The desire to declare an ultimate winner to the pitched battle of the E3 press conferences is difficult to resist. Humans tend to simplify things, and the enthusiast press has somehow turned this tendency into a profession, so when Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all take to the stage to peddle their wares, it’s so much more accessible as a resolvable narrative. Ambiguity is nice, but we prefer it when there’s a winner.
The problem is that there’s more than one way to ‘win’ E3. If you’re a core gamer, Sony’s might have looked the best, but that market was targeted as a direct result of the PSN debacle; if you’re interested in the business it might have been Microsoft’s, which was clearly the expression of a company with huge confidence in its game-plan, a little like Nintendo when the Wii and DS were permanently sold out. But if you’re talking about pure buzz – and with marketing so important right now, most people are – then Nintendo’s was clearly the most successful.
When it comes to capturing public mindshare in the games industry, nothing trumps a hardware launch, but this is the second hardware launch in a year where Nintendo has stood in front of thousands of people, with millions more watching at home, and lauded a revolution without a single game to illustrate how it might arrive. The first half of the press conference was devoted to addressing the lack of software for the 3DS – a situation seemingly created by Nintendo not allowing enough time for developers to work with the hardware. Based on what we were shown by Nintendo, the same thing may well happen again with the Wii U.
“As an industry, what we haven’t achieved yet is a game platform that is equally satisfying for all players. Yet, this is exactly what we intend to create with our new home platform,” said Nintendo president Satoru Iwata. Even EA’s John Riccitiello was eager to join the love-in. “Nintendo’s new console is truly transformational,” he said, “a better platform than we’ve ever been offered by Nintendo.”
Riccitiello’s presence sent a very important message: third party publishers in general, and EA in particular, will have more presence on the Wii U than they ever could on the Wii. It will no longer be necessary for a company like EA to rattle off pared down, motion controlled versions of its biggest games for Nintendo’s customers. With the Wii U, you will get the same experience as those playing on any other platform. A trailer speckled with triple-A core titles reinforced the idea: Batman: Arkham City, Metro: Last Light, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations; never mind that all of the games will be released at least six months before the console.
This illustrates the major flaw in Nintendo’s presentation. We understand that Nintendo is working towards a system that combines inputs from the Wii, a traditional console and a mobile device, that allows gaming to continue or be expanded with the controller’s screen, and that will be hospitable to third-party companies – but there was litte evidence to support any of those claims.
A video of Miyamoto explaining the Wii U’s potential shows the great man in a strikingly vague and non-specific mood. When Reggie Fils-Aime promised a new Smash Bros. game for both 3DS and Wii U, he insisted that both versions would, “work together in some fashion.” Not a word was offered as to how. All of the footage of core third-party releases was taken from Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, and Nintendo didn’t have a single operational Wii U game to show the crowd. Indeed, so little was revealed about the architecture of the console itself, many journalists left the press conference believing that the Wii U was just a controller.
The question, then, is how should Microsoft respond to the news? Nintendo is known for creating its own space in the market with its idiosyncratic hardware, yet above all else the Wii U seems to be an attempt to join the same race as Microsoft and Sony – at least in part. In a way, the success of the Wii was merciful; Nintendo was ploughing its own furrow, which allowed the Xbox and PlayStation to concentrate on competing with each other. Those days will soon be over.
Obviously, this will give Mattrick and co. pause, but Nintendo really needs to deliver on the promise of that unique controller to retain its dominance of the market. After all, the Wii U’s multiplicity of inputs and outputs just gives third-party designers more ways to keep doing the same thing, and the console could end up being seen by everyone but Nintendo as a pared down Xbox, a pared down iPad and a souped-up Wii all in one.
This is a desirable state of play for the future of the Xbox. The gadget buying public is bored of the Wii, already owns a smart phone, and the Xbox 360 is on-sale right now for far less money than Nintendo will be charging for the Wii U. More to the point, the Wii U only draws Nintendo level with the Xbox and the PlayStation in terms of the software it can support, and Microsoft could place a sizable dent in its fortunes by revealing its own new console; a machine that speaks to both core and casual players, while leap-frogging the Wii U in terms of hardware and quality of service – a machine that could make Nintendo look hopelessly behind the times.