There was so little mention of the Wii U by Electronic Arts, or any sports publisher at E3, I felt compelled to double-check with Madden's boss that they still were building a version for it.
"Well, Peter [Moore] announced it on stage last year," said Cam Weber, the label's general manager of American football, breaking into a laugh. Moore, then the label's president, showed a game in which the tablet controller could be used to redraw a play before the snap.
This year, the president of Xbox Live did pretty much the same thing on stage in showing off his console's SmartGlass initiative. It was one reason why Microsoft appeared to be posing direct, zero-sum competition to Nintendo's Wii U — and for some constituencies, they may well be. For developers, particularly sports developers who've spent six mostly thankless years designing for Wii, having another platform with touchscreen functionality should help make the new console more of a full partner in the sports discussion.
"Conceptually we look at it in the same kind of way," Weber said, of SmartGlass and Wii U's tablet. "I think our designers are trying to solve problems around, 'How do you take advantage of the smart glass, on either device, and what kind of functionality does that unlock? And I think it'll benefit both."
"To be more specific, we have Wii U in development now [for Madden], we'll learn from it and it'll take us further in terms of delivering on the SmartGlass," Weber added.
EA Sports hasn't yet announced a release date for Madden's Wii U version because the console itself has no release date, and is expected to come well after the game's late August release. Weber however, would not confirm any NCAA Football version is being made for Wii U.
That suggests to me that even though EA Sports has a third high-definition console to build on, if they can't think of a way to use the Wii U tablet in a game they're not going to bother with a straight-up port that makes no use of it. That's as opposed to SmartGlass, which by virtue of being an application on a mobile or tablet device someone already owns, can be an entirely optional feature set.
It could also be that EA Sports didn't see much value in changing the terms of its multiple licensing deals with NCAA Football to accommodate a new console. It had one Wii appearance, the forgettable NCAA Football 09 All-Play.
Sports video game development for the Wii was been a thankless task for much of the machine's life, owing as much to the previous-generation graphics as to a motion controller that demanded its own game design. Otherwise, you'd just be making a standard-definition game, and even as the only simulation title on the Wii, NHL 2K was still canceled after 2010.
Sports titles on the Wii also got a bad name because developers, to compensate for the lower-quality graphics, would sometimes swap the player models for more comic-booky performers and design motifs. It seemed to trivialize a purchase decision more than encourage one.
Weber knows that similuation sports titles (except for Tiger Woods PGA Tour and some solid Pro Evolution Soccer entries) carry a lot of baggage on any Nintendo platform after the GameCube. Weber vows they'll overcome that legacy on Wii U.
"I can't really talk about it much, but I think what we're doing is really cool," Weber said. "Maybe we're not hearing a lot about [Wii U] today or in this week, but I certainly believe it's going to be a product we're going to be proud of.
"Here's what I will say, and she," Weber added pointing to a publicist sitting in on the interview, "may not want to hear me say this, but it's the truth: Whatever we release on the Wii U will not be a cartoony, dumbed-down, arcade football experience. It will be the real deal, HD simulation football."