A week has passed since Nintendo failed for the second time to convince gamers why the Wii U will rectify the mistakes of its predecessor. The problem seems to be that while Nintendo is telling everyone still listening that their console has a clear purpose in improving the gaming experience, they seem unsure of what it is. With the Wii, Wii Sports directly translated physical motion into in-game action, communicated in absolute terms by asking players to swing the remote as they would a racket in order to play tennis. Nintendoland requires explanation in order to understand the rules of each mini-game, where Wii Sports engendered immediate understanding between player and game, with the controller function bridging the two. The Wii U game may put the gamepad's various uses to action, but unequivocally fails when it comes to communicating any core concept underlying the console, other than it has loads of features, but no defining identity.
The Wii U also marks Nintendo's attempt to build an online social hub akin to Microsoft's XBox Live or Sony's PlayStation Network. The result, the strenuously named Miiverse (how could a corporation as big as Nintendo not feature a single employee to suggest putting a 'U' in front of that name?), appears a similar mishmash, involving gathering your friends' Miis around pictures of games they are playing, onto an otherwise blank screen. It looks both half-hearted and slightly baffling, shoehorning an entire online network into the Mii plaza with none of the warmth or fun Nintendo otherwise take such effort to include in their games. Had they been willing to dedicate a little more time to their online social service, they might have realised the answer had been waiting on their doorstep all along.
Of the many, many games sadly absent from Nintendo's conference, Animal Crossing was the most surprising. It's a title almost everybody seems to love and perfectly suited to where Nintendo stated they were aiming the Wii U's library: friendly to both core and casual, a familiar licence unlikely to steal gamers away from the big third-party titles, yet notable enough to attract interest. Whilst its friendly visual style may not make the game a natural showcase for the transition to HD, certain areas of the game - water effects, lighting, texturing - would stand out with a makeover from a more powerful console. It's a game Nintendo could almost certainly have turned out quickly and relatively inexpensively for launch.
If its omission on that basis alone were surprising enough, even moreso is how, with greater thought, the game would seem an absolutely perfect fit around which to base the console's online social hub, rather than the uninteresting Miiverse. The game's most fundamental conceits are perfectly in-line with the roles an online hub is supposed to fill: it encourages communication, is highly personalised and revolves around the idea of community. In other words, it's what PlayStation Home could have been, only with huge dollops of Nintendo charm and a title as immediately communicable to new gamers as old-school Nintendo players, a perfect incentive for all to check out the console's online functions in a friendly, familiar environment.
In an ideal world, this Animal Crossing hub would not just operate online, but form the framework for players to interact with the Wii U's every function. Nobody was particularly fond of the Wii front page and its bland 'channels', and the Miiverse seems intent on repeating the same mistakes. People like Nintendo because their image is warmer and less corporate than its rivals, yet their recent obsession with a wipe-clean iMac aesthetic is anything but. Instead, let's imagine each of those 'channel' windows as a house. Each house becomes part of a small town for players to wander around, entering a new building to access various functions. (Naturally, a menu alternative would have to be in place for people wanting to get started faster). All games could be accessed from the player's 'home' - where they start upon the console's activation - perhaps by activating a console in front of a television. Digital games, downloadable content and Nintendo points could be bought from Tom Nook's emporium, immediately transferring to the player's console at home upon acquisition. Achievements or trophies could be displayed at a local museum.
Better yet, certain achievements could yield items to personalise your town, while upcoming games could be promoted by limited time festivals or changes to the town's landscape. A crop of Pikmin could appear in a nearby grassy patch, for example, either as pure decoration or with a more practical purpose: players could uproot a pikmin to follow them around town for a while, or play a mini-game to unlock a prize, like a demo or a small number of Nintendo points (which are already given away through the star system). For a game like Mario Galaxy, or perhaps Mario U-niverse, nighttime play - as per Animal Crossing, a day-night cycle linked to the internal clock is a must - could yield a spectacular display of shooting stars and perhaps the plumber himself coming to town for a promotional visit. Or to sort out the plumbing. While a cyber-café could allow players to learn of friends' recent activity or engage in a more immediate chatting service, a train station could allow access to other towns, with gifts in tow. Were certain items specific to each town, players would be incentivised to use the service to its fullest.
Free games like FarmVille show how successful this model can be in attracting new players, while teaching the basic rules of interacting with the controller, such as using the analogue stick to navigate a character around a 3D environment, sometimes stated as an obstacle compared to the less complex control systems of 2D games. (Hence the tutorial DVD which came packaged alongside Super Mario Galaxy 2). The town could also help players get used to the various functions of the touchscreen, by using it to type and receive letters, perform tasks around town - navigating menus at Tom Nook's game emporium, for example - and take photographs with the camera, before transferring them into the game to be manipulated (art studio house?), displayed (at home, or in competitions at a gallery?) and shared (sent via a post office). The pad's NFC capabilities could be used for branded toys to be digitised into the player's home. If Nintendo were looking for a proof-of-concept for their controller, this would seem more elegant than anything shown in Nintendoland.
The restrictions, as far as I can see, would be that Nintendo would need to have a full version of the town available for offline play on the console, taking up a hefty chunk of memory and driving up the price. For the online version, Nintendo would need to employ significant staff to manage, update and police the towns in a manner more akin to an MMO than a more traditional hub. These seem relatively minor obstacles, though, for a service which could perform many of the tasks Nintendo are currently struggling with - conveying a clear vision for their new console, becoming a distinctive and attractive presence in the online console space, and remaining welcoming to new gamers whilst re-engaging long-term players' attention.
Nintendo has a remarkable aptitude for being all things for all people, yet over the course of its two E3 presentations, the Wii U has seemed increasingly uncertain of who it is aimed at and what has to be done to attract them. The abandonment of the Wii remote as primary control scheme, heralded as gaming's next leap forward as recently as Skyward Sword, shows a company desperately trying to change itself and its values in pursuit of an audience, rather than allowing its long-held reputation as a uniquely welcoming purveyor of innovative gaming experiences to do the work for them. The E3 presentations may have been a disaster, but everyone's still talking about Satoru Iwata's ridiculous on-screen antics (and he's their CEO!) with Non-Specific Action Figure, Pikmin, and Reggie's weirdly compelling dual roles as monotone spokesperson and amiable doofus ('I like French food!'). People like Nintendo, and want Nintendo to be Nintendo: the Miiverse is another step in the wrong direction, where the possibility for something more magical existed all along, easily in reach.
Animal Crossing as the Wii U's social hub is just one idea, and perhaps infeasible for reasons I haven't yet realised, but if nothing else it represents a direction the company could take, by looking inward to the company's strengths rather than attempting to emulate the competition, a position Nintendo should never be in. The Wii was a wonderful console, let down by some poorly-directed cost-cutting and third-party indifference. (All those shoddy ports and they still blame Nintendo for their lousy sales?). Nintendo have made great strides in showing willingness to engage the concerns of third-parties, and players enjoying the extensive services offered by their rivals' online networks. If Nintendo forget who they are in the process, and why they hold a special place in many gamers' hearts, that's when the battle for the next generation becomes a less appealing prospect for all concerned.
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