The Wii U includes an unusual controller, the GamePad, that looks and acts like a small tablet with physical controls (or a large PlayStation Vita). Besides the conventional array of game controls like two analog sticks and a bunch of hardware buttons, the controller includes a microphone, speakers, a headphone port, a screen, and a front-facing camera. There is also a more conventional, Xbox-like controller called the Pro controller which has none of those inputs.
Kyle Orland of Ars Technica wrote this piece on Nintendo’s “solution” for in-game voice chat in their upcoming Wii U console. Nintendo decided to add in-game chat to the Wii U, which is something you’ve been able to do for almost a decade on other gaming platforms. But here’s the catch: those ports on the GamePad won’t work with it. You have to buy a standalone headset and plug it in to your GamePad to get it to work. Even stranger, the Pro controller doesn’t have the port you need to even use it. Furthermore, unlike Xbox and PlayStation, this support is not baked into the system as a whole, but will be opt-in for whatever games choose to spend the time, money, and energy to support it.
When you design a feature into anything, some percentage of people will use it, some won’t. The more barriers you place between the person and what they try to do, the more of them will give up. Design involves removing the barriers between the person and the solution to their problem. I reach for my iPhone over my Vita because my iPhone is usually closer. I reach for my Vita over my Xbox because the Vita is self-contained and doesn’t make me change my TV’s inputs. I reach for my Xbox controller over my Mac laptop with Windows on it because my Xbox doesn’t make me log out of everything I’m doing and restart. These barriers may be small and subtle, but people choose the path of least resistance to solve their problems, and barriers act as resistance.
Frankly, this kind of half-assed solution for a voice chat feature – voice chat, mind you, being an integral part of mutliplayer gaming for many – just increases our concern that Nintendo is still struggling to get online functionality right this time around.
Inexplicably, Nintendo chose to add all kinds of barriers to this one solution – how to talk to your friends while playing games. I can’t tell if this was done intentionally or as just a gaffe in design. Either way, what does it say of the rest of the Wii U? And what other features are going to suffer as a result of focusing on something they don’t care so much about?