Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Xbox Live – Nintendo's Next Target?

With next month's new format E3 (July 11th to July 13th) looming over us like a mysterious cloud, there's recently been rumblings of Nintendo unveiling an Xbox Live style downloads system for Wii. Given the popularity of the format and the Japanese company's ever growing desire to expand its media functions it seems that we may get the first glimpse of this at July's Expo.

However, there's the typical array of secrecy surrounding what shape and style this system is going to take. System 3 CEO, Mark Cale, has already gone on record stating it will likely ape XBL (as forthcoming and downloadable title, Impossible Mission, will be among the first to take advantage of this), although given how polished Microsoft's entry into the field has been and the fact it's had almost two generations and the home PC format to get it right, it remains to be seen just how Nintendo will handle it all, taking in mind the company's rather finicky attitude to internet connectivity in general.

Clouding the issue further is the ever-present storage question. If a large download-heavy procedure was introduced to Wii, a solution outside the machine's 512MB of internal memory and the current 'you can use some external hard drives but not others' interim, has to be viable and very visible. At the moment there's no standard catch-all hard drive that Nintendo endorses for Virtual Console titles, which some users find irritating to say the least – especially as Nintendo has gone over the 4.7 million mark for VC games sold.

Which is why there's also the possibility of such a hard drive being announced for Wii next month. Makes perfect sense. Although Nintendo will probably not be entirely happy to splinter its user-base into those who have a HDD and those who don’t (especially as it would potentially mean having to create a pack-in SKU as so penetration will be higher), the dangers of NOT providing gamers with an approved alternative is far more perilous. Both Microsoft and Sony have various SKU options for Xbox 360 and PlayStation3, so Nintendo wouldn’t be alone and would have the advantage of the huge and rapidly growing audience Wii has accumulated, so there's less chance of totally alienating the consumer. And in reality, it's something often aimed at the generally more hardcore demographic who will be filling their machines with VC titles anyway. With larger games around the corner, such as Neo Geo's back catalogue (which can be anything up to 330MB per cart), an HDD is invaluable – but it would also provide a handy entry point for the new download system. Better yet would be the chance of entertaining memory intensive titles, such as Sports Interactive's Football Manager, should Wii's internal RAM be up to the task.

So, if Nintendo filters into this wonderful realm of high storage and downloadable content, what can we expect? Here's a rundown of some of the features Xbox Live has and what could be the Nintendo equivalent.

Live Arcade
Obviously there's already the Virtual Console on Wii which is like Xbox Live Arcade, but with a new and redesigned system in place the options open up a little more. For one, a streamlined way of accessing your games (prioritised folders, the ability to zoom out the menu to see more channels at once, and so on) would be ideal, given channel pages can get slightly unwieldy after a while. On top of that, increased storage opportunities could make arcade game conversions a possibility, although the complications of those conflicting with arcade-to-home versions on the VC's emulated home formats means there's a political minefield to avoid. Not to mention the size of the ROMs, although this would be less of an issue by comparison.

The downloads shop page layout should also get a little change for the better, too. There are currently so many titles to go through that the process can be deeply laborious. An update would solve this fairly quickly.

Original Titles
It's taken a while for companies to truly get into the swing of developing original titles on Xbox Live, and seeing how relatively difficult it is to get development kits for Wii it should really be no surprise that we've not been graced with any on Nintendo's machine so far. But they ARE coming. If there's a launch of the new service this year, it would only make sense to roll it out with something worth playing. Impossible Mission will be among the first, with other System 3 titles expected. The freshly announced Geometry Wars: Galaxies would have been ideal, but that title has already been confirmed for retail sale because of its hugely expanded nature (actual levels, new weapons, enemies, multiplayer modes and much more than the brilliant Xbox Live original). So that means something else will have to be the draw. And while a killer app is not typically needed for a feature like this, it would certainly kick things off with a bang. Third-parties in particular could benefit massively with a well timed hit, without the 'threat' of Nintendo's dominance throwing a spanner in the works, as is often feared at retail.

With the ability to store more via a hard drive, demos would be far more likely should Nintendo take the plunge. The company has been reticent in offering demos to users for… well, ever, partly through its use of propriety mediums that it controls directly to increase profits and lessen piracy (hence the reason why you rarely ever seem them on magazines or giveaways). But as demos are now part and parcel of home console culture it would be risky to ignore the clamouring for them; made even more important through digital distribution facilitating the process, especially from a third-party point of view. A dedicated channel would be fairly undemanding to set-up and undoubtedly popular, although perhaps not so much with publishers trying fob off duff games to impulse buying punters.

Other Forms Of Entertainment
Late last year Microsoft ventured into the heady realm of downloadable TV shows and movies for the U.S., which has so far been a tricky, but eventually well formed undertaking. The chances of Nintendo following suit are extremely slim. The big N has been far too muddled with over its overall online message to suddenly take a dip into what would likely be a logistical nightmare for such a relatively centralised company. At the moment it can barely get its ducks in-line for the re-launch of its European website, let alone deal with the complications of various networks and licensing across dozens of territories, just for a handful of shows.

What's far more probable is the release of trailer, DVD and music channels to finally let us stream previews, watch movies and listen to our CDs. There are already many online sites that allow for streaming via Wii's superb internet channel and the results are great. It's generally accepted that the hardware wouldn’t need any changes if a software update can do this job, so it could be just a matter of Nintendo biding its time. Well, either that or wanting to release a more expensive, multimedia Wii down the line. Ugh.

Online Lobby
It's doubtful we'll see any true voice chat style implement given Nintendo's eternal fear of Pedobear (which is the same reason we'll probably not see an Xbox Live Vision camera type device either), but something that could compete with Sony's magnificent Home hub on PS3 would bridge the gap a little. Take a look at this comprehensive feature on the possibilities involving Miis, which could be a great way of making all the above accessible and fun without the relative dryness that Xbox Live has.

The Nintendo Touch
Knowing Nintendo, there are a lot of other frivolous extras planned along the lines of its Everybody Votes channel. There's already been talk of a Mii Popularity Channel, where you'll be able to compare Miis online and enter them in popularity contests, while other stuff could include stuff like a tips channel. A wide variation of bits and pieces to dip into, then, as long as doesn’t fall outside of Nintendo's 'safety rulebook', of course (made all the more ironic given the potential dangers inherent to an internet channel, but you know how Nintendo is…)

Free Ps3, Xbox 360, Xbox 360 Elite or Nintendo Wii

No comments: