Nintendo gets with the times, announces Nintendo Network, DLC, and NFC for Wii U

After a decade of lackluster online support, Nintendo may finally be wising up. During an investor’s briefing today, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata announced that its upcoming console, the Wii U, will have two new features: NFC built into the controller and an Xbox Live-like online service called Nintendo Network. Downloadable content, including fullly downloadable retail games is also a possibility. Details below.

Wii U to have a solid launch in 2012

Iwata began his discussion about the Wii U by stating that it will launch in the United States, Japan, Europe, and Australia in time for the holiday sales season this year. 

“The company is aiming to firmly complete the development of the entire system and prepare sufficient software so that the Wii U will be at its best at the time of the launch,” said Iwata. “Needless to say, we have learned a bitter lesson from the launch of the Nintendo 3DS.”

NFC in Wii U controller

NFC has been hailed as the next big thing in mobile credit card and payments technology. It enables you to safely transfer data between two objects safely and securely by hovering them about 0-3 inches apart. Google has been one of the biggest early supporters of the technology, building its Google Wallet service around it, which allows you to use your Android phone as a credit card of sorts. Android 4.0 also has a new feature called Android Beam, which lets you exchange almost any information between two NFC equipped Android devices by tapping them together. The feature is a novelty, but pretty cool to experience.

Nintendo has similar plans. Iwata announced that the giant Wii U controller will be NFC enabled, opening up loads of possibilities for the new console. Iwata said that the new system could be used to make micropayments or for tapping cards on your controller to submit game data to the Wii U. Nintendo has done this before. Back in 2001 it launched the Game Boy Advance E-Reader, a peripheral that plugged into the handheld like a game cartridge and used credit card magnetic swipe technology to transfer tiny bits of data from paper game cards to the handheld. It never really took off outside of a few games, but it sounds like Nintendo may be resurrecting the idea using NFC. This will let Nintendo sell or give away physical items and let players add those items directly into a game. 

The possibilities of this technology are far greater. Nintendo has said that the Wii U controller can be used as a multiplayer game surface before. Well, what if the controller sat in the middle of a table and 3-4 players were able to play a board-like game together, but also use the Wii U in different ways by tapping their cards on the controller? This could really make certain board games a lot more fun, if implemented right.

It could also, as Iwata mentioned, make micropayments a lot easier. Currently, if you want to purchase something in the Wii Virtual Console store, you have to first buy Wii Points by entering a credit card (and you have to completely re-enter it every time) or by purchasing a Wii Points card at a store like GameStop or Best Buy and then typing in a long numerical code on them into your Wii. Using NFC, future Wii U Points cards could automatically add their balance to your Wii U account without having to enter anything. You’d just have to tap them to your console and press “Yes, I’d like to add these funds to my account.”

The Nintendo Network

Nintendo has always been one of the most innovative and stubborn video game companies. It has reinvented itself and the gaming world more than once, but continually refuses to adapt to trends that it doesn’t create. A good example of that has always been online play. The Kyoto game maker has been dipping its feet into the online world as far back as 1987 (read: a history of Nintendo’s online activities). Its plans weren’t all vapor either. It created a full add-on for the Nintendo 64 designed around an online network, but the concept was never successful enough to leave Japan. Other endeavors in the 90s failed to take off either, so when the Sega Dreamcast and Microsoft Xbox both began to make waves a little over a decade ago, it was not surprising that Nintendo was reluctant to get onboard with online gaming. It could be a fad, after all. The Wii also got away with having no decent online support either due to the massive success of its new controller, but Nintendo’s recent struggles have forced it to reconsider.  

A mere decade behind the competition, Nintendo is also finally launching the Nintendo Network, which will be available on both the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U. The system will be a full online network with actual personal accounts for each user and online communities (like the one in Mario Kart 7). On the Wii and DS, Nintendo does not allow individual user accounts like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. Instead, users can only play together by trading long numerical codes attached to their consoles. Because of this, the Wii and DS online presence has been muted.

Iwata did not specifically say, but we speculate that the Nintendo Network will somehow incorporate or honor purchases made on the Wii Shop Channel and 3DS eShop.

Downloadable content (DLC) will be available for the Wii U as it has the Nintendo 3DS as well, said Iwata. However, he made sure to point out, as he has in the past, that Nintendo has no plans to mimic the business model of social games like FarmVille that claim to be free but then try to milk money out of users. 

“While we are on this subject [of downloadable content],” said Iwata, “when we discuss anything relating to add-on content, our remarks are very often reported by the media by their attaching such modifiers or notes as “the ones used for social games.” Please note that Nintendo, as a software maker, does not plan to deploy businesses where our consumers cannot know in advance which item will appear as the result of their payment and they have to repeat the payments and, before they know it, they end up spending a huge amount of money in order to obtain the items they originally wanted to purchase. As a software maker, Nintendo believes that its packaged software should be sold to our consumers in a form so that the consumers will know in advance that they can enjoy playing the software they purchased just as it is. We believe that our consumers will be able to feel more secure if we offer our add-on content as an additional structure in which those who love the game will be able to enjoy it in a deeper way for a prolonged play time.”

Full downloadable retail games coming, someday

While it doesn’t sound like it will happen immediately due to pressure from retailers who need boxed software to keep their doors open (GameStop, Best Buy), Iwata says Nintendo is ready to sell full games via download as well. Both the 3DS and Wii U will be capable of this. Another potential hurdle is that the the game maker still plans to rely on SD cards as the main way for customers to store purchased content and game saves. This is a far different approach than Microsoft and Sony are taking. Both the Xbox 360 (most of its models) and PlayStation 3 are equipped with large hard drives for storing downloadable games. However, neither company has announced plans to move sales of full retail titles to the Internet either, likely due to the same reasons and that it would take users a very long time to download games, which will likely be 5-50GB a piece in the next generation of consoles.

Good news all around

If you’re a Nintendo fan, today is a good day. While we still haven’t seen the Nintendo Network, from the sounds of it, the service will be a vast improvement to anything offered on the Wii or GameCube. Hopefully, it will also have a robust apps store that allows for open development and has features like saving games to the cloud. There’s nothing quite as scary as losing all of your game saves. 

We still have our doubts about the Wii U (read our CES impressions), but Nintendo might finally nail the online experience. 

Get our Top Stories delivered to your inbox: