Two recent stories from Kotaku are making online gamers nervous about the Wii U's capabilities.
Concerns were first raised when it was announced that the Wii U version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 would not include the Call of Duty: Elite online service. Kotaku described this as "Not a great sign for the Wii U's online capabilities." This was the second piece of bad Wii U COD news that week, after Activision had suggested to CVG that the Wii U might not get the DLC packs coming to other consoles.
A greater furor was raised when Kotaku reported that you could not use the gamepad's microphone for gaming voice chat but instead had to use a wired headset, that the headset could not be plugged into the Wii U Pro Controller, which has no headset jack, and that voice chat would not be a universal feature of all games.
Game journalists seemed stunned by this, publishing articles like Ars Technica's Nintendo Reveals Baffling Solution for Wii U's In-Game Chat and Joystiq’s
Personally, I don't find plugging a headset into a controller to be all that complicated a concept, and the hysterical response seems misplaced, but it is true that the Wii U's voice chat system is less than ideal.
Does this mean that the Wii U's online system will be terrible? That has been the fear since Nintendo first announced the console; the company has always been downright pathetic in the online space. When people expect you to fail, signs that you are, in fact, failing, are particularly damaging.
One big problem is Nintendo's refusal to reveal the details of their online system. How does it work? What is it capable of? What does it feature? Nintendo won't say, and in the absence of solid information, people tend to assume the worst.
But there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, what is happening at launch is not necessarily the way it will always be. At the least, someone is bound to come up with a wireless headset eventually. It should be remembered that people complained vociferously about the PS3s online capabilities at launch, comparing it poorly with Microsoft's Xbox Live. But these complaints have faded over time, and the Wii U could improve in the same way. And while Xbox Live is considered to be the best service, Xbox Live Gold, necessary to play most games online, will cost you $60 a year, which is $60 more than you'll pay to Nintendo or Sony for online play. (I have never understood why people complain so little about Microsoft’s charging for things that are free on every other gaming platform.)
We also don't know if the problem with Call of Duty Elite is with the Wii U or with Black Ops 2's makers. The developer had to develop the Wii U version in a relatively short amount of time during which Nintendo was still tweaking the console. So this may simply be a matter of having a lot to do and running out of time. Or it could be that the publisher, Activision, is convinced that serious online gamers just aren't interested in the Wii U, and that they made a decision to hold off on integrating Elite until they saw what sort of people were buying the console.
So gamers may be worrying more than they need to, but then, they may be right to worry. Online has been Nintendo's Achilles heel for years, and if one were trying to predict where the Wii U was most likely to fail, you probably couldn't find anyone who wouldn’t list online as the console's number one danger point.
It’s hard to say how all this worrying will effect the Wii U. Its most immediate effect will probably be on Wii U sales of Black Ops 2, which is looking to offer a stronger online multiplayer experience on the 360 or PS3.
It is certainly time for Nintendo to come out and offer a long, detailed look at the totality of their online capabilities, but I’ll be surprised if that happens.