I followed the various video game unveilings at the Electronic Entertainment Expo avidly, but I had to do so online as I have not yet unlocked the power to hypnotize the editors of the Houston Press into paying for me to fly to Los Angeles and play video games for three days on their dime. Soon, though, soon.
The problem with that is that things get filtered through the lens of the Internet, and as we all know, the lens of the Internet is coated with ball sweat and rage. When Nintendo trotted out demonstrations of their next system, the Wii U, there was a lot of confusion and disappointment being expressed.
The Wii U, which will be backwards compatible with the Wii and use many of the same peripherals like the Wiimote and nunchuck, is getting flak from two main issues. The first is that the official Wii U remote has basically a tablet with a touch screen in the middle of it. It's easily the biggest and most awkward-looking controller ever, and it often requires you to look away from the screen to use it.
The other is the fact that the system is designed to be much more social network-friendly, and encourages a greater level of interaction between people such as in game text messaging. Being one of those people who never go multiplayer online, and having watched the frothy rage of folks who were forced to deal with server shutdowns during the Diablo III release despite the fact that they were playing alone and didn't want to be logged into the server in the first place, I can see why this is making folks irate.
Still, I see a lot of possibilities in the Wii U, and few people seem to be talking about them. Here's some of what I hope it leads to.
Currently my favorite Wii game is Xenoblade Chronicles, a massive mixture of the last two Final Fantasies that takes place on the corpses of giant freakin' mechanical gods. It's a fantastic adventure that sucks you in for hours just exploring.
It's got some really great features, like an affinity system between players and NPCs, and the maps are huge, meant to be roughly the size of Japan. But one thing modern console RPGs still have a problem with is that any time you want to check something, such as your position on the bigger map, you have to enter a sub screen. Since games went disc, that's always a pain in the ass because of load times.
The tablet controller can eliminate that forever. I would love to just be tooling along playing the game, and instead of listening to the obnoxious sound of a drive whirring while I wanted to look up a bestiary entry, I just have to reach across to the tablet, which would always have that information handy. Speaking of which...
I've mentioned before how strategy guides are somewhat redundant in the world of the Internet. GameFaqs.com and IGN alone pretty much cancel out the print strategy guide because they can be updated and tweaked in minutes with input from hundreds or thousands of consumers taking the games to their limit.
But with a tablet automatically on hand with purchase of the system, official guides can be purchased through the system's Internet connection, and they can be updated regularly. You could even include video.
It goes beyond that...the guides could offer a question function like GameFaqs.com does, which could be answered by fellow connected players or staff members when you're stuck. It could mean the return of the game counselor, who would ultimately be responsible for fine-tuning the guide based on input from the community. Buying the guide would tie you into a whole enclave excited about the game you're playing. Which brings us to...
I made a crack about the dickishness of the Internet at the top, and that crack stands. Connectivity between people has given rise to more petty hate than every royal gene pool in the world, and hosting it inside a special Miiverse with four layers of inappropriate content protection will not change that. Nothing can.
It's clear that Nintendo wants to be gaming's Facebook, and to that I say, "Why not be Facebook's gaming?" It's only a matter of time before one of the big three systems manages to find a way to connect their player profiles directly to their Facebook profiles, and anyone who says that nobody wants that has never seen people cheat at FourSquare to be mayor of a McDonald's.
Wii U's greatest focus brings us one step closer to that. I would love to check in from the Mushroom Kingdom. "Would you like to post the Goomba Stomper badge to your timeline?" Of course I do! Everyone wants that. Then your friend on Facebook sees you're playing, asks if you want to play some co-opt via message, and if you say yes he goes and boots up the system. Hell, giving players the ability to easily post screen caps or videos from play to their Facebook would alone sell the idea of greater social networking on the system.
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Wii U allows for players to have different levels of control over the game. The tablet can show one thing while the screen can show another. This allows for non-level play, where one person is using the tablet screen to play in a totally different way from the people using the controllers. Kotaku keeps mentioning this as being a "dungeon master" without really exploring the implications of that phrase.
Tabletop games rarely work as video games because in the end, it's always been impossible for a game to display information to one player that is hidden from another player. At best, the game AI acted as dungeon master. But not anymore. Now, you can actually have a human dungeon master, plotting a role-playing experience from his tablet while a band of heroes are forced to navigate the world he builds and controls.
And since tabletop gaming is already based around the idea of gathering to play rather than online play, it adds a whole new demographic to the system. D&D players will happily all get together in a room for a session, and the Wii U offers the first and best chance of being able to perfectly re-create that experience and do it one better.
I have no idea if any of these things will come to pass, but they seem to me to be things that could change gaming as we know it. With the Wii U, they could be possible.