Nintendo's Wii U Is Flashy—But Its Competitors May Be Flashier

Nintendo's Wii U device promises to truly reinvent the console-gaming scene. But rivals Apple and Sony are hot on its heels, promising similar, if not better, touchscreen innovations that will be on the market sooner. A look at the contenders for consoles of the future.

Wii U

We like the Nintendo Wii U's novel premise, we really do. Half embracing the new touchscreen tablet paradigm while at the same time mixing in huge motion-sensing controllers with on-TV video action just seems bold, crazy, and adorably weird. And yes, possibly game-changing. But it might be a doomed effort before it even launches. Wii U isn't due until some ill-defined moment in 2012, and Apple, Sony, and other competitors are touting very similar, if not far superior, efforts that are scheduled to arrive much sooner.

iDevices and the Apple TV

Hitting the news now is a proof-of-concept game design from Firemint that links an iPad to an HDTV via an Apple TV and Apple's own AirPlay wireless technology. The game is top-seller Real Racing 2 HD, and the setup is simple: Your iPad hosts the game, with its touchscreen displaying ancillary data (real-time "telemetry," as it were) and settings options, and you use it to steer and control your race car. The game action itself is displayed on your big-screen TV through a $99 Apple TV.

tablet gaming

That's a 10-inch tablet streaming two HD-resolution images (one at 1080p full HD), with sophisticated motion controls. Plus, unlike the Wii U's "tablet," you can take the iPad elsewhere, and use it for all sorts of non-gaming purposes.

Sure, the iPad costs more, Apple's gaming developer community doesn't necessarily have the chops that Nintendo can manage, and all this requires Apple's iOS 5 update, which isn't due until fall. But AirPlay will also be possible via the iPhone 5 and 2011's iPod Touch, and probably older gear, too, which brings the price down. And there are tens of thousands of games available in the App Store already.

Sony PSV

Sony's PlayStation Vita may have a silly name that sounds more like an energy drink than a gaming system, but it's an extremely powerful handheld that sports more computing power than the Space Shuttle (okay, all three shuttles, several times over). It has two touch-senstitve interfaces with one on its HD screen and one on its rear face.

This week the developers of role-playing game Ruin showed off exactly how potent its skills are by showing the PSV continuing a game that was mid-play on a PS3 at exactly the same point, with all the surrounding goings-on from enemies and so on. Syncing happens via the cloud, and it's seamless.

It's not dual-screen gaming, but it's almost more powerful—you can simply pick up the action mid-game and take it with you from your spot on the sofa to wherever you need to be (imagining Dad has really put his foot down, and you have to get in the car to go visit Granny). And we know that current-gen PSPs can interact with a PS3 to act as controllers—so we imagine the PSV's ability to interact with a "mother" console would be even more sophisticated.


And don't forget OnLive—the upstart "non-console" gaming console that acts as a host for a game hosted on OnLive's servers somewhere else in the cloud. It works on TVs, computers and now iPads—with clever touchscreen controls to replicate the more traditional keys-and-joysticks input that games use. This week OnLive showed a Bluetooth controller that connects to an iPad to replicate a joypad's functionality, meaning you could play a console game on your TV streamed via AirPlay...without a console. And you still get the benefits of all the other things an iPad can do.

We wish Wii U the best, but it may be arriving a little late—and a little underdressed—to the gaming party.

[Image: Flickr user ho-fosho]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

Earlier: Nintendo Crashes The Tablet World With A Game-Changing Entrance

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  • Eric Rice

    I think these counter-examples miss a few key features of gaming that the Wii U either seems to get right, or that Nintendo certainly should understand well enough to do effectively:

    1. Scalability. Moving a game to the PSV from the PS3 will put serious limits on the game as a whole to ensure it scales down - from controls to computing power to simple battery life. At that point, what's the point of the console, if games have to be hamstrung to fit into a portable device in the first place? An Apple TV may seem like a natural game host, but it's a pretty underwhelming piece of equipment, as is the iPad ... you won't be playing Gears Of War on that thing (well ... you won't be doing that anyway, but that's beside the point).

    2. Session gaming. If the iPad, for instance, is doing all the processing and rendering to stream the 1080p image to your TV, PLUS taking controls and displaying additional game info locally ... you're going to get mediocre battery life at best. I would guess this is a non-starter for anything but the most casual gaming.

    3. Control. If the tablet screen is treated as just another view (for instance, the driving game speed, etc console shown above), then controls will be limited in the same way that many current game controls are - it's not going to provide any new benefit, and only be a gimmick.

    What the tablet is capable of doing for console gaming is not to allow you to take the game away (might as well not have the console), or provide additional display (there's already an oversupply of information on the screen in most games ... I don't need more sitting in front of me), but to provide more sophisticated controls. For instance, a game type that traditionally falters on consoles is the realtime strategy (RTS) game, like Command and Conquer. Joysitcks and limited buttons just aren't well-suited to controlling large and diverse groups of units and micromanaging a large landscape quickly. The tablet interface could very well change that by providing a command center with effective inputs and maps for action that's playing out on the screen - and do so dynamically.

    But, to make that work for most of the gaming community, the tablet/controller will have to have some pretty stringent requirements on it:
    1. Long battery life - like, 8-10 hours of constant gaming.
       -- Most intensive processing will need to be done by something plugged in.
       -- The tablet display will likely need to be high efficiency, and so low graphic quality, or at least support high efficiency modes of operation.
    2. Ergonomic.
       -- Size, shape, weight, and handling all have to be comfortable for hours of use. The iPad, by comparison, is designed for casual display of information and works for some light gaming. For more sophisticated or longer games, though, it would be a nightmare to use, and would not encourage more sophisticated game design.
    3. Nimble controls.
       -- Without controls that allow fast reflexes and nimble actions on the screen, game designers get locked out of entire popular genres, like first person shooters and platformers. The controller needs to react quickly and the inputs need to be intuitive and nimble. Latency from your fingers to the screen should be extremely low, so the more processing on the controller and then on the console that must happen, the worse off the game will be.
    4. The tablet should be capable of *extending* the game world, rather than only providing a console or controller for the action on the TV, or another reflection of it in your hands.
       -- The PSV concept reflects the on-screen game and allows you to take it with you. Great, but limiting to game design. The Wii U demos have shown games that provide one player a different view of the game world, and can enhance multi-player mechanics in a compelling way.
    5. It should be affordable enough that a family can have several.
       -- While the market seems to be willing to fork out quite a bit for game peripherals (see: Rock Band), there is certainly a breaking point. I couldn't afford to have several iPads for game controllers, even if they provide a lot of added value outside of my gaming. And while I'm the main gamer in my household, I certainly don't want to lock my friends out from playing with me because controllers were too expensive, no matter how cool they are. There will be a sweet spot for input devices, probably no more than $100/controller, adn that's likely pushing it - that almost definitely means a more focused, less-generally-capable device with very careful specifications.

    So, actually, I fully disagree. I think a carefully specified system devoted to gaming will allow for significantly more innovation and better games than otherwise. Just as tablets had struggled for acceptance for years before the iPad hit with the right mix of design, usability, utility, and market visibility, Nintendo can take the benefits of the tablet and apply them to a gaming console with a quality design at an acceptable price.

  • Donkeykong91

    Considering that I've never played the PS3 to judge its merits and faults, my opinion is completely biased :D.

    I don't think the PSVita will be a long term hit. Most of its games are geared towards the hardcore gamers and is looked at as a portable game console for adults while the DS and 3DS look more friendlier. Look at the history of the PSP. They were targeting the hardcore gamers, while DS targeted the casual gamers with game releases like Nintendogs and Cooking Mama. The DS sold extremely well because of that, while the PSP sold satisfactorily. The 3DS recently was released and already has the prejudged notion of it being another family friendly portable console... except in 3D. While on the other hand, the PSVita mostly has its hand up the hardcore gamer's skirts. It's common sense that casual gamers greatly outnumber hardcore gamers, so the odds are against the PSVita.

    Apple won't make a huge profit out of its new iPad game feature. They'll only appeal to some well-to-do families and loyal Apple fans who have the money to pay for those kinds of games. I don't think they'll even be devoted to playing those games until they've finished it and buy another one again. What I'm saying is its replay value won't be comparable to the Big 3 systems; hence, it won't last long.

    Lastly, Nintendo has a good track record for console sales and have made names like Mario, Zelda, StarFox, DonkeyKong, Kirby, etc., universal. I don't think Nintendo will falter against the new PSVita and iPad feature in the future. Nintendo's solid as cement right now.