Talking Point: Wii U and the Next Generation of Consoles

Getting there first

Wii U is getting ever closer, with a press conference scheduled for this week that’s expected to include details such as the system's price and a launch date. It’s possible to argue that Nintendo has been playing it too slowly in terms of building hype for Wii U, but that’s the company’s style in recent years when launching hardware. The system is announced and shown to the world well ahead of time, but all-important details are held back, keeping fans anxious until a two to three month blitzkrieg of hype and excitement. Nintendo must know how important this system is for its prospects, so we’d bet that plenty of big events and reveals are on the way.

For some the arrival will automatically prompt talk of the beginning of the next generation of consoles, the starting gun that will end up with Microsoft and Sony also joining in, not to mention the range of PC, Android or cloud gaming systems that may arrive. That’s a reasonable stance to take, but others may decide that the ‘next-gen’ of gaming starts with Microsoft and Sony, if their next efforts are super-charged HD behemoths. In a sense Nintendo’s competitors have been and are expected to follow the rules of starting a new console generation, namely with a noticeable step-up in graphical capability. In the current batch of consoles, however, Wii threw that rule out of the window.

If there’s ever a Reggie Fils-Aime plush toy with a ‘talk’ button to cycle through his most well-used phrases, this line would be in there right after “my body is ready”. Saying that Nintendo gaming is all about the experience became prominent initially when DS arrived — out-gunned in raw power but ultimately dominating its rival, the PSP — and especially since the arrival of Wii. Nintendo’s current system is undoubtedly more capable, graphically, than GameCube, but the 480p output and overall specifications do give the GameCube 1.5 nickname some credence. Wii was overpowered by its contemporaries, but revolutionised how games are actually played and dominated the market.

While younger gamers have grown up with the idea of Nintendo being content to prioritise the gaming experience over raw graphical power, it wasn’t always that way. In the days of NES, Super NES, Nintendo 64 and GameCube, Nintendo was willing to go toe-to-toe in a technological arms race. The problem was that Nintendo 64 had issues with an expensive cartridge system, and GameCube struggled against the competition. After two generations of coming in behind its rivals Nintendo’s tactics changed, in turn changing the industry.

That policy appears to be carrying across to Wii U, with much focus on how the GamePad will change gameplay. There’s also focus on Miiverse and its plans to bring gamers and living rooms together, as well as the potential digital platform on the system. One thing that’s not grabbing headlines is the graphical capabilities of the system, with early indications showing that Wii U isn’t necessarily a significant upgrade, in those terms, over PS3 or Xbox 360. That said, caution is needed before the system’s processing grunt is casually written off as ‘old-tech’. Day one titles do not give an accurate idea of a system’s power – launch titles on the current HD systems proved that – and it’s possible that future development projects will get a lot more, visually, out of the console.

There’s also talk that the system, though it’s very likely to be weaker than Sony and Microsoft’s next offerings, won’t lag as far behind as Wii has this time around. Unlike Wii, it’s pushing HD visuals, and to use a PC gaming analogy Wii U may be a PC on low settings, whereas competitor’s systems use high settings. The room for improvement in gaming technology is shrinking, as some existing PS3 and Xbox 360 titles are already pushing visuals that approach photo-realism. Wii U will still lag a little behind, but Satoru Iwata himself has said that the difference shouldn’t be quite as major as that encountered with Wii.

We cannot promise that the Wii U will never be excluded from multiplatform software for eternity, but we can at least assure you that the Wii U will not have such a big difference as the Wii had in comparison to how, on other platforms, developers could expect very different graphic capabilities of generating HD-applicable high-resolution graphics. Other companies might launch a next-generation console with more power, but we don’t necessarily think that the difference between the Wii U and such console will be as drastic as what you felt it was between the Wii and the other consoles because there will be fewer and fewer differentiators in graphics. Naturally some consumers are very sensitive about such a small difference in graphics so that we will make efforts to make the most of the performance of the Wii U to keep up with technological innovations and not to make the system out-of-date soon.

Of course, Iwata is trying to address a major concern for many enthusiastic or experienced gamers that, like Wii, Nintendo’s new system will miss out on some big-hitting multi-platform titles. Early indications are mixed, with titles such as Assassin’s Creed III and Aliens: Colonial Marines confirmed while others, perhaps notably monster-selling Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, are yet to make an appearance. There are some exclusives, though they may jump to other consoles in the future, such as Rayman Legends and ZombiU from Ubisoft. There’s still some time for announcements, of course, and it’ll be interesting to reflect on the confirmed lineup once Wii U hits stores.

What if Wii U does miss out of big-selling multi-platform titles, will that cause problems for the system? The pessimistic viewpoint is that it will be an issue, and Wii U will struggle to attract gamers so typically described as the ‘hardcore’. The optimistic outlook is that Nintendo systems are mainly about Nintendo games, and that any multi-platform arrivals or third-party gems are welcome extras, additional treats between first-party releases. If Wii U does fail to sustain a consistent flow of blockbuster third-party titles, it may fall into line for some as a ‘second console’, much like Wii. Perhaps that’s a tougher sell in the current economic climate, especially with tablet devices and potential Android-based consoles set to arrive on the market at attractive prices.

Only time will tell, but at this stage we’d speculate that Wii U may indeed fare better than Wii in attracting major releases. As well as the theory that it may be more comparable to a lower-spec PC, rather than a significantly weaker piece of hardware, it’s also possible that the next five years in the development industry will be significantly different from the generation we’ve just enjoyed. The HD era has significantly increased costs, making big projects a financial gamble that, if unsuccessful, can mean the end of a development studio.

If you’d like visual proof of this, then it’s worth reading this long list of development studios that have closed down since 2006, put together by a user on NeoGaf — of course some may have shut down for reasons other than just development costs, but it's still a large number of closures in recent years. It’s also possible to counter this with the correct assertion that just as many new studios may have arrived in that period, but we would doubt that many of these are working on what we’d consider to be big-budget, triple-A games. It was also interesting to read the recent comments of Assassin’s Creed III creative director Alex Hutchinson, as reported on our sister-site Push Square.

We're the last of the dinosaurs. We're still the monster triple-A game with very large teams [and] multiple studios helping out on different bits. There are fewer and fewer of these games being made, especially as the middle has fallen out.

We really felt like this was a rare opportunity. We had an experienced team, who had worked on the franchise for a while; we had the full backing of Ubisoft to make something huge; we had almost three years to do it, which is a rarity these days; the tech and the hardware platforms were both mature, which allowed us to start running instead of building base features; and the installed user base for all platforms is massive.

Many of these factors are about to change, by choice of circumstance, so a lot of us truly believed this was a once in a career opportunity.

Wii U may be an ideal system for developers still keen to work on ambitious concepts within a reasonable budget. Consumers of Sony and Microsoft’s next systems may demand a certain level of graphical fidelity, as it’s likely to be a major selling point of both systems, whereas the expectations of a Wii U gamer will be, by necessity, lower. We’re likely to see some jaw-dropping visuals when the tech is used cleverly, but lower expectations may allow for projects of a grand scope that are economically impossible on a more powerful system. Xenoblade Chronicles is one example of a title that would have been enormously expensive on a HD system this generation, but was feasible on Wii. Wii U will pose financial challenges for developers, just like PS3 and Xbox 360, but compared to its potential rivals in the coming years it may be seen as an attractive option by ambitious developers, particularly those that can’t afford to step up to the next level of HD graphics.

Nintendo has proven, with Wii, that a ‘generation’ of consoles isn’t defined purely on graphical power. It’s about bringing a new concept to the home console market and offering something new, and with the GamePad and other planned features Wii U does that. No other system is a home console with a second screen controller packed in, not in the sense of Wii U – Vita and PS3 may have cross-play, but obviously require separate console purchases. Nintendo is following its own rules, and for the second home system in a row has refused to focus its efforts on producing the most attractive visuals.

Whether Wii U can achieve the success of Wii will only be known in good time, though selling over 90 million units may be too much of an ask for any console manufacturer in the next five to six years. We’d suggest, however, that any accusations that Wii U doesn’t belong in the same generation as Sony and Microsoft’s next systems, in the same way that some dismiss Wii alongside its HD competitors, is entirely missing the point. Gamers have an incredible range of options now both on TV and in handheld gaming, and it’s clear from sales figures that graphics aren’t everything.

Finally, Wii U will be Nintendo’s sixth major home console; that seems like a new generation to us.