June 9th, 2011

mso

Board games are great, video games are great, the new Wii U just might be awesome

(Huh! My old steam-powered LiveJournal turned nine years old today. You get shorter sentences for arson... than some of the ones I've written in that time.)

Some people like board games. Some people like video games. Some people like both. The last video game - and I'm subsuming the term "computer game" into "video game" here - that I really got into was Civilization IV, and even that was for a few weeks, a good few years after release. Nevertheless, I remain interested in them, and their potential, as a genre. In practice I'm at least as happy to watch them being played well as to play them badly myself - the Let's Play archive is great in this regard - which I suppose makes me the male equivalent of a "video game girlfriend"... and I'm not referring to the SAL9000 - Nene Anegasaki sort of girlfriend.

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This is not to say that one game medium is good and others are bad. Instead, I'm interested in the interaction between them, why we don't see more of it and what different media can learn - and, skipping to the end, just might have learnt - from each other.

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Jumping back to the main thread, Nintendo announced their new Wii U console, set to be released at some point in 2012, a couple of days ago. As was the case with the original Wii, they have designed a console around an interesting new controller which might engender interesting new gameplay experiences. As displayed in the trailer video, after an annoying advert, the Wii U will feature a controller with its own integrated touchscreen. Accordingly, the console can display on a TV, whether high or standard definition, and also on the touchscreen. About eight or nine tech demos were available at the E3 conference, as described at the Guardian. The most interesting-sounding one, "Mii Chase", revolves around the concept of one player hiding in a maze, displaying their location covertly on the touchscreen controller, whereas the four other players run around the same maze using regular Wii controllers, displayed on the TV.

The reason why this is particularly brilliant is that it threatens to bring the "concealed information" advantage of board games to the video game experience; if every player can have their own touchscreen controller then they can have their own information, with additional information common to all players displayed on the TV. In board game terms, this is equivalent to each player being the only player to see their hand of cards, but all players being able to see the board displayed on the TV. I delight to think what the best game designers might do with this facility in the context of a video game.

There is precedent for this. At one level, the Sega Dreamcast controller tried something similar with its cheeky little VMU that slotted into the main body of the controller; however, you can't get much interesting information into a 48x32 LCD. (Then again, that was not much smaller than roughly the graphical resolution of a ZX81, and that had 3D Monster Maze, or Quake fifteen years early.) At another level, the Pokertek automated poker tables give people little screens showing their hole cards and permit them to play poker tournaments. Again, this might seem a retrograde step to some when so much of the appeal of poker is tactile and poker chips are so lovely to play with, but these automated poker tables may go towards counteracting some forms of malpractice and some forms of dealer error, as well as avoiding the cost of employing a dealer.

In terms of action games, another precedent is Atari's 1989 arcade game Cyberball, a sort of robotic gridiron football; two players, or two teams of two players, each faced their own monitor and made their own play selections. Accordingly, you can't see the plays that your opponent has selected, and just have to react to the way they have lined their players up. I don't know whether or not there's an issue in high-level Mario Kart with players not just looking at their own view, in their own corner of the screen, but at other players' views as well; it's easy to conceive players looking at their own first-person views on their personal tablets, with nobody else being able to look at their own view, but the central TV showing a third-person view of the race as a whole. Doubtless there are analogies for every sort of action game. At worst, it's a way to bring the thrill of one-person Internet gaming against unseen opponents into a room where you can see all your opponents, but everyone has their own view.

Now, that said, it is not absolutely clear that the Wii U will support more than one of these touchscreen controllers; GamePro suggests that the current plan is only one touchscreen controller per Wii U, and Kotaku's report suggests Nintendo are only "looking into" games that support more than one of these new controllers. It's certainly relevant that these touchscreen controllers aren't going to be cheap; people may well baulk at paying a triple-digit price for the console, then another triple-digit price on top for each new controller, regardless of its ability as a hand-held console standing alone. I can't imagine that Nintendo would want their unique new game experience to look radically more expensive than the current generation of consoles.

However, I'm very bullish that hidden-information multi-screen gaming will be at least a sizeable minority interest in the world of video games by, perhaps, 2017 to 2019. If Nintendo don't do it - and I dearly hope they do, not least because I trust them to have a better chance of doing it interestingly first time - then someone else will, and not necessarily Sony or Microsoft's Xbox. If you want to get a jump on programming for multi-screen video gaming, it's capable with current technology; imagine several players with their own iPhone, privy to the information it holds, all sitting around an iPad which displays information common to all players, all the devices connected to each other by - say - Bluetooth. (Android equivalents are possible, of course.) And that's all before we start getting into the interesting possibilities of placing recognisable, distinct game pieces directly onto touchscreens!

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