Much of the recent excitement (and trepidation) over the upcoming Nintendo Wii U has focused on the new types of gameplay experiences the tablet-like GamePad creates. As much as new gameplay is important and interesting, new forms of gameplay may not be the Wii U’s biggest contribution to console gaming. Rather, it might be new ways of designing basic game necessities like in-game menus, inventory systems, in-game cameras and the like.
Take Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition as an example. On the Wii U Arkham City looks almost identical to what we’ve already seen on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. However, the menu and inventory system is now accessed through the GamePad’s touchscreen. Every upgrade and gadget is part of a touch sensitive menu system where tapping a gadget’s icon allows Batman to use the corresponding gadget. In terms of new gameplay the touch menu is rather shallow, but in terms of unique console game design this kind of touch menu is potentially more intuitive and more fluid than using analogue sticks.
Are touchscreen menus a necessary addition to console gaming? No, we have all managed to navigate menus on consoles without much difficulty. And yet, experiencing something familiar in a new way can breathe new life into the familiar. In this sense, the GamePad’s function as menu and inventory screen is not so much a revolution of those basic gaming elements but more a new iteration of those elements that can offer a greater variety of menu design and greater ease of access to those menus.
For example, if an inventory screen remains open on the GamePad while you play the main part of an action game on the TV you may not need to pause the action to select a new weapon or item since the inventory is already open. This rather simple use of the GamePad can keep the main action going without having to slow it down to a literal pause in order access essential menus.
However, Arkham City: Armored Edition also exposes how developers can use the GamePad for gimmicky game design. Case in point is the new “B.A.T.” mode, a “Batman on steroids” mode that allows the player to punch enemies with greater force. This could have offered some interesting gameplay but unfortunately to activate it, the player needs only to press a button on the GamePad’s touchscreen.
Activating special powers by simply pressing an additional button on the GamePad does not make much sense for a game like Arkham City—especially since the game played fine on current gen consoles without needing any extra buttons. But beyond this simple application, consider how game design could change with the ability to simply create new buttons. Games on the Wii U are not necessarily tied to one basic controller layout; developers can now create specific button layouts on the touchscreen for specific games.
As well, the ability to use face buttons, swipe mechanics, and touchscreen buttons may allow developers to create some unique combo systems. Pulling off impressive combos using the basic button configuration of a traditional controller is a sign of skill, but what will combos look like on a controller that can offer new types of touch sensitive buttons? Would such a controller reduce the skill needed to pull off certain moves? For example, rather than memorizing a complicated set of button presses to pull off a major combo a player can just press a single “special combo” button on the touchscreen? On the other hand, is there a potential for crazier button combinations allowing different player skill-sets to emerge?
Button layout and menu navigation are key aspects of gaming that the Wii U can alter, but the Wii U can also alter how in-game cameras are designed. Take for instance Platinum Games’ Project P-100, an action game presented in an isometric view where the player controls a large group of heroes trying to stop an alien invasion. Here, the GamePad is used for some literal shifts in perspective that shows how a dual screen set-up can change the way in-game cameras work.
When we entered a building the action shifted from the TV screen to the GamePad. The perspective also shifted from an isometric view to an over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective. The TV still displayed the main isometric view and we needed to use both screens to solve a puzzle where manipulating levers inside the building (on the GamePad) altered numbers on the top of the building (seen on the TV screen).
The shift in screens and perspective was a bit disorienting but at least Project P-100, as opposed to Arkham City Armored Edition, experiments with the GamePad to showcase how to create unique designs, specifically by showing new ways of using in-game cameras and perspective.
PP-100 shows how the GamePad can present in-game environments in more experimental ways by using the second screen to create previously impracticable or impossible designs. And while it uses the second screen and dual perspectives in a “functional” way – i.e. to solve a puzzle – the dual screen functionality could also offer new artistic possibilities for games as visual works of art.
New ways of creating in-game menu systems, button layouts, and in-game cameras does not sound as exciting as brand new gameplay. However, offering new ways of presenting and accessing basic elements of game design may have broader implications for console gaming than any new gameplay. With both Microsoft’s SmartGlass and Sony’s PS3-toVita Cross Play integrating touchscreen controls into their consoles (albeit in a less permanent manner that Nintendo), perhaps the very basic elements of the games we play are going to change.
The problem is that we have seen little more than gimmicks and basic mini-games for the GamePad. So, it might be that the Wii U will become a gimmicky device known more for frustrating game design than innovative, practical or artistic applications. However, in the right hands, maybe the new ways of presenting the basic elements of a game that the Wii U offers will generate worthwhile and exciting game design.