Things haven't been looking especially rosy for the Wii U over the past few months.
E3 crowds were interested in getting their hands on the company's next generation console last June, but that's fairly common for new gaming tech. For the rest of the world, the system didn't seem to have a real hook they could sink their teeth into.
HD was nice, mind you, but it was hardly revolutionary. But the announcement today that Near Field Communication (NFC) technology would be part of the system's mechanics could help turn things around.
While the mass market may not be familiar with the term NFC, it really doesn't have to be. The NFC standard has been around for years in smartphones and smart cards, but it's an inherently transparent technology that most people don't attach a name to. So, this newly-revealed Wii U feature can be spun as innovative by the company. (And, let's face it, the spin is often more important than the reality when it comes to gaming.)
What's really interesting to consider, though, is not just how NFC might remedy some of the apathy directed towards the Wii U, but how retailers and publishers can use it to their advantage to boost profits.
Nintendo, naturally, stands to benefit the most. Activision opened the floodgates on NFC figurines late last year with Skylanders -- and is still unable to keep up with demand for the toys. To think that Nintendo will ignore that sort of opportunity with the Wii U and Pokemon is simply unfathomable.
Pokemon is one of the company's power franchises and a consistent top-seller. The thought of a title that combines the video game aspects with dozens (perhaps hundreds) of real world figurines you can buy at the local Toys R Us is a gimme.
That's not going to make everyone happy, of course. Pokemon game fans are hardly limited to kids. (You should hear certain members of the Gamasutra staff sing songs of praise about the games.) And those adults may not be happy with having to pay not only for the game, but an extra few bucks a pop for figurines.
Kids will go nuts, though. And will ride their parents like Seabiscuit until they catch 'em all. Timed right, that could be Nintendo's new money-making machine.
Third-party publishers won't be left out in the cold, though. Some may follow the Pokemon/Skylanders model, but others may try a different tack – possibly including demos (perhaps even longer ones) for other titles in their retail packaging or including pre-order exclusives in those tchotchkes that gamers gobble up so voraciously.
NFC is, in some ways, an evolution of the digital distribution model – and one that can bring it closer to the mainstream spotlight.
Even retail partners could see advantages from this tech. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, in announcing the tech, also brought up the idea of "micropayments" through NFC. While he didn't get into specifics, there are a number of ways this could work – including one that could benefit retail partners.
Right now, adding Wii Points (or, for that matter, Xbox Live points) to your account from a gift card is something of a pain. You have to manually enter a code and pray to Xenu that you didn't juxtapose any of the letters or numbers. It's hardly brain surgery, but neither is it seamless. If those cards had NFC chips embedded in them, it would improve the process tremendously.
Take it a step further, though, and it gets even more interesting. Imagine a fob that could be attached to a keychain. You head into your local GameStop or Best Buy, and using NFC in that store, you add points to it, then simply swipe the card on your Wii U console when you get home to transfer them.
By including the retailers in the after-sale process, Nintendo could leverage extra promotional space for the Wii U, since it stands as a potential recurring source of revenue for that retailer. And should those fobs be specific to the store they were bought at (i.e. GameStop fobs can't be used at Best Buy, etc.), it creates an even deeper customer loyalty.
NFC won't solve all of Nintendo's problems, of course, but it is nice to see the company begin to ramp up its marketing machine for the system. It's even more of a relief to learn what we saw at E3 last year wasn't the full extent of what the company has in mind for its next generation.