Friday, April 15, 2011

What Nintendo Needs From Its Next Wii

wii stopped printing moneyOne in eight Americans own a Wii. That means that one in eight Americans may be disappointed/excited to hear that a new Wii Sports machine might be on the way in 2012.

Game Informer reported yesterday that, according to multiple sources, Nintendo will be announcing a new HD console in the next month or two, with a full unveiling likely at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.

Word on the street is that a price drop for the current Wii may also happen as soon as May 15, which would make sense if Nintendo’s gearing up for a new console launch. Unfortunately, that means a dry spell for primo Wii content is likely (assuming you don’t think we’re in one already).

Last time new hardware rolled out, Nintendo arrived late to the party, touting innovative motion controls as an alternative to cutting edge graphics. It worked for a good long while, but Microsoft and Sony have since caught up in the motion control department. The Wii’s growing stagnant and its flaws more glaring.

If Nintendo’s truly determined to kick off a new hardware cycle, there are some things it desperately needs to get right this time around.

Is It Pretty?

galaxyhdThe pejorative shorthand for the Wii’s technical specifications goes something like this: “Well, you take two GameCubes, duct tape them together…” While it can run in a widescreen 16:9 resolution, the Wii does not display true HD video.

The next console is rumored to be HD ready. It needn’t exist if it isn’t. Sony and Microsoft bet hard on HD this generation, and it appears to have paid off. As of 2010, 61% of homes in America alone have HD televisions, and the number will only grow as more and more cable providers offer full HD content. Nintendo must be on board with HD lest it forever be dubbed the “budget option.”

However, simply running in HD isn’t enough. This machine will fail if it is not at least as powerful as the Playstation 3, and it could still fail if it isn’t more powerful. Releasing a machine merely comparable to this generation would be foolhardy. Sony and Microsoft’s next efforts would easily leapfrog the new Nintendo console. It’d be like catching up to the person ahead of you in a bike race only to find out that they’re now driving a Ferrari.

I also can’t help but wonder how Nintendo’s recent foray into 3D will impact their next console. Marketing for the 3DS has revolved around the handheld’s “glasses-free 3D.” Assuming that 3D televisions aren’t a fad, Nintendo’s next console will need to be 3D-capable to keep pace with Microsoft and Sony. That means using televisions that require 3D glasses. I bet you’ll stop hearing the phrase “glasses-free 3D” if that happens.

Can I Go Online?

The Wii’s online service is a mess. It’s functional, yes. You can buy games on it (if you can find them and you have the means to store them). You can play games on it (if you exchange game-specific friend codes with it or are otherwise willing to experiment with feature-crippled online play). And you can share Miis on it (that’s a thing people still do, right?).

mii plaza

No online gaming service is perfect. Microsoft’s charging a bit too much for a service teeming with ads. Sony’s system is ridden with security holes and will consume whole weekends with its mandatory updates. But both offer persistent player profiles and generally satisfactory multiplayer support. Developers have embraced both as ways to build relationships with players and curb used sales – both healthy things for the industry.

Nintendo’s system is a worrywart of a parent smothering you with protection and boredom. Their online service, with its frustrating friend codes and general obfuscation, is designed to absolve adults rather than engage them. Nintendo needs to realize that gamers are getting older and need room to spread their wings.

While the 3DS’s online features aren’t a full about-face for Nintendo, they’re a step in the right direction. The 3DS has a single friend code for the machine, and persistent elements like player profiles and the neat (if somewhat pointless) StreetPass feature suggest that Nintendo at least kind of gets it.

Does This Nintendo Play Non-Nintendo Games?

sealqual_cs_0315Nintendo’s never had a particularly great relationship with third party developers. Stringent licensing policies on the NES, put in place to prevent oversaturation and maintain quality control, set a precedent of developer censorship. Bloodthirsty Mortal Kombat fans chose the Genesis version over the SNES version because Nintendo made Acclaim remove the blood. Square-Enix (then Squaresoft) left Nintendo for Sony when it published Final Fantasy VII, turned off by the cost of cartridges and Nintendo’s history of censorship.

When Nintendo appeared to take the lead again with the Wii, it did so by reaching out to the non-core gaming market with its motion-based control scheme. Nintendo also skimped on high-end tech to keep the price low, assuring us that the quality of the experience would move machines, not the quality of the graphics.

This turned out to be a double-edged sword for Nintendo. Developers refused to waste time and resources adapting their new games to the Wii’s unique control scheme or downgrading their graphics to run on Nintendo’s technically inferior machine. The Wii’s primitive online system further alienated developers looking to provide online features like DLC or easily accessible multiplayer.

The exodus of AAA studios from the Wii has created a vacuum of sorts, a vacuum filled by “shovelware.” Mini-game collections, rip-offs of Nintendo games, pointless cash-ins: these games dominate the shelves of any Wii section in every store from GameStop to Walgreens. I long for the days of the Nintendo Seal of Approval (even in light of the aforementioned quality control issues Nintendo’s had in the past).

Whatever Nintendo unveils at the E3 will not be for you or me, the consumer. It will be for the industry: the developers and publishers who make quality games for the consumer. If Nintendo can sell their next console to them, they can sell it to us.