Game Devs Underwhelmed by Wii U’s Horsepower

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If you’re hoping for Nintendo’s Wii U console to have graphics on par with — or better than — Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, developers already working with the hardware say you should be prepared for disappointment.

A story at GamesIndustry reports that a number of anonymous developers are saying that the Wii’s successor still isn’t as powerful as even the current-gen hardware used by Microsoft and Sony. And this, at a time when rumors abound that the next-generation consoles to follow Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 might be unveiled this year or next.

(I actually had a dream last night that I was in the audience at E3 when the next Xbox was unveiled. I took a close-up picture of it, somehow causing it to short out in the middle of the demonstration. Predictably, everyone at E3 wanted me dead. I have no idea why I’m telling you this.)

One developer confirmed to GamesIndustry that “the graphics are just not as powerful.” Another added that “there aren’t as many shaders. It’s not as capable… Overall, the Wii U just can’t quite keep up.”

Sad news, but the saddest part is that this isn’t remotely surprising. It’s right in keeping with what we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. The Wii was the distant-third contender in terms of horsepower in the current-gen console race. Nintendo seems happy to produce consoles that are “good enough,” power-wise, as opposed to “cutting edge.” But then, Wii was also the bestselling of the three, thanks to its groundbreaking motion controls.

It’s going to take more than advanced motion control to catapult the Wii U to blockbuster status, though, since both Microsoft and Sony have embraced the same technology (albeit in different ways). Nintendo is hoping its ace in the hole is the Wii U’s new tablet controller, which opens up new possibilities for developers and gamers by adding a secondary screen with touchscreen technology to the formula. One of the aforementioned developers conceded that “some things are better, mostly as a result of [Wii U] being a more modern design.” But another developer suggested that the tablet controller could be a liability instead of an advantage, since the hardware they’re currently working with is designed only to work with one tablet.

It’s worth noting that the kit devs are working with right now doesn’t sport the device’s final specs. And insiders last year stated that Nintendo was already working to make the Wii U capable of supporting more than one tablet before the console’s launch. On the other hand, the tablet is somewhat crippled by not being an independent device; as one developer pointed out, “The base console has to be on, and you have to be in range.”

Joystiq today posted comments from another prominent developer — this one willing to go on record with his identity — who praised the Wii U with genuine excitement. Gearbox Software’s president, Randy Pitchford, told the newsblog, “I think it’s a great platform and I’m really excited about it… There’s just so much cool stuff [you can do with it].” He declined to go into specifics, pointing out that “Nintendo still has a lot to announce [about the Wii U],” presumably at June’s E3 expo. Other developers, like Epic Games’ Mark Rein, have also shown excitement over Wii U’s potential.

My take is still that Nintendo is facing a much steeper uphill climb with Wii U than they did with the Wii. The motion controllers were such an obvious, “Why hasn’t anyone done this before?” idea that the very notion captured imaginations everywhere before a single gamer got their hands on the thing. It crossed boundaries, bringing millions of new players into the fold because it simplified the user interface with something more intuitive than traditional thumbstick-and-button controllers. Touchscreen-based gaming, by contrast, is hardly unprecedented. What can Nintendo bring to tablet games that Apple and Android (well, mainly Apple) haven’t already done?

Microsoft is expected to put all its eggs in Kinect’s basket for its next console with upgraded Kinect tech, while Sony’s likely to lead the pack in processing power, yet again appealing to the hardcore gamer demo. Both consoles will favor downloadable games over retail discs. Can Nintendo hope to compete against these two juggernauts with a technology concept that’s a lot less revolutionary than its immediate ancestor?

Sorry, Nintendo diehards, but I don’t see it happening — unless they unveil something incredibly radical at E3. This gamer, for one, is just bored with Nintendo’s insistence on settling for third-best. If their next-gen can’t even stack up against the current-gen…

Oh sorry… I had such a big yawn, I can’t remember what I was talking about.

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