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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Symphony of the Goddesses

Last March I attended The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses concert organized by Nintendo and Jason Michael Paul productions.  Based on the Zelda 25th Anniversary concert last year, the Symphony of Goddesses concert features a revised and expanded set list.

As a fan of the Zelda games, I had booked my tickets the first day they went on sale for the Vancouver event.   I was so eager I missed Nintendo’s late (by several hours) release of the discount code for the tickets, but no matter, I was going to see a world class orchestra play Zelda music in one of the most beautiful concert halls in North America from one of my favourite game franchises.
As the weeks drew closer I fretted over the event itself.  Would it be weird to walk into city’s storied Orpheum theatre in casual business attire?  Would my 3DS and smartphone  be out of place?  Were the costume players going to outnumber everyone else? 

All my worrying ending up being mostly about nothing.  The 2,800 seat theatre was packed to capacity with 20-somethings, lots of families, husband and wives, and couples and a core of high quality costume players with really top notch costumes.  I was particularly struck by a mother and son pair who sat a row infront of me, the son was no older than twelve.   After the symphony, I wondered what the mom thought about the music and felt a little bit jealous my parents weren’t as involved in my hobby when I was his age.

At 8 o’clock the conductor Eímear Noone appeared on stage to applause as she launched into the E3 2010 Zelda medley.  As the theme ended to applause Ms. Noone explained this was to be a true symphony -- an overture followed by four movements and we had only heard the overture.  In hindsight, it was a great decision to focus on just four Zelda games with a few medleys  allowing the concert music director and arranger Chad Seiter to go places with the music the more generalized game concerts could not in the nearly two hour symphony.

After the medley, the night’s programme  continued with a dungeon theme medley and Kakariko Village theme medley (to much applause and laughter at the visuals of the chickens attacking Link) before moving into the night’s first movement, The Ocarina of Time. Opening in media res, child Link is thrown to the ground as Ganondorf hurries away after Impa set to blaring horns announcing impending danger.  Then a moment of pure poetry.  Nothing really prepares you for the feelings of nostalgia tinged with awe when the screen fades from black to a familiar landscape framed by moon-set with Link riding into frame as the symphony plays the opening notes to Ocarina of Time.  The air was eclectic throughout the first movement and the well behaved audience only broke the silence in cheers as the twelve-minute long tour through the Ocarina of Time ended with a few notes teasing Majora’s Mask.

The second movement was The Wind Waker. The piece is the same as the one in the 25th Anniversary CD.  It has been years since I last played the game and yet the final battle with Ganon  splashed accross on the giant screen  still looks like a painting in motion.  The character faces full of emotions – sadness, fear, anger, delight.  It reminded me how the Wind Waker is still the most emotive Zelda game and it still looks great all these years later.  At this point it became clear that each movement would essentially be a summary of each game’s plot arc split into three disctinct phases.  Introduction, Zelda and Link, Ganon and the final battle.  

The end of the Wind Waker set was followed by a short intermission and the 2nd half of the symphony opened with Great Fairy’s Fountain to ease the audience back in.  This is followed by the 3rd movement, Twilight Princess.  Similar to The Wind Waker, the composition follows the track found in 25th Anniversary CD.   The Twilight Princess movement was by far the most choral intensive pieces, and visually, it stands in stark relief from The Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time.  It also differed in that it included an edited version of the  game’s epic ending sequence.  The scene where the twilight princess goes back to her realm and the mirror shatters was the highpoint for me as the chorus and music soared.   Twilight Princes was the darkest movement in the symphony, the darkness to Wind Waker's light. 
By this point I was at the edge of my seat as I knew the 4th moment would be the last.  How could then end this symphony? What will it be?  I didn’t have to wait long.  Storm clouds appeared on the screen.  Rain.  lighting.  The audience gasped.  A Link to the Past

The movement followed the narrative of the game with original renditions of its many themes and leitmotifs.  By the time the orchestra paused on cue before the horns blared out the Dark World theme, I was on an emotional high.  What followed next would take me back to the past, to that twelve your old kid playing on my Super Nintendo.  The piece of music known to many simply as ‘Credits Roll’ was re-imagined in true symphonic form as the ending theme to the symphony.   Of all the ending themes, this was the perfect one, aurally, thematically and emotionally.   A sad melodic score that had often been overshadowed by the pomposity and grandiosity of other Zelda scores,   I have always felt it was the best ending theme to any Zelda game, Koji Kondo  at his best.  Like many in the 90s, I did what gamers did if they wanted to save something for posterity.  Plugged in the VCR and taped the ending.  I must have reran credits roll tens of times back then, just to hear the soothing melodic score.  It was something I only occasionally revisited in the intervening years, but its reappearance that night was a fitting reminder of a game that I love so much.

After the 4th movement, conductor  Eímear Noone  rushed off stage to a standing ovation, only to re-appear a few moments later.  She motioned to the symphony to play one more song and with that, the audience got twenty more minutes of music.  Gerudo Valley, similar to the anniversary CD track, was the first encore piece played, followed by a very special fan request, Majora’s Mask.  The audience erupted into applause with this piece.   The encore was capped with a surprising entry, Ballad of the Windfish from Link's Awakening, the only portable Zelda to be featured.   A soft contemplative piece, it was a piece Ms. Noone noted was ‘philosophical’ and reflective. 

With that, my most awesome night at a symphony came to a close.  The crowd slowly thinned out of the auditorium.  Many remained in the lobby chatting, streetpassing, buying Symphony of the Goddesses T-shirts and posters. I checked my 3DS one last time to clear room in my streetpass plaza for my final round of streetpasses (I  got over 70 hits without trying) and walked towards the train station, poster and t-shirt in tow.

The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses: 
With the Vancouver Film Orchestra  and Vancouver Chamber Choir
Conductor:  Eímear Noone
Composed by: Koji Kondo 
Arranged by: Chad Seiter

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.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Last Story –First Impressions

Five hours in, I can’t help but think to myself that The Last Story is very much the Final Fantasy game we deserve, but the game the Square-Enix has abandoned.   There are shades and echoes from previous Final Fantasy games everywhere for anyone who is familiar with the franchise. It plays and feels like Final Fantasy in all but name. The character archetypes pick up right where Hironobu Sakaguchi left off in Final Fantasy X.   Interestingly enough, the crest on The Last Story logo has a set of roman numerals around its edge numbering from I , II, III and ending in X. This would seem to imply that in Sakaguchi’s mind, this would be his 11th single-player entry into the Final Fantasy series.

The castle town in Lazulis reminds me of San d’Oria in Final Fantasy XI and Alexandria in Final Fantasy IX, a bustling but quaint medieval town.  The game design borrows heavily from Final Fantasy XI and XII with a massive and beautifully rendered 3D world filled with NPCs and a really nice depth of field effect for objects , NPCs and allies.  There are open ended interludes between narrative segments to allow for questing, weapons upgrading and earning gold. So much so that there is a MMO feel to this offline game given all the NPC quests, looting and gear grinding to be had.   In fact, The Last Story has an on-line mode where players can play co-operatively and competitively. I haven’t it tried yet, but I assume gold and loot earned can be carried over to the main game.

The battle system isn’t turn based, but an evolved  RTB (real-time battle) system found in Final Fantasy XI and XII with a stronger emphasis on tactical combat and strategy.  As a result, the camera system in The Last Story can be a little jumpy because movement, use of the landscape can often lead the camera astray. I much prefer the more restrained ‘third person’ camera in  Final Fantasy XI and XII.

It’s a great thing Xseed was able to bring this title to North America, and they did it in style, complete with a faux-book jacket housing the Wii game and a slim but worthwhile artbook.  Pre-orders (I got mine via Amazon) also had a bonus CD included, with selected tracks from compositions by none other than Final Fantasy's Nobuo Uematsu.

From what I’ve seen, heard and played of The Last Story so far, it feels like the start to a wonderful game that harkens back to the golden age of Square RPGs in the mid to late 90s, much like the other late release on the Wii, Xenoblade.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Assessing the Wii U reveal

The September 13th Wii U reveal has come and gone and now it’s time to review my eight expectations (8 things I want to see from the Wii U conference) prior to the event to see how well they matched up with what was presented. 

Pricing – This came right down the line to what we have been expecting all along.  Although late breaking rumours tipped the needle as low as $250, the $300 pricing falls on the low to mid range of my predictions.  The real surprise is the deluxe set  at $350 and the respectable 32GB Flash memory included, comparable to mobile and tablet storage solutions.

What puts the scoring for this category over the top into perfect territory is the decision to sell the Wii U GamePad separately.   While Nintendo of America has yet to commit on when they will sell the Wii U GamePad, aside from promising to make it available once two player GamePad experiences are available, the fact that the process is in place at Nintendo to sell this separately is significant.

Wii U 32 GB Deluxe Set
Although this is somewhat unrelated to pricing, from a strategic perspective, this gives them the chance for iterative upgrades to the Wii U without replacing the Wii U core unit.  As I argued in an earlier piece (Three Reasons for Multiple Wii U Tablet Support), a Wii U GamePad (UPad) 2.0 with increased screen resolution, more functions and perhaps even native processing is all a possibility as part of a iterative upgrade strategy that doesn’t reset the installed base and minimized out of pocket expense by only replacing half of the console.  

The pricing is also instructive.  At 130,000 Yen in Japan or roughly $130 using Nintendo’s 100 Yen to $1 conversion, the GamePad is likely overpriced given the current unit is a glorified screen with gyros a mic, li-ion battery, but no internal memory or processing. However, this pricing level serves the basic purpose of raising the perceived value of the core set (Console + GamePad) but also leaves them plenty of room to tinker with the internals for a 2.0 release without shocking the consumer with a expensive new peripheral.   The iterative road is set by familiarizing consumers with a $130 GamePad today and sell them a $150 Wii U GamePad 2.0 with twice the resolution, improved internals and a processor in 18 months.

A $150 GamePad with augmented processing backed up by the Wii U would easily outperform any similarly priced standalone tablets for the things people like to do at home with their tablet devices. Nintendo could well be planning, either by design or simply by the sheer luck of the draw for a backdoor entry into the low cost tablet space via Wii U and its GamePad while maintaining its core games business.


Games – I noted previously that we were well aware of the Nintendo launch window titles such as Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Brothers U that have been teased since E3 in June and that the company could ‘sweeten’ the pot with announcements of new games.

Aside from a lengthy but entertaining Metroid themed Nintendo Land presentation and going into new modes available for NSMB U, Nintendo more or less met expectations here.  Of the two games I specifically asked for,  Call of Duty Black Ops 2 and Resident Evil 6, Call of Duty made it to the presentation.  The lack of RE6 was softened somewhat by the reveal of Capcom support in the form a fully on-line Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate for Wii U which features concurrent progress link-up system with the long-awaited Monster Hunter 3G 3DS version and that both games will release worldwide next year.

Bayonetta 2 was a nice surprise as well, though I’m not a fan of the original, Wonderful 101 is however on my radar.


Miiverse -  I had expected the presentation would have a segment for Miiverse.  However, Nintendo continues to confound my expectations by approaching Miiverse from a different angle.  It is increasingly apparent that the Miiverse isn’t a tacked on ‘social’ element  to ride the wave of a trend that can be isolated and talked about.  They are serious about this and have integrated it into the Wii U in a way that it has become inherent in the design of all Wii U applications.  While Bill Trinen of Nintendo did hint more on how Miiverse will be utilized in specific games such as NSMB U will be discussed at a later date, the service in general was discussed.

The most interesting integration is perhaps its use in the newly announced NintendoTvii initiative.  A kind of all-in-one hub for TV, movie, sports viewing.  The Miiverse is active while watching a TV, Movie or sports program and the option is open for the viewer to comment, rate, and vote on polls about that show in a timeline service that also serves as a kind of vox populi soapbox for friends in your Wii U circle.

Nintendo of America COO Reggie Fils-Aime also went out of his way to mention that when joining a program in progress , it is possible to scroll back in the timeline to see what happened before you joined, comments, polls and social interactions included.  The NintendoTvii stuff is its own thing I want to talk about in another post, but generally, the Miiverse integration is fairly impressive here.

While it is still a little early to judge on its full impact and potential without getting more details on the specifics of its game integration, the way it is integrated as a full living service rather than an afterthought is promising.  This one gets a big thumbs up from me.


Virtual Console – As  part of the presentation, Nintendo confirmed  one of the bullet points on my wishlist by confirming that WiiWare and VirtualConsole content will transfer to the Wii U.  The bad news is, in order to maintain near perfect emulation for these older content, the Wii U switches to a Wii mode when running this content, and worse, Virtual Console games on the Wii will NOT be playable on the Wii U GamePad.

I feel like this is a wasted opportunity.  GamePad support for Wii VirtualConsole content is one of the most requested features by fans.  Surely there will be Wii U ready Virtual Console games released on the Wii shop?  If so there must be a solution for a patch similar to how many iPhone apps were patched to work better with iPads.   In that sense, there is hope that many of the VC titles will see Wii U ‘patches’ that make them fully Wii U compatible, allowing with Miiverse and GamePad use.  The open question is, will it cost money or will gamers who purchased their VC content on Wii get the patch for free?  And will Nintendo bother?  (please?) 

Until this issue is resolved, I cannot give it more than a 4 out of 10.


Nintendo Accounts – Missing in action and with the suggestion of the Wii to Wii U transfer process being similar to the 3DS to 3DS transfer process, this has raised concern that there will continue to be no accounts based solution to purchases.  
Not much to say here.  No credit for the big N.


Nintendo Network  Functions -  Nintendo Network wasn’t mentioned but its presence was felt everywhere from the NintendoTvii presentation to the Black Ops II presentation.  We know the backend exists.  We simply don’t know what kind of hub/store it will have, whether communities similar to the one in Mario Kart 7 will come built in or not, whether accounts exists (see previous point), and pretty much everything else related to a modern gaming network service.
It’s clear the Wii U will be heavily reliant on the internet, but we really don’t know much beyond that.


eShop -  The Wii U storefront remains missing in action, but we got some really nice tidbits from the Japanese presentation.  NintendoLand and New Super Mario Brothers U will be available for digital download day 1.  We also got some neat surprise eShop reveals in the form of Nano Assault Neo and Mutant Mudds Deluxe as Wii U eshop downloadable titles in the launch window.
As we expect at least one more presentation prior to release, this will get a passing grade for now.


Thumbs up on passing the test
Surprises I went in expecting surprises and we got surprises.  Aside from Bayonetta 2, the biggest surprise is the paradign shifting transformation of the TV functionality from a kind of quaint TV universal remote at E3  to an integrated TV solution attacking the TV set-top market from an unexpected angle where Nintendo isn’t selling a TV solution, but rather giving it away for free.  There’s a lot of potential there for NintendoTVii, but that’s for another time.


Total Score  53/80     66% 

A final Note: The score may appear to be very low, but I don’t rate on a 8-10 scale.  Nintendo convinced me to get a Deluxe 32GB set sometime around launch, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for more and to put them to task for not answering some key questions about the Wii U, mainly on their Nintendo Network and accounts side of things.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

8 Things I want to see from the Wii U conference

Nintendo will reveal final details to the Wii U on September 13 in New York. After the disappointing showing at E3 this year, and with months of silence, save of third party (Ubisoft) leaks, Nintendo can ill-afford to pull another tease next week or risk derailing their launch hype entirely.    As much as Nintendo claims to be about appealing to every gamer,  Nintendo hardware launches are propelled by their fans, who often then act as ambassadors to get friends, family and coworkers to buy in. 

Here are a number of things to consider:

Network  Functions -  Not a mention was made of Wii U’s online capabilities save for a vague Nintendo Network slide in a Nintendo Direct presentation the Sunday before E3.  This will be a good time to reveal, at the very least, the  Nintendo Wii U eshop infrastructure and on-line matchmaking hub.  Although launching day 1 is preferred, at this point, a few slides showing screencaps with a TBA release date would be better than nothing.

eShop – While matchmaking can potentially wait until 2013, eshop needs to launch right out of the gate.  And a good way to do this is to pull a page out of the current 3DS eshop and make Wii content immediately available on eshop on Day 1, and allow full transfers of Wiiware and Virtual console content as well. 
What would be even better is to finally tie in both the DSi/3DS and Wii content under one store.  Not all content may be playable on every console, but the Wii U should be able to handle the vast majority of the content available.  

Virtual Console -  Seven years after the reveal, this continues to be Nintendo’s ace in the hole branding.  While asking for Nintendo to release hundreds of brand new VirtualConsole releases may be a lost cause, making existing library on the 3DS and Wii available day 1 will be a huge plus.

What would be even better is to allow VirtualConsole to run on the WiiU GamePad directly, bypassing the TV ;

Nintendo Accounts -  Long promised by Nintendo and semi-confirmed by PR spokespersons, fans remain skittish that it’s still all smoke and mirrors.  A presentation detailing how accounts will tie into Nintendo’s future platforms and the 3DS will be very appreciated.  A confirmation of a 3DS firmware update soon to make this possible would certainly allay any fears of the promise of a unified Nintendo Network account being another vaporware promise from the company.

Games – By now, most expecting Pikmin 3, New Super Mario Brothers Wii U and NintendoLand as the marquee Nintendo releases coming alongside the Wii U; but Nintendo can still surprise and sweeten the pot by announcing know multiplatform titles from select third parties will be available.  The most obvious titles being Call of Duty Black Ops 2 and Resident Evil 6.  A bonus would be to see expanded library of Virtual Console content from SuperNintendo, Nintendo64 and GameCube games as well as offerings from Sega for their Dreamcast and Saturn libraries.

Miiverse – This received its own Nintendo Direct presentation in June and yet we haven’t heard much about it since.  More details and a solid implementation plan would be appreciated.  More information on cross platform support and the possibility of accessing Miiverse on 3DS and perhaps even the Wii would certainly make things exciting.  Come to think of it, there's no reason the Wii can't have a Miiverse channel to run low level things like status updates or access eshop content such as digital books and back issues of Nintendo Power.

Pricing – While recent rumours suggest Nintendo could go as long as $250 with two more SKU’s priced at $300 and $350, what fans want to see is value.   A $250 bare-bones starter bundle may be intriguing but with a pack-in game and extras, $300 and $350 would also be acceptable. 

What we don’t want to see is be surprised by a $350 bare bones single SKU.  Pricing it that high would be a mistake.  A non-traditional SKU would also be interesting. ZombiiU bundle sounds very enticing for someone who’s not all that hyped for NintendoLand, Pikmin or Mario.

Surprises -  Nintendo will undoubtedly have things they can surprise fans with.  We’d like to be surprised with a new game announcement, new features for Wii U or both. 

In summary, the press conference on the 13th of September should be about execution or rather Nintendo showing its fans how it will execute the primises made about the Wii U right out of the game.  We're all a little tired of promises of features that are to be determined or eshops launching six months later with a skeleton selection of games. Show us it’s worth it to spend money right away on a Wii U. Online, eshop and accounts services are the very baseline we want to see.  Surprises wouldn’t hurt either.  

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Happy 20 to Mario Kart

Super Mario Kart released September 1, 1992 in North America

If asked what my favourite games are, I would quickly list off Mario (series), Zelda (series), 16-bit Square RPGs and the Civilization (series).   No racing games are on my list, let alone Kart racing, nor do I consider myself a fan of such games.   The last racing game I really enjoyed and played impulsively was Top Gear on the SuperNES.

Yet, in reconsidering Mario Kart’s influence, it is hard to shake off the game's long shadow.  It was late spring or summer of 1993 that I first played Super Mario Kart.   I had moved to a new city to be closer to my relatives .  I was still gaming on my 8-bit NES back then, but my cousins had a Super Nintendo and they had Super Mario Kart.  Aside from being my first introduction to A Link to the Past, that summer was also my introduction to Mario Kart.  I recall playing several rounds the now classic Mario Circuit and being amused by the flat texture mapped coins on the mode 7 track and being blown away by the lighting and transparency effects in the original Bowser’s Castle and Ghost House (Ghost Valley) level.

Years later,  I eagerly snatched up Mario Kart 64 after saving up for it with my summer job.  I still remember the great deal I got out of it, because my sister decided to throw in some money and buy a 2nd N64 controller to go along with my purchase.  So I got a controller plus a game with that.    Mario Kart 64 was at the leading edge of the multiplayer revolution back in the mid to late 90s.  My friends would all come over and we’d play 4-player Star Fox 64 and Mario Kart 64.

Despite not being on my list of favorite games, Mario Kart games have became a staple purchase for me, with the exception of the GameBoyAdvance version, I’ve bought the last three Mario Kart releases because I just had to have my fix.  Mario Kart 7 is by far my favourite.  Beating ghost times from people I’ve streetpassed or from strangers online and tracking my best times on a normalized curve of the world’s track times is an addictive experience that keeps me coming back.   I’m no hardcore MK7 player, and for all the hoopla about the extensive on-line communities in MK7, it is the feeling of mastering a track and having a few relaxing laps around an old favourite that I prefer out of my Mario Kart experience.

The enduring popularity of Mario Kart games on Nintendo platforms is a testament to the simple yetaddictive game design first introduced in Super Mario Kart.  Happy 20th Birthday.