The Wii U's Power Problem

Nintendo's next console, the Wii U, will run into the same problem its predecessors did. Namely, it will be unable to run popular video games designed for other major gaming consoles by its second or third year of existence, according to people familiar with the capabilities of the late-2012 console.

"After the next generation of machines come out, Wii U will be a performance orphan," one industry insider who is familiar with the specs of the new Nintendo console, told Kotaku. "It will be closer in performance to the next iPad than the next-gen machines. "

Those "next generation" machines are the PlayStation 4 and the successor to the Xbox 360, devices currently codenamed Orbis and Durango, both expected for release as soon as the end of 2013.

The situation Kotaku industry sources foresee, will be a repeat of the Wii's worst problems in the current generation of consoles. Nintendo's Wii U, they note, does at least have enough muscle to disguise its shortcomings for a year or so.

Nintendo's most impressive graphical showpiece, a 2011 mock-up of a scene from Zelda running smoothly on Wii U hardware.

Nintendo does not acknowledge their new machine's technical shortcoming and instead is promoting the Wii U as a device that will satisfy both the less tech-focused Wii audience and the so-called hardcore gamer in search of big games from any big gaming publisher. The Japanese giant may be banking on the fact that its Wii so severely trounced the more powerful PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 five years ago that even as its sales have dramatically slowed it maintains a global lead over both machines — and that's with the 360 being out one year longer.

Still, gamers may have liked to have known that Nintendo's next machine would effortlessly handle any major third-party game made in the next half-decade, a piece of mind that purchases of the 360 and PS3 have had for the last six years. Nintendo has made no such assurances and may not be in a position to deliver any, because the Wii U just doesn't seem to be future-proofed that far ahead.

Industry tech insider: "After the next generation of machines come out, Wii U will be a performance orphan."

Nintendo has been tough to pin down regarding just how capable its new machine is, leaving outlets like ours reliant on the whispers of insiders who have seen the machine's specs. We've relied on industry sources to assess the Wii U's ability to play the probably cutting-edge games of the year 2014. These insiders themselves cannot assess the Wii U's power with 100 per cent accuracy because the might of a console is the product of multiple factors. Judged by its RAM, the Wii U could be viewed as up to four times as powerful as the Xbox 360, boasting as much as 2GB of RAM to the 360's 512. But one insider who has had access to the machine says that the console's impressive AMD Radeon-based graphics chip is off-set by a CPU that runs at low speeds, can do out-of-order processing but has fewer threads than the 360. The insider says the Wii U has the power to run Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports with little difficulty. But they predict trouble when major third-party companies start producing games for the next Xbox and PlayStation, which will be about 6-8 times more powerful than the current 360 and PS3 according to several Kotaku sources who are aware of Sony and Microsft's plans for those machines.

***

Assassin's Creed III running on the Wii U.

In the short-term, the Wii U will be able to keep up with the most powerful consoles on the market, the 360 and PS3, and will likely even surpass them through much of late 2012 and early 2013. Proof of that was shown at E3 in Los Angeles earlier this month when the game was shown running Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed III, a higher-end 360/PS3 game, without breaking a sweat and while transmitting supplemental graphics to the Wii U's signature controller, the 6.2-inch screen-enabled GamePad.

One benchmark for performance at E3 was Epic's Unreal Engine, the third iteration of which was popular on 360 and PS3 and is now confirmed to run on the Wii U. Nintendo and Warner Brothers Interactive proudly demonstrated a new version of the Unreal Engine 3 game Batman Arkham City running on Wii U to attest to the machine's prowess. EA promised that the Wii U would run the early-2012 UE3 game Mass Effect 3.

Star Wars 1313 running on a modified version of the Unreal Engine 3 on a PC.

As Nintendo was showing that its new machine could run Unreal Engine 3, the buzz of the show was the futuristic graphics on display in games like Ubisoft's Watch Dogs and LucasArts' Star Wars 1313. The latter was, in fact, running on UE3, though on a PC and using a version of the engine that was modified in the same manner as Epic's own 2011 modified-UE3 demo called Samaritan. LucasArts has not specified which platforms will run 1313 other than the PC on which it was demoed and has offered no hint as to whether the game could run on Wii U. Our tech insiders are sceptical, at best, noting that the Samaritan and 1313 demos both run on computers that ran UE3 with Direct X 11, the newest version of Microsoft's suite of graphics and other gaming-centric protocols. One source encouraged us to think of Unreal Engine 3 as requiring the performance and capabilities of Direct X 9 but advised that demos running UE3 with enhanced specs, a la Samaritan and 1313, require DX9 performance but DX11 shader capabilities. They consider the Wii U close to that DX9-performance/DX11-capabilities combo but possibly hampered by its CPU, which they believe Nintendo is requiring to run at lower speeds in order to keep its chips from getting too hot and therefore allowing the machine to run as quietly as the Wii-and with relatively low power consumption.

Epic's Unreal Engine 4, which is not assured to run on Wii U

Nintendo's bigger power problem with the Wii U, however, is Epic's Unreal Engine 4, a radically different engine that Epic's Allen Willard has told Kotaku major development houses will need to make a clean break from UE3 in order to work on. Willard expects UE4 to become the popular engine for third-party game development, if not for launch PS4 and Xbox 720 games then for the second wave of games on those machines, circa 2014 or so. Still, some UE4 games are expected as soon as next year, and UE4 is unlikely to run easily or immediately on Wii U. Our Direct-X-comparing insider considers UE4 as requiring Direct X 11 performance and capabilities, a standard beyond Nintendo's new device.

Epic has declined to say whether UE4 can run on anything other than a PC even when asked directly if the Wii U can run it. The company did confirm that the Wii U runs UE3 and emphasised that the unmodified engine ships the same to all publishers, implying that any game based on UE3 has a shot at running on a machine that supports it.

***

The best people to attest to the Wii U's power would be Nintendo themselves, but they've yet to authoritatively answer my questions, posed more than two weeks ago at E3, about whether Wii U can run UE4 or even games made for the modified UE3. Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime deferred to his tech team, but his tech team has yet to chime in.

The ultimate question, of course, isn't so much whether the Wii U can run this tech or that but whether it is possible to shorthand the Wii U's horsepower — by ascertaining which game engines it can run — in order to assure prospective customers of Nintendo's next console that it will be able to run the processor-intensive games made by the likes of EA, Activision, Ubisoft, Take Two and the rest of the major third-party companies. If it can't, the machine would suffer its equivalent of the Wii not having the juice to run Grand Theft Auto IV, Mass Effect 2 or Assassin's Creed.

Such questions about third-party game-makers' willingness to make games for Wii U are loaded with assumptions, Nintendo's Fils-Aime told me back at E3. One assumption in this line of questioning, he said, is that, "as third-party publishers make their decisions somehow they're going to view competitive systems more favourably than the Wii U." He sounds unalarmed by that prospect and unwilling to consider the Wii's problems of third-party support befalling the Wii U. He drew a distinction between high-definition graphics, which the Wii U supports and standard-definition graphics, which were the best the Wii could do. "What I would tell you is that, fundamentally, the reason certain games didn't make it to the Wii was because, first, the developer or publisher had invested in art at an HD level. For them to rework that art to an SD level was a cost they were unwilling to accept. Second, that the online capabilities especially for in-game purchase, or things of that nature, [were things] they viewed it as a key part of their business model, which the Wii didn't support. Looking to the future, both of those issues have been solved with the Wii U."

Nintendo's Reggie Fils-Aime: "All of [third-party game creators'] early-development engines [for the original Wii] were not compatible with where we were going. That is not the case today."

Technically, that is correct, as the Wii U, unlike the Wii, can display HD graphics and will have both an online service and at least 8GB of on-board storage capacity (expandable via USB-connected external drives) to accommodate a game creator's desire to patch or expand their game through downloadable content.

HD art, however, isn't the only technical barrier that would have prevented, say, Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption from running on the Wii. The 2006 Nintendo console also lacked the processing power to run a game that vast and filled with as many moving parts. The problem wasn't merely the art in a game like that or in a game, as I put it to Fils-Aime, running Unreal Engine 3, but the compatibility of the game's engine with the console. The Wii just couldn't handle the dominant graphics engines of the last generation, I argued.

"I think to have the full discussion," Fils-Aime replied, "we need to go back to 2004, 2005, 2006 [before the Wii was launched]. The fact of the matter was that, in 2004 and 2005 and early 2006, the vast majority of the publishing community did not see the Wii having the, dare I say, success in the marketplace that it did. So all of their early-development engines were not compatible with where we were going. That is not the case today."

Fils-Aime expects major game-makers to create their games of late 2012 and beyond with the potential to accommodate the Wii U. Of the Unreal Engine 4, he said, "they're not finished yet. There's still work they need to do to finish that engine." Ultimately it is conceivable that Epic will adapt its UE4 so that it can run on the Wii U, as its Unreal Engine 3 has been proven capable of running on cell phones and in web browsers. But Fils-Aime's hope leaves ample room for doubt that the Wii U will be running, say, some future Unreal Engine 4 game in the Mass Effect series. It's not even clear whether it can even run the likes of UE3's Star Wars 1313, though I've repeatedly asked Nintendo for answers on whether the UE3 can handled such a modified UE3 game, to say nothing of UE4 titles. Should they nail that down, I'll update this story.

***

It is no tragedy for Nintendo if its Wii U falls out of technological step with the next generation of PlayStations and Xboxes. While the Wii faded and failed to run many major games from the past several years, it managed to triumph on the strength of games made for its tech.

A Zelda-inspired mini-game from the Wii U launch title Nintendo Land running across two screens and accommodating four players.

It is also inconceivable that smart gaming companies will risk missing a potential repeat of the Wii's success and fail to support the Wii U as they initially failed to support the Wii. EA has already promised broad support for the machine and Ubisoft demonstrated a breadth of attractive titles for Wii U, some original, some cross-platform with 360/PS3, at this past E3.

It is also easy to see that publishers have gotten the measure of Nintendo's technological ambitions and will view the next generation of gaming machines as they did the current, catering some of their games to the combined audience of the next Xbox and PlayStation and worrying little if such games won't run on Nintendo's console. Certain lower-tech series, such as Ubisoft's Just Dance, which rivals Assassin's Creed in annual sales, are likely to still work easily across the spectrum of gaming hardware. Higher-end series, such as an imagined 2015 Assassin's Creed game, may not.

A generation ago, Nintendo gambled that Wii-level graphics were enough. They took a deep breath and assumed that the quality of latter-day PlayStation 2 or original Xbox games would be good enough to satisfy the general public. For a time, Nintendo was proven right. Ironically, the eye-popping graphics of latter-day Unreal Engine 3 games may again prove that Nintendo is operating at a standard of graphics quality with the Wii U that is good enough. Certainly, the company's own Marios and Zeldas will look stunning as they enter the HD era and begin to exhibit, potentially, the kind of graphical detail seen in such PS3 and Xbox 360 visual masterpieces as Killzone 3 and Max Payne 3, albeit in the more cartoony style for which Nintendo is known. Nintendo's own games, in other words, will probably look great on Wii U.

Nintendo is also not necessarily skimping on technology, just prioritising differently.

The company's engineers may not have not designed a new console that will let the company catch up, long-term, to the processing prowess of its stubborn rivals, but the Wii U's apparent focus isn't cutting-edge graphics or artificial intelligence. Nintendo's high-tech priority has been to ensure that the Wii U is powerful enough to run a video game across two specific screens: the one on your TV and the one on its new GamePad controller. As far as what I and others who have played Wii U demos have seen, there is no noticeable latency between what occurs on the TV and on the controller screen. That capability carries an expense and risk of its own. It also exhibits its own kind of graphical futurism, one that does not seem to be central to Sony and Microsoft's plans (the latter's Wii-U-like Smart Glass tech may tether an Xbox 360 to the secondary screen of a laptop, smartphone or tablet, but it does so by streaming graphical data over Wi-Fi and is subject to all the latency that such a set-up entails).

At E3, Nintendo's Fils-Aime did his job of sounding bullish about the Wii U. He is proud of the machine's capabilities, its support for online gaming and commerce, its unusual new controller and its graphical chops. The Wii was a simpler machine. Though it had the pure selling point of promoting unintimidating motion-based gaming, it did not have, Fils-Aime said, the potential of the Wii U. "I think with Wii we had a limited number of crayons," he said. "It's the 16-pack of crayons. This is the 128 pack. We've got a lot more options." They do. They've got options. But what we don't know, yet, is whether Wii U gamers will be playing with enough power.


Comments

    No surprises here to be perfectly honest.

    I think most gamers know what to expect from the Wii U. Unbalanced multiplayer isn't the way of the future, and it all feels like a bit of a gimmick.

    I had hopes it will change its name to revolution

    Bs. How much of a jump in power do they expect the rest of the gen to have. Games will not look grosly different. They just may need to tone down some effects and possibly resolution of the Wii U. It will be nothing like the Wii vs PS360 boxes. As for it being in contest with the iPad. Sure it has a tablet controller. But doesn't it also have an ~4ghz processor?

      Well if we go by the 6-8 times power difference that was stated, then you're right, that's not much of a jump at all. If current games run at 720p at 30fps with no AA, then 6 times more power will just mean 1080p at 60fps with good AA capability. 8 times and maybe we can see some extra bells and whistles, or they'll sacrifice resolution or framerate again for more shiny effects.

        Yeah, but honestly? Aside from gaggies and frame rate, how much better could a game like, say, The Last of Us or Halo 4 be? Maby 1080p 60fps and one ore two more high res textures on screen or an exta pollygon in a finger is all the next gen needs?

          There will be a focus on physics and particle effects, resolution of 1080p native will increase texture details, along with real time lighting effects that influence the environment.
          Frame rates is where it gets tricky 60fps would be ideal but when you go 3D you require 120fps because you need to create the left and right eye images at 60fps each or drop them down.

          According to Unreal with the recent Unreal 4 engine demo the next Microsoft console needs to be at least Ten times more powerful than the current Xbox 360 to run the Unreal 4 engine comfortably.

          Now the last time Unreal talked to Microsoft about Xbox 360, they said 256mb of RAM is not enough, which is why there was a compromise we got 512mb of RAM, but the hard drive was an option.
          Which is why I think we will have a console at least Ten times more powerful.

          But does any of this matter if the game is crap. We also need new experiences and I don't mean Kinect.

            I dunno... a lagless kinect that allows you to use props would be pretty cool.

    "It is also inconceivable that smart gaming companies will risk missing a potential repeat of the Wii’s success and fail to support the Wii U as they initially failed to support the Wii."

    I am assuming this will be exactly what happens; for smart gaming companies, a choice of platform is more than just a calculation over the install base, but whether they can easily develop the skills required to stand out on the platform. Developers flock to iOS because it's the easiest mobile platform to develop for. They flocked to Sony because they had far more favourable licensing deals than Nintendo did, and then to Microsoft because Microsoft put in a lot of work to ensure developing for the Xbox 360 was as painless as possible.

    Outside of the publishers that make it a point of pride to be everywhere, I'm not seeing a lot of excitement from the development community over the Wii U. And why would they? Nintendo constantly lags behind in developer support, and they have for twenty years. For most developers, it's going to be easier, quicker and more profitable to develop for almost any other platform.

      Indeed this is coupled with the fact that anyone who wanted those games that weren't on the wii. Had one of the other consoles anyway.

      The target market for most of their games is on the 360/PS3 evolutions. A) Because people already have established friends on these system to a far higher degree than the wii. B) Those who want to play Multiplayer games are gonna want to be on the systems with the most active online community. With the WiiU only just starting to establish one properly it's hardly going to be in that situation.

      And when the power disparity shines through. Porting is going to be another issue they won't want to deal with.

    You got it right - Nintendo's secret sauce is innovative play possibilities, not ultra high-end graphics. The average gamer is not going to see this big drawback that the hardcore geeks do - they're going to be more focused on the heightened interaction brought to them by the new pad, and yes it will be enough.

      the touch screen is a shitty gimik i dont want to have to look away from the screen to go through a menu

    So, who cares? If the games are fun then it shouldn't matter how powerful they are.

      People do care. With the possibilities of what can be achieved nowadays with graphics, it's not idiotic to think that they are now a major factor that contributes to what console is bought. I guarantee you, if a game had amazing graphics and poor gameplay, some how, it would still sell.

        Like how the Vita has amazing graphics and little else and is selling fantastically?

      gonna have to agree with this here as someone whose earliest memories of gaming are cannonfodder, breakout and duck hunt/mario there is no substitute for fun in games. If you are so hung up on your games looking pretty then chances are you only started playing in the last 6-8 years where the business started making leaps and bounds in graphic technology. In fact this also extends to difficulty in games where things like "nintendo hard" existed, now there is hand holding. Hell, take any movie with a ton of CG lately too, a great deal of them were horrible movies but they did look amazing.

      The issue is that it generally has flow on effects. Like those who are graphic nazi's will move to the other 2 major consoles to get their fix. Which means that those who want the graphics are already on a system they are making a game for. So why bother creating a Wii port.

    I've never cared about major third party games on my wii, they pale in comparison to the amount of fun that can be had on their exclusive titles. Mario/Donkey Kong/Zelda/Pokemon.

    you mean to say, that up and coming hardware will be less powerful than its successor? Blind Mown!

    Then the WiiU2 comes out and the xbox720 and PS4 are outdated.. so what you're simply saying is PC is and always will be King!

    They could've simply put enough horse power to load 1080p as a standard across the software range. That has got nothing to do with cost, since it's so cheap to do.

    I wonder why Nintendo constantly does this to themselves...its going to hurt them in the long run.

    Apart from sensationalist game journalists looking for the next 'shocking' story, who really cares? The games will be fun, as they always are from Nintendo. It's a Nintendo console, not a PC. Get over it.

      Except that only the Nintendo games are really ever fun. And there are far too few of them each generation to support a system throughout it's life cycle.

      If you just want to play the next Nintendo title or a WiiU specific title than sure you'll be right. The issue is that those other games might not make it over to the WiiU once the differences become an annoyance much in the same way it happened for the Wii.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I really don't get these articles that seem to have a death wish for Nintendo. I find it rather ironic that Crytek said that CryEngine 3 runs beautifully on the Wii U, and that he didn't get the concerns about power. That the Wii U at its minimum power is the Xbox 360 at its maximum. I don't see these power concerns as viable anymore. Nor do I understand these graphical and power fetishist. Especially the ones who buy consoles when they could buy a PC extremely more powerful than any console that comes out in the next 30+ years. I'm sure the Next Xbox, and PS4 will be more powerful than the Wii U, but it will be marginal. At the end of the day if all your worried about is power. Stop playing video games. These are games intended for fun, and entertainment.

    Gameplay will always be paramount to graphics.

      Quite often additional power increases the game play possibilities.

      The developers aren't going to give up their shiny graphics so by adding more power it enables us to have the scope and size of games from the 90s while having the graphics of current games.

    Always question the sources, what's their motive?

    Both Sony and Microsoft seem intent on milking their current consoles for as long as possible, and with the WiiU not having a massive graphical advantage they shouldn't be in any rush to push out new hardware.

    Besides, graphics aren't everything. Remember the Nintendo 64? More powerful than the PSOne yet the PSOne sold boatloads because it has more games. Nintendo need to get the games on their console, build relationships with the 3rd parties to get their ports, get those 1st and 2nd party developers cranking out their own unique titles (as in more than Mario and Zelda) and make the WiiU something that's worth owning on its own, not just because it can do what the other consoles can do.

    While I'm excited for the console and its potential I'm half tempted to just hold off for a couple of years then pick one up on the cheap along with the 5 good games Nintendo usually release.

      That last sentence is a really good idea, I remember when the 360 was launching BigW was selling GameCubes for 49 dollars.

    It's less and less important to me personally how powerful the machine actually is - so long as it can push HD visuals in Nintendo games that's fine by me, I'll buy one. The problem may come later down the line, when it's potentially completely outstripped by Sony and Microsoft's successors. Initially I don't think the Wii-U will have a problem moving units: it will have a two year head start on its rivals, and by the time they hit, significantly cheaper.
    But after another two years or so attachment rates will fall without quality third-party support, and if there's a big install base of 720 and PS4 users, I doubt they'll downsize their games to run on Wii-U with such an installed audience. It's down to who Nintendo market the Wii-U at, and whether it'll maintain momentum once bigger and "better" players enter the ring. You've got to keep them playing and supporting your system regardless of the competition, and I hope Wii-U's hardware is up to the task of doing that four years from now.

    Zelda and Metroid, Until the other consoles have those, I couldn't care less what compares to what.

    I think John Carmack put it best when he said (paraphrasing) that graphics wise there's not much further that realism and detail can be pushed. From here on in any increase in graphic quality is going to see a relatively minor improvement. Compare current graphics on PS3/XBox360 to bleeding edge PC graphics, and there IS a difference, but not as much as say the difference between PS2 and PS3 graphics. I don't think that the WiiU's graphics will hold it back so much.

    I'm interested to know what sort of CPU they're putting in the WiiU - Having decent graphics power is one thing, but being able to do physics simulations, AI and other CPU intensive tasks is going to be just as important, if not more.. I hope they haven't shot themselves in the foot with this. 2GB RAM is a good move though.

    In the end, all I really want from the WiiU is a Nintendo console that looks nice on a HD flat screen TV.

    Oh look. A game 'journalist' who thinks it's all about graphics. Explains why the Wii was a total flop, I gue...oh, wait.

    So, the machine before even being fully released can already easily output current PS3 and X360 stuff... meaning that as the developers get the hang of it they will be able to squeeze more juice from the machine (as it's happened with every console.) Moreover, the Wii U releases almost 1 year ahead of its competitors. By the time they arrive, the Wii U will already be flexing their muscles which compared to their baby steps shouldn't make apparent a big divide.

    I reckon that only by year 2-3 of those consoles (4-5 of the W-U) they will be truly putting out stuff that's considerably beyond of what the Wii U can possibly achieve. By then, Nintendo would have already be rolling on cash, securing franchises and building an user base to coast for a couple years more and then release their next console even further ahead from their competitors' next. Seems like a good plan to me.

    Still, we'll obviously have all the people saying "uhh this guy's head has 384757475 strands of hair in my PS4, that's a whopping 25364 more than in the Wii U version. And don't get me started on the pore count. What a n00b machine!!"

    (Start Sarcasm) Wait, so who ever releases first has the least powerful machine? (End Sarcasm)

    Personally I think Nintendo's Machine and either the Sony or Microsoft machine and you'll cover all your gaming needs. Some people may not need the Nintendo, personally the games on it make me feel like a kid again (in a good way), and that is something I've not felt on the other platforms.

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