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Friday, May 4, 2012

6 Complaints About the Wii U (And Why They're Wrong)

Nintendo is discussing the Wii U lately, and the hardcore gamers are scoffing at it. They're scoffing at the rumored system specs, Nintendo's declining sales and the "gimmicky" tablet controller. You name it, they're scoffing at it.

Let's sum up what the naysayers are saying:

"The Wii U is only going to be a little more powerful than current-gen systems, so it's going to be obsolete right away. No one's going to want a system with just one tablet controller, and they're going to end up getting trounced and having to go third-party. And good riddance! Their games are great, but their hardware is garbage."

Let's go one-by-one and see if we can't defuse this.

"The Wii U is only going to be slightly more powerful than the current-gen."
First of all, we don't know how powerful the Wii U is going to be. Best estimates say that it's going to be about 1.5 times more powerful than the PS3 or 360, and the next Playstation or XBox is going to be 5-6 times more powerful than their current iterations.

However, we can ask this question: Where are games going to go next? What do they need that power for?
"You need to improve graphics!"
Why? It's not enough to see the pores on Batman's face? What more can you improve? Sure, you can get to photorealism eventually, but cranking up the power in a system gets diminishing returns.

When the Super Nintendo was around, photorealism was a dream. In the  Playstation/N64 era everything looked glitchy and ham-fisted. The PS2/XBox/Gamecube era brought us closer. Now, we're at the point where we can make realistic fire, realistic water, characters who you can tell are lying by watching their eyes, sweeping, panoramic vistas of frozen worlds, dynamically shifting sands, and more. That's with the current generation of hardware, mind you.

So what's going to be so different with a system that's six times more powerful than the PS3 and one that's merely one-and-a-half times more powerful?

You could say that it's time to turn our attention to AI, but that's not a graphics function. Besides, AI has improved to the point where it's functional enough, providing the illusion of intelligence in games. Enemies use squad tactics, flush you out with grenades, hunt you down by your last known position, use suppressing fire and attempt to flank you.

What more do we want from AI? The ability to make us an in-game mimosa? To tell us about their hopes and dreams before we drive a 7.62mm bullet through their craniums? Come on. For the vast majority of games, the AI is good enough with only incremental improvements available.
"But HD is getting more detailed, and consoles need to keep pace!"
Yes, HD technology is improving. Resolutions higher than 1080p are right around the corner, and it looks incredible.

Here's the rub: We are almost at 75% HDTV adoption across all households. As of the end of 2011, 69% of all households now own at least one HDTV. Are people who just dropped $1000 on a TV going to dump their TVs for 2K, 4K or 8K resolutions? Nintendo would be outrunning the market for 1% of all TV users, and there are still households that don't even own an HDTV yet.

In other words, a system that runs at 1080p isn't going to be obsolete any time soon, and it doesn't make any sense for them to act any differently.
"No one's going to want a system that can only use one tablet controller!"
Correct. We don't really know how many tablets that the Wii U will use, and we don't know how expensive the tablets will be if you want another one. I think Nintendo is aware of how important it is to have multiple tablets, and I'm sure they'll get that working.

However, neither of those are reasons to totally discount the tablet controller out of hand. I really should't have to break down the reasons that a tablet is going to be awesome, but allow me to just bring up one reason: Sports games.

Years ago, me and my friends would play MLB The Show. I loved it, but the problem was that it was easy for him to see which pitch I was about to throw and where. I would have to wiggle the control stick so that the ball icon would fade, and then move the control stick into the corner so that I would feel the controller rumble, which would let me know that I was approaching the edge of the strike zone. Of course, you can hear a controller rumble, so he would know that I was aiming my pitch at the edge of the strike zone and could adjust his batting with that in mind.

Let's throw the tablet in. With your own screen, you can figure out where you want the pitch to go and throw it, all without letting the batter know where it's going. Bang. Problem solved.

Draw up a basketball play on your touchscreen. Pick your football plays in Madden. Adjust the individual AI of your teammates right from the controller. Those are the possibilities for just ONE genre of games. Imagine what it can do for other genres.

Mark my words: In three years, give or take, Sony and Microsoft will come out with their own makeshift tablet solution. It's just that good of an idea.
"Nintendo's going to get killed this generation."
Why? Because they have the best idea? Because they're the first to market with something that's barely been tried in the gaming world? Or because you have a personal prejudice against what they're trying to do?

We've already discussed why tablets and smartphones aren't going to destroy gaming. We've already explained why the Wii U tablet controller is going to be completely innovative. We've already discussed that people will come to Nintendo as long as there are games to play.

Do you have any real reason why Nintendo is going to get killed aside from that? No? Good. Then that means we can tear the next complaint to shreds.
"Nintendo has to go third-party like Sega did because their hardware is awful but people still want to play their games."
This is usually included with a corollary like, "I would play Zelda if it was on the PS3," or "I would buy Mario if I could play it on my Android tablet. Take my money, Nintendo."

By comparison, Sega went third-party because they were horribly mismanaged. The Saturn was dropped by Sega almost right after launch, and the Dreamcast, while a tremendous system, was easily pirated and suffered from the poor decisions made during the Genesis/Saturn years. No part of the hardware division was 100% healthy at any point in Sega's history.

Compare this to Nintendo. They've had rousing success after rousing success. The Gamecube, while a poor seller, still made a profit. Their handheld division has raked in cash for over two decades. The Wii is one of the most successful consoles ever.

So they're not going third-party. Ever. Last year, they had a record loss, the highest loss they've ever had. They would have to lose money at that record rate for ten years straight in order to burn through all their cash. That's highly unlikely.

Nintendo's hardware is also not "awful." We've explained why. Nintendo doesn't outrun the market, it creates the market. They make solid machines that work and work and work. People still fire up their Super Nintendo systems 20 years after launch. You can throw a GameCube against a wall, turn it on and play Wind Waker.

Compare this with Sony and Microsoft. Bear in mind, I love the PS2 and PS3. I harbor no ill will toward them. But let's look at a list of technical problems with Sony's machines:
  • PS2:
    Disk read errors
    A weird architecture that forced developers to offload instructions to the PS1 processor and practically rewrite all of their games
    Redesigns that destroyed system features, like the hard drive required for Final Fantasy XI
  • PS3:
    The removal of downwards compatibility
    The removal of OtherOS
    The insane initial cost of the system
    The PSN hack
    The crazy architecture that makes it difficult for developers, even good ones like Valve
Now let's look at Microsoft's machines:
  • XBox:
    An enormous controller that looked ridiculous and was hard to use
    Power bricks that could start on fire or cause electrical shock
  • 360:
    Red-ring-of-death errors that would destroy your machine
And what about Nintendo's machines?
  • NES:
    Pins that could get bent and lose contact with the games
  • SNES:
    Umm
  • N64:
    Hold on, one sec
  • Gamecube:
    Come on you guys, let me think
  • Game Boy:
    Oh! Blurry screen.
  • Game Boy Advance:
    Dark screen. But they fixed that.
  • DS:
    There was, um...
  • Wii:
    OK, seriously you guys
  • 3DS:
    Will you at least stop for a second so I can think
By any objective measure, Nintendo's hardware is rock-solid. Their technical specifications are right in line with what people want at that time, and they've proven time and again that they know what they're doing.

So, yeah, Nintendo's going to be OK. Their current systems are just fine, and the Wii U is going to be successful. Anyone who says otherwise is burying their head in the sand.