The latest big announcement from Nintendo has the Nintendo community all a twitter, a condition that most missives from the House of Mario tend to cause. We now know the date and price, but the topic of online functionality has some Nintendo loyalists questioning their judgment. Spurred by these revelations, zealous Xbox Live proponents and Playstation Network hopefuls once again denounced the Wii as a gimmick. Why? Well, it turns out that Wii will not have any online-enabled third party titles until 2007. First party Wifi titles are still unconfirmed as well. For gamers of last generation, these announcements stir up a plethora of bad feelings and cynicism. Already suspicions are mounting that the Wii will be the solitary experience that its predecessor was. The GameCube barely supported online play, and suffered because of it. Are things that bad for Wii? To be honest, I don’t think so, and we might be jumping the gun just a little bit. While I’ll discuss the repercussions of the launch details at a later date, today I’ll take a look at Wii’s online strategy and what it means for Nintendo gamers.
To begin, the Wii shouldn’t be compared to the GameCube in this respect, even though a great deal of the Cube’s hardware led to the development of Wii, its graphics chip and its processor. The Wii, for all intents and purposes, contains a GameCube for backwards compatibility. But in terms of online structure, Wii is far more similar to its handheld cousin, the DS. I love this comparison, because it is so appropriate; DS was an experiment to see if the gaming populace was ready for a different way to play games, and Wii is the logical progressions of that experiment. So, let’s examine the DS’s online strategy.
At launch, DS had the Wifi hardware, but not the software. Gamers got a taste of what Nintendo internet play might be like with the wireless LAN on the Metroid Hunters demo, Mario 64 DS and even puzzlers like Meteos. The fact remained, however, that right out of the gate Nintendo just wasn’t prepared to offer a satisfactory online service. Nintendo released quality software to satisfy the DS early adopters until they had a sound service in line. It wasn’t until nearly a year later that the Nintendo Wifi Connection (NWC) went online with Mario Kart DS and Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land. Since then a steady supply of Wifi compatible games have been released, with varying amounts of complexity.
For the DS, the NWC has become a great success, despite its limitations when compared to more robust services. DS is a portable after all, and the NWC works surprisingly well for it. This sequence of events lets us predict how Wii will use the NWC, and the future looks bright.
Even though Nintendo’s Wifi service is already established, tailoring it to the Wii is another story. A more complicated match-making structure has to be created, more servers have to be set up, and the NWC has to be modified to work with the Wii’s technology. All very feasible, but it takes time. While I’m sure most of the structural work has already been done, cramming online support into launch titles is another matter entirely. The games themselves are more complex, from both a programming and graphical standpoint. Implementing Wifi functionality into launch titles could easily delay them several more months. Yes, it would be very nice if Red Steel or Downhill Jam or Call of Duty 3 had online multiplayer, but the real question is: would you rather be playing them at launch or months later?
The GameCube was crippled by its weak launch lineup, and Nintendo isn’t making that mistake again—they have the best opening library in years, and they know pushing back the release for these titles would be launch day suicide. The first run of Wii software will be used as proof of concept for the Wii hardware, and once the console has made a name for itself (and I have no doubt that it will), then Nintendo will shift focus toward Wifi. Again, this is exactly what they did with DS.
Despite the Wifi-less launch, it’s clear that Nintendo is taking online play seriously with Wii, something they had dismissed with GameCube. For starters, they have the virtual console, an ingenious idea that will keep players busy with their favorite classic titles while Nintendo puts the finishing touches on second generation of Wifi enabled software. As a supplement, the intriguing WiiConnect24 service will act as an enticing bonus for some of the first generation software. It’s not as good as full-blown internet play, but I’m certainly happy to hear that Metroid Prime 3 will allow me to download extra content while I’m sleeping. Direct to download services are getting more popular, and I’m impressed that Nintendo is showing initiative in that area.
So what we have initially is a list of stellar launch titles, some updated ports, licensed properties and a few kid games thrown in for good measure. We may not be building clans and having epic frag-fests the same night we bring home our new Wii consoles, but the launch list more than makes up for it. Heck, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess more than makes up for it. Nintendo has never had the Zelda at launch before, and this is a major event in the company’s history. It also helps that Twilight Princess will probably be the best game in what is already an iconic, groundbreaking series. It’s infinitely more appealing than the Cube’s paltry launch list, which had none of the big franchises present.
Nintendo, however, isn’t the only company leading the launch day charge. Ubisoft is contributing nine games within the window, including the new Splinter Cell, Far Cry, Red Steel and GT Pro, which comes bundled with a steering wheel peripheral for the Wii-mote. Midway has a few gems lined up (Mortal Kombat, anyone?), Atlus has the Trauma Center sequel, EA of course has a hefty helping of software…trust me, we’ll be plenty busy.
And the best part is, we won’t even have to wait very long for Wii online. Remember, it took the DS over a year to get an online service. Wii will get it in a much shorter time. Wii arrives on November 19th, less than two months from January 2007. Once we get into ’07, all developers will be granted complete access to Wii’s online capabilities. Nintendo already has three titles confirmed for full online play—Mario Strikers Charged, Battalion Wars 2, and Super Smash Bros. Brawl—all arriving in early 2007.
More are sure to follow, and even the non-Wifi games of early ’07 are going to be record-setters. Mario and Samus will be marching onto the Wii soon after the first of the year, in Super Mario Galaxy and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, respectively. For the GameCube, it took Mario, Samus and Link at least two years each to show up. Now, we’re getting all three within a span of months.
Clearly, we have nothing to worry about in regards to big name online titles, and the great launch list will make waiting all the easier.
But let’s take a step back for a moment, and look at the other side of the coin. As gamers, we are looking at Wii online purely from the aspect of gaming. In their all-encompassing, sometimes ridiculed goal to expand their market beyond the gaming hardcore, Nintendo has outfitted their Wifi strategy to include things gamers never would have thought of.
Almost as an answer to gamertags and screen names, Nintendo has created “Mii,” the individual element of Wii. This whimsical new feature allows all Wii users to customize their own personal avatar as a simplified caricature. The feature isn’t slim on options either—everything from hair style to eyebrow shape and placement can be tweaked. Watching the new press videos gave me an idea of just how precisely I’d be able to customize my little extension into the Wii realm. And once I have my little guy built to my refined specifications, I can store him on my Wii-mote and cart him over to a friend’s house, where he’ll represent me in Wii Sports or other games that use the Mii avatars. This is worlds better than friend codes.
The funny little Mii people are a great idea, but they still pertain to gaming. To attract people that have never so much as looked at a video game, Nintendo is cramming their online service with things that anyone would find useful. You can check the weather, on a fully rendered globe that you control with, surprise, the Wii-mote. You can scope out the news headlines. You can store photos from an SD card, then fiddle around with them in a paint program and send them to friends. You can IM, post on a message board, or use the Opera web browser. It may not sound all that special to hardened gamers, but it’s convenient, useful and it’s easy to figure out.
All of this is represented in a fashion that everyone is familiar with: TV channels. Swap over to the Wii menu, and there are all the Wii channels: news, weather, internet, and the all-important online store. Nobody will feel intimidated by this setup, nobody will feel threatened or ignorant or too old or out of touch. Nintendo isn’t just blowing PR smoke; they absolutely mean everything they’ve been saying for the past several months.
Going in, many gamers feared that Wii online would be a desolate, bare-bones gimmick that was only being included to save face. For so long, Nintendo had said nothing of online strategy or a thriving gaming community. We aren’t getting exactly what we thought we wanted, but perhaps what we are getting is even better. Wii online will be a community, with personalization and more options than we ever expected. But it isn’t the complicated, daunting, gamers-only coliseum that Xbox Live is. Yes we will have our online games, and plenty of them. But Wii online isn’t about white-knuckled competition, arm pumping and hunting for noobs, although I’m sure that will crop up eventually. Nintendo’s plan for online is a system that everyone can enjoy. And like it or not, that strategy will attract more customers than the gaming industry has ever had.