Nintendo’s strategy at the moment is one they know well. Iwata and Miyamoto are both fond of the concept of upending the tea-table, or in Western terms- “disrupting” the market. Essentially, this was the strategy that helped the Wii to become a household name and put motion controls on the map. It was such a new way of approaching game controls that it made everyone stop and take notice. The intuitive style of gameplay also opened up entirely new demographics to the console, resonating even with people who hadn’t previously considered themselves gamers.
In a sense, Nintendo hopes this will happen once again with the Wii U, when developers begin taking advantage of the asymmetrical gameplay that is now possible with the GamePad. The new types of innovation and creative ideas should begin turning heads and luring customers to the Wii U. The original trailer for the Wii U conceptualized all sorts of innovative ways the GamePad could be used. Unfortunately, the Wii U isn’t dominating the mainstream press or causing the same ripple effects as its predecessor. Some blame it on lack of compelling software for the first few months after launch. Others say it’s the lack of marketing coupled with consumer confusion about the Wii U being an add-on for the Wii. And yet others say a price cut is what’s needed most.
I’m not here to look at those lines of reasoning but to propose a powerful strategy that could allow the Wii U to change the way we look at consoles forever. In a sense, the Wii U GamePad would propel a next-gen leap forward that far surpasses the “better-graphics” advancements of the PS4 and Microsoft’s next console. I have no doubt that if Sony or Microsoft were in Nintendo’s position with a tablet controller of sorts they would have leveraged this strategy from the get-go. And if Nintendo were to adopt this frame-of-mind, it would inevitably force the competition to “keep up” with Nintendo and make custom tablets of their own to connect to their next-gen consoles.
So, what kind of strategy am I referring to?
Interaction with a Console vs. Interaction with a PC
We all have adopted paradigms of what kind of games belong on a console or are even theoretically possible on a console. Even developers, publishers, and the industry at large think inside-the-box when it comes to consoles. Until now, traditional console controllers such as the DualShock and the Xbox 360 controller have only allowed a certain type of interaction. That meant that games on consoles would always be just that — “console games.” You know the type of game I’m referring to because it’s always most convenient to play them with a console controller. Looking at the past few months of releases they would be: DmC Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, Gears of War Judgement, New Super Mario Bros U, Need For Speed Most Wanted U, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Halo 4. Some “console-like” games that also came to PC were Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed III, and Far Cry 3.
But is that all there is to gaming? Is the Xbox 360 controller the preferred method of control for every type of genre on every gaming platform? Absolutely not. A PC has a completely different set of interaction method, mouse and keyboard, which allows many other types of software to be used. PC releases from the past six months have included many of the console games mentioned, but many different ones as well that are meant to be played with a mouse and keyboard: SimCity, Guild Wars 2, Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, Planetside 2, Orcs Must Die 2, Torchlight 2, Total War: Shogun 2 Fall of the Samurai, Miasmata, Primordia, Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare, Football Manager 2013, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Faster Than Light, Crusader Kings II: The Republic, and Dota 2.
This all boils down to one fundamental contrast between PC and consoles: interaction. On a PC you can use the mouse to select any pixel on the screen with precision. “Hover,” “click,” and “drag” are all standard methods of interaction you’ll only find associated with a mouse, not a controller. And they’ve been the traditional method of interaction with a PC for decades already. A controller can’t replace a mouse’s ability to select. In order for a controller to be useful there must already be an “avatar” positioned (i.e. selected) on the screen ready for you to move. Even in a menu screen, one of the options will be highlighted as a starting point of reference. It can’t pick its initial spot on the screen to begin. The control sticks can move something in a direction, but can’t select a specific spot on the screen effectively. And that’s big. Massive, in fact. Selection is a huge concept for hundreds of games and PC software. If you want to play a real-time strategy game where you can easily select any unit on the map, or drag a box over a group of units, you can only do that easily and intuitively with a mouse. If you were to use a controller, you’d have to come up with a dumbed-down way of selecting units or a workaround. Part of Miyamoto’s genius in the Pikmin series is how he managed to create a real-time strategy game for consoles because he based the gameplay around a central character who you can control- Captain Olimar. That’s a clever move, but consoles are still cut off from 99% of strategy games.
Another limitation of consoles is the lack of keyboard. Of course, you can buy a console keyboard and plug it in, but we all know what happens when a peripheral is not bundled with a console. Unless there are tons of compelling games that demand it, people won’t go out and buy more peripherals than they need. So publishers wave it off and say, forget it, we’re not publishing games that require a keyboard unless it’s on PC. But that cuts consoles off from thousands of games that have robust social aspects which use typing or complex interfaces with 60 key bindings or macros (like most MMORPGs).
The Broad Spectrum of Gaming Communities On the Internet
And I’m not just talking about massive industries such as MMORPGs and social gaming. The world of the PC is full of niche communities with their own tastes that have specific developers catering to them and their unique consumer demands. Especially now that indie developers have begun to proliferate beyond imagine and practically anyone with a passion can become a game developer, there are so many obscure gaming needs being satisfied– but only on PC. Consoles haven’t moved past the need for simplistic control methods since the original NES controller. More buttons and analog sticks have made games more complex, but there’s a limit to what control schemes people will put up with just a controller in hand. And it’s not just about complexity. Sometimes all it takes is the ability to select something on screen with your mouse. Something as simple as that becomes a chore with a controller. Buttons and analog sticks can only offer you so much.
Publishers and developers who have worked primarily in the console realm have to realize that not all the money is being kept in the same basket anymore. There are so many different gaming audiences who they could be appealing to. And if you look beyond strictly gaming and broaden your horizon to all the hobbies and activities gamers are involved in, the online PC “gamer-verse” is overwhelmingly larger than that of consoles. Just look at some of the popular gaming habits online: MMORPGs, Sports “manager” games, Hidden-Object Games, Match-Three Games, Modding Communities, Online Flash portals like Newgrounds and Kongregate, Online Fiction/Text Adventures and Visual Novels, Youtube Let’s Play communities, Minecrafters, Roguelike communities (Dwarf Fortress and the like), Online FPS, MOBAs, MUDs, Emulation and hacking communities, Free To Plays and Freemiums, Speedrunners, video game deviantARTists, video game fan literature, Social gaming on Facebook, VGM remix communities, competitive fighting tournaments, experimental gameplay, streaming game audiences, eSports, etc etc.
A personal computer with its method of interaction frees up so many of the rigid structures we think of on consoles. We’re not just talking about console gaming and PC gaming; the possibilities are open to all manner of meta-gaming and every hobby imaginable that’s based around gaming. It’s the entire internet and every possibility that it opens up for gamers with any kind of passion.
The Wii U Offers a Simple Way to Revolutionize Console Gaming
But we don’t associate any of that chunk of gaming geography with consoles. Why? Because until the Wii U and its very straight-forward interaction via a tablet device, it hasn’t been feasible. The Wii U is the most remarkable console we’ve had since the day 3D gaming was introduced in the 32-bit and 64-bit era. But it is remarkable by the very nature of its stupid simplicity. All it does is “simply everything” we’ve ever seen before on PCs. Is that exciting or innovative? No. And that’s why Nintendo has ignored this angle. But, this is a more powerful and profound angle than innovation. It’s transformative in the sense that it can break down that Great Wall of China that is currently erected between PCs and consoles. It’s like building a bridge between two distant communities and attempting to merge one with the other.
The Wii U is an everything device. You can use buttons and analog sticks as well as select, drag, and even type. It is capable of playing anything possible on a console, PC, or mobile/tablet device. That is overwhelmingly awesome in the magnitude of its potential. And as I said before, it’s almost stupid in how effective of a change it is. People all laughed at the Wii U and said, “Hah! Nintendo think they’re being clever with their ‘innovative’ GamePad, but we’ve all seen that before! It’s just a tablet device!” But that’s exactly the point. It is ridiculously simple, but do realize: it’s the one and only way consoles can bridge the gap with PCs without sitting on your living room couch with a mouse and keyboard on your lap.
The entire world knows how to use tablet devices and mini-computers. We all know how to tap and slide and even type – rather effectively, to be honest. This should be the most intuitive thing to us in the world. Developers should suddenly be thinking about what kind of MMORPGs and RTS games they will bring to Wii U. But they’re not. They’re still thinking in console terms. They’re stuck in the console mind-frame.
When I speak about making a paradigm shift in console gaming I mean breaking down the boundaries between console gaming and PC gaming in people’s minds. They shouldn’t be two entities anymore. A console should be capable of any form of gameplay or interaction that a computer can produce. We have to broaden our horizons to allow hundreds of new communities and genres to enter the console sphere.
Giving the Console Industry More Room to Breathe
I know some people will be reading this and thinking to themselves, I wouldn’t want that to happen because I don’t like MMORPGs/RTS/Particular-Genre so I don’t want those games to became part of my favorite console’s library. But one has to realize that having more diversity in our console libraries is not a bad thing. Do you complain about the PC’s library because someone out there is playing Dwarf Fortress and you’re not? The guys who make Dwarf Fortresses will continue making the Dwarf Fortresses and the guys who make the games that you enjoy won’t suddenly disappear overnight. We don’t have to continue thinking about console libraries in such a limiting way. The industry should be allowed to breathe and expand, not restrict itself into a rigidly confined space.
The current console climate can’t continue indefinitely. Think of the movie industry. Do you think the box offices would be booming if all they ever showed were big blockbuster summer films? Of course not. Eventually movie-goers would get bored. They need a year interspersed with horror, romance, drama, documentaries, musicals, animation, foreign films, comedy, and the occasional indie art-house film. Then they can properly appreciate the mega-blockbuster popcorn action movie.
Right now console gaming is producing one action-blockbuster after another. People will get burnt out after a while. Too many games are being made with an $80 million development budget and being considered a flop when they “only” sell 3-4 million copies. Which is why the indie movement has begun to sneak through the cracks and find a home on consoles. But it isn’t just about the console indies and creating retro-nostalgic 8-bit titles to fill out the gap between AAA titles. It’s about incorporating existing PC markets into our business strategy and integrating them onto consoles, so we don’t always have to talk about consoles vs PCs. They will begin to overlap.
What’s ridiculous to me is how Nintendo of Japan realizes the asymmetrical innovations capable with the GamePad and even notice how it can change the social/lifestyle realms with Miiverse and TVii, but they don’t see the endless potential of going a step further and inviting hundreds of existing audiences to co-exist on their platform. If I were Nintendo I’d pay whatever it took to get a port of World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, and Diablo III on the Wii U. Not because those games would instigate a frenzy of Christmas-like shopping sprees, but because the entire gaming world would do a collective double-take. Their brows would furrow into a single industry-wide unibrow as they struggled to comprehend the mental shift that just took place. PC-only type games would be suddenly playable on a console.
That’s the kind of market disruption that could bring the Wii U into a new light in the industry. It’s a strategy much more powerful than demonstrating shinier graphics on your new console and calling that a gigantic leap forward for mankind. Just think: analysts claim the MMORPG genre will gain up to US $8-billion all by itself by 2014. Another crazy fact: the MOBA genre (massively online battle arena) may surpass MMORPGs soon, as free-to-play League of Legends is currently the most played game in the world, averaging 12 million players daily and 70 million registered users. (This, despite the success of its biggest rival, Dota 2.)
I, personally, haven’t spent much (or any) time with MMORPGs or MOBAs, but I can’t ignore their impact on the industry and what it might mean for a console if it could integrate such an audience into its consumer base.
And no one has to think for a moment that if such a thing took place the Wii U’s library would no longer include the Zeldas and the Smash Bros or the Watch_Dogs and the Bayonettas. Of course, those games will always have a major place in the industry no matter what happens, similar to how summer blockbusters will always have their place in the movie industry. However, there will be a much larger scope to a console’s library than ever before, and many more sources of revenue to tap into.
In fact, I’d be bold enough to say, of the three major console makers, the company with the longest staying power will be determined by which succeeds most in encompassing the broadest selection of gaming audiences and demographics. As they say, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The console that holds the most “baskets” will win; not the console with the shiniest graphics but only holds one heavy basket that may fall and crack all its eggs at any moment. Shiny graphics is not a sound business strategy.
Nintendo of America’s Role in Implementing Such a Strategy
This industry is too splintered and diverse to ignore its myriad paths and directions. But the Wii U can encompass all that with its GamePad. It’s just a matter of making it a focus. Reaching out to all those diverse markets and offering them a step inside of your own welcome home. But I somehow doubt that Nintendo of Japan will pursue such a strategy. They’re still pushing developers to innovate in a console-like manner of gameplay. Which is why I think that Nintendo of America has to step in and do it themselves. The problem is that NoA is only given a certain amount of room to maneuver and make their own policies. Most of the overall company direction and priorities are decided upon by Nintendo of Japan, with NoA forced to be as creative and effective as they can within whatever jurisdiction is left to them.
The one realm Nintendo of America has been learning to expand its effectiveness is within the digital distribution realm, where they have been given more room to stretch their wings with indie developers. Because of this, Nintendo of America’s eShop team has literally made it frictionless to become an approved developer and start producing revenue from day one.
In order to put into effect the strategy I spoke of earlier, Nintendo of America may have to take a less efficient route. They won’t be given the capital to invest in a few game-changing ports or exclusives, for example from Blizzard, to send the message out loud and clear across the industry. Instead, they would have to seek out indie developers or smaller studios that would potentially bring their PC-like games to Wii U and hope that with enough of these, the Wii U’s image would begin to change to that of an all-encompassing gaming system. That would hopefully attract the attention of the bigger developers and publishers and plant seeds in their mind of the new possibilities presented by the Wii U.
How I’d Like to Help
After all this, I’ll just mention that in my own very small, very limited manner, I will be trying to help push along such a strategy, whether or not it is adopted by those more significant than me and who could make the real difference. As I said a few days ago, Emily Rogers has shown me the ropes of approaching indie developers and exploring with them the possibilities of the Wii U. She has already helped more than a handful of indie developers become approved for Nintendo platforms. I’ve begun to try and follow this example and have begun communication with a few developers already.
My goal will be to get games that aren’t possible or wouldn’t be intuitive on any other console but Wii U. Some of those will be long shots, others will be easier to work with. Some will be massive games, others will be smaller in scope. I don’t expect my attempts to make anything more than a little dent. In a separate post today I shared two more developers who are now considering bringing their games to Wii U: Battle Worlds Kronos and Guns of Icarus Online.