Tuesday, September 18, 2012

3 Reasons Wii U is not the Wii and 3 Reasons it may not matter

With reports of brisk Wii U pre-orders, part of the launch narrative for the Wii U will undoubtedly to compare it to the Wii.  However, since the Wii U's reveal in E3 2011, Pundits, gamers and analysts alike have often taken the extreme route, declaring the Wii U deficient and a failure.   The reasoning are as follows:

First, the Wii U GamePad is not as quick an easy sell as the concept of waving a remote to mimic movement.  Many also pointed out NintendoLand, the game Nintendo has tasked to show off the Wii U is more tailored towards Nintendo fans (with its many attractions based on popular ‘core’ Nintendo franchises) than it is about gaining the casual market

Second, Smartphones, tablets, and the incumbent HD platforms pose a different threat than the overwhelming but singular threat Sony posed in 2006.  Sony by late 2006 had already stumbled badly with the PlayStation Portable and the PS3 was marred with a high price.  In 2012, the tablet market is as healthy as ever, and the best selling console in America is the Xbox 360. 

Lastly, there’s the view that Nintendo may be in a strategic quagmire and is uncertain of where to go.  Some have described their Wii U strategy as ‘confused’.  While I don’t agree with this assessment the point stands until proven otherwise.  According to this theory, Nintendo will ultimately have to choose between its traditional Japanese market  where it remains very strong, and ‘the west’ with its insatiable appetite for technology.  Wii U might work in Japan where the only HD console of note is an anemic PS3, so goes the conventional wisdom, but it won’t stand a chance against the PS4 and Xbox720.  So strong is this view that  industry analyst Michael Pachter’s believes that the Wii U is priced ‘too high’and will need a price cut in 2013.

These aren’t bad arguments against the Wii U per se, but they are often, though not always, made in bad faith.  That said, it remains overwhelmingly safe to assume that the Wii U is unlikely to repeat the Wii’s miraculous run in 2006.  However, there is a large gulf between repeating Wii’s fairytale success as the fastest selling console in history and failing to catch on.  Further, the Wii U could well follow the more traditional trajectory of a market leader, where it gains control of the market after its late competitors fail to gain enough of a critical mass to pose a serious challenge. In that case, all bets are off as the Wii U could well  outperform the Wii on a lifetime basis.

Here are three other reasons why despite the arguments against the Wii U following in the Wii's footsteps, it may not matter in the end.

12 months is a long time in politics, and also in gaming...

The headstart of the Wii U, currently estimated to be in 12 month range could be a significant hurdle for Sony and Microsoft to overcome.   While this lead time is often explained away with the likelihood that the Wii U will be outmatched technically, it remains that case that the Xbox 720 and PS4 are still 12 to 18 months out and there’s no guarantee either  competitor will go for technology that requires years of subsidies before breaking even.

The big 3 console manufacturers face an interesting dilemma over power. They can double down and incur the financial costs and risks of doing so with no guarantee the other two competitors will go for parity, or they can go more conservative, focus on social games, digital, indies, and infrastructure for their new walled gardens beyond the disc business.  In a way, this is a bit like a game of chicken between giants.

Sony, the player most likely to go for pure power based on its pedigree and early rumours of PS4’s development, is in no position financially to shoulder the burden of another $599 home console sold at a steep lost, and Microsoft seems more interested in copying Nintendo and creating its own walled garden than leapfrogging them.   What we may end up with are more powerful platforms  that will be in the same general power range of each other even if one console is seen as being significantly more powerful than the rest.

The Wii U GamePad works

Since its 2011 reveal, the Wii U GamePad has been lambasted as being ‘behind the curve’ and not being sufficient to compete with mobile technology. At E3 this June, Microsoft’s Smart Glass, an attempt at bringing a second screen into play with the Xbox 360 ala the Wii U, got almost as much press as the Wii U re-reveal a few days later. Prompting Engadget to opine whether it had rendered the Wii U obsolete. “Nintendo was just beat at its own game,” wrote Engadget’s Brian Heater. “Where the original Wii's innovative gameplay saw competitors playing catch-up with their own motion controllers, Microsoft has introduced an added feature to its existing platform that will go head-to-head with the Wii U at launch.”

Mr. Heater’s position was not rare.  In contrast to SmartGlass, Nintendo showed a universal TV remote application and allowed third parties to show off-TV play with the GamePad and for its part demoed  light usage of the pad in NintendoLand demos and the expected use of the screen for maps and inventory.   While the universal remote aspect of the Wii U GamePad received some praise , the asymmetry of Nintendo’s subdued reveal of the GamePad played into the narrative that the Wii U was already behind.

From Universal Remote to Nintendo TVii
Other commentators offered a more nuanced take on Smart Glass, with Gamespot’s Peter Brown noting that while the technology looked ‘legit’, it lacked the unity of purpose the Game Pad offers in terms of having both a screen and controls in one unit, and that it would be a hassle trying to juggle a smartphone/tablet and a gaming controller making two-screen gaming with SmartGlass impractical. Mr. Brown summed up his thoughts by pointing to the Achilles heel of the whole SmartGlass project, writing, “It's unlikely that developers will be wooed into making SmartGlass-only games as the hardware it lives on can vary greatly between users. We'll see support for SmartGlass within games, but it will likely remain optional.”

It was not until last week that Nintendo decided it was time to reveal what they really were planning. The universal remote functionality shown at E3 was nothing more than a preview. Far from being behind the curve, Nintendo had thought about most of the functionality Microsoft will try to offer with SmartGlass. Furthermore, they proved the speculations correct with a convincing two player split screen demo of Call of Duty Black Ops II showing the 2nd player playing one screen of the split screen entirely on the GamePad while another played on the TV. Both demos were clearly very far along and displayed the kind of things people had imagined would be possible on the Wii U but had seemingly, for a few months at least, been stolen by Microsoft.

With NintendoTVii Nintendo has also leafrogged Microsoft, Sony and captured an important position in the competition for the living room, upending the conversation over the coming rush to create proprietary TV boxes. It solves a convergence ‘problem’ that other players in the industry have been trying to solve for consumers with expensive hardware propositions by simply offering it as a catch-all free service for Wii U owners. And unlike SmartGlass, which still only exists as a demo with no firm release date, NintendoTVii and Black Ops II running splitscreen on a GamePad will be ready in November.

A clear lesson can be gleamed from this experience. Nintendo had played much of Wii U’s strategy particularly close to its chest and has chosen to reveal key functionality in stages even if it meant disappointing fans, at least for a while. With just under two months to go and at least one or two more pre-launch presentations likely scheduled, there’s no reason why the remaining unanswered questions in the form of its Miiverse social network, and online network infrastructure will be much different from our experience with the GamePad’s layered reveals.

The Wii U is designed for future growth

As more have become known, Wii U hardware has solidified as being at least a step ahead of current platforms. The arguments have tended to revolved around how big a step or whether it is infact a half step. While many details remain in flux, recent information have upended the convential thinking on the Wii U.

Rumours based on insider leaks have for a long-time speculated the Wii U would have at least 1GB or memory set aside for games as far back at the E3 2011 reveal. Subsequent tips from insider sources revealed another tranche of memory would be set aside for the operating system (OS).

Slide (in Japanese) confirming 2GB Total System RAM
Based on these leaks, it was rumoured prior to E3 2012 that at least 512 MB would be set-aside for the OS. While this was never confirmed at E3 in June, last week's Nintendo Direct from Nintendo President Satoru Iwata dropped something of a bombshell with Mr. Iwata confirming for the first time that 1GB is indeed what is currently available to launch games with another 1GB is being set aside for the syetem OS. At 2GB, the RAM is significantly higher than earlier consensus of 1.5 GB and landed on the high end of what many though Nintendo would be willing to budget for the Wii U. Furthermore, 1GB of ram set aside for the OS for a closed system such as a games console appear to be a little excessive. This is the same footprint a Windows 7 or Vista leaves in a modern PC, leading many to believe more memory will eventually be freed for game use or directed to other unaccounted functionality. By comparison, current HD consoles top out at 512 MB total RAM shared between games and the OS. A fraction of the Wii U’s total of 2 GB.

Another detail widely rumoured and corroborated with insider leaks note that the Wii U will include is a 3-core CPU supporting more modern out-of-order execution of instructions as opposed to the in-order CPUs found in the current generation of game consoles. Mr. Iwata also confirmed in last week’s presentation the Wii U’s graphics processor to be a GPGPU or a general-purpose GPU, which allows its processing power to be harnessed to do non-graphics related tasks. “This is useful for highly parallel computations such as physics engines” noted NintendoWorldReport when covering the announcement.

Between the generous amounts of reserve memory and significantly more modern CPU and GPU architecture, claims of the Wii U being about as powerful as current HD platforms have likely been widely oversold. From what we know, Nintendo hasn’t yet shown exactly what the Wii U can do, but it appears to be satisfied with letting the first wave of developers tinker and release HD games with slight visual enhancements over the current incumbents. In discussing Wii U  Firebrand Games’ Peter Shea told the Guardian, “There is still a degree of uncertainty about exactly what you can, should and must do with the Wii U, almost as if Nintendo is still working this out for itself, or not quite ready to show all its cards. Even though we have the hardware in house, we won't really know what it's all about until we see the first wave of first Party Titles, and see and play what Nintendo have been working on.” That said, a Eurogamer speculation piece based on insider sources published a week earlier suggested the Wii U features stronger than expected GPU with a weaker than expected CPU.

Given so much remains in flux and remans unknown, we can say that while the Wii U may not be the most powerful console released this generation, it also does not feel like the static console Wii became. There’s plenty of room for it to grow from a hardware perspective. Analysis and punditry based on hope that Sony will come out with a technological marvel in the PS4 for under $350 within 12 months of the Wii U seems highly speculative. Even Sony is claiming the PS4 may not ready for 2013, though true believers will also point out that Sony tends deny  everything until they are ready to announce.  That said, It may well be the case that Sony engineers need to wait for prices of their desired components to come down to ensure a sufficiently large gap has opened between themselves and the Wii U technologically while still coming in at a reasonable price at retail. And in those 12+ months, who knows what will happen. But one thing is for certain, the Wii U will be in the market racking up sales.

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