In the pre-post-PC era, life was simpler for Nintendo and other successful competitors: Sell console. Sell discs. Repeat until wildly profitable. Six years ago, as Microsoft and Sony were taking part in a game of specification leapfrogging, Nintendo embraced casual and family gaming with the Wii even as it mostly ignored online play and convergent entertainment features. More than half a decade later, Sony has surpassed the original Wiimote with its Move controller and Microsoft has created a motion anti-controller with Kinect, but the Wii retains an advantage in that developers can assume the motion control is there.
Today, everyone in the games business still adheres to the basic notion of compelling software selling hardware, but the source of that software and the manner through which it drives revenue has changed via models such as digital distribution, downloadable content, free-to-play, subscription and advertising. In addition, Nintendo has launched the Wii U into living rooms in which game consoles must compete not only with each other but with Blu-ray players, TiVos, Rokus and Apple TVs for physical connections as well as smart TVs and tablets as other sources of connected entertainment experiences. How it has addressed these challenges reveals much about what the company has held dear from the Wii, what it has reluctantly accepted and what it has now embraced.
As it did with the original, less expensive Wii, Nintendo has banked on a unique controller to differentiate from its competitors. But the philosophy behind the Wii remote and the GamePad (which complement each other in the Wii U) could not be more different. The original Wii remote, like multi-touch on the iPhone, was designed to simplify gameplay by creating a more natural experience that reduced button anxiety. With the GamePad, the company has not only brought buttons back to the controller with a vengeance (and in a layout that may anger console fans used to other platforms), but added an infinite set of controls and gestures via its resistive touchscreen. "Look at the TV. Now look at the GamePad. Now look at the TV again," smacks of user interface design by the Old Spice Guy.
The Wii U is blazing the trail of multi-screen gaming, but it is traveling along a bumpy road.
Whereas most Wii games essentially took advantage of the Wiimote in a relatively similar way, all bets are off with the GamePad, which can either mirror the TV display or serve as an adjunct to the main screen with the system often alerting you to shift your focus between the TV and the controller. The Wii U is blazing the trail of multi-screen gaming, but it is traveling along a bumpy road.
Along with the final embrace of HD (and mercifully via a standard HDMI connector), Nintendo has stepped up its support for online game functionality with the Wii U. Of course, as with the Wii, the eShop should provide plenty of back-catalog nostalgia. Nintendo, though, has moved to enable day-and-date releases of Wii U titles along with their disc counterparts. Furthermore, it has created an infrastructure for developers to create the same kind of multiplayer and game network goodies that developers have come to expect on a modern console.
But when Nintendo talks of these features, it's clear that it has mostly implemented them to accommodate developers who have come to expect them on rival platforms. To wit, the company has stopped short of having system-wide achievements a la the Xbox 360 so that developers can implement the kinds of game goals that they desire, not necessarily the ones Nintendo deems important.
Nintendo may have extended a lukewarm greeting toward online play with the Wii U, but it seems to have finally embraced other forms of entertainment with TVii, taking advantage of the GamePad's second screen to act as a remote control and interface to various entertainment services. It blends remote control and consistent access not only to various online streaming services, but also to TiVo DVRs via the GamePad, lessening the pain of having its relatively large footprint on one's coffee table along with second-screen programming for sports and other movies.
Unlike with use of the controller or cloud, Nintendo has taken a consistent, thoughtful approach with its TVii feature, creating a solid user interface. One challenge for the TVii offering is that its value increases as you subscribe to more broadband TV services, not to mention TiVo with its own monthly fee. TVii looks so promising, in fact, that Nintendo might consider licensing it to other tablet companies so that the functionality isn't limited to the person who happens to hold the one GamePad bundled with the Wii U.
That said, even when paired with all of its compatible subscription services, it is not likely to fundamentally change the TV experience. However, if the original Wii set a bar for intuitive control of a wide range of video games, TVii takes once TV-shy Nintendo and puts it in the driver's seat when it comes to defining a console's second-screen approach to television viewing and interaction.
Sony PlayStation Move motion controller
Nintendo Wii console
Nintendo Wii U