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Wii U – quick impressions

Posted by Bart

So in case you haven’t heard the Wii U is in the lab(s).  I don’t think I have been this underwhelmed by a console launch in a long time (well maybe the 3DS and PS Vita but I was never into handhelds much) but it behooves us to explore the thing, ponder it and wonder about where all the time goes. First impressions are sometimes the most intriguing so after a scant hour in Nintendo Land (ick) this what I have (after the break)…  I welcome any and all conversation about what anybody will manage to do with this beast.

Its clear that what everyone has already been saying about Wii U is true… it is a kind of swiss army knife of console interfaces.  In addition to the wiimotes (which it supports) we now have a tablet that marries the DS, the Ipad and the standard controller.  There are so many mirrored control schemes its hard to know what to choose and I assume the idea is that eventually players will gravitate to the control forms that suit them most and we will see multi-player games where someone has the wiimote, someone else a old controller, someone else a tablet and so on.  The cool thing is that by default the Wii U only works with one tablet so multi-player games have to be 1 tablet plus other things and that means that 1 player is always interfacially different than the others.  This could lead to some major family fights or some very interesting gameplay.

Its clear there is also some learning curve involved in moving between the TV screen and the tablet screen… the Nintendo Land games have clear instructions about when to look up and look down.  I spent most of my time on the racing game and it was insane – you drive tilting your tablet on the vertical like a steering wheel while staring at the tablet except when you go through tunnels and then you are told to look at the screen – “look at the tablet”, “look at the screen” – look down, now up, now down again, now press this, stylus that, tilt this, etc… crazy. One very cool moment was while I was staring intently at the tablet screen driving my car I never noticed that my face was showing up on the TV screen courtesy of the tablet camera. That’s a nice touch for spectators and really drives home the point about the split attention management this new configuration is going to require.

I know Nintendo Land is just a demo for the tech but now I am going to look for more of these split attention game designs…  the experience is similar to something many of us have been talking about with respect to the Wiimotes and gestural games in general (notwithstanding Jason Begy’s review of Codename Revolution). If the Wii was originally about shifting attention away from the screen and on to the players and the spaces players occupied then the Wii U is about shifting attention around in that space. At the very least its a three way relationship now between player, screen and mini-screen — there is no longer a possibility of having an “intuitive” interface (as if there ever was) as now you have to look at your controller. This is odd since the hallmark of great player skill is not having to look at the buttons.

The effect is not one of continuity as in the in the creation of one giant augmented reality space but rather discontinuity – losses of attention and leaps of faith as one looks hither, thither and yon.

The consequences should be the same as before – either players will be extremely frustrated by failures of control or they will become enamored of social, affective and imaginative possibilities that take place in these necessary disjunctions. Douglas Wilson’s GDC China comments about motion control and slapstick start to ring true. Nothing brings a smile to a bored player racing in yet another go-cart game then his buddies comment about the drool she can see running down his check on the TV screen.

Ah… now that’s progress.