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If Wii U is the 'next advance in gaming,' where is online?

"We'll be talking about those in more detail as we get closer to launch." Nintendo's Bill Trinen

Wii U How U Will Play Next - from video
Wii U How U Will Play Next - from video

Despite being public in one form or another for 17 months, Nintendo has failed to fully explain the capabilities of its new Wii U console, avoiding serious discussion of core features like its online functionality.

Nintendo has been talking about the Wii U since April 2011.

To whom it may concern:

Re: Wii's successor system

Nintendo Co., Ltd. has decided to launch in 2012 a system to succeed Wii, which the company has sold 86.01 million units on a consolidated shipment basis between its launch in 2006 and the end of March 2011.

We will show a playable model of the new system and announce more specifications at the E3 Expo, which will be held June 7-9, 2011, in Los Angeles.

Sales of this new system have not been included in the financial forecasts announced today for the fiscal term ending March 2012.

Over the last 17 months, beginning in April 2011 with the release of a pre-emptive statement titled simply "Re: Wii's successor system," Nintendo has been sharing details on its upcoming console. In June 2011, the Wii U was officially unveiled during Nintendo's E3 press conference, and followed up by a press Q&A. In advance of this year's E3, Nintendo held a streaming press conference for the Wii U, followed by the actual E3 press conference a few days later, followed by a Wii U developer discussion. There was a breakout 3DS panel since the E3 press conference focused almost exclusively on the Wii U. And later that month, Nintendo hosted a Nintendo Direct live stream to talk about the Wii U release of Super Smash Bros.

And yesterday, Nintendo had three separate opportunities to talk Wii U, with events for Japan, Europe, and North America. And after all this, with absolutely no shortage of opportunity, the most notable thing about Wii U for me isn't what Nintendo's shown us but rather what it's failed to show.

While there were many things missing from Nintendo's showing yesterday, there is one omission whose absence stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the industry, and even to Nintendo's own messaging today, that it's the obvious place to start: an online service.

the lack of a unified online service has been an increasingly anachronistic reality

When sizing up Nintendo's competitive offerings over the last six years, the lack of a unified online service has been an increasingly anachronistic reality. Outside of gaming, the "cloud" is something hundreds of millions of people use daily, through Apple devices, Android devices, or Amazon's Kindle devices. The idea of a persistent online account is commonplace. In gaming, while Microsoft continues to expand its dominant Xbox Live platform, and Sony manages to play an impressive game of catch-up, even extending its PlayStation Network services to the PlayStation Vita handheld this year, Nintendo's strategy has been marked by a notable lack of response.

That all seemed poised to change when, during its E3 2011 press conference, EA CEO John Riccitiello took the stage to talk about the "unprecedented partnership between Nintendo and Electronic Arts."

"Over the years I've made E3 appearances with several console partners, but never before with Nintendo. What brings us together today is a breakthrough in our relationship based on a stunning breakthrough in game technology," Riccitiello said, before discussing the potential of games like Madden or Battlefield on the Wii U. "Now imagine those games with an open, online functionality that allows you to download new content, find matches, compete on leaderboards, and participate in a global community."

Over a year later, and we still have to imagine. While there's been no announcement regarding a Wii U release of Battlefield 3, Madden NFL 13 is part of the console's launch window lineup and, despite claims of breakthrough gameplay thanks to the GamePad, comparisons to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases only serve to point out the Wii U version's shortcoming, not its strengths.

The Wii U version of Madden NFL 13 isn't just lacking in the processor-intensive features of its older next-gen counterparts — for example, the Infinity Engine and its real-time physics are entirely absent — but it's also missing Online Team Play and Online Communities, the exact sort of "global community" that Riccitiello was talking about.

Representatives for many of the games at Nintendo's event yesterday were unwilling to discuss anything related to online functionality

Nintendo insists that some kind of online functionality is coming to the platform. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Black Ops 2 have confirmed multiplayer modes, but the complete opacity as to how that works is beyond baffling, a mere 65 days from the console's release and 17 months after Nintendo itself highlighted the online functionality of the console at E3 2011. Representatives for many of the games at Nintendo's event yesterday were unwilling to discuss anything related to online functionality, though they did acknowledge the existence of those features. When asked about this mystery, Nintendo's Bill Trinen told Polygon, "Definitely, when it comes to Miiverse and some of the other network offerings, we'll be talking about those in more detail as we get closer to launch."

So Nintendo will ask for yet another opportunity to explain how something most people consider a core functionality in gaming (not to mention all consumer electronics) will work on its new console. We didn't see the console's menu system; we have no idea if the much-hated "friends code" system will make a return; in the absence of any kind of unifying "account" with Nintendo, we don't know if future digital purchases will be tied to that profile or to the hardware (as it is currently); and we don't know how the eShop will work which, you'll recall, failed to launch alongside the 3DS just last year.

And that's to say nothing of the other things we don't know about. Now that "Entertainment" is one of three core pillars of the platform, will it play DVDs (not to mention Blu-rays)? How precisely does the Nintendo TVii system work? How will NFC work in games? Will there be any 3DS interaction with the console?

Perhaps this prolonged distribution of details is part of Nintendo's strategy; a regular drip feed of information intended to keep Nintendo in the news in the lead up to its big launch. If so, it hasn't worked. Instead, it's resulted in confusion at best and skepticism at worst. Compare Nintendo's strategy to Apple's: Just the day before Nintendo's Wii U event, Apple unveiled an iterative update to its iPhone and, despite being called "boring" by many of the tech press, managed to gather the attention of seemingly every human on the planet.

a regular drip feed of information intended to keep Nintendo in the news

Apple masterfully built excitement and anticipation for that reveal, not through slowly spoiling the surprise (see that April 2011 excitement-killing memo) but through withholding information until the last minute. And now, just days from release, there aren't a lot of unknowns with regards to the iPhone 5, just a lot of pre-orders.

What are we to think when Electronic Arts — the company that came on stage in 2011 to talk up the Wii's "open" online functionality and one of the few publishers on the planet with its own suite of online services in Origin — isn't willing or able to include the same online offerings from its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games into its Wii U releases? Or when Activision Blizzard — the company behind the most popular online shooter franchise in the world, holding three of the top 10 spots on Xbox Live alone — is unable to discuss Black Ops 2's online features on the Wii U?

With no history of online aptitude and a looming release date, by not addressing the internet-shaped elephant in the room, Nintendo has defaulted to positioning the Wii U as another living room-focused box in a world of connected devices. While creating the so-called "next advance in gaming," it's hard to believe that Nintendo still hasn't figured out out why it's lagging behind in the first place.

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