Summary: Nintendo has been hesitant to join the online console crowd, with minimal support for the GameCube and a whole lot of question marks for the Wii. For all its exciting new features, the Wii's online capabilities are completely uncertain. JCal discusses the issue in detail, interviews Nintendo and has them comment on our article. A must-read.
However, an even bigger issue about the Wii is still a question mark, even inside Nintendo itself. That is the question of online play for the console. It’s something that Sony and Microsoft put into the PS2 and Xbox (although they activated it well after those console’s releases). Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had online multiplayer and other online features out of the box when it launched in 2005 and Sony’s PS3 is expected to do the same when it launches in this country on Nov. 17 (although Sony has remained tight lipped about specifics concerning its PS3 online network).
Nintendo’s online plans have remained even more vague for the Wii and our attempts to get info from Nintendo raised more questions than they answered for us (more on that later). First, let’s take a look at the previous console generation for the company. Will the PS2 and Xbox set up their online plans, Nintendo freely admitted that they didn’t feel they were ready to fully enter the online console world. While the company offered a dial-up adapter and a broadband adapter for the GameCube, they were limited in their support and availability. Only a handful of games made for the GameCube had online multiplayer support during the lifetime of the console.
Satoru Iwata, now the president of Nintendo, was the company’s director of corporate planning when he made remarks about online games for consoles just before E3 in May 2002. “The profitable part of the online business is very likely several years away. Entering the business because it's the hot topic of the day doesn't make a profitable business nor satisfied customers. That's why it will be a part of Nintendo's strategy, not the mainstay, as other companies are attempting to do. There still are too many barriers for any company to greatly depend on it."
As recently as 2004, in another interview, Iwata was quoted as saying “Many people believe that online games are the next big thing. But I wonder how much revenues Microsoft and Sony have made from online games. I don't think the current online games have adopted the right business model, and people will not pay money for them."
In 2005, back when the console was being called Revolution, Iwata showed up at E3 with the first look at the console with the promise of built-in WiFi connectivity, something that Sony will have for the PS3 but that Microsoft decided not to add to the Xbox 360 (although a WiFi adapter is available). Iwata promised not just online play but something that they called the Virtual Console, which would allow older games created for Nintendo’s previous consoles up to the Nintendo 64 to be downloaded and played on the Revolution. It seemed like Nintendo was beginning to bring in features that both the other consoles along with the PC had all along.
However, things took a different turn at the Tokyo Game Show in September 2005 when Iwata introduced the Revolution’s controller. Looking much like a TV remote, the controller added motion sensing to games and had the promise of adding new gameplay ideas for developers. The controller became the talk of the video game world and at last May’s E3 Nintendo’s booth was the in-place to be with massive lines of people wanting to try out the games with the console’s controller.
However, Nintendo still said little about online play for the now newly renamed Wii console. Iwata talked at E3 about their plans to have the console download new content, such as Virtual Console games, while people slept at night but there was still little to no info about online multiplayer. Indeed, games that people would assume to include online multiplayer, such as the Wii exclusive first person shooter Red Steel from UbiSoft and Nintendo’s own first person action game Metroid Prime 3 Corruption, were revealed to not have any multiplayer features.
Nintendo for the most part stayed silent about their plans for the Wii during the summer following E3 but earlier this month the company finally announced their launch date and price for the console in the US ($249 on Nov. 19). Unfortunately, their online multiplayer plans still remained a mystery after the announcement at least for the US market. Oddly enough, Nintendo revealed that the Wii would have some decidedly non-game online features, including a version of the Opera web browser and “News” and “Weather” channels that would be updated via Nintendo’s WiFi network. Online messaging would also be included, even though cell phones. But the big question of online multiplayer remained a mystery. At Nintendo’s Japanese press event held a few hours before the US event it was revealed that the Wii would have some online multiplayer games, including Battalion Wars 2, Mario Strikers Charged, and Pokemon Battle Revolution, but there’s no word on when those games will appear in the US.
FiringSquad: First, many people are wondering about the inclusion of a photo feature in the Wii along with the news and weather channels via the Internet connection and the Opera web browser. Since Nintendo has stated in the past that they don't want the Wii to be a multimedia center like Sony and Microsoft are doing with their consoles, why were these non-gaming features added and what does Nintendo believe that they add to the consumer's experience with the console?
Perrin Kaplan: At its core, Wii is about new entertainment experiences. The heart of Wii remains its video games and the unique new ways to play them. We understand that there are still many non-players and we hope they will join us by offering them very easy ways to enjoy other offerings through the unique feature called the Channels. This feature makes the console approachable and customizable for everyone, letting users pick games to play, download classic games, get news or weather, view and send photos or even create playable caricatures of themselves to use in actual games. Our goal is not to control the distribution of all content in the home. We're simply offering easy access to many available tools in order to expand the games market and broaden the appeal of the Wii to everyone in the household.
FiringSquad: It's looking like the Wii will not have any multiplayer online games for the launch in the US in mid-November. Can you talk about why there will not be any online multiplayer games available for the launch (if indeed that is true) and when can US Wii gamers expect the first online multiplayer games to be available for the Wii?
Perrin Kaplan: We plan to offer Wi-Fi games for the Wii system, both first- and third-party globally in 2007. Pokémon Battle Revolution will launch first in Japan.
FiringSquad: Can you talk about the Virtual Console games in terms of their features? Will they have upgraded graphics and additional content and features like many of the Xbox Live Arcade ports of older games have for their versions?
Perrin Kaplan: No significant changes have been made to any of the Virtual Console launch games, which was necessary to preserve their original look and feel; however, this doesn't mean future games must follow the same path. Developers may choose to update features within a game if desired.
FiringSquad: Will there be a credit card feature for the Wii's interface for people to buy Wii points for the Virtual Console games like Microsoft has set up for Xbox Live Arcade games and other features?
Perrin Kaplan: Yes.
FiringSquad: Microsoft also allows people to customize the look of their Xbox 360 interface with many different themes and picture packs. Are there any plans for the Wii to have similar features?
Perrin Kaplan: Users can customize and rearrange their Wii Channel Menus any way they like. For example, one person might want to organize downloaded games by console, while another person might want to group Mario games in one place and racing games in another.
FiringSquad: It was mentioned in the press event that Wii players will be able to not only instant message each other via the Wii interface but also send instant messages to a cell phone. Can you go into more detail on how this will work, including what carriers will support this feature?
Perrin Kaplan: You cannot send instant messages over the Message Board itself. It's for posting local messages (other users of the same Wii can see it...like a post-it note), and for sending and receiving emails over the Internet. People can also trade photos and text messages with cell phone users. The service also allows for incoming messages targeted at software, such as a new map or weapon for a game. Games can constantly be updated, thereby extending their playability.
If that is correct, then your statement is a bit misleading. It's not that Nintendo was not ready. We thought that the broader general public was not ready for the business models being offered at the time, and that has been largely proved correct. Only a small percentage of console owners paid the extra fees to play online games, and many of those were among the hard-core crowd. It never caught on with the mainstream public because of three major barriers: cost, ease of use and the strange testosterone-fueled culture that made online gaming the dominion of the dominant.
These are the three things that we successfully addressed when we started Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection for Nintendo DS. It's free, requires just a tap of the touch screen to get started and uses a system of codes by which friends find one another. It's a fun, safe way that players of all ages can enjoy multiplayer games with their friends. Rest assured, Wii will have plenty of incredible online capabilities. Just as with DS, our aim is to get people playing as quickly as possible. It should be obvious to anyone who has played Wii that we're not interested in copying what others are doing. We're going in our own direction and trying some radical new things. That's the only was for the industry to grow, and it's an approach that has worked extremely well for us with Nintendo DS.
So what is the final verdict on the Wii in terms of online multiplayer features? Despite Nintendo’s entry into the online multiplayer space with the DS console it’s clear that the company is still taking it slow for entering the online space for the Wii. Having a web browser, giving access to news and weather “channels” and being able to download classic games is a step in the right direction, but the fact that the Wii won’t have multiplayer out of the box for its November 19 launch date seems to keep the company behind the features curve compared to the Xbox 360 and the PS3. Microsoft’s Xbox Live service for its console is perhaps the biggest selling point for the Xbox 360 and that’s not a huge surprise considering Microsoft’s experience in the online space before their entry in the game console business. While we are still concerned that only the subscription based Xbox Live Gold service can allow its users true online multiplayer gameplay, no one can deny that playing against others from around the world is a huge plus. While little is currently known about the PS3’s online features, its much hyped launch title Resistance: Fall of Man will have online multiplayer support for up to 40 people and we hope even more online multiplayer games are revealed in the future.
Nintendo is clearly putting a lot of eggs in the Wii basket in the hopes that their controller will be the new and cool way to play games. They may be right about that, too. But a console without a robust online multiplayer component, in this day and age, looks old fashioned in our eyes and we suspect in the eyes of others. Even the “Blue Ocean” audience that Nintendo is trying to get to play Wii games may miss being able to play with friends around the world. We hope Nintendo realizes that as inciting as their controller looks, it cannot be the only thing that will make the Wii a success in the US.
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