Reaction: Wii U's Social Potential Takes Shape

A bold new direction for Nintendo

With just 11 days until Wii U arrives in North America — at the time of writing — it's perhaps surprising that substantial details on Nintendo's online services have taken so long to emerge. That said, it's not unprecedented, as Nintendo often likes to keep its cards close to its chest, withholding details and then releasing them on its own terms. It's undoubtedly an effective way to build anticipation, with snippets and hints eventually dispelled, in many cases, with a Nintendo Direct broadcast, a series of videos that have transformed Nintendo's relationship with its most enthusiastic supporters.

Today's broadcast from Japan, with key sections since translated alongside an additional summary produced by Nintendo of America, directly addressed the social elements built-in to the Wii U system. Once you complete a day one system update, Miiverse promises to be a prominent part of the console's experience, while the included WaraWara Plaza will be the first screen that you'll see on your TV screen, with dozens of Mii's gathering around bubbles that represent popular games, each sharing comments on what they're playing. WaraWara Plaza, the Japanese name being incorporated in the West in a bid to bring more Japanese terminology to worldwide gamers, is also the perfect visual representation of what Nintendo is trying to achieve with Wii U — it wants to make an exceptionally social console, but on its own terms.

After the primitive and cumbersome online functions on Wii, Nintendo's new system is bringing a much needed fresh approach. The WaraWara Plaza footage, particularly in the NoA video, showed how viewing Mii's around a game of interest can prompt the gamer into going a step further, with an eShop link to purchase the game or the option to add an entertaining Mii as a friend. That's the most basic interaction, but it's the immersion into Miiverse that offers the most positive sign of the social possibilities on the system, not only delivering functionality but, most importantly, accessibility.

The accessibility on display is truly possible thanks to the GamePad. The Miiverse demonstration showed how the press of a button can pause the TV screen and allow messaging and interaction with instinctive taps on the touch screen. That ease of use is imperative to making these functions a success, and based on what we've seen it looks like the right balance has been found. The example featuring New Super Mario Bros. U demonstrated how pausing a game and jumping into Miiverse can enable an immediate connection with a community of gamers. You'll be able to post and filter messages to avoid spoilers, with the ability to send friend requests to anyone that seems worth your time. The comparisons to Twitter, in terms of how it'll work, haven't just been made on this site.

Wii U Chat, meanwhile, will bring a Skype-style service to the console, utilising the GamePad camera — though its resolution is modest — to allow video conversations with those on your friend list. Chatting with a friend on the TV is an option, but the ability to have the whole conversation on the GamePad means that you'll be able to video chat while watching something else on TV. This can easily be done on any laptop, tablet or smartphone, of course, but it contributes to an impressive integrated whole for Wii U's social abilities.

Behind it all, of course, is the system's UI — seen briefly for the first time today — and the Nintendo Network ID, which will provide the foundation for Miiverse, WaraWara Plaza, Wii U Chat and the eShop. The user interface is very similar to the 3DS equivalent, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, while the support for 12 distinctive user accounts — all with access to any purchased eShop content — emphasises that the system isn't just concerned with connecting gamers from around the world, but also within homes. Let's not forget the internet browser, either, which can run alongside a paused game, sure to be handy when a walkthrough or guide is needed. It all adds up to a fairly substantial range of social options, some which are standard in modern consoles, and other features perhaps adopting an approach that's typical Nintendo, while making good use of the GamePad to add a simplicity perhaps unmatched elsewhere.

There are still some questions, of course, that may or may not be addressed before the system arrives. One is the eShop, which is still a mystery to all but the most high-level Nintendo employees; considering the sudden nature of this Miiverse Nintendo Direct, however, we wouldn't rule out another broadcast to provide a big reveal. The other area yet to be addressed is the capability of Nintendo Network to deliver top-notch online multiplayer experiences. While the onus in that area is mostly on developers, there's still uncertainty in terms of how robust the Nintendo Network platform will be. Complex gaming servers and "season pass" bundles of DLC are still relatively up in the air, with Activision saying in mid-October that it was unsure whether Call of Duty: Black Ops II would have an Elite service on Wii U, and Assassin's Creed III DLC being confirmed, but not necessarily in a cut price season pass, as will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3. It's early days, of course, and these features may arrive at launch or in the near future, but doubt will remain until they're confirmed.

While doubts may remains about online multiplayer gaming's robustness on Wii U, many similar concerns about the social aspects of the system were eased today. While we all need to get our hands on it and experience it in practice — especially to test the speed and efficiency of planned content filters and moderating — its potential was clear to see in today's Nintendo Direct. After lagging behind with Wii, Nintendo seems to be on the cusp of bringing its gamers together with Miiverse; it could be an exciting new era for all of us.

What do you think? Are you excited about what we've seen of Miiverse and Wii U's social options today, or are you unimpressed? Let us know in the comments below.