A lot about the Wii U remains unknown. We do know it’s coming later this year and many more details are going to be shared at E3 in June. In the meantime, a new report has emerged suggesting the system is less powerful than many expect.
Multiple sources have indicated to GamesIndustry.biz that the Wii U is less powerful than both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Nintendo didn’t exactly go cutting-edge with the technology it used in the Wii, but we’re now talking about a system being underpowered as compared with systems that will have been out for seven and six years, respectively, at the time of the Wii U’s launch. That doesn’t inspire confidence that Wii U will be anything more than a stopgap for when the “real” next-gen consoles come along a year or two later. But does this report actually make sense, and if it’s true, does it even matter?
“No, it’s not up to the same level as the PS3 or the 360,” an anonymous developer who has worked with the new hardware told GI.biz. “The graphics are just not as powerful,” the source clarified.
Odd choice of words aside, it’s a concept that was backed up by another individual. “Yeah, that’s true. It doesn’t produce graphics as well as the PS3 or the 360,” the second source confirmed. “There aren’t as many shaders, it’s not as capable. Sure, some things are better, mostly as a result of it being a more modern design. But overall the Wii U just can’t quite keep up.”
There’s an argument to be made that developers speaking off the record are free to be more honest and that is why we’re hearing this now. However, keep in mind what these two had to say is somewhat at odds with at least one comment made publicly in the past. Last month, Darksiders 2 director Marvin Donald suggested “the hardware’s been on par with what we have with the current generations,” which at the very least means it is more powerful than the anonymous sources would have us believe.
Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore spoke positively about the system last year, denying that it would merely be a “transitional platform.” But he did not specifically address its horsepower, nor have many of the the comments made by other developers and publishers regarding Wii U. Part of that could be due to the fact that Nintendo has yet to settle on an exact set of specifications, and another part may very well be that those specs are not going to be the sort of generational leap some are hoping for.
As unlikely as it may sound for the Wii U to not be at least a small step above the 360 and PS3, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that Nintendo is not hell-bent on making its mark with top-of-the-line hardware; the Wii was severely underpowered, a move that had its drawbacks (as reflected by third-party support), but it sold remarkably well and Nintendo was able to do this while making a profit on every system sold due to the relatively cheap hardware it used. Wii U will be capable of outputting high-definition graphics, which is one leap Nintendo badly needed to take (and arguably should have a few years ago), but as far as trying to catch up with what computers can do, that may be an unnecessary goal Nintendo is happy to let Sony and Microsoft chase after.
In talking about Wii U, Moore raved about the controller and stated, “This is not about specs anymore.” He talked about diminishing returns on visuals, pointing to how good Battlefield 3 already looks and how 1080p can more than suffice. Improved graphics are no longer the “huge deal” they once were, and it’s now all about interfaces, building a community, and coming up with innovative control schemes. “Nintendo’s job, quite frankly, is to build a better mousetrap with regards to the way that we use the controller. So I don’t know what Xbox and PlayStation’s plans for their next platforms are, but it’s not going to be hanging on graphic fidelity. I guarantee you that.”
What Wii demonstrated, aside from Nintendo’s willingness to deliver an underpowered piece of hardware, is Nintendo’s interest in making a profit right out of the gate on hardware. (Sony and Microsoft, by contrast, take a loss on their hardware for a portion of their platforms’ life cycles before manufacturing costs come down and allow hardware sales on their own to become profitable.) What that means is Wii U is sure to be priced higher than the cost of getting each system onto store shelves. Unless it wants that price tag to be especially high, the cost of the tablet controller may force Nintendo to include lesser hardware than it otherwise would be able to for the same price. The lack of a hard drive may be one example of this cost-cutting in action.
I don’t necessarily see this as cause for concern, though. By upgrading to HD, Wii U games should look no worse than what we’re already used to, and the system will have at least two hooks going for it. One is the tablet controller (which I don’t think can be entirely recreated with a PS3 and Vita, both because of the cost involved with obtaining both of those system and the Vita’s smaller, albeit nicer, screen). The other is Nintendo’s library of franchises, which is always the main driver of Nintendo hardware sales. The current generation of hardware may be severely underpowered by current PC standards, and they can’t produce visuals on par with the high-end stuff on PC like Battlefield 3, but they do continue to be capable of delivering impressive-looking games. More importantly, they have yet to get in the way of developers making fun games — and ultimately that is what matters more than anything else.
There are going to be those who believe that lower-than-expected specs could hurt interest in Wii U, and that may be true of the more hardcore gamers who are fixated on horsepower. But the average consumer is unaware (nor will they care) about how much memory the system has, what kind of a processor it’s packing, or anything more complicated than the fact that it can handle HD graphics. If Nintendo has something along the lines of last year’s Zelda HD demo to show off what Wii U is capable of, I can’t imagine the average person being averse to picking one up, especially when you consider how well the Wii (and DS, for that matter) sold even with far superior hardware on the market.
No, what I think remains the biggest concern for people is the knowledge that the price of the 3DS was cut just a few months after launch in response to poor sales. The impact that could have on interest in the Wii U at launch was taken into account by Nintendo at the time, but if the Wii U is priced reasonably enough — something many feel the 3DS was not — and people feel they are getting their money’s worth, this will not prove to be an issue. A strong launch lineup will also helps matters and, once again, more footage of what the eventual Zelda game for Wii U will look like is an ace in the whole that Microsoft and Sony would love to have.