Nintendo's next console, the Wii U, will run into the same problem its predecessors did. Namely, it will be unable to run popular video games designed for other major gaming consoles by its second or third year of existence, according to people familiar with the capabilities of the late-2012 console.
"After the next generation of machines comes out, Wii U will be a performance orphan," one industry insider who is familiar with the specs of the new Nintendo console, told Kotaku. "It will be closer in performance to the next iPad than the next-gen machines."
Those "next generation" machines are the PlayStation 4 and the successor to the Xbox 360, devices currently codenamed Orbis and Durango, both expected for release as soon as the end of 2013.
The situation Kotaku industry sources foresee, will be a repeat of the Wii's worst problems in the current generation of consoles. Nintendo's Wii U, they note, does at least have enough muscle to disguise its shortcomings for a year or so.
Nintendo's most impressive graphical showpiece, a 2011 mock-up of a scene from Zelda running smoothly on Wii U hardware.
Nintendo does not acknowledge their new machine's technical shortcoming and instead is promoting the Wii U as a device that will satisfy both the less tech-focused Wii audience and the so-called hardcore gamer in search of big games from any big gaming publisher. The Japanese giant may be banking on the fact that its Wii so severely trounced the more powerful PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 five years ago that even as its sales have dramatically slowed it maintains a global lead over both machines—and that's with the 360 being out one year longer.
Still, gamers may have liked to have known that Nintendo's next machine would effortlessly handle any major third-party game made in the next half-decade, a peace of mind that purchases of the 360 and PS3 have had for the last six years. Nintendo has made no such assurances and may not be in a position to deliver any, because the Wii U just doesn't seem to be future-proofed that far ahead.
Industry tech insider: "After the next generation of machines comes out, Wii U will be a performance orphan."
Nintendo has been tough to pin down regarding just how capable its new machine is, leaving outlets like ours reliant on the whispers of insiders who have seen the machine's specs. We've relied on industry sources to assess the Wii U's ability to play the probably cutting-edge games of the year 2014. These insiders themselves cannot assess the Wii U's power with 100% accuracy because the might of a console is the product of multiple factors. Judged by its RAM, the Wii U could be viewed as up to four times as powerful as the Xbox 360, boasting as much as 2GB of RAM to the 360's 512. But one insider who has had access to the machine says that the console's impressive AMD Radeon-based graphics chip is off-set by a CPU that runs at low speeds, can do out-of-order processing but has fewer threads than the 360. The insider says the Wii U has the power to run Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports with little difficulty. But they predict trouble when major third-party companies start producing games for the next Xbox and PlayStation, which will be about 6-8 times more powerful than the current 360 and PS3 according to several Kotaku sources who are aware of Sony and Microsft's plans for those machines.
Assassin's Creed III, running on the Wii U.
In the short-term, the Wii U will be able to keep up with the most powerful consoles on the market, the 360 and PS3, and will likely even surpass them through much of late 2012 and early 2013. Proof of that was shown at E3 in Los Angeles earlier this month when the game was shown running Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed III, a higher-end 360/PS3 game, without breaking a sweat and while transmitting supplemental graphics to the Wii U's signature controller, the 6.2-inch screen-enabled GamePad.
One benchmark for performance at E3 was Epic's Unreal Engine, the third iteration of which was popular on 360 and PS3 and is now confirmed to run on the Wii U. Nintendo and Warner Brothers Interactive proudly demonstrated a new version of the Unreal Engine 3 game Batman Arkham City running on Wii U to attest to the machine's prowess. EA promised that the Wii U would run the early-2012 UE3 game Mass Effect 3.
Star Wars 1313, running on a modified version of the Unreal Engine 3 on a PC
As Nintendo was showing that its new machine could run Unreal Engine 3, the buzz of the show was the futuristic graphics on display in games like Ubisoft's Watch Dogs and LucasArts' Star Wars 1313. The latter was, in fact, running on UE3, though on a PC and using a version of the engine that was modified in the same manner as Epic's own 2011 modified-UE3 demo called Samaritan. LucasArts has not specified which platforms will run 1313 other than the PC on which it was demoed and has offered no hint as to whether the game could run on Wii U. Our tech insiders are skeptical, at best, noting that the Samaritan and 1313 demos both run on computers that ran UE3 with Direct X 11, the newest version of Microsoft's suite of graphics and other gaming-centric protocols. One source encouraged us to think of Unreal Engine 3 as requiring the performance and capabilities of Direct X 9 but advised that demos running UE3 with enhanced specs, a la Samaritan and 1313, require DX9 performance but DX11 shader capabilities. They consider the Wii U close to that DX9-performance/DX11-capabilities combo but possibly hampered by its CPU, which they believe Nintendo is requiring to run at lower speeds in order to keep its chips from getting too hot and therefore allowing the machine to run as quietly as the Wii-and with relatively low power consumption.
Epic's Unreal Engine 4, which is not assured to run on Wii U
Nintendo's bigger power problem with the Wii U, however, is Epic's Unreal Engine 4, a radically different engine that Epic's Allen Willard has told Kotaku major development houses will need to make a clean break from UE3 in order to work on. Willard expects UE4 to become the popular engine for third-party game development, if not for launch PS4 and Xbox 720 games then for the second wave of games on those machines, circa 2014 or so. Still, some UE4 games are expected as soon as next year, and UE4 is unlikely to run easily or immediately on Wii U. Our Direct-X-comparing insider considers UE4 as requiring Direct X 11 performance and capabilities, a standard beyond Nintendo's new device.
Epic has declined to say whether UE4 can run on anything other than a PC even when asked directly if the Wii U can run it. The company did confirm that the Wii U runs UE3 and emphasized that the unmodified engine ships the same to all publishers, implying that any game based on UE3 has a shot at running on a machine that supports it.
The best people to attest to the Wii U's power would be Nintendo themselves, but they've yet to authoritatively answer my questions, posed more than two weeks ago at E3, about whether Wii U can run UE4 or even games made for the modified UE3. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime deferred to his tech team, but his tech team has yet to chime in.
The ultimate question, of course, isn't so much whether the Wii U can run this tech or that but whether it is possible to shorthand the Wii U's horsepower—by ascertaining which game engines it can run—in order to assure prospective customers of Nintendo's next console that it will be able to run the processor-intensive games made by the likes of EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Take Two and the rest of the major third-party companies. If it can't, the machine would suffer its equivalent of the Wii not having the juice to run Grand Theft Auto IV, Mass Effect 2 or Assassin's Creed.
Such questions about third-party game-makers' willingness to make games for Wii U are loaded with assumptions, Nintendo's Fils-Aime told me back at E3. One assumption in this line of questioning, he said, is that, "as third-party publishers make their decisions somehow they're going to view competitive systems more favorably than the Wii U." He sounds unalarmed by that prospect and unwilling to consider the Wii's problems of third-party support befalling the Wii U. He drew a distinction between high-definition graphics, which the Wii U supports and standard-definition graphics, which were the best the Wii could do. "What I would tell you is that, fundamentally, the reason certain games didn't make it to the Wii was because, first, the developer or publisher had invested in art at an HD level. For them to rework that art to an SD level was a cost they were unwilling to accept. Second, that the online capabilities especially for in-game purchase, or things of that nature, [were things] they viewed it as a key part of their business model, which the Wii didn't support. Looking to the future, both of those issues have been solved with the Wii U."
Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime: "All of [third-party game creators'] early-development engines [for the original Wii] were not compatible with where we were going. That is not the case today."
Technically, that is correct, as the Wii U, unlike the Wii, can display HD graphics and will have both an online service and at least 8GB of on-board storage capacity (expandable via USB-connected external drives) to accommodate a game creator's desire to patch or expand their game through downloadable content.
HD art, however, isn't the only technical barrier that would have prevented, say, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption from running on the Wii. The 2006 Nintendo console also lacked the processing power to run a game that vast and filled with as many moving parts. The problem wasn't merely the art in a game like that or in a game, as I put it to Fils-Aime, running Unreal Engine 3, but the compatibility of the game's engine with the console. The Wii just couldn't handle the dominant graphics engines of the last generation, I argued.
"I think to have the full discussion," Fils-Aime replied, "we need to go back to 2004, 2005, 2006 [before the Wii was launched]. The fact of the matter was that, in 2004 and 2005 and early 2006, the vast majority of the publishing community did not see the Wii having the, dare I say, success in the marketplace that it did. So all of their early-development engines were not compatible with where we were going. That is not the case today."
Fils-Aime expects major game-makers to create their games of late 2012 and beyond with the potential to accommodate the Wii U. Of the Unreal Engine 4, he said, "they're not finished yet. There's still work they need to do to finish that engine." Ultimately it is conceivable that Epic will adapt its UE4 so that it can run on the Wii U, as its Unreal Engine 3 has been proven capable of running on cell phones and in web browsers. But Fils-Aime's hope leaves ample room for doubt that the Wii U will be running, say, some future Unreal Engine 4 game in the Mass Effect series. It's not even clear whether it can even run the likes of UE3's Star Wars 1313, though I've repeatedly asked Nintendo for answers on whether the UE3 can handled such a modified UE3 game, to say nothing of UE4 titles. Should they nail that down, I'll update this story.
It is no tragedy for Nintendo if its Wii U falls out of technological step with the next generation of PlayStations and Xboxes. While the Wii faded and failed to run many major games from the past several years, it managed to triumph on the strength of games made for its tech.
A Zelda-inspired mini-game from the Wii U launch title Nintendo Land, running across two screens and accommodating four players.
It is also inconceivable that smart gaming companies will risk missing a potential repeat of the Wii's success and fail to support the Wii U as they initially failed to support the Wii. EA has already promised broad support for the machine and Ubisoft demonstrated a breadth of attractive titles for Wii U, some original, some cross-platform with 360/PS3, at this past E3.
It is also easy to see that publishers have gotten the measure of Nintendo's technological ambitions and will view the next generation of gaming machines as they did the current, catering some of their games to the combined audience of the next Xbox and PlayStation and worrying little if such games won't run on Nintendo's console. Certain lower-tech series, such as Ubisoft's Just Dance, which rivals Assassin's Creed in annual sales, are likely to still work easily across the spectrum of gaming hardware. Higher-end series, such as an imagined 2015 Assassin's Creed game, may not.
A generation ago, Nintendo gambled that Wii-level graphics were enough. They took a deep breath and assumed that the quality of latter-day PlayStation 2 or original Xbox games would be good enough to satisfy the general public. For a time, Nintendo was proven right. Ironically, the eye-popping graphics of latter-day Unreal Engine 3 games may again prove that Nintendo is operating at a standard of graphics quality with the Wii U that is good enough. Certainly, the company's own Marios and Zeldas will look stunning as they enter the HD era and begin to exhibit, potentially, the kind of graphical detail seen in such PS3 and Xbox 360 visual masterpieces as Killzone 3 and Max Payne 3, albeit in the more cartoony style for which Nintendo is known. Nintendo's own games, in other words, will probably look great on Wii U.
Nintendo is also not necessarily skimping on technology, just prioritizing differently.
The company's engineers may not have not designed a new console that will let the company catch up, long-term, to the processing prowess of its stubborn rivals, but the Wii U's apparent focus isn't cutting-edge graphics or artificial intelligence. Nintendo's high-tech priority has been to ensure that the Wii U is powerful enough to run a video game across two specific screens: the one on your TV and the one on its new GamePad controller. As far as what I and others who have played Wii U demos have seen, there is no noticeable latency between what occurs on the TV and on the controller screen. That capability carries an expense and risk of its own. It also exhibits its own kind of graphical futurism, one that does not seem to be central to Sony and Microsoft's plans (the latter's Wii-U-like Smart Glass tech may tether an Xbox 360 to the secondary screen of a laptop, smartphone or tablet, but it does so by streaming graphical data over Wi-Fi and is subject to all the latency that such a set-up entails).
At E3, Nintendo's Fils-Aime did his job of sounding bullish about the Wii U. He is proud of the machine's capabilities, its support for online gaming and commerce, its unusual new controller and its graphical chops. The Wii was a simpler machine. Though it had the pure selling point of promoting unintimidating motion-based gaming, it did not have, Fils-Aime said, the potential of the Wii U. "I think with Wii we had a limited number of crayons," he said. "It's the 16-pack of crayons. This is the 128 pack. We've got a lot more options." They do. They've got options. But what we don't know, yet, is whether Wii U gamers will be playing with enough power.