wii woes, part 3

Nintendo has managed to correct its wrongs in recent years, but the list of things they’ve failed to do right is still considerable. With the Wii U, many old mistakes were learned from…and many new ones are in the process of being downplayed, if not ignored.

Part Tri Ultimate: Nintendo Network
Online gaming has been something of a mystery to Nintendo. In the 90s, a small but thriving community existed in the form of Satellaview. While the service’s user base never exceeded 120,000, it had a loyal core that helped keep it alive well into 2001, just 18 months before the debut of Xbox Live. In 1999, Nintendo launched RANDnet as a successor service to support the 64DD; unfortunately both failed.
Perhaps feeling burned by the winding down of Satellaview and the downfall of RANDnet, Nintendo refused to even consider the possibility of online gaming as they went into the sixth generation. While a broadband adapter was released for the Gamecube, only seven games supported it, and only four of those supported online play. The Gamecube’s online community–if it could be called that–scraped by, barely existing for about six years before Nintendo delivered a coup de grace in anticipation of the Wi-Fi Connection service.
But WFC was just another blundering stepping stone for Nintendo. The service wasn’t concieved until after the DS and Wii had reached the market, and the software was difficult to deploy to both platforms. Nintendo’s solution was to put it in the game cartridges, which only created more problems. With no centralized piece of data to rely on, it was necessary to make use of friend codes.
Oh yes, friend codes. Their legacy is so damning and tainted I won’t even go into it here.

With this generation Nintendo has made their first real attempt at creating an online service to compete with Microsoft and Sony. Behold, Nintendo Network. Finally, a service with a centralized profile, a messaging system, and the ability join online games in a manner similar to that on competing platforms.

But it’s still not quite enough. The Network lacks a real method of mass interactivity; the Miiverse seems to want to emulate environments like Sony’s Home, but is really just a visual representation of a message board. The board itself lacks many features that have been long integrated into even the most basic forums. Direct responses are not an option; one can only respond to the main post in a thread, and hope that anyone else addressed will see the message. The one function that is both unique to NN and useful is the ability to post a screenshot of a game to the forums. This is actually something I would love to see in other services.

The system is also heavily fragmented; Nintendo leaves virtually every aspect of it up to the publishers of each game. While this is great for publisher freedom, it means the user has a very inconsistent experience. Some games may support parties, some may support voice chat. There are no cross-game parties or chats. These are things that need to change for this service to compete.

Even headset support itself leaves much to be desired. There is no bluetooth support; only 3.5mm headsets will work, and even then coverage is spotty. Really the only good choices are Nintendo’s first-party headset or one made by Turtle Beach specifically for the Wii U. Even then, headsets can only be used with the gamepad, as the Pro Controller lacks a 3.5mm port. This all adds up to create a distinct impression of a colossal lack of planning. At the very least, adding a connector port to the Pro Controller would be greatly appreciated; Bluetooth headset support would be ideal, however unlikely.

From Nintendo’s point of view, the Network is a huge leap forward, bringing them closer to their competitors’ online gaming and social webs. From outside, though, it’s less significant. I would really call it a Planck step, personally. But it’s a step. Now if they can just take a few more…

wii woes, part 2

I feel it necessary to point out (constantly) that I am, and always have been, a Nintendo fan. Ever since I got my SNES over 12 years ago, I’ve always preferred their consoles. I also happen to be curiously conservative on the issue of consoles; I believe that gaming consoles should focus primarily on gaming, with other functions being secondary. While I love that my Wii U can play Netflix, I don’t care for systems that can access Twitter, Facebook or Internet Explorer during gameplay. That is the realm of desktop computers, and compromises the console’s ability to run gaming software.

That being said, I’m not blind to Nintendo’s mistakes…past or present. And the Wii U has issues. And I’m not done ranting.
Part Deux: The Gamepad
The gamepad is a great idea. It provides a second screen with which to display extra information. It can provide a sense of immersion, like serving as an inventory manager or as a Batcomputer. It can also allow unique involvement of players, such as in New Super Mario Bros U. It has even sparked a new movement, motivating both Sony and Microsoft to come up with their own second screens for their consoles.
It’s overplayed.
Its use is enforced in far too many circumstances. System settings, Miiverse, and the eShop all require its use. It is actually impossible to navigate any of these subsystems without the gamepad. The worst part? It’s completely unnecessary. In the case of the system settings, the TV screen is wasted with just a message telling the user to look at the gamepad. In the Miiverse and eShop, it’s entirely redundant–the content on the displays is mirrored, and it’s possible to navigate using on the gamepad’s buttons, meaning these sections could be used with a pro controller or wiimote. But it’s not an option.
These issues also persist in some games and third-party apps. The Netflix app requires the use of the gamepad, once again with near-complete redundancy. Nano Assault Neo can make use of the pro controller, but only for a second player–the first must use the gamepad, even though there are no integral functions assigned to it.
At the same time, its use isn’t standardized enough. One of its most popular features is Off TV Play. This moves the game’s main display to the gamepad, allowing a game to be enjoyed without the TV being set to the Wii U input, or even turned on at all. It’s a great feature. But it’s purely up to developers to implement. Often its implementation is unintuitive–switching to gamepad mode may require navigating through several layers of clunky menus. Other times it’s literally as simple as a button in the corner of the screen. But it’s really something Nintendo should have worked out on their own beforehand, and placed a button on the gamepad dedicated to its use.
On top of all of this is the ultimate issue…battery life. The gamepad can manage about 2-3 hours on a full charge, depending on use, because it comes equipped with a woefully undersized 1500mAh battery. Nyko sells a 4000mAh pack that fits inside the same compartment, and a larger unit that attaches to the back and doubles as a stand. But Nintendo should have seen this one coming. Even just watching Netflix, with the screen off, drains the battery in less than 3 hours. I would say there should be a way to actually turn the gamepad off, but certain apps require its use, so it would be a moot point. But that just brings me back to my earlier rant, thus completing the circle of bitching.
Nintendo initially announced support for only a single gamepad per base station, but later stated that two was a possibility. Games with support for this have yet to be seen, but the point is moot, because gamepads still cannot be purchased separately. But there are still technical issues with the concept, chief among them being framerates. The gamepad runs at a maximum of 60 frames per second, each of these frames being delivered from the base station to the screen. Two gamepads would mean halving this to 30 at most, often lower than that depending on how busy the screens are. This is all the result of the fact that the gamepad is literally just a wireless screen. It’s not an independent piece of hardware. But you know what is? The 3DS.

wii woes, part 1

Let’s be honest. The Wii U is not doing well. There are a lot of reasons for this. Some are Nintendo’s fault, some aren’t. More importantly, some of these reasons can be compensated for. Some can’t.

Perhaps Nintendo’s single biggest error with the Wii U has been regarding marketing. The name “Wii U” was a terrible choice. It carries the implication that the product is either an addon to, or an upgraded version of, the Wii. Many people are still under the impression that it is nothing more than a tablet that works with the Wii. The direct result of this is that many people don’t feel inclined to buy it. Nintendo hasn’t done enough to differentiate the new from the old.

While the name can’t be changed (at least, not without causing even more confusion), Nintendo can always retool their marketing, and make customers more aware that this is a new product. Meanwhile, there are far bigger issues that need to be confronted by Iwata and company.

Part The First: Third Party Support

This is where Nintendo has traditionally trailed far behind its competitors. Ever since the Nintendo 64, they have struggled to maintain connections with other publishers and developers while Microsoft, Sony and others shovel dozens of games with long-running consumer bases onto their consoles.

At this point the Wii U is stuck in a vicious feedback loop. Currently, Black Ops 2 has an online player base of about 2000-4000 players on a daily basis. Xbox Live tallies about 200,000 on an average day. As a result, Activision feels less inclined to provide higher support, including releasing DLC on the system. As a result of this, less DLC can be sold. So far none of the Black Ops 2 DLC has been released on Wii U.

In a similar boat, the Wii U release of Injustice has recieved significant content support, but still little in comparison to its bretheren. The DLC that has come to the platform has all come with considerable tardiness. On top of this, Injustice lacks a very particular feature: the ability to play with friends online. The only available option is to play against random opponents (or not so random, in the case of ladder games). One cannot simply pick their friends off a list and play them. This can only be done in local multiplayer.

In September 2012, the Mass Effect trilogy was released as a bundle for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. While it wasn’t much more than a convenient package for 360 customers, it allowed the PS3 to experience the first game for the first time. The trilogy was not released on Wii U, and there are currently no plans to do so. A reworked version of Mass Effect 3 was released making use of the gamepad. It received good reviews; however it only includes DLC that was already on the market beforehand, and EA does not plan on releasing any more of the paid content that was released afterward.

Speaking of local multiplayer, there are some games that omit online entirely, even if it seems like an inescapable conclusion. Tank! Tank! Tank! is one of these games. Despite having broad appeal and a variety of game modes, the best that can be done is four-player local. At this point, the upcoming Arkham Origins is not planned to have any multiplayer at all. While I’m not particularly interested in multiplayer with regards to the Arkham games, no doubt it comes as a slap in the face to the millions of Wii U owners who plan (or were planning) to buy on that system.

While the userbase is lacking compared to competing platforms, the fact remains that a product never placed on the shelf can never be sold. One certainly isn’t going to build consumer confidence when their consumers feel punished for buying their product. The community has been practically begging publishers to release DLC, with responses that can be generously described as indifferent and ambiguous. Then those same publishers turn around and state that upcoming games will not have comparable feature sets because of the lack of sales, seemingly baffled as to the cause.

Someone needs to break this cycle. While the Wii U and Nintendo Network aren’t what everyone wanted, on the whole it’s been a step forward for them. Nintendo finally has a system and a network that can sustain the functionality its predecessors long lacked. It’s time for the publishers to take the risk. Put the content out, and people will buy it. They’ve been begging for the privilege to do just that.

I for one will likely be buying the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts on Wii U. While the PC version will likely recieve more content, have a far larger player base and let me do things like listen to music while playing–not to mention the natural advantages of shooters on PC–my desire to see this system move forward trumps that. If the publisher is going to take the risk putting content on the system, I as the consumer will take the risk buying that content, hoping that they will see it’s worth their time to invest further in. Ultimately, the antidote to these vicious cycles breaks down to hope and trust.