Ever since the Wii U was unveiled last year, people have been speculating about the graphical capabilities of the Wii U. Statements from developers have varied, from the Wii U’s processing power being slower than the current consoles to Crytek saying it runs their engine beautifully. It seems like we’ll never really know the answer until the console’s released and people can dissect it for themselves.
However, this does raise the question of whether or not Nintendo’s strategy is correct. If the PS4 and Xbox 720 have more power than the Wii U, will it be like the Wii all over again? Nintendo is definitely taking a risk, but I believe their strategy will work out in the long run.
Now let me preface this by saying that I have almost no technical knowledge about graphics engines or console specs. This article will focus on quotes from Nintendo as well as my own reasoning based off past events and current trends.
By looking at quotes from Iwata and Miyamoto, it’s pretty clear that they’ve thought about this problem power. During an investor Q&A, Iwata said:
“Other companies might launch a next-generation console with more power, but we don’t necessarily think that the difference between the Wii U and such console will be as drastic as what you felt it was between the Wii and the other consoles because there will be fewer and fewer differentiators in graphics. […] We are including both a video game console and a handheld device, if we were not careful about how luxurious both of them were, we could end up having to offer the price of the two hardware systems combined, which would not be an acceptable price for the consumers. We had to design it by balancing the performance and the costs.”
The combination of the Wii being in SD and its vastly different control method hindered many third-party multiplatform games from coming to the system. Though the Wii U also has a unique controller, it will be much easier for developers to port games to it because it does have traditional buttons and dual-analog sticks. Add in the Wii U Pro Controller with the system’s HD capabilities and there’s no reason why developers can’t put their games on the system if it’s as easy to do as Ubisoft says. With Epic’s recent statement that Unreal Engine 4 will be able to run on the Wii U because it’s extremely scalable, even games built for systems more powerful than the Wii U should be able to port to the console in a slightly different form.
One of the most significant points Nintendo has reiterated in its statements about the Wii U is balancing performance with costs. I have no doubt that if Nintendo really wanted to, they could create a console capable of amazing visuals that exceed even the best current games. Such a console would probably cost at least $400 and would limit their consumer base considerably. Nintendo has always been focused on family-friendly gaming and keeping their systems relatively affordable so they can market to that wider audience. They don’t consider themselves to be in direct competition with Sony and Microsoft; they do things their own unique way, for better or for worse.
In an interview with IGN, Miyamoto talked about graphical power and difficult act of balancing that with cost. He also makes a comment that I think is very important in this debate:
“But whenever we talk about who’s winning in a power competition, I think it’s easy to lose sight of whether a game is fun or not. Which is certainly going to be more important to me. […] we’re thinking about how to balance our ability to bring a completely unique experience to consumers along with the cost that they’ll have to pay to be able to have that experience in the first place. I’m very happy with the balance that we’ve been able to strike. What’s left is how developers use it.”
It seems that some gamers today are so focused on graphical power and pushing the boundaries of technology that they forget about the key part of any game: the actual gameplay experience. No Wii game is more graphically impressive than those on the 360 or PS3, yet I would still count games like Super Mario Galaxy and Skyward Sword among some of the best this console generation has to offer because of the quality of their core gameplay. As an example, Id Software’s Rage won many E3 awards back in 2010 in large past due to its stunning visuals. It received mostly positive reviews when the game came out, but issues with the story and the shooting/driving gameplay made the game somewhat disappointing after such a great E3 showing. It’s only natural to push the limits of technology and create good-looking games, but sometimes that focus can compromise the more important parts of development.
Nintendo often focused on compelling art styles over graphical fidelity and it has served them well. Though Wind Waker didn’t have the highest polygon count when it came out, it still holds up as a beautiful game to this day because of its unique cel-shaded art style. The tech demo for Zelda Wii U seems to blend fantasy visuals with realism very well. It’s defiantly not the most visually stunning trailer out there, but I thought it was still pretty impressive. At least for me, having games in HD is good enough. This console generation, we’ve reached a point where games look good enough to be mistaken for movie CGI. There’s still room for improvement, but each future generation is going to have a smaller incremental increases in visuals as we move closer to the uncanny valley. As long as my Wii U games look nice and have compelling gameplay, I don’t need to play the game that has visuals only a high-end PC can duplicate.
Another factor in this discussion is the rising costs of game development. Many talented studios have closed this year because their games did not sell the blockbuster numbers needed to make a profit. Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, the developers behind the well received new IP Kingdom’s of Amalur: Reckoning, were shutdown even though their game received positive reviews and sold “1.2m copies in the first 90 days”. According to the governor of Rhode Island, who had loaned money to fund the studios, the game needed to sell over 3 million copies to break even. This situation demonstrates the sad situation many developers face today because of the huge costs for developing big HD games. Now developers either work on smaller downloadable/mobile games or they work on one of the big game franchises like Assasin’s Creed and Call of Duty. There’s no place for mid-tier developers.
If the Xbox 720 and PS4 are significantly more powerful their predecessors, the costs of development will rocket even higher and cause even fewer studios to make top-tier console games. By keeping the power of the Wii U only slightly above the current consoles, maybe Nintendo will be able to attract developers to their platform through lower development costs and a larger install base because the Wii U’s lower price. Nintendo could also set up the Wii U eShop to be attractive to mid-tier developers for 2-5 hour long downloadable console games. A lot of this is speculation and wishful thinking, but I do genuinely believe that Nintendo has a chance to make the Wii U a compelling platform for a large variety of developers.
Once again, Nintendo is separating themselves from the competition with the Wii U’s focus on unique gameplay over having the best graphics. However, it won’t be as bad as it was with the Wii. Many multiplatform games will come to the Wii U as well, possibly with unique features that take advantage of the GamePad. This compromise really makes sense from a cost perspective when you think about the expenses of having a second screen on the controller that streams to and from the console itself. Nintendo had to balance this feature with the power of the system in order to keep the system affordable.
No one knows what the power of the Wii U is really going to turn out to be, but I suspect it will be slightly more powerful than the 360/PS3. It just seems logical that a new console would have better technology than the ones over six years old. Given Nintendo’s comments and what we’ve seen of the Wii U, it doesn’t seem like it will be significantly more powerful than what’s out now. Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles may outclass the Wii U in terms of power when they eventually release. However, as I’ve outlined in this article, there are some definite advantages and possibilities presented by Nintendo’s unorthodox strategy.
And at the end of the day, when all is said and done, visuals don’t really mean anything. As long as the game itself is fun, that’s all that really matters. How else can we go back to play retro games with primitive graphics and still enjoy them as much or even more than the best looking AAA game out today?
What do you guys think? Will the Wii U will succeed even with less power than its competitors or is pushing the boundaries of visuals the only viable future in the games industry? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.