Friday, 10 June 2011

The Wii U and the future of electronic devices

This week LA has been alive with nerds as thousands of gamers, games journalists and developers flocked to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). E3 is traditionally the place where Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo show off new consoles or new accessories to consoles. Two years ago Microsoft and Sony both announced their answers to the Nintendo Wii, for example. This year, yet again ahead of the pack, Nintendo announced its successor to the Wii, the Wii U, featuring a completely new type of controller.

The controller takes its cue from the Nintendo DS by having a touch screen as well as conventional buttons. The controller also has a front facing camera. Not only will the touch screen be able to interact with the console on the TV screen, but with a press of a button, the screen will be able act just like a TV screen, turning the controller into a handheld console, although with none of the manoeuvrability, as contact with the actual console needs to be maintained.

Nintendo has managed, yet again, to stay ahead of the curve and way ahead of its rivals, who are still floundering with motion control (which seems to have been abandoned by Nintendo, thankfully) and 3D, which also seems to be something of a blind alley. Time will tell whether the Wii U will be more indicative of the future of gaming, as opposed to a temporary distraction, as motion control seems to have been.

The Wii U certainly opens the way for some interesting gameplay. Touch screen has done wonders for the hand-held market, initially for the Nintendo DS, but more recently for the Smart Phone and Tablet market. I have little doubt that the future of hand-held games lies firmly in the touch screen world, and probably as part of a single, portable device that also works as a phone and an MP3 player. However this possibility has not been explored much in terms of larger devices, such as the Wii U. Touch screen should offer the player more versatility in what they can control with a lot more simplicity than a PC affords. Until now, the appeal of the standard controller has been simplicity and economy of buttons at the expense of versatility. The PC, meanwhile, has afforded this versatility, but at the expense of simplicity. A touch screen allows a wealth of versatility, without the complexity of a keyboard and mouse. This opens up certain markets to consoles, which have otherwise been largely the domain of the PC gamer.

Strategy games suddenly become possible, where before a strategy game built for a console was always going to come under huge strain from the limits of the controller. Now a whole new range of possibilities are alive in this genre. Likewise MMORPGs have generally been the reserve of the PC, but can now begin to emerge into the console market.

The Wii U has all kinds of potential with regard to the interface of the game onscreen. If much of the information currently held in the corners of the game screen could be moved to the controller, the game would look much more immersive. The clutter of obstructive interfaces could be dramatically reduced.

The touch screen itself provides all kinds of interesting gameplay mechanics, many of which were explored in the DS. The ability to literally draw on the screen with a stylus creates all kinds of interesting potential, from simple puzzle games to much more complex strategic or adventure games. This would essentially provide much of the functionality of a mouse.

Here is where the problems also emerge with the Wii U. Juggling two screens, a stylus and a multitude of buttons may well prove pretty challenging for the average gamer. Even with the Nindendo DS, this proved a challenge, but then the two screens were right next to each other. Having one screen at your hands and one on the TV screen across the room is going to make it hard to look at both at the same time, unless you hold your hands up so that both screens are next to each other, which creates problems of it’s own. Of course this won’t be an issue if you can work the stylus with the touch screen based on watching the main screen. This will require one-to-one interaction between the two screens. Whether or not that kind of functionality will exist remains to be seen.

This issue is most obvious with regards to the placing of stats and other information, usually put in the interface, on the touch screen. The benefits of clearing the screen of clutter may be outweighed by the problems of having to look at your hands to work out how much health or ammo you have left. That information is put in the interface for a reason – so it is easy to refer to it in game without distracting yourself.

In terms of gameplay, the main purpose of a controller is to convey information from the player to the game as easily and as simply as possible. The less the player has to think about what he is doing, the better. If the thought process moves beyond ‘what button to press?’ to simply ‘what action to take?’, making the corresponding button pressing automatic, then immersion has been achieved. A well controlled game does this perfectly well with what we have. I’m sure everyone who plays games seriously has achieved the almost Zen experience of simply pressing buttons automatically, controlling the on-screen character without actually thinking about the mechanics of it. It’s a simple enough experience to have, even with unsophisticated games like Tetris.

This is where the Wii, and were motion control in general, has failed. The controller felt like a barrier to gameplay; it always felt like you were having to actively control the game, rather than doing it automatically. The interaction wasn’t one-to-one, the control never really became instinctive.

I hope that the Wii U’s controller can do what motion control never did; become as natural and instinctive to use as conventional controllers. Hopefully players will be able to use the stylus on the hand-held screen while looking at the TV screen. If that does happen, if the new controller becomes a gateway to more interesting gameplay, rather than a functionality barrier to existing gameplay, then touch screens corresponding to larger screens may well be the future of gaming.

Even if it’s not, I think some really interesting innovation will come about because of the Wii U. I’m sure, even now, developers are busy plotting new and wonderful ways to exploit this technology. If done right, the Wii U could make for some fascinating gameplay developments and some really interesting games.

The other interesting thing that the Wii U represents is another step in the direction of the living room entertainment singularity. Consoles have been able to access the internet and play DVDs for a while now, but the Wii U comes with a camera that allows for video chatting, much like FaceTime for the Iphone. Now, we can watch movies, play games, makes video calls and access the internet, all with one device. The problem with the latter is that nothing beats a keyboard for typing, so the computer is not absolute yet. However, remote keyboards are not hard to come by, indeed I could see an Ipad app being developed that makes your Ipad into a remote keyboard for your Mac. The tablet you keep in your living room could easily double as a keyboard for your console.

For a while, now, we have been approaching two different singularities. I alluded to the hand-held singularity before. The other is the living room singularity; a device that will play games, access the internet, play movies, record live TV, play music, word process; essentially all the functionality of a PC, a games console and a DVD player. The new controller is simple indicative of the remote aspect moving another step in that direction. A game controller can already act as a TV remote, now it is even starting to perform the complex roles of a mouse or laptop touch pad.

It won’t happen immediately, or even in a few years, but gradually, step by step, both these singularities will happen. The effect that will have on other technology is debatable, but I think the days of the desktop PC are numbered. More and more power is being crammed into laptops these days and consoles are rapidly catching up with the computer in terms of power and versatility.

One day, you will need one hand-held device, one laptop, one box hooked up to the television and possibly a tablet that doubles as a keyboard and a controller, to do everything you want, wherever you want.

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