Monday, May 14, 2012

Three Reasons for Multiple Wii U Tablet Support

With just under a month to go before E3,  Nintendo’s plans for the Wii U and its tablet controller is very much set in stone.

It is however still helpful to explore the reasons why supporting more than 1 Wii U Tablet henceforth referred to as the uPad is critical to the company’s future and the future success of the Wii U.

Before we launch into the discussion it is worth pointing out the speculated specifications of the uPad.  The screen is widely believed be 854x480  6.2 inch touchscreen with a  16:9 (widescreen)  orientation with a fairly decent 158 dpi, putting it in range of the old pre-retina iPhone and ahead of the iPad 2.

Most people are speculating the uPad itself will be a fairly barebones device with a screen, gyro sensor, IR, near field communications (NFC), accelerometer, a screen. li-ion batteries, and some basic computing to receive and output the video stream.  It is NOT expected to be a stand-alone tablet. 

Gameplay  Options
One of the most requested features at E3 last year when the Wii U was unveiled was for multi Wii uPad support.  Nintendo did not provide a firm answer on multiple uPad support - hemming and hawing between the uPad being a pack-in peripheral not sold in stores and the possibility that a 2nd uPad could be procured from retailers or the Nintendo web store.

Since then, web chatter and rumours have indicated that Nintendo did hear strong feedback for at minimum 2 uPad support and they were seriously considering making it happen.  Doing so would be critical for them.  Allowing multiple uPad  would immediately open up the doors to at minimum 2 player games where both players have access to screens showing difference angles of action, say in a co-op mode where one had the HUD for a vehicle while the other is using the uPad as the sniper scope.

There is understandably a major technical limitation to multiple uPad support.  Bandwidth issues aside, the raw processing power required to draw the game as 720p or 1080p HD resolutions and  then diverting power to draw at  854×480 resolutions on each uPad would tax the Wii U beyond its intended use.

That said, there are multiple alternatives to this, not the least of which is a letterboxed or windowed split screen solution within the uPad stream to support multiple pads (think N64 split screen with the resolution being cut into fractions but displayed on each uPad rather than on the TV).  The feed can then blown up on the uPad to compensate for the reduction in output feed - the loss of crispness of the feed would be a small price to pay for multiple uPad support.  The video feed itself could then be surrounded by simple HUD controls/picture frame to fill in the rest of the screen.

Simpler titles like party and board games may still benefit from multiple uPad support at full 480p resolution as they are not expected to output taxing content.

Lifestyle / Expanded Audience
Here’s a scenario for you.  Sister is hogging the Wii U playing Animal Crossing,  but brother still needs to access the console.   The usual outcome is a fight and parents interceding to suggest a compromise.  The Wii U offers a third option.

As most if not all titles will require 1st player to likely use the uPad, there is immediate market for a 2nd uPad support for people in the family to access the WiiU to pull files, browse the web, stream Netflix videos, send the user currently hogging the Wii U a message reminder that someone is waiting to use the console, check the Nintendo friendlists, and potentially even play simple apps while they wait.

Parents may also potentially have the option of accessing parental controls to send their children messages that playtime is almost over, or remotely shut off the console or block content.  Similarly, web browsing, video streaming, ebooks, strategy guides, magazines, all content Nintendo has been rumoured to be exploring for the WiiU , could all benefit from a 2nd or 3rd uPad support. The content would be infinitely more appealing if accessible on a 2nd controller rather than through the main controller which will be in constant use by the gamer.

The WiiU’s asymmetrical control scheme would be wasted, especially in terms of services, if only one person can access the rumoured strategy guides, Nintendo Power back issues and other tablet content through only one uPad.  This rules out other people using the WiiU for these services when the console is in use by someone else in the family.

Wii U Tablet 2.0 and beyond
This is the riskiest reason but also one with the most possible payoff.  Allowing multiple uPad support necessitates retailing them at stores.   With retailers under pressure from digital sales, increasing accessory sales would be lucrative win-win for all parties, and Nintendo could use its historically good relations with major retailers to leverage uPad sales for more favourable terms on Wii U promotions and per unit margins.

More importantly, retailing uPad means that in the future Nintendo could theoretically release new and improved versions of the uPad with better a screen, better ergonomics, improved battery and last but not least, better internals.  This future proofing could be critical if the rumoured PS4 does have dual graphics processors, with one dedicated for streaming content to a Sony tablet controller.  A Wii U tablet with its own processor could provide a crucial second wind the Wii lacked.

Improving internals also bring the prospect of uPads coming fully equipped as semi-portable devices, with a System on Chip (SoC) that allows access to all of the DSi and 3DS eshop content allowing legacy support for a vast library of games without draining processing time from the Wii U.  One area Nintendo has done poorly is its inability to leverage Virtual Console across all its properties.  The Wii virtual console service remains a closed garden and walled-off from the 3DS service.  This has proven to be a frustrating pain point for fans.

A Wii uPad with the internals to run at minimum  NES, SNES, Genesis, TG-16 Virtual console games plus DSi and eshop titles without drawing processing resources from the Wii U itself could be a great boon to revive sales of older content and extend the reach of 3DS eshop titles.  This could also plug into Nintendo's announced goals to retail full games digitally by providing an additional avenue for those old DS and soon to be older 3DS games to be played.   

The final angle to consider is that this puts Nintendo in the enviable position of providing a low cost tablet solution for millions of users who have thus far stayed out of the tablet market.  There is undoubtedly a market for sub $100 tablets out there, but  few people could make much money off this market because there’s simply not enough room to pack in reasonable processing power for under $99 while providing features people want  and still provide a healthy retailer and manufacturer margin.
As miniaturization improves, Future uPad revisions could be a potential goldmine for Nintendo. They can manufacture uPads with improving processors at low cost and provide a full suite of services beyond what a sub $100 tablet could offer by augmenting uPads with Wii U’s core services and processing muscle.  Wii U would act as a storage device for the uPad to access and download apps, negating the need to have a large internal storage within the tablet itself.  Similarly, services like account data, purchases, video streaming could be managed through Wii U while the improved uPads share the processing load for expanded services provided.  The possibilities are limitless.

A potential scenario is  a uPad  3.0 or 4.0 with the 3DS System on Chip 4 years from now.  The 3DS SoC would be fairly inexpensive at that point, while the chipset itself still packs enough of a punch to do a lot of things 'good enough' while opening a new market for digital sales of retail 3DS games and 3D eshop games.

The Most Likely Outcome
When it is all said it done, it is still possible and quite likely that we  will end up with one Wii U tablet per console with no plans of multiple uPad support, no plans for retail sales, and only limited availability of replacement tablets sold through Nintendo.   If that is what we get at E3 next month, the console reveal will still be worth it, and even if only half of what Nintendo is rumoured to be pushing for comes true --expanded apps/services orientation for Wii U ; cloud storage; digital magazines; Nintendo Network accounts-- the Wii U will still be a console to watch with a yearlong headstart over its competitors.

But I can't help but feel a little disappointed if they ultimately fail to support more than 1 uPad per console, and fail to see that retailing uPads will be an increasingly profitable prospect for them given the profitability of the videogame accessory market.  The potential for futureproofing the Wii U with future tablet revisions is just a bonus.

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