Wii U – Innovation Wasteland

Ever since Nintendo announced the DS there has been a palpable excitement surrounding the reveal of any new hardware from the longest surviving console creators in the history of gaming. There’s good reason for it too, for better or worse the Wii, DS and most recently the 3DS have introduced new play experiences. Play experiences that have garnered such strong consumer interest as to force everybody else to change their game completely.

The results haven’t always been compelling though. A constant wave of poor quality shovelware has infected Nintendo’s innovative consoles, with the 3DS no doubt soon to follow. With the announcement of the Wii U, a new console and controller combo sporting enough power to host ports of Batman: Arkham City, Darksiders II and other titles previously blocked from Nintendo consoles, the Japanese institution is sure to be able to turn things around in terms of quality while still promising innovation. Right?

No. At least I don’t think so. It seems a reasonable assumption that Nintendo has made the developer experience easy enough to warrant so many high-profile names getting on board to bring what are late-in-the-cycle games for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to the new machine. Another reasonable assumption would be that Nintendo will attempt to encourage these developers, bouyed by the ease of porting, to spend time and money on exclusive features designed for the Wii U’s touch-screen, camera and microphone technology.

Nintendo should probably look to their competitors for evidence of exactly why this might not work out. Both the Kinect and Move have, at launch, promised to deliver unique experiences in addition to ordinary game content. Neither have truly delivered – developers preferring to forge ahead with a more traditional experience rather than catering to the minority of users equipped with the camera/wand equipment. For the most part these devices have been completely ignored.

Of course, Nintendo have the trump card of every Wii U shipping with one of these potentially inspiring tablet controllers. It won’t be the minority of owners, it’ll be the entire install base for the console. Unfortunately, it’s the entire install base for a console which is now directly competing with two machines whose combined sales out-number even the mighty Wii.  When a developer is porting a title, developing simultaneously across three platforms, taking time to create a compelling use of the Wii U technology will become a low priority. Just like it has for the Kinect. Just like is has for the Move.

The presence of the screen will mandate at least token gestures from any developer bringing their title to Wii U. A touch-screen inventory. A map on your controller. Sniper sights outside your TV screen. I have no doubt that we’ll see all of these and more bland implementations of a technology that could genuinely innovate were developers inclined to accommodate it. Simply put, I don’t believe they will be, particularly when they can not guarantee a boost in sales because of it. Nor can they guarantee that extra screen’s availability.

Being able to play your big-screen game on your tablet-enabled controller sounds like an exciting prospect, particularly for those of us with partners who demand the TV for such delights as Bondi Vet, Britain’s Got Talent and Teen Moms. However, while I’m playing on that smaller screen, the developer can’t use it for maps, inventories nor iron sights. If they want these things they either need to block a key Wii U feature, or develop two solutions for the same throw-away gimmick – a gimmick that can only be non-essential to gameplay. It just isn’t worth their time to come up with those solutions when their big name game will sell regardless.

What does this all mean then? Well, it certainly won’t mean the Wii U won’t sell, and while it might never catch up with the 360 or PS3 before Microsoft and Sony iterate again, it will certainly be a profitable port platform for publishers and developers alike. But if the innovations won’t come from the ports, then that leaves first-party and exclusive titles with the responsibility for innovation. Or it leaves them with another opportunity for shoddy products that capitalise on the next big thing.

Be ready  for countless board game collections, Angry Birds clones and even more party games. Crap pushed out to generate cash off the back off novelty. Nintendo will fight back with Mario, with Zelda and the occasional EA exclusive, just like they tried to do with the Wii. It won’t work though. It won’t be enough to resist the horde of cheaply produced budget turds snapped up by the families hooked by the promise of experiencing that first-play-with-family feeling that the Wii gave them. That ‘oooh’ moment. Ultimately, there’s more money in it. A leafy new innovation Eden ruined by the evils of capitalism. And that’s before Sony and Microsoft take their hardcore franchises onto new, power hungry pastures.

The ports will represent the quality, potentially improving the console’s profile among the hardcore, but they won’t exploit the potential of the machine, only the exclusives will. Taking the Wii exclusive back catalog into account, history dictates that you’ll rarely see quality delivered and innovation explored in the same place. The Wii U, another Nintendo platform with incredible potential that won’t be used. An innovation wasteland.

About Martin Perry

Martin Perry is Reviews Editor for Splitkick.
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