Wii U: Miiverse Features That Will Keep Us Talking

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Miiverse is a bit of an odd case among Wii U features. On the one hand, there’s the initial skepticism: “What? Social networking in my video games?!” I know I looked at the random Mii interjections scattered about the first real footage of New Super Mario Bros. U and thought that it looked more like “New Social Media Bros.” On the other hand, the ability to interact with others about games in a space that’s not only dedicated to those games but accessible right from your console is actually a pretty interesting proposition.

It’s something that I want to be excited about. A couple decades ago, the games magazines created a common, officially-sanctioned space for learning about obscure secrets and sharing information about games. This was a big factor for my own transformation from the kid who bought Super Mario 64 because he liked playing the side-scrolling games with his uncle to a dedicated gamer who went on to become editor-in-chief of a website that’s all about games.

Nintendo seems to be looking back on that aspect of gaming culture for examples of how to do games-based social networking the right way, and so on principle I think they’re doing something great in making these kinds of interactions almost effortlessly accessible. But until we get a full grasp of what Miiverse has to offer, it’s hard to get a clear picture of whether it will truly accomplish what it sets out to do.

A Deeper Focus on Community

One of the most popular features of the old Nintendo Power magazines was the high scores section. Everyone would scramble to get the best scores they could for their favorite games and would send them in to Nintendo Power to see if they made it in the list of top players. There was something esoteric about pulling off those high scores, as if you’d entered some kind of exclusive club of “Super Players.” It may sound corny now, but the coinage “Super Players” was a big deal back in the ’80s and early ’90s.

These kinds of meta-competitions still exist in today’s online leaderboards, in Gamerscores, and of course in e-Sports tournaments, but they’ve become to some extent an automated and generalized system, detached from the more close-knit “community” experience. By that I mean that while you could definitely call Nintendo Power subscribers members of a “community,” I do not think it would be accurate to lump all Nintendo customers together as members of one “community.” Rather, Nintendo platforms (along with basically any other hardware platform) serve as an ecosystem from which a number of smaller communities spin off.

I think it’s essential that Wii U retain things like leaderboards and some kind of Gamerscore equivalent, but I also think that Nintendo needs to facilitate the formation of those smaller communities within the broader system.

From what we’ve seen so far, Miiverse looks like a middle ground between Facebook and Twitter. It seems as though we won’t have a system where every message that gets sent out gets jumbled together with everything else – they’ll all be organized based on the game being discussed at the very least. Within that kind of broad organization, however – and remember that this only speaks to what we’ve seen so far – it looks as though everything’s jumbled together in a kind of generalized Twitter stream.

Just take a look at the image at left. The first two comments seem like they’re focused on gameplay tips and tricks, but the third comment is more of a recommendation. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll get a “Twitter feed” instead of a more structured, discussion forum style setup, the fact that comments don’t seem to adhere to any specific “topic” for me suggests that this kind of “stream of thoughts” approach is what Nintendo is going for.

I don’t think this kind of approach is conducive to community-building. I wouldn’t call Twitter a “community” for the same reason that I don’t consider everyone who buys a particular Nintendo system as necessarily belonging to the same community. If you were to strip networks, community pages, and the other various types of “pockets” for discussion from Facebook, you’d just get a News Feed – again, not quite the same thing as a “community.”

I think the model Nintendo should follow is to allow their users to create as many “pockets” to inhabit within Miiverse as they want. If I want to create a group, whether it’s a generalized club that isn’t attached to any particular game or a clan specifically dedicated to Call of Duty, I should have the freedom to do so. And I should be able to incorporate all those cool features – the leaderboards, Gamerscore rankings, and so on – all inside of my close-knit group, so we can hold our own internal competitions just like Nintendo Power held theirs.

Nintendo’s already embraced this approach on a very basic level with the Communities inside Mario Kart 7. Anyone can create one, and each of them has its own internal rankings, can set its own rulesets, and so on. I suppose what I’m asking for is basically to expand this attitude so that it’s a fundamental part of their network as a whole. The pipe dream, of course, is to be able to build a GenGAME community that’s accessible right from Miiverse, and that we can link up with any games our fans are interested in playing together. That’s my perfect world.

Merging the Game Discussion Board with the Game Console

I mentioned earlier that I don’t like the the “stream of thoughts” approach that we saw in our first glimpse at Miiverse’s message system – at least not as the exclusive means of communicating within the network. This is the case for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that the Twitter approach, while useful as a kind of “Activity Feed” for recording in-the-moment reactions – like the Social Media Bros. example, for instance – isn’t the best platform for deeper discussion. And I don’t think Miiverse can thrive or even survive if it limits itself to just the “Activity Feed” functionality.

What Miiverse needs to do to be truly successful at the job Nintendo wants it to do – which goes beyond connecting people to actually spreading the word about various games directly to Wii U itself – is facilitate those deeper interactions so Miiverse users can not only do their job as unpaid marketing personnel (somebody had to say it!), but also so that Nintendo can gain meaningful feedback that goes beyond a simple “mood” reaction or a quick comment in response to a particular gameplay moment.

The best structure to emulate to achieve this is not Twitter or Facebook or even the “comments” system we have in place here – it’s the discussion forum.

Most forums have a main hub, and inside of that various forums and sub-forums. To use our very own Dungeon Gaming Forum as an example, there’s a forum for the various Dungeon Gaming sites, each of which has its own sub-forum; there’s a forum for Chit Chat, inside of which are sub-forums general discussion, general entertainment, and serious topics; there’s also a forum for board-wide activities like Role-Playing, Forum Games, and so on. And then inside of each of those sub-forums you’ll find individual user-created topics.

Translating this structure to Miiverse, you’d have the main hub take the form of the start-up menu that we’ve heard Nintendo describe half a dozen times by now, with the various “tiles” for smaller communities based around certain software. If Nintendo offers all those custom community construction features I described earlier, you would theoretically also find the various Miiverse-wide communities you belong to at this level. Within each community you would find various other “sub-forums”: maybe “game help,” “game discussion,” “user reviews,” and other such topics for the games, while communities are free to organize themselves however they wish.

The result would be a multi-layered communication ecosystem. On one level you could have those “status updates” that we saw in Mr. Iwata’s Miiverse demonstration just before this year’s E3; if you want a deeper, more specific, and more continuous discussion, you can move into the more topical chat boards and talk things out there.

At E3 2011, Reggie Fils-Aime introduced Wii U’s name as a combination of Wii’s “We” – the idea that games are best played together – and “You” – the idea that the game platform should be designed to offer content and options that suit the taste of each individual user. If Wii U’s multiple controller options are designed to let us play the way we want, shouldn’t Miiverse be designed to allow us to chat the way we want as well?

Direct Line of Communication With Nintendo

Nintendo’s been taking giant steps towards delivering information to and getting feedback from their consumers in a more direct way. They’ve established a Facebook and Twitter presence; they abuse YouTube and the eShop for trailers, interviews, E3 presentations, and Nintendo Direct events; they’ve offered us mass surveys via Club Nintendo so we can share our thoughts about the latest games. I think the pattern is pretty revealing – they’ve been building up to a direct line not just to the customer but to the customer via the game platform.

In theory, Miiverse should be able to facilitate every one of these communications. We already know that you’ll be able to share gameplay screenshots, high scores, and comments in a Facebook/Twitter style activity feed; you’ll probably be able to access trailers and interviews right from the various Miiverse game hubs; I’d imagine Nintendo will regularly poll their audiences for feedback as well.

I’ve really enjoyed Nintendo’s efforts to communicate more directly with their customers lately, and if they can advance these kinds of communications with more two-way feedback mechanisms, I think that’d be worth making use of and paying attention to.

What do you think about Miiverse? Do you think it’s a good idea or a waste of time and resources? Which features would you like to see among or besides the ones listed here? Do you think you’ll make use of Miiverse in your daily gaming? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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