Saturday, April 7, 2012

Wii U: 8th or 7.5th generation?

Finally I reach the the third and final major upcoming console:  The Wii U.

This is the one that has the most information about it.  Of course even with a suspected release date in about 7 months, there is only a small amount of information about it actually confirmed.  Let's jump right into the rumors.

What's in a name?  Brand recognition, associated loyalty, confusion over products, a describer of the product.  All of these things and more, so it does not surprise me that Wii U may not actually be the name it is released as.  The N64 before the release was called the Ultra 64, the Wii was called Revolution till April of the year it was released.  There is still time to change the name.  Changing the name could prevent dumb people from becoming confused over which is the new console and which is the old.  Of course the same people who would make such mistakes, are just as likely to mistake the PS3 for a 360.  There is brand recognition there, but that recognition is not all positive.  The only thing that tells me that Wii U is the final name is the fact that we already have a code name for the system, "Project Café."  Well, I never much liked the name Wii, so I'm not too attached to it.  For the most part, the games would look no different if it were named "the Nintendo Pink Frilly Daisy System."  It's all about the games.  "A rose by any other name..."

Power of the Wii U is one of the most popular speculations going on currently.  Twice as powerful as the 360, less powerful than the PS3 or 360, slightly better than the PS3 and 360.  Who really knows?  Well I'm sure there are people today who know, but due to contractual mumbo jumbo they are tight lipped on the subject.  All these anonymous developers who keep ragging on a console don't even have final development kits for it!  It sure sounds like a lot of anti-Nintendo sentiment.  I find it funny how fast those rumors exploded up my internet searches, pushing sites I generally searched out onto the 2nd and even 3rd page of my searches.  Conspiracy theorists can take that how they choose.

Years ago, system generations were expected to last only for 5 years.  Each generation up till the 7th generation has followed this model.  Sure some systems would overlap, but successor consols generally were released in this fashion for the past 20 years.  I grew up thinking that technology was constantly changing, faster and faster, compounding on itself.  From that point of view almost 30 years ago now, we expected our games to evolve into totally immersive experiences where we were the controller.  Sadly, somewhere along the way, we got caught up with making the screen look as amazing as possible, but neglecting any further immersion.  Fast forward to 2006, finally someone bothered to get us back on the right track towards totally immersive gaming.  Despite what some "hardcore" gamers qualms with the method, it proved to be the success of it's generation, against conventional "wisdom" that graphical processing defined gaming.

The Wii U controller is the next step towards full immersion in gaming.  It is going to require an immense amount of processing to produce quality images on both screens at once.  Preferably it should boast enough power to utilize more than one screen.  That is a sacrifice overall, and a gamble on Nintendo's part.  However that processing power is going to exist, and developers could choose to utilize it primarily for the TV, producing better images on the main screen, sacrificing some for the controller.  Conversely, if the developer has too lofty goals of what they want to do with the controls, then of course the processor is going to seem to pale in comparison.  Your asking the system to simultaneously do twice the work either the 360 or PS3 is potentially able to display.  I expect that spec wise, the Wii U will be amazing in comparison.  When developers choose to use the controller for more immersive gaming, it will have to be made up somewhere else.  Now, excluding all that, Nintendo has only been releasing under-clocked development kits.  But when comparing an apples to apples scenario, I expect the Wii U to be amazing compared to the PS3 and 360.  Once the PS4 and 720 are released, some people are going to look at it's graphical muscle with disdain, but these same people are those who can't appreciate a game for it's gameplay.

One or more tablet controllers is the next rumor on my mind when I think about the Wii U.  I really want to see games that use up to four of those bad boys, but two is most likely the going to be the limit. Any games using more than one tablet controller is likely to have much more simplified uses for it as well.  I expect football games to display play options, basic health/positions of sports games, moves list for fighting games, and other simple HUD type material to be moved over to the tablet freeing up the main screen from the clutter.  I was going to say something about health/ammo displays for 1st person shooters, but as there are fewer and fewer shooters which even give the option of two player without online, so I'm not going to hold my breath on that note.  The less complicated the data, the more tablets the Wii U should be able to handle.  Just don't expect to see anything where the tablet is doing much more than that when using two or more.

This leads me to my next thought, which is the death of physical social gaming.  I grew up playing games NEXT to people.  You went to the arcade, your opponent was right next to you; you were at home, they were on the same couch.  This aspect of face to face gaming has been on the decline for years now.  At first it was simply a means of playing with others, even if they weren't in the same room as you.  But now a growing number of games don't even give the option of same screen multi-player!  Have we really become so greedy about how much of the screen we get?  I miss that aspect of gaming.  The Wii had some really great games to play with others, but even it had more than a few games that lacked competition with a player right next to you.  Sure somethings like bowling and golf, where alternating play is part of the game, but in any kind of a racing, fighting, or sports game it's nice to directly compete with your opponent.  I really would love to see more than one Wii Fit Board able to be used on the Wii U simultaneously.  I would have two already if they had done anything using two on the Wii.  I am hoping with this shift in gaming styles that the demos showed, that we can hope to see more people playing games together.

On the other side of the coin, Nintendo is expected to make some changes to their online structure.  Lets hope that translates to easier gaming with friends.  There are so many codes affiliated with a Wii:  from friend codes, to Mario Kart, Smash Bros., Dr. Mario, Monster Hunter, Conduit, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, it's an insane task to keep track of them all.  Then I have to register this number, and that number just to play with friends?  Just implement a single ID, to keep track of all this junk for me.  In that same respect though, I hope in part of their planning for that, it can still work around the current model.  I want to keep playing Monster Hunter, Smash Bros, Mario Kart, etc when I get my Wii U with my friends online.  At least till they release new versions.

One other thing we can expect this time around, Nintendo is working to ensure 3rd party developers make great games for the Wii U.  They are paying to give developers the tools to make really great games.  This is yet another huge step for Nintendo in it's effort to undo the damage of years of neglecting 3rd party developers.  It was at it's worst during the days of the N64, and has been slowly getting better over time.  Despite rumors of power over anonymous developers and unconnected investors speaking on behalf of developers who have never officially stated anything, there sure are a lot of 3rd party developers who not only are on board with the Wii U, but excited!

In spite of this, everyone is also looking forward to the next round of 1st party games from Nintendo.  If 3rd party support is great enough, these will only make up about 1/3 of the best games on the Wii U.  New Zelda, Metroid, Smash Bros., Pikman, and Mario are all givens at this point (or actually announced.)  What other franchises can we expect?  Another new Kid Icarus, Punch Out, and Wario Ware would all be welcome additions.  But let's not forget the 2nd party games either!  Rumors of a sequel to Eternal Darkness are starting to pop up too!  What moves gaming consoles is software, and the Wii U is going to have more than it's share.

Which brings me to addressing another qualm people have with Nintendo.  Some people complain about how their consoles are being carried by 1st party sequels.  Now rarely does Nintendo take one of their big franchises and release more than one game per system cycle.  Perhaps this lack of over-saturation (which other people also complain about) is why Nintendo 1st party games always rock.  How many Twisted Metal games did they release for the PS1? 5.  Only 2 each on the PS2 and PSP.  We are actually still waiting on our first one for the PS3.  Sony is finally getting the hint, that you can't keep milking your big franchises till they are a husk of a series that no one bothers buying.  Otherwise you ram them down people's throats till they get sick of them and stop buying (Guitar Hero anyone?)  One is a good number of games per franchises per system cycle.  Two if you have some really awesome idea's that didn't get implemented into the first game.  This helps keep the series from going stagnant.  Oh sure, there are those people who claim that the umteenth COD or Madden is totally worth it.  But if you can't do more than provide me with some new maps and an extra weapon or two, it doesn't deserve to be a new game.  Sounds like a good case for Downloadable content.

Releasing Downloadable content for any game over the lifetime of a system should be the norm.  Why can't sports games just have DLC updates to include the new players/teams/stats?  Heck, you can even incentivise such updates even further by then allowing players to take previous years teams through the new season against all the new teams (I keep telling people the 2010 Pistons could beat the tar out of the 2012 team.)  They already include a lot of these classic teams in games, this is at least a worth while use of DLC.  On the flip-side, DLC has however become something of a crutch to developers recently, it feels like it's becoming just another way to milk a few more bucks out of us gamers.  In most cases, DLC should NOT be available day one.  In fact, unless there is a horrible bug in the game (which itself shouldn't happen, but let's say it does,) I feel there should be little to no DLC for at least two months following the release of a game.  OK, I can be talked down to a month, just cause some players have so little of a life outside of games that they are done with everything in a month no matter how much content is in the game.  Despite my own concerns of the over use of DLC, we can expect to see ever increasing amounts of DLC.  Why?  Because publishers see it as a great way to make an extra buck.  Welcome to capitalism comrade.  With the NFC capabilities of the Wii U, there is even greater potential for us to be nickel and dimed to death.  I question how useful NFC really could be.

Does it sound like I'm contradicting myself by asking for more DLC, yet criticizing how much we are currently getting?  Here's my point:  DLC should be used to increase the life of a game rather than release rehashed sequels with little to no changes in gameplay.  DLC should not be simply a manner of sucking more cash from us.  If that game disc still has room on it, and the content is ready by day one, put it on the disc!  If you already put the content on the disc, don't charge for it!  If it's not done yet, or it's too large to put on the disc, AND it's absence does not negatively impact how that game should be viewed, then release it later as DLC.  Perhaps if Activision followed this mentality, there would still be updates on Guitar Hero World Tour.

At least we have not heard any talk on Nintendo trying to stifle our used games.  Then again, just cause they haven't mentioned it yet, doesn't mean that it's not on the table.  I doubt Nintendo will jump on that band wagon, but till the Wii U is out we have to consider it's potential.  Nintendo loses just as much money on used games as anyone else.  The only thing they gain by not installing stricter controls over used games is the good will from the consumer.  I never really thought that had a dollar value to it, but apparently it must, or no one would be talking about this.

One other thing that we can expect the Wii U not to do:  Blu-Ray.  "Why not?" you may ask.  Nintendo fancies itself a gaming company.  Unlike Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo are focused purely on videogames and nothing else.  If it's not a game, don't expect it to be related to the Wii U.  If they can implement non-gaming aspects without adding cost or taking away from the primary gaming experience, then it may happen (Hulu, Netflix, Books on your Controller).  That Blu-Ray drive on the other hand, would be an additional cost which is not in line with ensuring a quality gaming console.  In essence it's the same in Nintendo's mind as asking them to attach a blender to the system so you can use it in your kitchen.  Yes, I know some people want to have an all in one media device for gaming, movies, social networking, news, daily planner, music player, alarm clock, DVR, back scratcher, that can do your taxes.  They unfortunately will have to look elsewhere for their swiss army knife of entertainment.  Nintendo is going to release a gaming console, PERIOD.

Finally to answer the question posed as the title of this post, "8th generation or 7.5th generation?"  For something to be considered .5 of a generation, it really has to be an add on to the current generation of that is ment to prevent an aging system from becoming obsolete so quickly or making up for some deficiency.  The Sega CD, 32X, Wii Motion Plus, Kinect, and Move are all .5 of their respective generations.  The Wii U will be backward compatible with the 7th generation, but is a stand alone console which does not require the previous console to function, thereby making it part of the 8th generation of consoles.  Once the rest of the generation is released, we will see how it stacks up performance wise.  However, that is not the measure of a generation of consoles.  At no point has there ever been a void of new console releases for as long as we see today.  The unless Microsoft and Sony are going to really surprise us at E3 this year, the Wii U will be the first console of the 8th generation.

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