Talking Point: The Wii U's Next-Gen Challenge Starts to Take Shape

Microsoft, Sony and others start to show their cards

Yesterday, as we're sure most — possibly all — of you are aware, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, the company's offering for the "next generation" of gaming. And so we finally have a situation where, piece by piece, the rumours, leaked design documents and outright fibs are making way for hard facts. Nintendo has already launched into its new generation with the Wii U, so the three manufacturers that have defined home console gaming in recent times — since the departure of SEGA with the Dreamcast — have all pitched in.

Of course, in the case of Nintendo we're up and running and, give or take some surprise new feature or game announcements, have a good idea of what to expect in the coming months. For both Sony and Microsoft we have two very different reveal events to consider, though much information continues to emerge as executives and developers talk up their respective systems. Looking at the landscape from a Wii U perspective, it's increasingly evident how the system differentiates from its rivals; let's attempt to break some key areas down.

Hardware and Operating System Capabilities

As we've suggested before, and as is reinforced by various technical breakdowns and the system specifications available to the public, the Wii U doesn't match up to the Xbox One or PS4 in terms such as CPU and GPU speeds, RAM capacity or on-board memory. Nintendo's system isn't a slouch, and it's only logical that as developers become more accustomed to its GPU-centric architecture it'll produce ever-improving results. When lined up alongside its rivals in pure technical specification terms, however, the winners are obvious.

Yet we don't consider hardware capabilities to revolve completely around how many polygons can be produced at once, or the varying degrees of dynamic lighting that are on show. It's about more than that, so the controllers come into play. Sony has arguably been rather conservative, in that its new DualShock looks largely the same as its predecessor, thought there's a touchpad area and a coloured strip, which will allow it to be detected by a camera for some motion control elements. Microsoft's approach is similar with its controller, with rumble added into the shoulder triggers; it's really about an upgraded Kinect, which will be bundled with the One and seemingly be absolutely integral to the platform. With Wii U, it's the GamePad, which incorporates motion control but also second screen, off-TV and asynchronous gameplay opportunities not necessarily possible on the other platforms. We expect a lot of Nintendo messaging to emphasize these points, with an argument that the GamePad screen — which is sort of aped by Xbox SmartGlass and potential Vita/PS4 integration — can innovate how we play games, while everything needed is in the box and integrated into the system.

Then we have social aspects and the operating systems, which will likely continue to evolve as the months and years progress. The Wii U has seen Nintendo evolve a great deal, most notably with its bespoke Miiverse platform, which provides a solid structure and is reliably moderated to foster a friendly, inclusive environment; with screenshot posting and a browser-based beta live, it's a pleasing community for Nintendo gamers. Social interaction is something that Sony and Microsoft have also shown off, with both featuring a trump card with video footage sharing; in each case gamers can capture footage in-game, with a suggestion that it can be easily shared. Assuming you have a decent web connection, that's a big plus; on Sony's part much was made of an intuitive social aspect, whole Microsoft gave a particular focus to Skype calling — Wii U does have its own bespoke console to console video calling system with Wii U Chat.

In terms of the user interfaces themselves, the Wii U adopts the clean, channel-based approach of predecessors, with the main interaction in various apps being through the GamePad touchscreen. What we've seen of the PS4 looked reasonably slick, while Microsoft dedicated much of its presentation to portray its operating system as an all-in-one entertainment platform. While Wii U has various streaming apps for TV, as will PS4, the One will attempt to go beyond that with a greater focus on TV and multi-functionality, even going so far as to include a HDMI-in port for plugging in set-top boxes. It should be noted that the complexities of different providers and hardware do mean that making the Kinect-enabled TV interaction stick for all users will likely turn into a challenge that goes beyond the One's launch.

So, where does Wii U stand in this, generally? Right now we'd say that, while a major improvement over Wii, Nintendo's system will lack some of the flash of its rivals in social media and entertainment mediums, and will obviously not have the same CPU and GPU horsepower under the hood. To take a more positive outlook, we're yet to learn how the social aspects of Sony and Microsoft's system will pan out, in terms of the communities that inhabit them. Miiverse has become a fun, quirky and largely clean environment, especially in areas such as eye-catching illustrations made with the GamePad, and Nintendo can rightly promote it as a social resource suitable for all.

Another point causing a stir today is the online requirement of the Xbox One, with suggestions that the system will need to connect every 24 hours, though features, games and TV will supposedly work while offline. Neither Wii U nor, it seems, PS4 insist on connecting at specific points, though arguably being online is vitally important to any modern gaming system. There's also confusion around the Xbox One's treatment of second-hand games, with vague messaging not serving it well; again, indications are that PS4 won't have any kind of license system, while the Wii U has kept it simple; insert disc, play game.

It seems to us that Nintendo knows that, in an arm-wrestle over multi-functionality and all-in-one entertainment, it's unlikely to win; especially as it lacks a Blu-Ray player, which the others have included. The early marketing message was about the Wii U being the centre of the living room, but in recent times it's become all about the games, with Nintendo's financial reports also highlighting Miiverse as a key driving point. Nintendo TVii isn't exactly at the forefront of marketing and still hasn't been implemented at all in Europe. The Wii U offers strong performance in many areas, but it's becoming noticeable that Nintendo is moving to a battleground focused on gaming experiences — we suspect that'll suit plenty of the Nintendo Life community just fine.

Games, Games and More Games

In this respect, Wii U has an unfair advantage, merely through its progressing maturity in the market. We've had the first six months of the system now, which involved a reasonable launch line-up and, some notable exceptions aside, a fairly substantial dip in output. There have been games, let's not overlook that fact, but not experiences to shift substantial units.

The big N is shifting up a gear, however, and it's becoming increasingly evident that the second-half of 2013 is going to be full of big-hitting releases, with the company banking on at least a few reviving the console's momentum. To name just a few, there are first-party titles such as Pikmin 3, Nintendo-published releases such as The Wonderful 101, while 2013 release dates are expected for the likes of Mario Kart and, if rumours are correct, a new Super Mario 3D release. A number of big-budget multi-platform releases are also coming from Ubisoft, in particular, there's a partnership with SEGA that'll deliver exclusive Sonic games, while others such as Activision and — to a lesser extent — Square Enix are joining in. EA has also gone from working on no Wii U games to working on a few in the space of a week, though those releases are unlikely to include big-name sport franchises such as FIFA and Madden.

In Sony's recent PS4 reveal, there was a significant focus on games. There were some exclusives, of course, and a number of multi-platform titles — some of which are coming to Wii U and others, such as Bungie's Destiny, which probably aren't. There'll be a bit of pressure on the manufacturer at E3 to show a bit more in terms of solid, confirmed projects; announcements that have trickled out have helped to distract from the fact that the presentation showed plenty of graphic engine demonstrations, but not all for confirmed games. That said, the system is lining up some compelling titles.

As for Xbox One, its reveal has been widely criticised for doing the opposite, as games took a back-seat to TV, Kinect and showing off the console's multi-tasking. EA came on stage to announce a notable partnership — we've heard that before — which included four new entries in its various sporting franchises; the sizzle real was vague in terms of actual game footage, however. And then there was a new Forza game, along with Call of Duty: Ghosts, with the One's scoop being timed exclusivity on DLC. Broadly speaking, a lot of gamers have voiced discontent at the priorities shown, but it was a reveal that targeted U.S. homes, particularly. We'll have a better picture after a supposedly game-focused E3.

One interesting point that has emerged today is that the Xbox One will still prevent indie developers simply self-publishing on the console's online platform, much to the tweeted dismay of those indies. Nintendo has certainly gone the opposite way in recent times, recognising the importance of smaller developers by offering free Unity development tools, web platform functionality and generally seeming to bend over backwards to tempt developers towards the eShop; we've seen early rewards with more confirmed eShop projects in recent times. Sony seems to be taking a similar path, making a big play of independent developers at its reveal, so that's a clear dividing line from Microsoft.

Another is backward compatibility. The Wii U plays Wii games and supports all of its controllers, which is simple. The PS4 hardware won't play PS3 discs, but the suggestion seems to be that PS3 games may eventually be playable over the cloud, using web streaming technology through Gaikai. The new Xbox won't play 360 discs — nor will it transfer download-only games — so backward compatibility seems to be out, though a cheap as chips 360 hardware model is rumoured.

Much is yet to emerge from Sony and Microsoft in terms of specifics with games, and we'll undoubtedly be blitzed with information at E3. From the perspective of the Wii U, there's a palpable sense that we're in the quiet before the storm, with a list of — on paper — big name franchises and exciting games on the way. The Wii U will be approaching the Holiday season with a year of platform maturity behind it, and a fairly meaty mix of multi-platform titles, the odd third-party exclusive — particularly if Sonic: Lost World arrives in 2013 — and some recognisable franchises. The unanswerable question is whether this mix, particularly experiences with the Mario and Zelda branding, will prove to be the retail winners they have in the past. Naturally, we hope they will.

Pricing, and the Unknown Newcomers

At $300 and $350, the Wii U models have struggled to date — and undergone aggressive price promotions in Europe, particularly — but then it isn't the first new console to have lost momentum after an early surge. Much speculation and analysis will rest on whether Nintendo's upcoming software will elevate the value of the system in the eyes of the public, therefore making those price points a success. Parallels to the 3DS — which are uncanny — are naturally being drawn, prompting easy speculation as to whether Nintendo will combine big software with a price cut to push the Wii U's marketability over the edge. Nintendo's ruled it out — though we recall similar noises prior to the 3DS drop — so only time will tell.

We think it's a safe bet to say that the Wii U will cost less than the Xbox One and PS4. That's speculation, as neither has announced prices, but it's an educated guess. The hardware at play in the PS4, particularly its RAM, is pricey stuff, though by avoiding too many extravagances with its controller it should avoid PS3 levels of pricing insanity. As for the Xbox One, there have been rumours — quashed in some areas — that two price points will exist, with some pegging them at $499.99 for the unit or $299.99 with mandatory subscription payments, we assume for Xbox Live. UK retailer Zavvi has bizarrely gone very early with its pre-order price, offering £399.99 (on the same site a Wii U Deluxe model is £269.98) — that UK price could equate to $400-450, but the retailer's gone so early that it may be entirely speculative.

At this point we'll highlight some other 'alternative' game consoles, notably the Ouya and GameStick — these are both Android-based systems designed to bring the platform's tablet and smartphone games to TVs. Both gained initial funding via Kickstarter, but both have secured retail distribution in the UK. These are systems that will ultimately be around £100 or less, with cheap mobile-style games populating their stores; quite what impact they'll have on the mainstream market is unclear, yet it'd be churlish to deny that Android and iOS, in wider terms, haven't influenced the gaming market and moved some audiences away from what we could term the 'big three'.

We may not have firm proof, but we'd be amazed if the Wii U isn't less expensive than Xbox One and PS4 this holiday period. Even if Sony and Microsoft swallowed significant hits on hardware costs to come in relatively low, we doubt Nintendo would see that happen without responding. An example we'd highlight would once again be the 3DS — Sony announced the Vita at a competitive price with a smile, before Nintendo sucked up the losses (and some pride) to bring about a price cut. Whether evasive maneuvers are needed or not, we expect Wii U to represent the more affordable option. It's not all about the price tag, of course, and the factors we've highlighted above — along with others — will surely impact on the value that consumers find in each respective system and, in all likelihood, the last-gen systems being flogged at discounted rates.

What do you think?

We still have more to learn about the Xbox One and PS4, while we doubt Nintendo's finished with its tactics and releases to revive the Wii U. It's going to be a fascinating E3, and beyond, but with Microsoft starting to break cover, we at least have an idea of what Nintendo and its system will be up against.

Plenty to debate, and we'd love to read all about your thoughts in the comments below.

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