Wii U’s launch line-up shows just how much of a challenge the GamePad poses to game designers

Wii U

Wii U

With the success of the Wii, Nintendo proved to us all that reaching a wide audience required two types of interaction design – accessible and social. The rather grand, yet noble, mission of making games which could be enjoyed by almost anyone was achieved by reducing controller complexity (human-to-computer interaction), and designing games in a way which encourage social play (human-to-human interaction). Wii Sports is a perfect case in point – and, thanks to it being bundled with the system in the west, is the best-selling game of all time, with almost 80 million units sold.

These two design goals are key to the modern Nintendo, and after the success of the Wii it’s not surprising that its successor inherits and even expands on them. The principal innovation, the new controller, manages to meet both accessible and social design goals. It has a friendly, unintimidating design, and although it seems to have been designed for a child, Nintendo clearly also had older gamers in mind. With approximately one billion touchscreen smartphones and tablets already in use, it builds upon a familiar interaction metaphor. The large touchscreen is not only accessible but also offers the potential of a different view on the game world, allowing new singleplayer and multiplayer experiences. But what will those experiences be?

The most obvious, and as such the least interesting, is the second view of a gameworld on the GamePad screen. The implementations of this idea seen in the launch lineup feel a little underdeveloped, like tech demos: developers need to ask themselves whether they are using this functionality because it genuinely improves the game, or simply because they can. ZombiU does it well, splitting the player’s attention between the two screens in realtime to amplify tension, but how this will be done in non-horror games remains to be seen.

On the evidence of the launch games, the GamePad’s true potential lies in multiplayer games. Here, the inclusion of a second screen directly supports those two key design goals: accessible and social.

Accessible Interaction

The New Super Mario Bros series may be pitched at families of all skill levels, but they’re still tough games, requiring speedy reaction times and experience of platform games. These potential barriers to play may have pushed some away in the past, but in New Super Mario Bros U, a secondary player can use the touchscreen to tap platforms into existence, allowing other players to reach places they couldn’t on their own. This accessible design allows the to take part in the game with much less interaction than usual.

Nintendo Land - Luigi's Ghost Mansion

Social Interaction

Nintendo Land, which offers the best multiplayer experience on Wii U so far, allows multiple players on the TV to compete against the player with the GamePad. A good example of this is Luigi’s Ghost Mansion. The gamepad player, cast as the ghost, is invisible and has a private view of the maze, and must try to capture those playing on the big screen. They have to shine their torch on the ghost to defeat it, but they only know when it’s close when their Wii remotes rumble. The key to success for the TV players, then, is constant conversation – do they feel rumble? How strong is it? Is it safe for someone to revive a downed companion? The GamePad player, of course, can hear every word and use this to his or her advantage adapting their strategy accordingly. Luigi’s Ghost Mansion – and Mario Chase – really are great examples of designs which use the second screen and multimodal feedback to encourage social interaction.

Nintendo always seems to get the best out of its hardware, of course, so it’s little surprise that Nintendo Land is the star performer. Judging by some of the other launch games, the GamePad’s second screen is a new challenge for game designers that some have failed to meet. Rabbids Land is a particular low point, with one of the minigames involving one person playing a Guitar Hero-style game, whilst the other plays an auto-runner. The two games are completely disconnected and don’t encourage any social interaction whatsoever. When we first loaded Rabbids Land and began a three-player game, an AI-controlled fourth player was automatically added which some of us had to play against – not only was this new companion unwanted, it also interfered with the potential for social interaction between human players during gameplay.

As with any new method of interaction, it may take time for designers to understand which gameplay components make for the best possible games. The experiences offered by the launch line-up range from the diabolical, through the predictable, to the sublime. What’s clear, then, is that the Wii U is a versatile console, capable of delivering engaging experiences to a wide range of players. But where Wii U is concerned, traditional game design principles are no longer enough. To make a successful Wii U title, knowledge of accessible design and social interaction are every bit as important.

Graham McAllister is founder of Player Research, a videogame playtesting and user experience studio based in Brighton, UK. Follow Graham on Twitter.