Talking Point: For Better Or For Worse, The Wii U GamePad Is Here To Stay
Posted by Damien McFerran
Don't expect a Microsoft-style U-turn from Nintendo
The brief lifespan of Microsoft's Xbox One has been overshadowed by a series of embarrassing turnarounds. First, the company was forced to bow to popular opinion and alter its policy on having an "always on" internet connection, then it quickly changed its stance on indie self-publishing. More recently, Microsoft has performed its most significant U-turn yet — the removal of Kinect as a device which is bundled with each and every console sold.
Kinect is unquestionably the main reason why Microsoft has had to charge more for its system than its rivals, and because of this the firm is trailing Sony's PS4 when it comes to installed users. Kinect has also proven itself to be something of a millstone around Microsoft's neck; despite the confident claims of improved technology, it shares many of the crippling drawbacks which plagued its 360 predecessor — you need too much space for it to function properly and even when you do have the optimum living room setup, it is frustratingly inconsistent when it comes to transferring your real-world movements to whatever game you happen to be playing. To round it off, the Kinect-focused software released so far has ranged from decidedly average to truly abysmal.
Given that Kinect is not only an additional expense but also draws a lot of processing power, it was perhaps inevitable that Microsoft would have to backtrack on its decision to include it with every system sold. To its credit, the company has listened to its user base and acted swiftly — this is a marathon and not a sprint, and there's still plenty of time for the Xbox One to catch up with the PS4. As a Nintendo user, it's interesting to watch this situation unfold, especially when you consider the strong parallels that can be drawn between Kinect and the GamePad — arguably one of the many reasons that the Wii U isn't so far selling in the volumes Nintendo expected.
While the GamePad is clearly not a technical failure in the same way that Kinect is, few would argue that it has had the intended impact. Consumers who previously flocked to the Wii thanks to its intuitive motion controls have thus far largely ignored its successor, presumably because the concept of asymmetrical gameplay is so much harder to communicate to the average person on the street. To compound the befuddlement of casual users, the Wii U continues to utilise the Wii Remote and Nunchuk, and while the myriad control options available for each new game will be welcomed by those who wish to tailor each experience to their own liking, they cannot be described as intuitive. Seasoned gamers can deal with such confusion, but the Wii didn't shift over 100 million units by catering solely for dedicated players — it successfully harnessed the considerable commercial clout of casual or non-gamers by offering a control system which anyone could understand in just a few seconds. That simply isn't true of the GamePad.
The fact that games like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Mario Kart 8 make so little use of the GamePad's unique abilities would suggest that even Nintendo has partially given up trying to leverage the possibilities of second-screen play in some major franchises, and while it's tempting to suggest that a Microsoft-style turnaround could save the Wii U's bacon — as we did not so long ago, in fact — Nintendo's recent announcement regarding NFC figurines makes such an event unlikely. Like it or not, the Japanese veteran has committed itself to the GamePad in a move which could potentially restore its commercial fortunes.
Nintendo has been curiously reluctant to make the most of the GamePad's NFC reader since the system launched in 2012. Ubisoft piqued everyone's interest with that "conceptual" Rayman trailer, but aside from the distinctly lacklustre Pokémon Rumble U we've seen nothing that makes use of the potentially lucrative tech — until now. The recent announcement of the Nintendo Figurine Platform finally justifies the inclusion of NFC in the GamePad, and as Skylanders and Disney Infinity have proven, this sector of the market could prove insanely profitable for Nintendo — especially when you consider the strong brand power of Nintendo's many famous properties. We'll almost certainly have a better picture of how this arrangement will work out when Nintendo shows off more information at this year's E3, but on paper at least this could be the smartest move the Kyoto veteran has made regarding the GamePad since launch.
In many ways, Nintendo should be applauded for sticking to its guns and not following Microsoft's dithering. Dropping Kinect was the right move but the reputation of the Xbox One has been damaged by the many turnarounds committed by the American giant, and regaining the respect of the average gamer is difficult — especially when you've admitted you were wrong about self-publishing, sharing games and motion control. Nintendo, to its credit, has maintained an unwavering faith in the core setup of the Wii U, and the fact that we've already seen tantalising glimpses of what second-screen play can deliver in the likes of Nintendo Land and Game & Wario tells us that there's untapped potential there — whereas Kinect appears to have less to offer in the long run, thanks to the largely imprecise nature of the controller-less interface. As any committed Wii U owner will gladly tell you, the GamePad is still a game-changer — it's just that Nintendo and its partners have struggled to effectively communicate that fact to the masses. All it would take is one game which has the same impact that Wii Sports did on the original Wii, and that stance could change overnight.
NFC figures could well be the Trojan Horse which begins the revolution — parents will buy into the concept after prolonged bouts of nagging from their kids, and that will potentially bring the Wii U into millions of households which have thus far ignored the system. Once this occurs, it will be easier for the company to educate owners about the charms of the GamePad, from its use in applications such as Wii Fit U to the innovative way in which it enriches familiar games like Wii Sports Club: Golf. Despite recent first-party releases all but abandoning the controller, there's still more than enough time for Nintendo to unleash the killer app which vindicates the GamePad's inclusion with the console.
Again, E3 could be the platform for this affirmation; Nintendo has said that it is going to display software which shows off the power of the controller — and that's more than can be said for Microsoft, which is already talking with developers about how best to utilise the increased processing power freed up by removing Kinect from the equation. Despite assurances that Kinect isn't being retired, few developers will have the confidence to support it when they know that the vast majority of Xbox One consoles sold from this point onwards won't have the camera included.
The glaringly different approaches taken by Nintendo and Microsoft give an interesting glimpse into the mindset of each company; one is quietly staunch and reluctant to backtrack, while the other is full of bluster until things start going wrong, at which point it quickly concedes to the desire of the masses. 2014 will no doubt show which strategy is the most successful, but one thing seems certain: the GamePad remains a core part of Nintendo's plans, and won't be discarded in the same way that Kinect has been.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you think Microsoft was right to drop Kinect, or should it have stood by the device as Nintendo has done with the GamePad? Or perhaps you feel that Nintendo should have followed Microsoft's example, given the Wii U's poor sales? Vote in the poll and join the discussion by posting a comment below.
Are you happy with Nintendo standing by the GamePad as the Wii U's bundled controller? (599 votes)
Yes, I personally feel the GamePad has been a massive success already
Yes, if only because the GamePad's best days are still ahead of it
No, Nintendo should ditch the GamePad and reduce the price of the Wii U
I'm not really sure
Please login to vote in this poll.