Nintendo's Wii U a risky new high-wire game plan

To say that Nintendo is performing a high-wire act with the Wii U, its upcoming next-generation video game console, would be an understatement. Given the current state of games, it's more like walking a tightrope with a pool of hungry crocodiles below, Peter Nowak writes.

To say that Nintendo is performing a high-wire act with the Wii U, its upcoming next-generation video game console, would be an understatement. Given the current state of games, it’s more like walking a tightrope with a pool of hungry crocodiles below. Maybe even while dodging lasers.

The video game business has changed dramatically since Nintendo launched its previous console, the Wii, in 2006. Since then, casual and social games – the kind that don’t require huge amounts of time or effort to master – have exploded in popularity on smartphones and tablets. It’s been the coming of the Angry Birds.

Nintendo, which pioneered the family-friendly market with its easy-to-learn Wii motion controller, has perhaps borne the brunt of this particular evolution. Rivals Sony and Microsoft have been more insulated to the new competition because of their focus on the hard-core market, the large audience of traditional gamers who like super-realistic graphics in their bloody shooter games.

With the new Wii U, which is built around a tablet-like controller that itself has a 15-centimetre touch screen, Nintendo is trying to stand out from the mob.

The new Wii U is built around a tablet-like controller that has a six-inch touch screen. (Peter Nowak)

At a media event in New York on Thursday, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime announced the details that gamers and industry had been waiting for. The console will go on sale Nov. 18 in North America at two price points. The basic unit with eight gigabytes of storage will sell for $299 while the deluxe version will cost $349 and come bundled with 32 GB, the Nintendo Land game, a charger for the GamePad controller and a few other accessories.

He also detailed a feature called Nintendo TVii, which will allow broadcasters to add content to their shows that can be viewed and interacted with on the Wii U’s controller. Console owners watching Modern Family, for example, can comment on the show as it airs using their GamePad, with friends being able to share their thoughts as well.

In the United States, partners that have already signed up include Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon. The feature will be available in Canada in conjunction with cable and satellite providers, but Nintendo has yet to announce details.

In some ways, the function mirrors what people are already doing, where they’re using iPads and smartphones to have conversations about live shows over Twitter. The Wii U, Fils-Aime said, aims to tie that trend to Nintendo’s gaming world.

Nintendo's Wii U GamePad and console were unveiled, Thursday in New York. The game console will go on sale in the U.S. on Nov. 18 (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

It’s in the actual games, however, where the company is trying something dramatically different, which in the current climate equals risky. Big game publishers such as Electronic Arts and Activision are known for being risk-averse at the best of times, but with social and casual games disrupting the market, they’re even more inclined to make only safe bets.

Enter Nintendo with a system that asks gamers to take their eyes off the television. While up to four people can play a game on the TV screen as per usual, the player who wields the GamePad generally has a different task. In Super Mario Bros. Wii U, the other launch title confirmed on Thursday, he or she can add or subtract blocks to the main TV screen for the other players to jump onto. In that way, they can either aid or hinder their friends.

The Wii U also features high-definition graphics, an obvious effort to appeal to the Sony and Microsoft crowd. A number of games that take advantage, such as Assassin’s Creed III and Call of Duty Black Ops 2, are set to launch close to the console itself.

The Wii U will also have a social networking function called Miiverse that will allow players to connect and share game information.

Put it all together and it looks like Nintendo is trying to be all things to all people, which is why journalists and analysts don’t quite know what to make of it. At the Thursday event, some were hopeful, suggesting the Wii U holds a world of promise, while others were already dismissing it.

Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, for example, expects the console to sell out through April at least, while Jim Reilly, a news editor at Game Informer magazine, wrote off Nintendo’s effort by tweeting: "Well, the Wii U had a good run."

Nintendo, however, has gone against the grain before. Not surprisingly, executives are sure they have a hit on their hands.

"Gamers have been waiting and are anxious for innovation. The industry needs some revolutionary new thinking," said Scott Moffitt, executive vice-president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America, in an interview after the event.

The Wii U will have 50 titles released in its first four months, which is the largest launch library for a Nintendo console yet, he added. The company has made it easier this time around for third-party developers to design games for its consoles by making the process similar to that of Sony’s and Microsoft’s. In doing so, Nintendo hopes to mitigate some of that notorious risk aversion.

"It’s important to create a platform where it’s easy to have one game go across all three [consoles] without having to spend tremendous amounts of money customizing or tailoring it for one platform," Moffitt said.

In the end, there probably hasn’t been a console release as uncertain as this one. With observers divided in their expectations, the risk level for Nintendo is high. Like the high-wire artist, there’s no slam dunk in regards to the Wii U. It could put on an amazing show, or it could experience a spectacular fall.