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domingo, 18 de noviembre de 2012

Nintendo’s Wii U Aims to Court Casual and Hardcore Gamers

Nintendo’s Wii U Aims to Court Casual and Hardcore Gamers

Nintendo’s Wii U console, above, and touch-pad controller sit on display during an interview with Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo 7974.OK +1.73% of America Inc., in New York, U.S., on Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.
Today will either go down in gaming history as the point at which Nintendo performed a spectacular return to form and defiantly placed itself back on top of the video game console food chain, or the moment that the historic game company made a spectacular mistake.
I don’t mean this in terms of the initial sales of its newly-released Wii U console, which are already expected to exceed retailers’ capacity to meet feverish demand. But Nintendo is making a pricey gamble to reinvent its iconic console shortly after the revolution it inspired in home entertainment and gaming with the original Wii in 2006. The bet could just as easily dump the Wii in the pile of abandoned Nintendo gadgets like the Virtual Boy or even the Game Boy.
It’s easy to see why Nintendo is feeling to pinch to uproot itself. The company recentlycut its full-year profit outlook by a staggering 70 percent due to weak sales of its current devices. And besides commercial powerhouses like Call of Duty and Halo 4, developers across the game industry are feeling pressured to either evolve to an increasingly “casual” and mobile marketplace or go extinct.
The big three console developers—Nintendo itself Microsoft MSFT -0.53%, and Sony 6758.TO +3.28%—are all meeting this newfound pressure in different ways. Microsoft is buying up top talent or poaching ideas from everything from Hollywood to cloud storage firms to integrate the Xbox 360 (and its successor, expected to come out sometime next year) within the rest of the company’s large inventory of gadgets and software programs. Sony invested heavily in producing a tremendously powerful mobile gaming console, the Playstation Vita. Like all recent gaming devices made by Sony, its release was overpriced and poorly timed even though many critics fawned over its many stunning qualities.
Of the three, Nintendo’s strategy with the Wii U is by far the most surprising. Seeing casual mobile gaming and “core” console gaming circle each other warily, the company decided to simply mush the two together. And it did so by creating the GamePad, a new controller that feels like a combination of an iPad Mini and an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller.
The GamePad has all the standard features of a console controller: two nub-like joysticks, a directional pad and four alphabetical buttons. But they now rest on either side of a 6.2 inch touchscreen tablet surface. It’s a big change, both literally and figuratively. The GamePad feels cumbersome in my hands compared to the sleek efficiency of something like the Playstation 3 Dualshock controller, and it weighs a little over a pound. This isn’t heavy by any means, but it still puts the controller in a new weight class—it’s more than twice the weight of the Nintendo 3DS, the company’s mobile console (the 3DS XL, which was released earlier this year, is slightly heavier but still lighter than the GamePad). And that’s not even considering how the GamePad will fit in the hands of the many children clamoring for the device.
But all that aside, touchscreen devices are enormously popular, and tablets like the iPad have already opened up unique possibilities for a new breed of videogames. So what’s the problem with just building that into a new console? Because the GamePad is also oversized in another way—one that has already influenced the design of Nintendo’s next generation of games.
What made the original Wii Wand (or Wiimote) such a bold controller was the fact that it threw away the dual-stick standard entirely to focus on revolutionary motion-controlled gameplay. It seemed simple and pared-down compared to the 360 or PS3, but that was its unique charm. And compared to the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube controllers of Nintendo’s past, it was a breath of fresh air that left Sony and Microsoft scrambling to create rival products.
That innovation set the Wii apart from the repetitive offerings of its competitors. As the videogame scholar Jesper Juul wrote in his book “A Casual Revolution,” Nintendo realized that Sony and Microsoft were locked in an arms race to win over the entrenched market for “hardcore” gamers with a predictable set of features—better graphics, faster processing speeds, longer and more blockbuster movie-like games. Rather than chipping away at this demographic, Nintendo created a new market entirely.
With the GamePad, Nintendo instead seems to have caved in to pressure, perceived or real as it may be. And the company now finds itself in awkward position of trying to recast itself as a serious, gaming-centric company that can make its own “hardcore” titles just a few years after it proved that there was another was another, equally valid way to make consoles.
Some launch titles continue the Wii’s tradition by using the GamePad to its best potential, particularly the “asymmetric gameplay” that allows users to juggle the events unfolding on the main TV screen with additional material displayed on the GamePad alone. The new Super Mario Bros. U gives the player holding the GamePad a macro perspective of a level to assist other players, for instance, while Madden NFL 13 lets you sketch out plays with a stylus instead of punching in buttons.
But for every creative use, there’s a potential pitfall. I recently previewed two of Namco’s launch Wii U titles, Tank! Tank! Tank! and Tekken Tag Tournament 2, both of which compromised on game quality to fit in the Wii U’s new 6.2-inch framework. Tekken is essentially a re-skinned version of the existing game with some Nintendo-friendly stickers taped on, and the only touchscreen feature I noticed was a list of the most complicated moves that you could complete with the press of a single icon. As a fighting game, the entire challenge of Tekken rests on pulling off these same moves, so one would think that the touchscreen shortcut defeats the entire purpose of playing. If anything, including a pseudo-cheat-sheet seems to admit that the size of the GamePad impinges on the requisite dexterity to actually play the game. Simply put, I don’t see a lot of veteran Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 fans rushing to compete in Wii U’s multiplayer environment any time soon.
Tank! Tank! Tank! is an addictive arcade-style game in its own right. But when I played with another writer, I ran into the oddest GamePad dilemma I’ve seen so far. Instead of splitting the television screen in two (split-screen gaming, previously the standard for local multiplayer console games), it shunted me to viewing solely on the GamePad. This created an uncomfortable audio effect, since both the GamePad and TV were voicing the same excited cheers and explosions at the same time. And it left me wondering why, with a giant flat-screen television sitting a few feet away from me, I was consigned to tinkering with a tiny tablet in the first place.
Prior to the explosion of game consoles, PC gamers who wanted to play multiplayer with a close friends rather than wade into the ferociously competitive and often hostile environment of online multiplayer had to set up elaborate multi-computer gaming rigs through a local area network (LAN). So-called “LAN parties” are certainly fun, but the experience of being glued to a PC screen for hours at a time doesn’t seem like a party to many but the most dedicated gamers. The Wii, in large part, was what changed that—building games and controllers that were simple enough for grandparents and children alike to enjoy, and enjoy together. The Wii U’s gamepad doesn’t exactly return to the cult status of LAN parties, but it does the next best thing by asking an already distracted audience to stare in different directions.
If anything, this very concern is probably why Nintendo only made the Wii U compatible with a single GamePad. But as a tablet and a game controller, it still forces a compromise on the strength of both devices. The short battery life and wireless range keep it from being a full-fledged mobile unit—especially when compared to something like the Playstation Vita, which you can use as a controller for certain PS3 games at home and still take with you on the subway for your commute.
Wedding consoles and tablets has never been an easy task. One botched attempt by THQ to create a drawing tablet almost singlehandedly destroyed the company with$100 million in lost revenue. The Vita and Xbox’s new Smartglass mobile app are stepping gingerly into the field, but the Wii U has embraced it wholesale.
It’s an interesting experiment, no doubt. But part of the fun of playing games has always been the fact that they demand one’s full attention compared to the incessant multi-tasking that increasingly sophisticated mobile devices so often encourages. The GamePad may make the second screen (or third or fourth, more realistically, if the player already has a smartphone and tablet) a core part of the gaming experience, but in doing so it risks forsaking the very screen that made the Wii U’s production possible in the first place.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal on the eve of the Wii U’s launch, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata insisted that creating this new hardware will ultimately encourage developers to create exclusive games that make use of the GamePad’s unique potential. And there is incredible untapped potential in the GamePad, just as there is in Smartglass and the Vita. As Kotaku’s editor in chief Stephen Totilo argues in the New York Times, “wise” gamers do not buy new consoles for their starting line-up but “for the games in the future.” The question is just how to support such an expensive venture until that promise can be realized.
But exclusivity is not as important for gaming hardware at this point as the quality of its service and the character of the community each console fosters. With the Wii, that community was the family itself—something far more powerful than Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network could ever hope to create. The Wii U may still be built with the family in mind, but it’s now a family more interested in looking at their iPhones than actually making eye contact at the dinner table. A nod to a changed market, to be sure. But what was beautiful about the original Wii was the way it invited people to play with each together both physically and virtually, even if we were all still staring at the screen.

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