Nintendo's Wii U console all the talk at E3

The big talk at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo is Nintendo's Wii U. With this new console, Nintendo is trying to redefine the gaming experience, and also carve out a larger share of the global video game market, which is expected to hit $81 billion by 2016.

New video game system meant to redefine gaming experience

Katsuya Eguchi says it’s hard to explain what the Wii U, Nintendo’s new video game system, is all about – and it’s not just because he’s speaking through an interpreter.

With the console featuring a tablet-like handheld controller that packs a touchscreen, gyroscope tilt sensor, camera and microphone, the Japanese company is attempting to popularize an entirely new way of playing games — the same way it did with its current motion-sensing console, the Wii.

Nintendo's Wii U video game system. (Courtesy Nintendo)

"With the Wii, there was a change in the actions you performed to control games. Now with the Wii U, the structure of how you play games changes," said Eguchi, Nintendo’s manager of software development, in an interview at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

"The Wii U GamePad serves a certain purpose and the TV serves a certain purpose, so how those roles interact defines these new, exciting structures. Structure is really something that’s hard to communicate unless you experience it."

This attempt to shift the paradigm is why all eyes are on Nintendo at E3 this year. The Wii U is the first entry in the next generation of hardware wars with rivals Sony and Microsoft. Between them, the three companies are duking it out for a global video game market that is expected to hit $81 billion US by 2016.

Building on Wii's success

Nintendo jumped to an early lead with the launch of the Wii in 2006, but sales have sagged recently and created an impetus for the company to debut something new.

Sony and Microsoft, meanwhile, are happy with their sales and are standing pat. With no plans to introduce new hardware until at least next year, the two are spending E3 this year promoting more games for their respective PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles.

The idea behind the Wii U is something Nintendo calls "asymmetrical gameplay," where what happens on the TV screen isn’t necessarily the same thing the GamePad holder experiences.

In one game demonstrated at the show, four players ran around a maze on a TV screen looking for an invisible ghost. The fifth player, who controlled the ghost on the GamePad, was the only one who could see everyone’s position, so he had the advantage. The ghost player’s goal was to avoid being discovered by the other players for a set duration of time.

Eguchi said a good Wii U game, like the maze demo, is one that integrates the GamePad’s various inputs in a clever way. Ubisoft’s Just Dance 4, for example, lets the GamePad holder dictate what moves the other four players must perform. Warner Bros. Interactive’s Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition lets players steer the Dark Knight’s remote-controlled Batarang like they would a car.

A bad game — or a Nintendo idea that Eguchi might be inclined to reject — is one that isn’t ambitious or that replicates something that’s currently available.

"It would be something that is on par with what games have been up to this point," he said.

Ambitious gaming

There are examples in the past of games trying to incorporate input from other devices, from portable systems or even cellphones, but the multiple-screen use is central to the Wii U. It’s a change in gaming philosophy that Eguchi admits will be difficult for Nintendo to convey in the run-up to the launch of the new console this fall.

"We’re going to need some overtime hours put in by our sales and marketing team to help explain it," he said.

The Wii U has been something of a curiosity since it was first announced at last year’s E3. Then again, Nintendo has been striving to differentiate itself from its two main rivals for years by eschewing sharper graphics and ever-increasing processing power in favour of simpler games that can appeal to a wider audience than the traditional young male demographic.

The downside of that has been a lack of support from third-party developers. Large publishers such as Electronic Arts and Activision like to create games for both the PS3 and Xbox 360 because the consoles use similar technology. Developing for Nintendo, however, has usually meant more of an expense since its hardware has been different. In many cases, developers just haven’t bothered.

Catering to third-party developers

This time around, Eguchi said, the company is taking pains to cater to those third-party developers. The Wii U has high-definition graphics and will be capable of running many of the same games found on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Publishers are free to add in GamePad functions, but they can also do straight-up basic versions if they don’t want to go to the expense.

Eguchi couldn’t comment, however, on what might happen once Nintendo’s two rivals eventually release their own new consoles.

The company is showing off more than 20 Wii U games at E3 this year, including the self-produced Pikmin 3, Nintendo Land and New Super Mario Bros. U, as well as third-party titles such as Ubisoft’s Zombi U and Traveller’s Tales Lego City: Undercover.

Still, Nintendo will leave E3 without answering many key questions about the Wii U. The company hasn’t said what it will cost or exactly when it will be released.

As for whether the new console could experience the same up-and-down ride that the Wii had, Eguchi said it’s possible. While the Wii U is likely to get a bump at first because of its newness, Nintendo is betting that it will have some long-term staying power.

"It’s quite natural that over time, the allure of a gaming system loses its freshness. That can happen with any platform," he said.

"The same thing could happen with the Wii U, but with this set-up we have all these different options. There’s a lot of potential there for adding new experiences down the road."