A lot of people look at the Wii U hardware in an effort to pin down Nintendo’s strategy. One of the biggest examples I’ve seen focuses on the Wii U GamePad: “That controller looks a lot like a tablet, so Nintendo’s core goal must be to compete with mobile gaming!” Some look at the form factor and buttons included on the GamePad and Pro Controller and conclude that Nintendo is focused mostly on seizing the “hardcore” market that’s found another home on HD platforms. Others still think Nintendo’s trying to repeat Wii’s success by introducing a new interface gimmick.
I think all of that is true to some extent, but I think that Nintendo’s real underlying goal runs much deeper than we can detect simply by looking at the hardware. I believe Nintendo’s goal is to unify interaction between users and between themselves and the customer within one central network: Miiverse.
First things first: why do we know that the social elements are the most important part of Nintendo’s strategy (outside of the games themselves)?
The first and more obvious reason is that it was the focal point of Nintendo’s pre-E3 direct broadcast presentation.
The second (and more telling) reason is that the Home Menu has been reorganized around Miiverse – according to Mr. Iwata the first thing you will see on your TV when you power on the Wii U is Miiverse. The more “traditional” menu will appear on the smaller screen and, while they’re interchangeable, it’s clear which menu view Nintendo considers the primary one since they did not even show the secondary option in the presentation.
I think a review of Mr. Iwata’s introduction of Miiverse is in order. Skip to around 11:50 in the video:
Just look at the core features offered by Miiverse. You have a chat function that seems to blend Twitter and SwapNote together. You have community clusters organized around particular games. You have online social interactions that can take place even while you’re actually playing. When it comes to gaming, these kinds of social-oriented sharing started through word-of-mouth interaction back in the 80s, but with the emergence of the Internet in the 90s the social gaming scene began to shift to websites much like this one.
Nowadays, however, the source of information and discussion about game has shifted to the Internet. Staying up-to-date basically requires you to use some kind of computer or mobile device. With Miiverse, Nintendo’s proposing that all these interactions will take place within the infrastructure of the system’s onboard operating system. And they’re not leaving computers and mobile devices out of the equation, either. Even if you have to be away from your gaming devices for some reason, eventually Miiverse will be able to come with you wherever you go.
It’s an interesting move that seems to tackle basically the entire Internet-based gaming social sphere. By that I don’t just mean that it’s a platform for general game discussion. It does a number of other jobs as well.
If you never actually have to put down your controller to look up tips for a tricky puzzle or boss, if the games themselves actually include this kind of option through a conversational community-driven channel, that basically eliminates the need for Internet-based walkthroughs. You don’t even have to scan for information about the spot you’re stuck on; the game knows where you’re at and delivers messages accordingly.
Often I find myself wanting to make a remark to my friends about something weird or unexpected that just happened in my game, but don’t want to step away from my system and log on to one of the various message boards I visit to tell them about it. Now I don’t have to get up; I can quickly suspend play, leave a note on Miiverse, and pick up right where I left off with minimal interruption.
Did you catch Mr. Iwata’s comments about how Nintendo is going to police these conversations for spoilers? Now you don’t have to worry as much about ruining your games’ stories whenever you go online.
Nintendo talks about these kinds of interactions as if they’re something completely new, but if you’ve been even semi-active in Internet gaming culture, you’ll recognize immediately that it’s all already happening. The main difference is that Nintendo is trying to shift this kind of communication culture onto its own system, operating on its own terms, with Miiverse (represented by the Wii U GamePad) as the “social window” through which its games and products are discussed.
This window does not just exist between players; it also serves as a direct line between Nintendo and its customers. We’ve seen Nintendo focus on this kind of direct communication already by holding their own events, apart from the big gaming shows, where their message and content is bound to be compared to the showings of their competitors. The crux has been the advent of the Nintendo Direct events. It’s right there in the name: direct communication, straight from Nintendo.
But it doesn’t stop there. You also have a direct line to Nintendo via Miiverse’s various feedback mechanisms. Because these interactions happen in a Nintendo-controlled space, Nintendo is better able to monitor the “commotion” surrounding its products. Previously developers had to rely on surveys (which are limited to the questions asked), statistical data related to sales and play time (which are helpful in determining the strength of a product but do not provide very meaningful feedback), and critical reviews (which are not necessarily reflective of consumer opinion) as the primary source of information-gathering about responses to their products.
Don’t get me started on gaming websites and message boards. There are too many to count, and you can’t even guarantee that the people who frequent them have ever even touched the games they praise…or complain about.
With Miiverse, however, Nintendo can track the public’s response to their games via features that come built-in with their products. Miiverse is therefore more than just a social network: it’s a source for market data.
As a source for market data it’s also a terrific platform for targeted content delivery (a fancy way of saying “advertising”). By this I don’t really mean ads in the conventional sense: I mean that Nintendo can use Miiverse to promote its products to users based on their preferences.
Spend a lot of your time playing Assassin’s Creed? How about participating in the game’s Miiverse community? Has your “mood-based” feedback towards it been particularly high? You can expect to get lots of information about similar games. Mr. Iwata has already more or less confirmed that some kind of marketing for other games will occur via Miiverse: on the Home Menu “you will see tiles for games…that you may not even own.”
In theory, this kind of feedback can not only lead to player-tailored content promotion, but if the message from users is strong enough, it might even influence which games are made, and even how they are made. Don’t like the constant fetch quests in Skyward Sword? Find yourself wishing a certain feature was put into Smash Bros.? Share your thoughts on Miiverse, and Nintendo might actually read and respond to them.
When you look at it this way, Miiverse is a very versatile system that, if used properly by both users and developers, may actually be of great benefit to both parties. With user accounts tied to Wii U, developers will know which games people are playing as well as what they think about them, users will be able to connect more easily with other fans of their favorite games, and I think that’s an excellent vision for an online system.
The real tests for Wii U, apart from the more initial question of whether people will want to buy it and/or play its games, will be whether players use Miiverse in the ways Nintendo expects and whether developers can appropriately respond to players’ needs by creating games that better satisfy their audience’s hunger.
If the “commotion” generated by Miiverse can really work effectively as a feedback mechanism, then that could be the path towards growth as Nintendo continues to refine its games’ quality and appeal. If it does its job as a native marketing tool, Nintendo will be able to spread its software to players in a completely unprecedented way. Either way, Miiverse isn’t just an online community; it’s a new way for Nintendo to get people playing.
Will it work? I have no idea. Since I already spend lots of time chatting about games, I can see some value to the community feature as long as the correct structure, organization, and levels of participation are there.
I’m not so much a fan of in-game messages, though, since it feels like they’re a bit too intrusive into my game experience. Hopefully we’ll be able to disable this feature if we so wish. I can see it being a neat alternative to “Super Guide” for less experienced players, but that all depends on how much these players value this kind of “help.”
And while I see right through the ability to check out communities for games you don’t even own for the marketing scheme that it is, it’s still something I could see myself using in order to keep up with software that I might not buy on launch day. It all depends on whether the Miiverse experience makes my game experience better or simply more tedious…honestly, this one could swing either way.