New Game+ mode allowing players to carry over their levelled up characters, weapons and armor into a new adventure with more difficult enemies, there is a special demand for the rare craft materials that may only drop once in the entire game to power up certain armor and weapons to +99 ratings.

 Nobuo Uematsu (Left) Hironobu Sakaguchi (Right)
Image Courtesy of Nintendo
In The Last Story, Nobuo Uematsu reprises his role as the composer to a Sakaguchi epic.  While many of the compositions are ‘typical’ Uematsu fare, the overall soundtrack is quite well rounded.  The main theme "Toberu Mono (Those who Can Fly)" is sufficiently sweet to evoke the right sort of emotions.  It’s the kind of melancholic theme Uematsu is famous for and compares favourably to "Theme of Love" (Final Fantasy IV) and "Melodies of Life" (Final Fantasy IX).   

Uematsu’s best work in the soundtrack is a piece that is played near end of the game, likely forgotten in the shuffle to get to the ending for some, and for others, in the depths of an emotional  gut punch.  A piece titled "New Days", an extended version of  a violin piece called "Bonds", the music serves as the bookend to a narrative journey.  Starting with a minimalist piano, it builds to a crescendo before receding back into a melancholic end.   "New Days" is a theme about moving away and moving on to new beginnings where old bonds end.

Uematsu affirms his unique approach when speaking about The Last Story. “For this title, I put aside the priority was to create a certain atmosphere... The music isn’t there to help explain or underline what’s happening on screen. Rather, it exists as another kind of sound effect. There is a unity between the persuasiveness of the images and the power of the music, and I think they fit together in a very natural way.” On the subject of the soundtrack, Sakaguchi adds, “I feel that The Last Story itself changes as you listen to the music. That’s the power of Uematsu-san’s melodies. It’s not simply that the music is beautiful, it’s also the fact that his humanity comes across in them. They are instantly recognisable as his songs.”

Although parts of the game could have used some extra polish – There is a broken (though not game-breaking) quest in the mid-point of the game involving a chase through the city streets – The Last Story is a dazzling and beautiful game with a solid core of humanity.   Unlike Sakaguchi’s previous efforts, there is no massive marketing machine and brand solidarity to power opinion to the near unanimous praise his previous games enjoyed under the Square-Enix banner.  But as a long-time fan of Sakaguchi’s games, I feel The Last Story stands as one of his most unique and emotionally powerful works, even if it may not be his best. 

The Last Story is Sakaguchi’s period in the long sentence of a genre he had popularized globally in the 1990s—The extravagant story-driven fantasy opera with archetypal leads, damsels in distress, heroic arcs and mythical beings.

The Last Story (Wii) is published by Xseed Games in North America and Nintendo in Japan and Europe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

With under one month to go before the Wii U's debut, messaging remains an issue.

Where is the hype?

That must be one of the most common refrains heard across the interwebs from people in the know scratching their heads about Nintendo's sluggish movement.

Expanding on the Google Trends analysis done a few weeks ago, searches for Wii in October 2006 climbed 27% from September when Nintendo officially unveiled pricing and launch details. In contrast Wii U searches from September 2012 (also the month the revealed launch and price details) is down 50%.  Similarly, Wii + Nintendo searches were up 35% in 2006; Wii +Wii U + Nintendo searches are down 22% from September.

Granted this isn't a fair comparison given there are two two weeks to go in October and we know the marketing will ramp up closer to the end of the month.  The Wii U demo kiosks for example finally started appearing in stores yesterday.

However, the bigger question remains as to how exactly Miiverse, Nintendo Network and it's on-line system will work.

At last month's price and release date announcement in New York, Nintendo of America's Bill Trinen let it slip that more details on Miiverse will be revealed closer to launch.  How thorough a presentation and how close to launch remains an open question.

Nintendo is expected to release financials October 24th, so one may expect news to come out around that time, but this is not guaranteed.  The scope of the clarification expected also remains a mystery.  Will it be a dinky video showing Miiverse working with Super Mario Bros. U or will it be a detailed hour-long Nintendo Direct explaining all the features of the Wii U, from Miiverse to the expected accounts system that will be tied to it?

No one knows, and the silence is killing the hype.

The issue Nintendo faces now is with a lack of information on their on-line modes, Nintendo Network and Miiverse, the rumour-mongers are starting to control their message with negative hype-killing stories such as:

No Elite Pass for CoD Black Ops II - Suggesting sup-par on-line modes when a major 3rd party has given up on trying extra monetization on their biggest franchise, at least for this year.

Wii U voice chat being supported but not through the GamePad's Mic -  While the extra tethering to a Wii U GamePad might be a little bit annoying, this opens the question of whether cross-game chat would be supported or would players be limited to certain games?  No answer so far.

On those two questions that are 'important' to some 'core' gamers, Nintendo basically just outsourced their Wii U PR to an Activision rep and the editorial slant at Kotaku and the various media outlets who picked up the story. No official word from Nintendo, just lots of negativity from core gamers already fearing the worst.

While Nintendo of America may not be able to 'fix' some of these problems, as it is possible even Nintendo themselves isn't quite sure on how to solve some of them, the fact that they are letting others control their message this close to launch is troubling.

So how about it Nintendo?  What exactly is going on with your on-line infrastructure?  When will we finally get to know all the features we're being asked to buy in a month?  Is this another 6 month wait for a proper on-line system like we had with the 3DS? Friend codes again? Accounts?

So many questions. So far, zero answers.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

New Super Mario Brothers 2

New Super Mario Brothers 2 for the 3DS is a joy to play.  While its DNA is very much rooted in the same New Super Mario Brothers (NSMB) game that debuted on the Nintendo DS six years ago, there are enough differences to warrant the purchase.

Interestingly, I had purchased the original NSMB on the DS, got to around world 5 and got bored of it and stopped.  It didn’t  grab me  despite being the first true side-scrolling Mario entry in a long time, though I suspect my MMO addiction at the time also took its toll.  The same thing happened with NSMB Wii. I bought it feeling obligated to due to the high praise from reviewers, but felt that it probably wasn’t for me given that its strengths were in co-op multiplayer mode.

So what made NSMB2 different?  The coins.  It’s a neat little gimmick, but the one million coin goal and the coin rush mode is an incredibly potent hook. It forced me to complete the game in the ‘story’ mode (doing so gives you a free gold flower in the coin rush modes- an invaluable advantage) and in the process it made me appreciate the tight and imaginative level designs. Coin rush is mind-numbingly addictive.  Hearing the clanging of coins and watching the coin counter grow is intoxicating, not to mention the sense of achievement when I clear a streetpassed coin rush challenge and beat someone else’s frighteningly high coin total.

In hindsight, I probably didn’t give the original NSMB on the DS and NSMB Wii a fair shake (pun intended) , and this is where I fundamentally disagree with critics of New Super Mario Brothers 2.  While all three games shares a common DNA and all had tight well designed levels, NSMB 2 isn't just a rehash.  The original was the kick-off to the franchise. The Wii game was multiplayer centric.  This entry on the 3DS is aimed squarely at a gamers’ need to achieve, to get the high score and to find everything.    Coin rush isn’t just about randomly getting coins and clearing a level on a small time budget, it’s about earning coins efficiently.  Do I jump around near the beginning to grab the floating coins and hit the blocks?  Or do I skip those and rush right in spend my time gabbing higher yield but more difficult to grab gold medallions instead?  The coin rush mode introduces rationing and scarcity of time, highlighting trade-offs and opportunity costs to maximizing the amount of coins one can collect in each carefully crafted level.  Coin rush also rewards repeated play and familiarity to the randomly selected levels used in coin rush.  Knowing each of the three levels in a coin rush inside and out is also crucial to getting the highest coin totals as collecting each of the three gold medallions yields exponentially more coins, and the 1up Mushrooms in the standard game turn into golden mushrooms that reward 50 or 100 coins in coin rush mode.

Revisiting  the DS original, it becomes plainly clear that  NSMB on the DS is several steps behind NSMB 2.  In the DS original Mario has fewer power ups and moves, the visuals are full of pre-rendered, pre-baked sprites to keep a consistent visual look on a more limited hardware, and the game doesn’t even scroll or animate as smoothly.  New Super Mario Brothers 2 in comparison had fluid animations, better quality artwork, including a neat use of the 3D slider to interpolate depth-of-field backgrounds, and power ups that I enjoy, especially the gold fireflower.

It is true that the leap from NSMB to NSMB 2 isn't in the order of say going from Super Mario Brothers to Super Mario Brothers 3, and that is a legitimate complaint for those who felt discouraged that Nintendo insisted on keeping the same (even if improved) aesthetic style on the 3DS.  But to me, that’s not a rehash, there’s enough there for it to be considered a true sequel.

If there is one thing I would knock it is how the streetpass system works.  While there is plenty of room to store streetpassed Coin-rush levels and even favourite streetpassed levels you like to avoid them being overwritten. Each player only has room for 1 coin-rush pack that they can share with others via streetpass.  Want to show off your high coin run on a relatively easy Mushroom Pack (stages randomly selected from Worlds 1-2)? Need to use your one slot for streetpassing.  Want to show off your leet skills on a difficult coin rush challenge? Need to use your one slot.  Want to show the guy you streetpass every morning you beat his 13,000 coin total? Need to use your one slot for streetpassing.  Also, outside of your one save slot for streetpassing, there’s no way to save and archive interesting and fun coin rush packs the game creates for you unless someone else you streetpassed sends it back to you.  I wish there is a more robust option here, perhaps three slots to allow players to  save a selection of coin rush stages. That said, it is a minor quibble.  If you can streetpass someone daily or even weekly, there’s plenty to do in terms of beating other people’s coin rush records.

New Super Mario Brothers 2 is a great game and one of the finest platformers out there today. It is also a game that knows its platform very well, playing to the 3DS’ unique features, including 3D, while avoiding its weaknesses, including 3D.   Each level is no more than three to five minutes long, and coin rush modes randomly string three of these levels together.  I’m amazed by how well the game works around rationed time.  If I have 20 minutes here or there, I can do a quick coin rush or two and before I know it, my time is up.  

Fun Fact: World Wide coin total sits at 184 billion and counting, updated every few seconds.   

Friday, October 05, 2012

Nintendo's Virtual Problem

When Satoru Iwata first introduced the idea of playing perfectly emulated old games on the then codenamed Revolution console, I was amazed by the simplicity and brilliance of the idea.   I remember thinking to myself that in one fell swoop, Nintendo could have the entire Mario library accessible to their fans on their next-generation hardware.

Virtual Console concept introduced at E3 2005
"We are redefining the term backward capatability," Iwata boasted at Nintendo's E3 2005 when the idea was first introduced.  "We have designed the revolution to be a virutal console capable of downloading 20 years of Nintendo content," he added to much applause and fanfare.  Then he dropped something of a pie-in-the-sky goal for his vision. The [Wii]  is "technically capable of playing virtually every Nintendo console game ever created."

It was an amazing insight, and in 2005 that was an incredibly progressive idea.   With the introduction of the Virtual Console service on the Wii in 2007, early barometers of its success were promising.  There were a crush of games and I was able to explore entirely new platforms from the rapid addition of TurboGrafx titles, ranging from Bonk to Sim Earth, Ys and Military Madness (Nectaris).

While fans naturally clamoured for releases of favourites like Megaman, Final Fantasy titles, Sonic, Mario and more Mario, early on, there were also  real attempts by large publishers to release era specific titles that may not have been on many wishlists. This included KOEI’s suite of Super Nintendo strategy games such as Ghengis Khan II and Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV and even the heavily niche open-world exploration sim Uncharted Waters: New Horizons.

However, something happened between the service's early success and the following years when releases in the service dwindled to a crawl.  This shift started by the appearance of restricted releases to only a few a week, sometimes no releases at all.  It led to a kind of skewed economics, a rationing of slots, that led to increasingly selective releases.  Third party publishers on the services selected their best selling games and increasingly the diversity found initially began to recede. Fewer selections lead to fewer returning customers to check out what’s new and the service stagnated.  This undoubtedly lead to a downward spiral of diminishing downloads leading to fewer releases to funnel downloads to even fewer games which in turn lead to even fewer downloads and interest.

Speaking personally, after the initial rush of releases in 2007 and outside of a few select event releases such as the Import Sin and Punishment release, I just gave up checking because it’s not worth  waiting a week to find out next week’s release  of one VC game (on a good week) is yet another game I didn’t want to play.

This trickle down, top down approach is even more evident on the 3DS eshop service.  Not only are we being asked to re-buy Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda (again) to pad the available selection of 3DS virtual console games, third party support has been lukewarm and where support exists, they inevitably dig for their better selling GameBoy titles and stop there.  While the Wii’s Virtual Console store had at least a launch phase to accrue an impressive and diverse starting library, the 3DS VirtualConsole selection in contrast is being choked to death with draconian release of the week practices.

The following are things I feel Nintendo can explore to help better their Virtual Console service:  

Treat virtual console as an investment rather than a cash cow – Yes, VC downloads have high margins. Rather than approaching releases by asking “how much can we make right now” the focus should be on“how much can we make in longer term” ;  This would shift the focus from curated limited release of Virtual Console content to a more flexible strategy of building a community of repeat customers who come back again and again because there’s something new and worth checking out every week.  

The thinking needs to move beyond just Mario and marquee mascot titles of the era.  Yes, a lot of people love those games, but those don't add depth to the service.  Virtual Console is currently a one-note service for many people, a place to get legitimate copies of Mario and Zelda games, but not legitimate copies  of hundreds of other titles that they grew up with.  To achieve the critical mass needed, the number of games releases must increase, niche titles will be part of it, and third parties must be involved.

Virtual Console as a loss leader – The question for Nintendo to ask is  "what can Virtual Console bring to the table to help us sell more 3DS units?"  Given the early success of VC on the Wii and the continued support by fans who own Nintendo platforms, the answer is quite clear.  The Virtual Console service can do a whole lot to make the 3DS value-proposition a lot stronger to a broader swathe of the public.
  • To foster this active community of purchasers,  a lot of games need to make it on to the market while at the same time making it as riskless as possible.  Third parties must be given a risk free way to release as much of their back catalog as possible and monetize even their most obscure niche products without fear of not being paid. One option is to allow publishers to sell the first several thousand copies of a game at 100% share of the profits to encourage publishers to release  a broad selection of titles, not just their top selling game of 1994.  
  • As part of the Virtual Console initiative Nintendo should spend money tracking down owners of games that may be in ownership limbo because the publisher and developer are no longer in business and if possible find a publisher or publish it themselves.  (A game on my personal wishlist is the fantastic  1993 console port of Gremlin Software’s Utopia: The Creation of a Nation; easily one of the best strategy games on the Super Nintendo) or Square USA's  western developed ARPG Secret of Evermore,  a moody and atmospheric gem in the rough with impecabble writing from Square's US localization team.
  • Spend the money to get special emulators for FXChip titles and esoteric hardware that may only be supported by one game so those games will also have a place on the service.
  • Finally, don’t treat the Nintendo 64 like a premium platform.  It’s a 15 year old console, and the N64 titles available on the Wii VC does the N64’s third party library a great disservice. 
Under-appreciated at the time, a popular pick for Virtual Console  by fans

Tap into Nostalgia – Yes, we know it’s a ROM dump but Nintendo doesn't have to treat it as such.   Tie in the Virtual Console service with Virtual Nintendo Power or Virtual EGM Virtual Famitsu, and Virtual GamePro to allow players to relive their childhood in sync, with the appropriate issue made available with each game purchase, for a small fee.

Create a  virtual ‘rental service’ that so many of us used as children and use it to the advantage of the service. Make it a place where players can spend 99 cents to try any VirtualConsole title for 24-48 hours without being stuck with buyer’s remorse while having the option for say one week to pay the price difference to 'upgrade' to a full purchase.  Not only does this generate a cashflow that can be plowed back into servicing the Virtual Console, it allows players to try before they buy and converts full access to Virtual Console content into a kind of in-app purchase.  This also allows Nintendo to justify charging the relatively higher prices for ROM dumps of nostalgia.   In the current environment of smarthphone apps, easy access emulation of classic games, and free games, the calculus is free/ 99 cent app download vs. A $3.99 download of a 15 year old game, the calculus is often not  in favour of the 15 year old game.

Treat Virtual Console as a Platform instead of a Brand -  Nintendo may not have thought that far ahead in 2006, but in 2012 they’ve had six years and millions in profits from the Virtual Console downloads, not to mention billions in income from the Wii to chart a course for the future of the service.

Virtual Console should be a platform that sits inside Nintendo consoles and portables.  Like itunes, or Amazon's Kindle downloads, Virtual Console should be seamlessly accessible across all capable Nintendo devices.  Gamers gave the DSi a pass because we knew it wasn’t powerful enough, but the fact that the 3DS eshop and Wii shop continues to have segregated  libraries and storefronts is a major hindrance to sales.  We are now at a point where someone could conceivably own the same marquee Virtual Console games multiple times. This blatant anti-consumer practice has not gone unnoticed.  A common refrain from many who used to own a Nintendo DS or Wii is to complain about the loss of their digital downloads when they traded it in or upgraded and how much better (insert smartphone here) is at managing their downloads.

This pattern of compartmentalization by platform appears to be repeated again with recent hints that while transferring Wii Virtual Console purchases to the Wii U is possible, they must be limited to running in Wii mode when run on the Wii U, ruling out the possibility of playing Virtual Console games on the Wii U GamePad while the TV is freed up.   The obvious question to ask is why do we need to run an emulator of an old Nintendo console on an emulation of the Wii hardware?  Why can't we run it directly off the Wii U?

More importantly for Nintendo, all the neat Miiverse connectivity social togetherness that cost millions of dollars in research and development to implement for the Wii U will be turned off when your users are playing these emulated version of old games on a Wii environment.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to have these games run natively on the Wii U so someone can post on the Miiverse how much they still love playing Super Mario Bros., post a screenshot of their 'hard-core' accomplishments and high scores or to ask for help from the community? 

Nintendo's Virtual Console remains a compelling and brilliant concept.   Despite their competitor’s best efforts to copy the service, they cannot match the depth and nostalgia factor Nintendo has with the first fififteen years of games between the NES and N64, or the 20 years of Gam Boy/Color’s library of titles.   This is a significant competitive advantage that is difficult to copy short of buying Nintendo, and this can be used by the company to parley customers of the Virtual Console service into regular and loyal customers to their digital stores.

The ball is in Nintendo’s court.  With the Wii U and their new DLC infrastructure, the door is open to not only patch their existing slate of Virtual Console games to run natively on the Wii U, but to relaunch the service, rebrand it not ONLY as a platform for nostalgia but as a repository for gaming history.  This will bring more games to the service AND gamers willing to spend $2 to $5 on a whole variety of titles back to the table again.

It took the slow painful decline of the WiiWare and DSiWare for Nintendo to figure out demos and featuring games matter in digital stores.  I hope it doesn’t take them another generation of atrophy to figure out that having a seamless Virtual Console ‘platform’ that offers a vast selection of games that is portable across  all Nintendo platforms and accessible everywhere is where they need to be.   

Friday, September 28, 2012

Google Trends Analysis: Wii U search volumes shows strengths and weakness

In a recent article on, Rich Bieglmeier performned a Google Trends analysis and concluded that while Wii U likely will not repeat the success of the Wii, it is likely to do well based on search results, predicting 2 million Wii U sold by the end of 2012 and 3.5 million by March 31 2013 (the end of Nintendo’s fiscal year) ; Nintendo’s own forecasts on estimated a combined 10.5 million Wii branded consoles will be sold between April 2012 to March 2013 with many commentators assuming a 50/50 split, putting the number closer to 5 million.  In contrast, Nintendo sold through 6 million Wii consoles by March 2007.

This is a conservative estimate by most measure.  While actual shipment numbers are unknown, 
He based his analysis on comparing ‘peak 2006’ and current search results for the search terms Wii, Nintendo, Wii U.    The analysis was relatively vague, only concluding that the numbers are down significantly from 2006.  
It also raises a number of questions.    How is the trend moving comparing search volume to major events around the Wii / Wii U, both had E3 reveals and a September price/launch announcements?  How has the search volume trended in the months leading to E3 and immediately after it?

In the spirit of analysis, I have done my own analysis using Mr. Bieglmeier's work as a starting point.  I found his use of the 3 search terms Wii, Wii U and Nintendo to be adequate and appropriate in capturing a wide swath of searches so I will be using the same three terms, with  modifications for this study.

Time scale: 2004-2012, September
Search Terms: Wii, Nintendo, Wii U

This may seem counterintuitive but there are significant overlap between these terms (see below). As will be shown later, Wii has experience significant growth as a brand compared to Nintendo itself.  It is also worth noting that while it does not rank in the United States,  Wii 2 is a related search term for Wii U on a global level, at #8.

Top 10 related terms for each of the 3 terms
Wii:  Wii games, Nintendo, Wii Nintendo, Wii game, Wii cheats, Wii fit, Wii 2, Wii Mario Kart, Mario Kart, Wii Play

Nintendo:  Nintendo DS, DS, Wii, Wii Nintendo, Nintendo games, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 3DS, Nintendo 3DS, DSi Nintendo

Wii U: The Wii U, Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii U, Nintendo U, Wii U release, Wii games, Wii U games, new Wii U, new Wii, wii U price

With this in place, I ran my analysis for both the United States and the world.  Our focus will primarily be on the United States, although global search volumes are included as its own chart as well.

Below is a chart showing search volume (with 100 = December 2008’s Wii search term)  comparing 2006 and 2012 (see Note at the end of the post for more information).   There are differences of note.  E3 in 2006 was held in early May, instead of June.   The Wii brand was announced in a letter from Nintendo in April 27 2006, prior to that it was simply known as the Nintendo Revolution.  I have included Revolution’s search volume rating of 2 in April and 1 in May into the Wii tally.  After May 2006, Google trends show Nintendo Revolution search petered out to 0.

Search Trend USA - Click to Enlarge

Search Trend Global - Click to Enlarge

The Analysis:

The E3 Bump
Wii/Revolution search volume went from 4 in April 2006 to 12 in May 2006 during E3 a 275% spike.   Comparatively Wii U searches went from  1 in May 2012  to 4 June 2012; a 400% bump but significantly softer overall due to the lower search volume in the month prior to E3.

There are a number of mitigating factors in play
  • The Wii branding was announced in late April 2006 causing a lot of disdain and confusion among gamers and interest in the press
  • Wii U numbers are obfuscated by searches in the ‘Wii’ category.  Note that Wii jumped from 12 in May 2012 to  18 in June 2012. 
Could we attribute this jump simply to more searches for Wii related software at E3?  Considering the dearth of Wii specific games and announcements that seems highly unlikely.    If we strip the increase in Wii searches and apply it to Wii U,  we have a combined volume of 10 in June.  Still below 11 recorded in 2006. 

September Conference Bump
Wii search volume went from a 7 to 12 in 2006, or 170% increase between August and September 2006.  In 2012, Wii U’s bump went from a 2 to a 6, a much more impressive increase but softer overall due to a much lower August volume.  We should also consider a number of factors.
  • September figures are still provisional. As of this writing, data collected had about one week left in September.
  • Wii search results jumped from 15 to 18 in August and September.    
  • While it is possible September just happened to be a month where Wii searches occur, this seems unlikely.  Wii search volumes have traditionally dropped 4 to 5 points between August and September (return the school season) in every year it has been on the market (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011), excluding 2012 where it spiked to a 18 from 15.
  • This spike in Wii searches provides strong circumstantial evidence that Wii U as a search term under reports searches for the Wii U by the public.
  • If we generously assume true Wii searches remain flat at 15 between August and September,  we can apply the 3 points gained to Wii U.  Giving as an overall  (provisional) result of 9 points.
  • 9 points is still below the 12 reported in 2006, but I strongly believe that this is a fairly conservative estimate.  If we assume a modest dip of 3 points in true searches for Wii related products between August and September,  we would instead apply 6 points for the Wii U and the Wii U bump would be tied with the Wi in 2006.

Wii is the new Nintendo
An interesting trend is the creep of the Wii to replace Nintendo.  In a similar way PlayStation became a brand synonymous with Sony, Wii is now a much more popular synonym for Nintendo.

Note the reversal between 2006 and 2012.  Our datapoints in 2006 show Nintendo leading much of the way until Wii took off in searches around October.   The inflection point was infact October 2006. That was the last time Nintendo as a search term lead over Wii.  Since then Wii related searches have lead the way.

Pausing for a breath or continued decline?
The trend-lines also show unquestionably a decline in Wii and Nintendo related searches every year since 2008.  Nintendo as a search term is at an all time low.  At an 10 rating in September, it is lower than  the 13 rating recorded in September 2004 when the Google Trends app started tracking.  All years since have seen a higher search volume for Nintendo.

Interestingly at a combined state, overall searches for Nintendo + Wii is comparable to 2006.  Combined search volume for Nintendo +Wii and its related terms (note some overlap so there is double counting) was 29,  in 2012, combined Nintendo + Wii + Wii U is 31.

However, reviewing the intervening years between 2006 and 2012, The combined search volume is running behind Septembers in 2009 (37 points), 2008 (44 points) and 2007 (40 points).  It however beats Septembers 2010 (27 points)  and 2011 (25 points).

The launch of the Wii U will no doubt see increased volume searches for the next six months, but it will be interesting to see where Nintendo is trending over the next few years.

  • There is strong correlation in the movement of the Wii search term along with Wii U related events
  • Basing purely on just the Wii U search term, Wii U awareness is much lower comparative to Wii in 2006, how much lower is open to debate.  Our estimate, conservatively is it is running 25% behind the Wii at the same time six years ago based on our estimate of a search volume of 9 for the Wii U in September vs. Wii’s volume of 12 in 2006 for the Wii.
  • Wii U awareness is significantly more elastic than Wii, showing considerable growth in interest during E3 and the Nintendo September conference spiking 400% and 300% respectively, compared to 275% and 170% for the Wii.  
  • A plausible conclusion could be that this elasticity will bring Wii U search trends inline with Wii in 2006 when the marketing ramps up.  
  • Related to the observation is also the hypothesis that there are many dormant Wii owners who haven’t touched their Wii in a while but may become interested and search for Wii U when they hear news about it.  This could explain the correlation between Wii and Wii U searches because these owners may simply type in Wii, Wii 2, Nintendo Wii, instead of Wii U specifically when searching.   How successful Nintendo is in convincing them the Wii U is worth $299.99 is a question for sales charts to answer.
  • The real proof of how well Wii U will emulate the Wii’s success and how this observed elasticity in search interest will carry them through to the fall in terms of generating public interest will be in the months of October/November and December.  These the months Wii searches have spiked in every year since 2006.   In recent years, these peaks have become increasingly less tall.  If we see a substantial ramp up in 2012, similar to 2006, it is possible to speculate that Nintendo may have succeeded in their goal and our hypothesis of dormant interest in Wii being reawakened could be proven.
  • September data is only provisional as the study was conducted with about 1 week left to go in September
  • Several search terms that could be significant to Nintendo such as Nintendo TVii do not yet have enough data to be recorded in the trends, although the search term TVii does record a correlation back to Nintendo TVii in Google Trends.  Either case, this ‘casual friendly’ feature would be something we want to pay attention to in coming months to see how well it trends  as a search term in conjunction with Wii U’s rollout in November.
  • We remain uncertain how closely correlated Wii U is with Wii in terms of search volume.  
Stay tuned for more updates in the coming months.

*Note: Google Trends numbers are normalized and thus fluctuate depending on search term used and time scale.  The numbers by themselves mean little without context.  In our search trend context,  a number of 100 means search volume equals the highest volume experienced between the search terms. In this case, as you’ll note in the peak right in the middle of the graph,  100 = Wii on December 2008.

A number of other Decembers came close, most notably the search volume for Wii in December 2007, with a figure of 92, or 92% of 2008’s peak.