Today's Nintendo news bonanza taught us two things.
1. Nintendo has learned how to use the Internet. Finally.
2. Nintendo is using this newfound knowledge that the Internet exists not just to support games, but to try to take over your living room. It's one hell of a gamble.
Let's flash back to 2006. When Nintendo first released the Wii, they were banking on two things: their robust library of first-party titles and their innovative motion controls. The system had some neat gimmicks, like that weird e-mail replacement that made your console flash blue, but it was hardly an entertainment center. Netflix wasn't added until 2010. You couldn't even use the Wii to play DVDs.
This waggle-only strategy worked, of course. The Wii became the hottest thing since sliced koopa. But what worked three or four years ago won't work in 2012. Today we expect more from our game consoles. We want them to stream shows on Netflix. Live football. HBO Go. We want them to be entertainment boxes.
Nintendo's take on this whole entertainment center thing is Nintendo TVii, a service that's far easier to watch than it is to spell. Nintendo TVii will let you use the GamePad as a hybrid remote-controller-tablet to consume all the television, movies, and sports you can feast your hungry eyes on. And it'll ship free with every Wii U.
I got a chance to spend some time with Nintendo TVii today, and although the reps wouldn't let me physically touch the system for some reason, I did get to see it in live action. It works well. Everything runs smoothly, the interface is intuitive, and it seems to deliver on what it's promised. (The system was slightly laggy, but that could have just been the demo unit.)
According to Nintendo's Casey Lewis, Nintendo TVii will support all of the major cable networks. If you want to run Netflix or Hulu, you'll have to have a Netflix or Hulu subscription. If you want to record shows, you need TiVo or a DVR. But right out of the box you'll be able to use the Wii U to keep track of your favorite shows and see when they're airing, Lewis told me. So you can use the Wii U's GamePad as a remote control and keep track of all of your favorite cable shows.
Cool, right? How many other game consoles let you interact with live TV? Nintendo TVii was built in collaboration with the folks who made i.TV, a program that lets you do some similar things on your phone or tablet. But it ain't available on the Xbox or PlayStation, and even if this sort of thing is supported on next-gen consoles, that won't be for at least another year.
But the coolest part of this system is something that isn't available anywhere else (at least until the other guys copy it). The coolest part of this system, at least in theory, is the way it lets you connect to other people.
Nintendo TVii will let you recommend movies and shows to your friends. It'll let you see what's popular among the people you like (and the people you dislike, but tolerate on your friends lists anyway). It will integrate your Twitter account and let you voice live commentary among your social groups as events happen, which is one of the most appealing things about social networks like Twitter.
Can't you imagine tuning into an episode of Breaking Bad on your TV while you scroll through tweeted reactions on the GamePad that's sitting on your lap? Or watching the Super Bowl while commenting on the GamePad with your friends?
Since the Wii U will know what you're watching, that second screen could help supplement the experience in ways that a laptop or tablet can't. (And although Microsoft has promised similar things with SmartGlass, we haven't seen anything like this just yet.)
There's a lot of potential there. What if your GamePad could update your individual fantasy football scores as you watch games live on TV? What if you could video chat with your friends as you all watch the same episode of Game of Thrones? What if you could watch Netflix on your GamePad while playing Mario on your TV, or vice versa?
As Mr. Totilo has pointed out, Nintendo isn't just taking on other game companies: they're after Facebook too. They're building an ambitious social network that also aims to be your all-in-one media center for TV, movies, sports, and video games. They want you to buy a Wii U and convince all of your friends to buy Wii Us, which could be a challenge. They want you to use the Wii U not just to play, but to watch, interact, and communicate with.
Nintendo is going all in, and there are still lots of questions left to ask. How will the Miiverse connect your friends, your games and your shows? Are there friend codes? Will the console be ubiquitous enough that it's worth it to take and give movie recommendations on your Wii U, rather than on your PC? Will the Wii U's first- and third-party games be so compelling, the social features so well-integrated that we feel absolutely obligated to play them with our friends? Will Nintendo do a better job of distributing and discounting Virtual Console games?
This sort of move is a gamble, and that $300/$350 price point doesn't help the Wii U's case. I don't think Nintendo TVii will sell many systems by itself. But for families looking for an entertainment device that both plays Mario games and lets everyone watch their favorite shows, Wii U is positioning itself as the only living room device they could ever need. That's a good thing.