At various points during the past 24 hours, Nintendo has revealed the release dates and prices of the Wii U console in different geographic markets. Two versions will ship: a basic/White Wii U (Japan: ¥26,250; US: $299; UK/EU: around £200 or €250) and a Premium Black Wii U (Japan: ¥31,500; US: $349; UK/ EU: around £250 or €310). For the extra $50, aside from a more traditional console colour, you get four times more Flash memory (32 GB), charging stands for the tablet controller and console, a bundled NintendoLand mini-game collection, and a three-month pass for the “Nintendo Network Premium” online service. Initially, the games won’t support a second tablet controller (which, when purchased separately, will cost a whooping ¥13,440 in Japan — the only market where they are available separately at launch), but this will come over time. The good news is that almost all the Wii controllers, balance boards, and other random bits of plastic you’ve invested in should work with the new console.
Some initial thoughts:
- Is the pricing right? Putting aside regional variations — Japan has always paid more for its consoles, and Europe has variable value-added tax — the price of the new console isn’t too bad. Sure, it’s higher than traditional Nintendo launch prices, but this was partly forced on the company by the competition. It’s certainly cheaper than the last-generation launch prices from Microsoft and Sony. A more interesting question is whether consumers are still prepared to pony up $350 for a new console when they have other compelling options like tablets, smartphones, and social gaming in which to invest. Incidentally, Gamesutra has a very nice comparison of historic console launch prices, even adjusting for inflation, here.
- The tablet controller offers some interesting “second screen” game-play opportunities. Many game publishers already complement console/PC releases with companion iPad games or apps (e.g., Mass Effect 3 Infiltrator and Datapad Apps). Nintendo and Sony have also offered console connectivity for their portable consoles in the past. But this is the first time that the second display can be taken as a given for the entire console-owning base. Naturally, the first opportunity is to use the controller screen in a similar fashion to the lower touchscreen on a Nintendo DS. Over and above that, though, developers are pushing the boundaries with asymmetric multiplayer gaming as a real differentiator — i.e., up to 4 ”players” use traditional controllers to interact with the game on the TV, while another player assumes a “God” (or spectator) role with the tablet controller, looking on and driving the overall experience. This effectively takes role-playing gaming right the way back to the original Gary Gygax Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game. Penny Arcade sees some cynical, but probably true downsides to this!
- This brings second screen TV entertainment to the rest of us. The Wii U TVii functions look nice, allowing social discussion, deeper program engagement (maybe with advertising?), and a more intuitive program guide integrated with multiple providers . . . all for free out of the box in North America. Not that you couldn’t already do this with an iPad (costing from $399) or with an Xbox 360 and “Project Glass” (provided you have Xbox Live Gold for $60 a year and a compatible tablet costing . . . well who knows!) if you were a geek with money to burn. So it’s a much cheaper solution for what looks like a nice experience. All the major US/Canadian networks are on board, along with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. It’s not yet clear how much extra effort these content and distribution firms will invest in generating the required metadata, but at least many of the sports stats, trivia and social connections are pretty much already there to be tapped into.
- Why is this likely to be Nintendo’s last home console? Even though we’ve watched OnLive crash and burn and Gaikai be absorbed by Sony, this doesn’t mean game streaming is dead — the days of dedicated game consoles are still drawing to an inevitable close. Why? For the same reason that dedicated cable boxes or video-streaming boxes like Boxee will disappear. The technology will be incorporated into other devices; it could be the TV, a wirelessly connected tablet, or eventually a proper functional cloud streaming service. Incidently, Microsoft and Sony also have just one more console in them; by the end of that generation (in five years’ time, perhaps), I’d expect expensive, dedicated console hardware to have run its course.
- It has the field to itself for a year. Speaking of the competition, it’s clear that we won’t see new consoles from Sony and Microsoft for at least a year, maybe longer. Nintendo will have the ”next generation” to itself — although Sony and Microsoft will argue, with some validity, that the Wii U is only really comparable with their current generation. Another factor that may help Nintendo in the closing months of 2012 is the delay of several key titles (such as Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Alien: Colonial Marines, DmC, etc.) to early 2013, leaving core gamers with extra money to spend; some of that may well head Nintendo’s way.
So, can the Wii U succeed? It’s by no means a slam-dunk for Nintendo. Many dedicated gamers — Nintendo’s old core audience — felt let down by the “casual” games that proliferated on the Wii (ironically, the same games that made the console a mainstream success), along with too many Mario ports (no sign of that changing) and mainstream consumers have long since boxed up their Wiis. Add in the rise of social gaming on PCs and tablets, and the appeal of a dedicated console that doesn’t even play DVDs, let alone Blu-ray discs and with just one (albeit innovative) controller seems tough. But Nintendo needs this to work. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, it doesn’t have a fall-back business model or ”multidevice living-room strategy” from which to recoup its investment. And the additional pressures in the portable gaming space from smartphones and tablets mean that Nintendo really has a battle for survival on its hands.
My take: At this stage, I’m prepared to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. The hardware looks good; it has strong support from publishers and TV content/distribution owners in North America; and backward compatibility with Wii titles means that there is an extensive collection of games out there in addition to the launch window titles. By the end of Q1 2013, we’ll have a better idea of whether Nintendo will survive as a home console platform owner or follow Atari and Sega down the software-only route.