Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Consoles of E3: Thoughts on the PlayStation Vita and Wii U

Last week, I wrote a bunch of doom-and-gloom stuff about the state of the dedicated gaming console, using Sony's new NGP and Nintendo's Project Cafe as a jumping-off point. There's still a lot of stuff there that I think is accurate, but being in the midst of E3 as we are, those feelings have at least temporarily been replaced by the more traditional "NEW CONSOLES OMG."

The NGP is now the PlayStation Vita, and Project Cafe is now the Wii U. Nintendo continues to clear its own path forward with slightly more powerful (though otherwise unremarkable) hardware combined with a crazy-ass new controller, while Sony continues to use its technological superiority as its primary selling point.

The new consoles are really playing to different segments of the gaming market, but they're both new and we're getting new information about both of them at the same time, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to channel my new-gadget-lust into a series of Astute Observations.

What's in a name?

The PlayStation Vita is a better name than NGP, which isn't saying much, but it's at least a small victory when your console's final name is cooler than its codename (remember when Nintendo's mysterious Revolution became the Wii? I recall much gnashing of teeth).

That's not to say that Vita is a great name - it's a bit like those fake Latin-y words that carmakers come up with to name high-end luxury models. It's functional and it'll seem less weird with time, but that's about the best that can be said of it.

(All of this, by the way, ignores the abbreviation - "PSV" sounds like something you'd contract from a junior lacrosse player who picked you up at the Beta party.)

Vita's got nothing on Nintendo's name, though. Obviously, Wii is a strong and recognizable brand, and it would be shortsighted to completely drop it from the new product's name. The problem is that instead of going the easy route with something like "Wii 2" or "Wii HD," they went with "Wii U," which sounds like nothing so much as an unaccredited online college run by Waluigi and Wendy O Koopa.

The main problem is that it just feels goofy to talk about: Come over to my house, and you and me can make some Wii U Miis! As with Vita, Wii was an odd name that became more tolerable through repetition (and because it has pervaded our culture to a degree that perhaps no console has before), but Wii U feels like a bridge too far in this weird game where companies take perfectly serviceable words like We and Connect and co-opt them for their weird user interface experiments. It makes you yearn for the simplicity of "Game Boy" or "PlayStation," but I suppose that we're now in an age where videogames aren't just Games for Playing, but Serious Business as well.

Specs and price

This is one of the points on which I (and many) were wrong about the NGP: its price, once feared to be prohibitively expensive, is $249 ($299 for the 3G model), the same as Nintendo's 3DS and just a notch higher than Apple's $229 8GB iPod Touch. Pricing is perhaps the most important consideration for a console in its early days (though amount and quality of software is equally important in the long run, as we've seen with the Wii), and I think Sony is (for once) asking a fair price for what it's offering.

This is, in part, because they've decided to use more standard, off-the-shelf parts in Vita's construction, rather than the expensive custom chips (i.e. Cell) that drove the price of the PS3 up at launch. Japan seems to be learning, however slowly, that it's more financially prudent to outsource things when you can - think of Square Enix, which spent a fortune developing its own graphics engine for Final Fantasy XIII instead of just licensing Epic's good-enough Unreal engine like everyone else.

Vita is powered by the same ARM processors used in virtually every smartphone and tablet on Earth (they're more powerful, but the underlying architecture is the same), which not only saves money in R&D, but also makes it easier for developers to port phone and tablet games to the Vita.

That last point is also true for the (sigh) Wii U - we don't know much about the hardware powering Nintendo's new box, since we're still pretty early in its development process, but Nintendo's website specifies an IBM Power processor, which is the same basic architecture in the Xbox 360 (both share genes with the PowerPC Apple used in its Macs up until a few years ago). Devs will have an easy time porting games from the 360 (and the PC, to some extent), which will help to address one of the current Wii's key weaknesses (lack of high-profile third-party games that appear on every other major platform).

The wildcard at this point is the new touchscreen controller that Nintendo's pushing - an Xbox-level system won't cost much to build in 2012, but we know nothing about the apparently (system)-level chips in these tablet-flavored input devices, and we know nothing about how much one will set you back. Some of the Wii U demos I've seen seem to show one person with the new pad and other players using the current Wii Remote, so maybe you'll really only need one of them for most things? But it's real hard to say so early on. Given the price of the current Wii, I'd feel comfortable forecasting a price within $50 of $299 for the Wii U, but this is a mystery that may not be resolved before next E3.

The Kitchen Sink

I'm running a bit long, so I'll wrap up: this post doesn't even begin to consider the ramifications of the new control schemes that both consoles bring to the table. The Vita's rear-mounted touchpad, crazy as it seemed at first, seems to be a successful way to enable touchscreen gaming that your hand or stylus doesn't obscure.

I don't even know where to start with the Wii U's crazy touchscreen controller - suffice it to say that Nintendo will figure out something amazing to do with it, even if no one else can. The retention of the original remote is also a good move on Nintendo's part, since it both (1) retains a successful and established controller and (2) justifies to Joe Nintendo the more than $200 he's spent on new Wii Remotes and attachments.

Whatever the dedicated gaming machine's eventual fate, it's clear that console makers still have a few tricks up their sleeve. If they can continue delivering innovative ways to play along with equally innovative software that justifies those ways to play, they may be around for longer than I thought.