Interview:Kotaku June 22nd 2011
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The master controller for Nintendo's Wii U was born not of a desire to replace television, but to fix one of television's very small problems.
Those few second between when a person presses the power button on a remote control and when a television blinks to life prevents gaming consoles from becoming the sort of pervasive gadget that Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto thinks they should be.
The Wii U's special touchscreen controller is meant to solve that.
I sat down with Miyamoto, Nintendo's general manager of entertainment, analysis and development, shortly after he and several other Nintendo leaders took to the stage of downtown Los Angeles' Nokia Theater to unveil the company's next big thing.
Set for a release sometime next year at a still undisclosed price, the Wii U features all of the motion-gaming bells and whistles of the Wii but in higher definition graphics. The console is also rumored to be a much more powerful device than the Wii. But the main thing that sets it apart is its magazine-sized controller.
The Wii U's special controller looks like a tablet device (think iPad or Xoom) with a white frame peppered with buttons, triggers, thumbsticks and directional pads. The touch-sensitive controller also includes cameras, a microphone, speakers and even a sensor bar for detecting motion.
It it so packed with functionality that my first question of Miyamoto when I sat down with him in the balcony of the Nokia Theater was whether the device was meant to essentially replace the console, becoming a sort of at-home portable device meant to allow gamers to wander but not stray too far from the television.
Miyamoto was quick to say that wasn't the case. The controller is just that a controller. Even though it has a 6.2-inch screen capable of displaying not just things like maps or information relevant to a game, but the game itself, it's not meant to completely replace the white console it wirelessly connects to or the television that the Wii U will display high definition graphics on.
The controller's screen is not actually able to process information, it just relays it, he said.
Could you take this master controller into a bedroom and play from there, I asked.
"Without going into the whether or not it is physically possible to use the device throughout your house, the device is designed for you to have your Wii U controller and television in the same room. They are designed to interact with one another."
When the Wii was first unveiled by Nintendo, the company said the small, sleek white console was meant to solve a problem they had identified in gaming. Video games, Nintendo felt, had become too complex. Controllers too unwieldy for the average person to understand and master. So with the Wii Nintendo created a device that allowed people to use straight-forward body motion to play games. They also included a game controller that looked an awful lot like a television remote.
What was the problem they were trying to solve with the Wii U, I asked Miyamoto. Was it that gamers and non-gamers get into power struggles for the television?
"That played into it a little bit," he said, but that's not the main problem. The main problem is an issue that all consoles face.
"When you look at most TVs in home nowadays it takes awhile for them to turn on," he said. "That becomes a barrier for people."
It was something Nintendo noticed with their Wii which was designed not just for gaming, but to serve as a sort of central hub of information for the family. The Wii can be used to browse the Internet. It has channels dedicated to mainstream news and local weather. But to access any of that a person needs to turn on the television and then wait. That short delay, Miyamoto seemed to be saying, kept some people from using the Wii as something more than a gaming console.
With the Wii U, Miyamoto pointed out, "you have a screen available at any time that you can check."
This dedicated second screen, and the ways people may use it not just for gaming, but to do things like browse the Internet is the Wii U's single biggest design accomplishment , Miyamoto said.
Miyamoto envisions a device that you leave resting in a cradle by your couch, picking it up whenever you want to surf the Internet or check the weather. That cradle will presumably charge the controller as well, though Miyamoto declined to go into specifics about the battery or the life a single charge will net you.
"You should be able to play with it for the period of time you would need for something like an action game," he said by way of answering my question.
This is a device that Miyamoto seemed more interested in discussing in terms of how it will be used outside of gaming.
You could, he told me, use the controller to browse the web in your living room. You could use it, he suggested, to find something of interest on the Internet and "set it up" so that when the television was turned on to the console people could enjoy your discovery without needing to wait for any loading screens or on television web surfing.
Of course, a big draw, likely the biggest draw for the Wii U will still be gaming. Miyamoto pointed out that the secondary screen of the Wii U's controller will open up a world of possibilities to game makers.
"It is going to be up to the developers to decide how they are going to take advantage of it," he said.
A video shown during the Wii U press conference in LA showed the controller's screen being used as a map, as a way to throw ninja stars at enemies, as the tee resting on the floor of a living room in a game of online golf.
Entire games can also be played on that controller. And then there's the Wii U's ability to display high definition graphics, a first for a Nintendo console.
"This is an HD system, our first HD system, and we want to create a real HD Zelda game for it," he said. "You will see a lot of these in-depth and deep experiences in terms of visual style. You will also see some play styles that are fun and interesting because of the play structure."
While the system is rumored to be at least as powerful as rivals Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, that doesn't mean that every game that comes to it will be an HD game.
"We are not planning on putting any restrictions in terms of requiring developers to leverage HD in a particular ways," Miyamoto said. "Even if you are using a simplier visual style it will still look very beautiful."