A couple of weeks ago in a comment thread a discussion arose about how Windows XP users and the HD twins are are holding back gaming development. At the time I thought it was a foolish idea but while writing a rebuttal I stumbled upon a much more interesting idea:
What if Wii U's touch screen is nothing more than a huge diversion hiding a deeper strategy?
Crazy? hear me out first and decide later. Let's start with...
The Myth of Underpowered Systems Delaying Gaming Progression
there's no such thing as small fry
By this point I'm pretty sure we're all familiar with the fact that almost every past gen of consoles the winner has turned out to be the most technically underpowered system in the race, but why is this? if the claim about underpowered systems holding back game development is true then why is it that systems with underpowered tech can still bring amazing experiences to the table and ultimately become the winners of the race over their more robust opponents?
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say that it's those very technical constraints (or rather the embracing of the constraints) that actually encourage interesting game development when it comes to originality in games and the reason isn't a secret either: instead of tackling a problem with pure raw power, the use of clever tricks and workarounds to those limitations gives way to outbursts of brilliance that make a game stand out among it's peers and in some cases, become iconic landmarks in gaming.
Let's illustrate this with an example, in the original Silent Hill on PS1 the fog and darkness played a big part in the game limiting the players field of view which in turn contributed greatly to the claustrophobic feeling that made the game so memorable. Yet the fog wasn't something present in the original design but a solution to the PS1's technical limitations. Now can you imagine how Silent Hill would have turned out had the PS1 had enough raw power AND it's consequences on the franchise? you don't have to, Silent Hill HD Collection may be regarded as load of crap by many but it shows us just exactly how plain Silent Hill 2 could have been had it not inherited it's iconic fog from it's predecessor.
how things could have turned out
"But what about multiplatform games, don't the lower specs affect them?"
Sure, they may look better on a rival system, so what? did PS2 owners avoid Resident Evil 4 on their system just because it looked better in Gamecube? did X360 users shun Skyrim just because it looks better on a state of the art PC? of course not, granted, they might think it doesn't look as good at first but once they've immersed themselves into the game's experience they don't really care; Let's be honest, by the point you've slayed your first dragon or survived the boss battle with Del Lago your inner graphics whore has been gagged, tied and thrown into your mind's basement for quite a while. preemptive *rollseyes* to "THAT'S MISOGYNISTIC!" comments
But just to make sure, let's go the other way, do graphically impressive games have any similar effect? Final Fantasy XIII and Crysis come to mind when I think graphically impressive yet most people will have a hard time pointing something truly memorable about them besides their impressive visuals (at the time of release). Sure, some of you might argue that I willingly picked the easiest targets of the bunch to validate my point, but in all honesty even if I come up with a group of visually stunning games I'd still fail to see anything "progressive" on 80% of them, the reality is that 8 times out of 10 a brilliant idea that later became a staple on a genre came from a game that relied on wits rather than the system's raw power for it's design.
Even when graphical power doesn't play a big role in a game, there's much better chances to achieve something significant by craftily working with the available resources than to push further the eye candy. A perfect example of this point would be Pokemon: in a system were graphics were pretty much restricted to shades of the same color, Pokemon shined by using the Game Link Cable in a more creative way than simply adding multiplayer by introducing Pokemon exchange. The results? a revitalization of the Game Boy sales and a world wide craze.
The Achilles Heel of PS4 and X720
he had it all going for him... and he still bit the dust at the end of the movie
A little while ago an interesting post popped up in the front page detailing alleged leaked specs of the PS4. Now for the rest of this writing I'm going to assume that the final specs of Sony's and Microsoft's next gen consoles are at least similar to these.
Now with the previous points established and our theoretical specs defined let's cut to the chase, the biggest hurdle to success the PS4 and X720 face is precisely the raw power that comes with those specs. If you guessed that it has to do with development costs, then you're absolutely right and yes, this is nothing new, other savvier community members have touched this subject many times before, pointing how publishers resort to creating new tactics to monetize games (HT to Alan Argentina), so let me present the three scenarios I see:
1) Prettier games, bigger budgets: This is the same as usual scenario of all gens up to the 6th gen, a new gen of consoles arrives and better looking games with it, the main problem here is that development budgets on the 7th generation of consoles broke the point of stability for game development. In addition to this, publishers pushed harsher regulations, controls and tactics on studios making it so that a single failure could potentially put a studio in hot water.
Given the specs presented earlier one can only imagine how much will budgets rise in the 8th generation of consoles, and it doesn't take much thinking to realize how this could go horribly wrong. All we have to do is look at the fairly common news about studio's staff layoffs and closures these recent years and take it to a bigger scale to get a very ugly picture of how things could turn out.
2) Similar games, bigger budgets: In this scenario both studios and publishers realize the problem the new consoles bring and decide to stick to making games with similar graphics to current gen but on a broader scale, to get an idea of what I mean imagine GTA games at least 3 or 4 times the size of Grand Theft Auto 4 with it's expansions included, not prettier, just larger with more interactivity and details.
Once again the problem in this case comes when eventually it results in a similar situation to the previous scenario, with budgets rising not due to prettier graphics but greater development time required to create a game of such scale.
3) Similar games, same budgets: In this scenario both studios and publishers realize the problem the new consoles bring and decide to stick to games similar to the offerings of the 7th gen. This works for them but puts the onus on Sony and Microsoft to justify paying for a new console that doesn't bring anything new to the table.
In this scenario the new consoles are brought down by their own manufacture costs as Sony and Microsoft would be unwilling to offer price drops any time soon after release, hence causing slow adoption, hence fewer devs and publishers willing to take a risk making games for them past the launch line up. Think something resembling the current PS Vita situation but on home consoles.
Enter the Wii U
like this but with a touch screen for distraction purposes
Combining all previous info, we know that a powerful console doesn't necessarily make great games and that in fact, hardware more powerful than the 7th gen of consoles carries huge economic drawbacks to development, so why don't the same rules apply to Wii U? well, here's the way I see it:
1)Everyone's obsessed with the "tablet controller": For better or worse, to praise or criticize, intentional or not by Nintendo, the fact remains that when it comes to the Wii U pretty much everyone has given a lot of focus to the new controller. One of the first things to pop into a Wii U discussion is the new controller, from gamers to critics it's so prevalent that even Nintendo's rivals seem to be already preparing tech of their own to try and counter Nintendo's new threat (SmartGlass and Wonderbook anyone?). The key here lies in the controller becoming a red herring that blinds rivals (and pretty much everyone) to the rest of advantages on the Wii U's corner, namely:
2) Cheaper development budgets: To put this in simple terms, this is like the joke where two guys are running from a bear and one tells the other "Why do you run? you can't outrun a bear!" to which the other guy replies "I don't have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you!". Game development on Wii U doesn't have to be cheap, just considerably cheaper when compared to it's 8th gen opponents.
3) Better specs than 7th gen consoles but not enough to require much bigger budgets: Roughly speaking, we could say Wii U sports (LOL) twice the resources of 7th gen consoles but doesn't require doubling the development budget to make games for it. Star Wars 1313 is said to run on current gen consoles and it looks amazing, now imagine how much devs could improve that with twice the resources without incurring in the risk of their budget having to bloat drastically.
4) This isn't your parents' Nintendo: With the Wii U Nintendo has shown a greater compromise towards embracing new tech, and despite jokes about them finally reaching 2006 the reality is that what they've done so far isn't half bad, is there still room for improvement? no doubt, but compared to their prior stance they've advanced tremendously and they still seem committed to keep getting better (even if some of the things they do are still puzzling).
5) Time is on the Wii U's side: it's no coincidence that Nintendo launched the Wii U at least year prior to the launch of Microsoft and Sony's new consoles (estimating a December 2013 release), when I made a point about Star Wars 1313 looking great in 7th gen consoles I also omitted the fact that it took them 5-6 years to reach a level of expertise with the hardware good enough to produce such a game. Wii U's got half of that covered with it's specs alone but giving devs time to get to know the hardware will only produce even better results. Another reason to release early is to use the time to grow a user base for the console.
6) This is the second time Nintendo has used a similar strategy, the first time being the Wii:
I'm Having A Weird Deja Vu Feeling Here
this is all just in my mind, or is it?
From my perspective this is actually the second time (at least on home consoles, it's fourth if you count the DS and 3DS' touch screen and 3D screen respectively) Nintendo pulls this type of strategy on us, sounds unbelievable? let's see the similarities first:
a) Wii and Wii U use slightly beefed up "old" tech (when compared to competitors in their respective gen) that was initially met with disbelief and even mockery.
b) Wii and Wii U have a controller perceived to be the main weapon of Nintendo's new hardware (and to be fair it is a weapon, just not THE weapon).
c) Wii and Wii U require smaller budgets to develop games (when compared to competitors in their respective gen)
d) Wii and Wii U released close to the start of their respective generations.
e) Wii's main weapon to success was perceived by their competitors to be it's gimmicky controller and based on this perception counter measures of their own were developed but eventually failed to make any significant dent on the Wii's market. Again, in Wii U's case we're already seeing something similar with Wonderbook and SmartGlass.
OK, now that I've established the similarities between systems let me show you how this strategy works in theory:
1) Release a system with beefed up "old" tech but with a gimmick, it (the controller in this case) will attract audience attention at first and act as a red herring to drive attention away from the rest of the plan (steps 2 to 7).
2) Let devs and publishers realize the huge risk that development budgets for games on competitor systems can create for them.
3) Release first party games which:
3.1) Show audience and devs that system is capable of graphical prowess despite its "inferior" specs
3.2) Show devs and publishers how to use gimmicky controller in ways to attract audience attention
3.3) Show devs and publishers how much safer budget/profit/risk wise the system is compared to competitors.
4) Ignore competitors aping your gimmick feature, by the time these "counter measures" reach the market they are doomed to fail because your gimmick is just a red herring that has accomplished it's purpose of attracting audience attention and misdirecting competitors attention from the rest of the plan. Also they are add-ons with an additional price tag.
5) Let devs and publishers flock back to your system and release games for it making a huge library of games.
6) Now that you have audience attention and great library of games, profit!
Now the points where theory and reality diverge are step 2 and 5. On step 2 this is revealed by the increase in frequency of news about studio closures, whether this happened because devs and publishers didn't realize the risks and toll of overblown budgets, thought they could beat them or didn't care is irrelevant. On step 5, the massive library of games was mostly composed of low quality, unpolished or shoehorned motion control games mostly aimed at the (perceived) casual audience game developers saw in the Wii. This in turn made Nintendo almost the sole provider of quality experiences on the Wii for a long time but also tarnished the system's reputation as a money pit for 3rd parties. Despite this situation the Wii managed to generate a sizable amount of profit for Nintendo.
So, after understanding how Nintendo's strategy works and seeing the Wii U's current situation regarding 3rd party support considering most games to be released this year don't have a Wii U version, the question here is: what exactly is preventing the Wii's situation from happening again on the Wii U?
What's Different This Time Around
spot the 7 differences!
A lot in fact, so let me break this into 2 categories :
Devs and Publishers
Unlike the start of the 7th gen, publishers are already feeling the financial pressures of raising game budgets and scrambling to find new ways to extract more money out of the same products, we've seen this with the introduction (and distortion) of ideas like DLC, season passes and microtransactions. Then there's the inclusion of other tried and true tactics such as double dipping (GOTY Editions anyone?) or ideas that are not even logically justifiable such as online passes.
A more recent tactic is the release of HD collections of titles from the 6th generation of consoles, this is yet again a move to get more money out of existing assets with minimal effort when compared to developing a game from scratch. This particular tactic has even been extended to successful 7th generation series like Mass Effect, Bioshock and Assassins Creed (I'm gonna take a chance and predict Dead Space will follow suit in a few months). Another less spread variation of this approach is to port successful titles from portable devices, for example God of War (even coupled with double dipping) and Resident Evil Revelations (and if recent comments from a Mercury Steam dev are anything to go by, I suspect Castlevania's unreleased 3DS entry has strong chances to see an HD version on consoles should the 3DS release prove profitable and popular enough).
By far the most common strategy is the trend of mainstreaming IPs to appeal to broader audience, one that in fact has produced less than satisfactory results, after all if a main entry from a long standing franchise selling 4.8 million copies is deemed a failure then what are the survival chances of newer, not so popular IPs?. Considering the leaked PS4 hardware specs imagine just how much budgets will rise and what consequences this could bring to publishers, see where this is going?.
But the final nail in the coffin for the PS4 and X720 has to be the much needed reality check to publishers brought by the fall of THQ in January. Yes, studios closing has become fairly common in recent years, but publishers managed to survive games failing to meet sales expectations by closing studios and keeping their IPs, not this time around though. Publishers would have to be crazy not to feel at least a little concern regarding this matter considering it wasn't a small publisher of niche titles like XSEED but a fairly big one with recognizable franchises to it's name like Saints Row and even annual sports IPs like the WWE series.
Finally, the reason the Wii U won't be flooded with poor quality games is simply because unlike the Wii it's not nearly as safe budget wise, yes it's cheaper to develop for it in comparison, but not cheap enough so everyone and their mother can release a poor quality game and fail horribly without causing some serious damage. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure we'll see a few games aimed at families, kids and the "casual audience" in general, but they won't be as many nor as poorly designed as some of the games released on the Wii.
For hardware makers, the overall general situation at the start of the 8th gen is almost complete reversal of the previous one, unlike the beginning of the 7th gen Nintendo has no problems in the money department, in fact after raking it in with the Wii and DS they have enough liquidity to experiment and try things they would have handled very carefully before, we've already seen this to an extent with them implementing a better online service, a better eShop, a working Miiverse, relaxing requirements for publishing games in the eShop and doing away with fees for game patches and fixes, all this within the first year of the Wii U.
Considering all this, Sony and Microsoft have little if any room to maneuver should things go wrong for their new consoles somewhere down the line. Even in the event they chose to take the wait and see approach and go into a war of attrition Nintendo is still in a much better position than either of them.
Closing, Closer, any excuse to post stripper Natalie Portman
To close this already long post, I think there's a lot more to Wii U than meets the eye and while others have presented some interesting perspectives as to why Wii U could be the big winner in the race of the 8th gen consoles, IMHO they have only scratched the surface. Of course this is all coming from my point of view and as the Wii proves even best made plans can take unexpected turns in reality. But all in all, I think Nintendo has planned this more thoroughly than we give them credit for.
Clarification: the opening image may or may not be based on Conrad Zimmerman. Also tune in next week for "50 Shades of Wii U: A Sex Story"