With multiple press conferences scheduled through the week, Nintendo is doing its very best to grab the lion's share of press attention this E3. The PR bombardment began on Sunday as President Satoru Iwata hosted a Pre-E3 Nintendo Direct conference over the web. Mr. Iwata covered two major topics in the conference: tablet and other control features, and the online community that will debut with the console. Many of the things Iwata announced are positives for core gamers, but some of them raise concerns as well.
First up were some changes that have been made to the Wii U GamePad (the official name for the tablet controller) since its prototype version was shown off last E3. The form factor has changed a bit and now looks more ergonomic. The two analog sticks, which were once flat circle pads similar to the one on the 3DS, are now full 360-degree analog sticks that accept both directional and button press input. There's also now an NFC (near field communication) reader that can be used to read data from cards, figurines, and other game-related paraphernalia.
Two additional announcements should please gamers of all stripes. The Wii U tablet will be useable as a TV remote control, whether or not the Wii U unit itself is on. Additionally, along with keeping the Wii U compatible with all Wii input devices such as the Wiimote/Nunchuck and Balance Board, Nintendo will be manufacturing a traditional controller called the Wii U Pro Controller. Iwata noted that the Wii U Pro Controller should be helpful to gamers who are interested in multi-platform games. It has the same buttons as the tablet controller, so it should work with all games that don't require touchscreen input from the tablet.
Iwata's comments on the Wii U Pro Controller are interesting in terms of third-party developers. If Nintendo doesn't require special tablet functionality from games that appear on the Wii U, the system is far more likely to see a strong variety of third-party and multi-platform games. Developers have already been grumbling about how they believe the tablet controller will make the Wii U the most difficult platform to develop for, with some suggesting they'll skip the system entirely. Could Nintendo be taking steps to keep these developers on board with traditional controller support? Will customers become confused about the wide variety of input devices that are compatible with the Wii U? It will be interesting to see how both developers and customers respond to the various Wii U control options over the first couple years of its lifetime.
The second major topic covered at the pre-E3 conference was the Miiverse, which is the English name for the online network that will be introduced with the Wii U but will later be accessible from the 3DS, PCs, and web-enabled mobile devices. Iwata gave a whirlwind tour of the Miiverse, leaving concrete examples of how it fits in with games for later in the week. We were able to see some basics, however, such as a messaging system that can be accessed from within games. Players will be able to use the tablet's touch screen keyboard to send text messages, but can also draw or send handwritten messages to others using the stylus. The player's Mii is attached to all messages and can be given different facial expressions, making it both an avatar and a smiley.
Along with exchanging messages, players can use the Miiverse to post screenshots and exchange game content that they've created with others. Game developers will be able to implement Miiverse content directly into games, and Iwata showed images of a Mario brothers game in which the levels on the overworld map linked to Miiverse chat pages. The Miiverse is Nintendo's way of putting its unique stamp onto an online network, putting a particular emphasis on allowing players to connect with each other even while playing single-player games. It's a neat idea, and the interface looks great, especially as something that can be pulled up on the touch screen while the main game remains on the television screen.
On the surface, it looks as though Nintendo is finally taking its big plunge in the connected gaming world, but many questions remain as to how well the Miiverse will catch on with gamers. Will we finally be able to connect with each other without typing in friend codes? Will Nintendo finally open up the online space for those of us who are over 18 and playing without parental controls enabled—letting us easily communicate with strangers that we've met via playing a game, for example? Up until now, Nintendo has erred too far on the side of online safety, hampering the ability for players to connect and communicate. No amount of groovy new social tools will convince people to love the Miiverse if there are still too many barriers keeping gamers from freely interacting with each other.
We still need to know more about the Wii U's actual online competitive and co-op gaming experience, as well. Will voice chat be universally supported? Will the Miiverse UI be useable for joining up with friends in multiplayer mode? If Nintendo can seamlessly marry its online social network tools with multiplayer gaming, it has the opportunity to beat Microsoft at its own game, which could spur the other console makers to re-focus on improving networked gaming. That scenario would be a win for everyone.
First, however, we need to see more of Nintendo's new hardware and learn more about how the Miiverse network fits in with connected gaming. This E3 could be a very exciting week for Nintendo fans. We can only hope that the company has truly taken the steps necessary to break down its current walled approach to online connectivity.
Date: June 4, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*