Could Nintendo have again sparked another sort of homerun omen with the Wii U? The Wii ushered in a shortsighted, unscrupulous emphasis on motion controls – could the Wii U really pull off the same kind of full on zeitgeist shift?
No, not in the active sense at least. Nintendo’s motion innovation was the unmoved mover for this current generation in its twilight. The Wii U will be more of a passive harbinger, heralding the day when not the box but the controller itself is the focus of media scrutiny, R&D money, and consumer zeal for that generation of video games.
Let’s back up.
In the context of the myriad hypothesizes and auguries for future video game generations, the single-console-future is a possibility that has refused to recede since it was proposed back when Sega “gracefully” stepped out of the market. There are plenty of excellent reasons for this:
1) A single console means a single delivery format, for which there are many self-evident benefits for almost every party involved.
2) There’s a certain familiarity here: other industries have evolved in a similar manner, most notably the closest cousin to gaming, home video.
3) A single console equates to a much easier development cycle for developers, which presumably means more finely crafted video games in greater quantity.
4) Many of the broadly applicable laws of economics would look favorably on a single console market. A few of these reasons are laid out by Dennis Dyack (he goes so far as to call it an inevitability!)
Those benefits are just the tip of the iceberg, in that they issue simply from the empty concept of a single box owned by everyone interested in home entertainment. In all likelihood, a collection of industry monoliths (you didn’t think the little guys would be included, did you?) would determine the approach to collectively take, similar to the Blu-Ray Disc Association. In doing so they could create even more value for the consumer while mitigating snags.
The prevailing idea for a single console prospect revolves around streaming your video game across your ISP from your Content Service Provider (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony, whoever else). Whether one single company creates all of these consoles (unlikely) or any interested company buys into a license to create their own (the home video model) makes little difference ultimately, as long as the hardware architecture is the same.
We can see the nascent stages of this idea in OnLive, where a surprising amount of AAA titles are already available.
Gamers could switch from playing Super Smash Brothers: Altercation to Gears of War 14 with the press of a remote. Even at a more expensive overall price point, this multi-machine would surely be far cheaper than three independent consoles. And perhaps most importantly, there’s only one set of cords to wrangle for one box on your crowded entertainment stand.
Although relevant, I’ll ignore the various bummers of switching to a purely ethereal format. Tackling that and other topics like resolution output are outside the scope of this piece.
So how does the Wii U play into this supposed destiny for the video game industry? It harkens to a not so distant day when the console makers focus less on the machine itself and more on the controller, the window to your interaction world. Instead of opening up a fresh console on Christmas morning, you’d instead rip the plastic off a controller (or two) created by your favorite console maker.
Since hardware updates are made server side and your “console” is a glorified stream box, so much upgrading for DirectX, Havoc Engine, etc can be done in some expertly air conditioned darkened room in California. This further alleviates costs, cuts down on patch downloads, and extends the life of your actual box so that additional purchases are unnecessary. One console + multiple controllers = better than now.
This middle of the road approach is the best of both worlds, capitalizing on the gifts of both our current and future situations. In addition to the palpable benefits of a one console planet surveyed above, there are a number of problems conveniently sidestepped by maintaining unique controllers and ditching proprietary boxes:
1) Console makers still maintain their most important degree of creative freedom when developing hardware for the video game market. Innovation and competition can maintain their current level of veracity while still simplifying the entire gaming experience.
2) A greater variety of initial costs of entry for different consumers into the video game market while still enjoying the huge diversity of titles to be played. While some of more powerful, features packed controllers could very well push the cost of your gaming into the current silliness embodied in this three console era, a simple arcade controller would keep everything in budget.
3) A dramatically altered, far more dynamic hardware development cycle that allows The Big Three to continuously design better and more sophisticated controller-multimedia schemes. The significantly lower risk and cost of development would translate into leaner prices, more creative ventures, and more options, period.
4) Greater incentive for new and existing tech companies to jump into the market, encouraged by the market overhaul represented by #3 and further compounding the benefits represented in #2.
…And any other numerous boons to genuine, creative gaming that would be enjoyed depending on the particulars of the controllers developed.
Maybe Sony makes a controller designed from the ground up for modularity, with a base that can mount different sized hand grips, buttons types, and analog stick placements. Not unlike a fancy gaming mouse, this base could accommodate dozens of different combinations to comport itself to the variegated demands of different genres. You might actually want to play an RPG on a console.
Maybe Microsoft creates a tablet that could firmly compete with the iPad by offering an enhanced gaming experience to your favorite titles. Can you imagine what SmartGlass would be like if it launched three years ago (when it was supposed to, as opposed to the final stages of this generation) with some of that R&D money that got wasted on the HD-DVD drive?
Maybe Nintendo makes a wireless version of all of their retro controllers for you to play with, just for all of us old nerds with nothing else to spend our money on. Yes. I would play through Disgaea with the uncomfortable ache of an NES controller, just because. Give ‘em an SD card as well with all the classic titles on it, allowing friends to simply synch their controller and play their copy of Street Fighter II on any console.
The singular problem not sidestepped is that of different controller schemas inevitably leading to different interaction possibilities within the same game depending on which of The Big Three one opted for. Properly argued, this could be made to undermine the whole crux of the argument, disputing the claim that there’s any revolution to be had here. My response:
There’s little to no chance it would create an atmosphere worse than our current one of aiming QB passes on the Wii or waggling your SIXAXIS around to open a hatch. Would you rather be forced to buy a whole other console to achieve the optimal gaming experience or just a controller?
Controllers can and should be something more than a transparent interface. Nintendo has claimed to understand this…at least their heart’s in the right place. The Wii U doesn’t really bring anything new to the table in terms of brilliant new interaction ideas – you can find all the tech condensed into that giant white Game Gear thingy in other devices, usually better implemented. But give them credit for taking that first awkward step in this direction – those one giant leaps are rarely a pretty sight.
Suggested Further Reading: