Friday, September 7, 2012

[EDITORIAL] What Nintendo Needs to Do With the Wii U; Installment 04

We're back with part 4 of this massive editorial, focusing on Nintendo's direction competition: Sony, Microsoft, and Apple, and what they have geared up for their respective futures. Nintendo has a conference coming up on September 13, where the final bits of news is expected to be released. History has shown that Nintendo loves September announcements for pricing/availability for their upcoming systems, so expect this day to be the day we learn how much of a hit our credit cards are to take.

This year, we see Nintendo not only initiate the eighth generation of home consoles, but this is the first time in Nintendo's history since the NES that they've released a console before their competition. Not only is this an incredibly bold move by Nintendo, but it's also naive. They're allowing their competition know how they're handling their new system, giving them a deep insight to their plans, and adjust accordingly. Assuming the Wii U lands in November, that gives Microsoft and Sony 7 months between then and E3 next year to tweak their battle plans and come out swinging. That is, if Nintendo is tight-lipped on pertinent info that won't come to light until the release; otherwise, if this upcoming press conference is much more info than just pricing and release date, that makes it 9 months. Seven to nine months is enough time to tweak just about anything they need to; if Microsoft can take SmartGlass from initial on-paper design to displayable prototype to the masses in twelve months, then three-fourths of that time is ample.

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To date, Microsoft hasn't said shit on the Xbox Next (or Durango, Xbox 720, Xbox Infinite, what have you). If you recall that document leak back in June, Microsoft actually confirmed it to be legitimate, even if it was "out-dated" by their measures. Regardless, it's interesting information. Things such as Project Fortaleza (or "Kinect Glasses") seems to bridge Kinect elements with Google Glasses concepts. Halo 5 isn't billed as a launch title, but it's coming shortly after. The Kinect 2 appears to want to talk to Xbox controllers for further integration. The system itself is to be $200-300, the same price range it's at now. There's a lot going on in there, but the juiciest information is right above. 

Microsoft's back catalog of games needs some love, especially Rare. They've been on the front lines lately, with the various Kinect Sports games, and the minds behind Avatars. Despite this pivotal piece for Microsoft, Rare hasn't done shit with their respective properties since Banjo-Kajooie: Nuts & Bolts. What about Killer Instinct 3? Where the hell has Joanna Dark been? My most important question is "why hasn't Rare made a new IP?". That question may be answered with the next generation; hell, we may even get to see that realistic Kameo sequel. If you unleash Rare, the last few ounces of faith I have in them tells me that, since they've been away from their original IPs over the course of the 00s, they can very well come back with a slew of fresh ideas for Banjo, Perfect Dark, and Kameo.

I've already talked my head off of how SmartGlass may very well become something great; I'm not going to banter on any further. I will, however, drop this nugget in here: if they really wanted to be sly enough, release the SmartGlass app on the 3DS and the Vita.


Microsoft has Windows 8 coming out in just one month's time, and being a huge platform release - considering the LIVE integration going on - they could very easily further bridge the gap between Xbox LIVE and the rebranded Xbox Windows, making it a seamless experience. Problem is, we've heard so much shit being slung Microsoft's way about how "happy" some of the most prolific faces in the industry would be if Windows 8 didn't exist, or how bad it is for PC gaming. Honestly, I'm actually scared that Microsoft won't take this to heart, and progressively avoid acknowledging them, considering how well the Xbox's success has been. "Locking down" PC gaming in such a manner after all this time would be a detriment to PC developers because there's a reason they've developed for it for so long: it was an open platform.

Microsoft has it's own portable platform, but not in the manner of Nintendo or Sony, but more akin to Apple: Windows Phone. With the introduction of WP7 - and the impending upgrade to WP8 - Microsoft finally made a gaming handheld that talked to it's bigger brothers, what with the promise of cross-device save transfers and everything. Sadly, WP7 never really exploded as they thought it would, but with things such as Surface and SmartGlass coming up, Microsoft's mobile platform may actually be considered a competitor this time around. Combine this with the name of Xbox, and Microsoft is gearing up to create a hell of an ecosystem.

The final tier of the Xbox platform is the LIVE service. Since the 2002 inception, Microsoft has been paving the way for the premiere online service. Unfortunately, it's become laden with this biggest fucksticks you've met in your life; anonymity is the downfall of sanity and common decency. With a $60-per-year price tag, a shit load of apps, and the "if you want to do anything short of scratching your ass, you have to pay us to do it", people hate the service as a whole. Making Xbox LIVE free is a fanboy's wet dream, and it will never happen, as much as I want it to. Microsoft has made so much money, and they have a ton of subscribers, they will never decimate a nearly pure-margin platform.

Three things need to happen to strengthen the brand: stop charging us to use apps (as a former retail employee, people scoff at the idea of paying to use Netflix or Hulu Plus outside of the fees they're already paying to us them), stop displaying ads for those who are Gold members, and start policing your community better than having your community do it themselves. With a cheaper LIVE rate, no ads when you buy into it, plus not hearing obscenities that would make Randal Graves cringe, would be a huge boost for the entire platform.

How would Nintendo handle these changes, or better protect themselves? Make the Nintendo Network free, keep it free, and hire some amazing network engineers that can make the Double-N run as smooth as Xbox LIVE. A way to make it better is to utilize that social networking we've recently heard about. By making Nintendo Network more social and, thusly, your members more engaged with one another, you may help curb the agonizing pain that is the complete twats that exist on Xbox LIVE and PSN. Bring down the iron curtain on anonymity, and people will ease up and become human. To help combat SmartGlass, utilize cross-play between the 3DS and the Wii U with not just games, but the devices and functionality, as well.

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Sony's future is pretty...barren. We have virtually nothing to run off of with the PS4/Orbis (I'll be using them interchangeably, so keep up), because, despite their track record with leaks, Sony's been keeping a tight guard on what's coming down the road, compared to Microsoft. The only thing we really have to go off of is the Vita.

The Vita completely did away with the XrossMediaBar (XMB) the PSP introduced in 2005 (which the PS3 refined a year later), and brought to us the LiveArea; in my own words, it "seems like it would work better on touch-enabled cameras." LiveArea is touch input only (unless you have the 1.8 firmware update), which limits our imagination with the Orbis' GUI. The Vita, however, is more on bringing interactivity and connectivity between itself and the PS3: Cross Play, Cross Controller, hell, even Cross Buy is blurring the lines even further. This tells me that the Vita and Orbis are going to be bringing Sony's environment full circle. Ever wonder why people are calling the PS4 'Orbis'? Go ahead and plug "Orbis Vitae" ('Vitae' is a strict Latin conversion for 'Vita') into Google Translate and let me know what you get.

The only way that the Vita and Orbis will be able to have a seamless integration with each other is the PlayStation Network. Yes, Sony may have more members (90 million as of March, compared to the "40 million subscribers" on Xbox LIVE; neither camp wants to say what percentage of users are paying for their membership), but my experience with the service has been horrid. Between all three recent Sony systems, I've had slow load times, terrible download speeds, and software patches come through in a tizzy. Before you begin to scream "Change your network settings!", my Xbox 360 is on a wired connection, just like my PS3; a 1 GB demo takes far less time on my Xbox than my PS3. Software updates run by in a flash on my 360. Things actually work. Sony needs to work on connection speed, stable connections, and reduce firmware update frequency (and tell us what's in those updates). Working with this, Sony can make the PlayStation Network more formidable.

Another coil in the noose for Sony would be ignorance to their pricing structure. They caught serious flak for releasing the PS3 at the ridiculously high $500-600 price tags, specifically due to using Blu-Ray in the system. Sony never saw a big boost in sales within the first year of the system's life. They need to keep the price of the PS4 low (sub $400) to make any dent in the Wii U's head start, and combat anything that Microsoft is doing.

On the right, Sony. On the left, the PS4's launch lineup.

One thing that I can't harp on is Sony's first-party offerings, and the fantastic teams behind them. Naughty Dog, Team ICO, Insomniac, Santa Monica, Sucker Punch...they all are phenomenal teams, with fantastic portfolios under their arms. Sony has amazing games coming out for the PS3 - such as The Last Guardian, The Last of Us, Fuse (formerly Overstrike), God of War: Ascension - but the problem is, they're all current-gen games, mostly slated for release next year. Sony is throwing all of these great games onto the PS3, and not saving anything for the launch of the PS4. Unless these studios have a secret team working on a new entry or new IP for the system, Sony is going to have problems at launch. Without a solid lineup come next holiday season, no one is going to care, and they're going to focus on the Wii U's second-round offerings and the Wii's back catalogue of games. Speaking of which, allow backwards compatibility, and don't break it 2 years into the systems lifespan; this will allow us to play those amazing games coming out next year on our new system when we upgrade.

Nintendo has two primary concerns here: they absolutely need to offer their own version of the "Cross" feature, and work on establishing new IPs, or acquire studios that can do that for them. The 3DS needs to be able to act as a GamePad, the Wii U needs to be able to play 3DS games (and vice-versa), and your games should go back and forth on applicable titles. While Nintendo has a slew of IPs of their own, Sony has not just quantity over Nintendo, but they also offer quality behind their first-party titles. Nintendo needs to step it up with their current offerings, and bring in new IPs that will make people want to buy a Wii U.

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Some may roll their eyes, but I'm including Apple in on this one. My interest in Apple has recently been waning, but just because you aren't interested in them, doesn't mean you can brush them off.

Just as with Sony, we don't know what Apple's plans are, asides from the theories that fans put together from the code in iOS firmwares and leaked images from Foxconn.

One theory that used to border on ludicrous was Apple turning the Apple TV itself into a gaming console. It's been found that recent iOS updates hint at the Apple TV using apps from the App Store, and this would be absolutely killer. There are 6.8 million Apple TVs floating around, and simply updating their firmware would instantly turn their Apple TV into a gaming system. With 365 million iDevices sold (80% of them running iOS 5; that's 292 million), that's a lot of controllers. Don't like it? Use the controller they patented a few months ago.

Listen, the key point is this: everyone and their mother has an iDevice, be it iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. They already have the controller. A ton of people have the Apple TV. Just apply that firmware update OTA, and blammo, you've got yourself a new console! People are already neck-deep in the Apple ecosystem, so a free firmware update would by dynamic; Mountain Lion's AirPlay streaming from Mac to TV is just the beginning.

Nintendo needs to look at Apple for just one thing this time, despite already doing so in the past with hardware design: ecosystem. Apple's ecosystem works, and it works simplistically. Work on seamlessly bringing the Wii U and 3DS together. I sound like a broken record, but allowing your devices to talk to each other asides from saying "Hi!" is essential to getting people to want to own your products, and get them into your ecosystem of devices.

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Nintendo has always had some steep competition, with Sony always on their heels; just look at their record since the PlayStation's inception. Sony has been doing some great things with how the Vita and the PS3 talk, all the while using the PlayStation Network as the bridge. Microsoft's SmartGlass has some great potential, especially when you mix in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, especially with the tablets they're pumping out. Apple's ecosystem sells itself; once you have one piece, you'll want to be a part of it everywhere. The Wii U's focus needs to be on connectivity between established systems, and they need a network to stand on. Create that ecosystem that people want to be a part of.

Connectivity is just half of the problem. It's been a tried - yet true - argument, but they need software. They need quality and quantity, and they need it within the launch window. They have a one year head start, so they and their third parties have plenty of time.

We'll be bringing it to a close in our final installment, where we examine exactly what Nintendo can prove with the Wii U's launch, how they can prove it, and where we go from here. The final installment comes to us just in time when we learn what's left to learn about the Wii U and Nintendo's plans for ushering in the eighth generation.