Are developers overlooking the obvious?
I've lost count of the number of times I've heard the Wii U GamePad referred to as a "gimmick," whether by gamers, pundits and even a few developers, and it's hard to argue with the logic at face value. Expensive to manufacture, difficult to market and nowhere near as disruptive as a WiiMote and Nunchuck, the Wii U's headline peripheral often looks like a hard sell on paper, especially when so few games use it to any great extent beyond off-TV play. Even Nintendo seems to be aware of this argument, as they've tasked none other than Shigeru Miyamoto with a swathe of imaginative new games designed around new ways to use the device, not to mention the new Amiibo NFC initiative, in an effort to demonstrate the GamePad's worth to third-party studios.
And yet, having owned a Wii U and its chunky plastic slate for the best part of two years, I'm not convinced by this logic at all. The problem isn't that the GamePad is somehow a useless gimmick, it's that any number of studios and publishers just aren't using their common sense when it comes to touchscreen applications. Whether overthinking the whole situation, pressed for time or just plain lazy, it's a crying shame, because the GamePad can greatly improve the user experience and add meaningful value to a game with a bare minimum of effort.
I'm not for a moment suggesting that every Wii U game needs to purpose-built around the GamePad in radical and innovative ways. I love it when they are, examples being ZombiU's inventory system, Project Giant Robot and some of Nintendo Land's better minigames, but the fact is that player convenience is an oft-overlooked yet unbelievably simple and effective use of the GamePad. No matter the genre, no matter the port or premise, using the GamePad effectively is child's play.
Let's assume that a studio is working on a traditional game genre designed for traditional controller inputs, perhaps an action-adventure, RPG, shooter, brawler or somesuch. The temptation is just to just leave the screen blank, or display a pithy little message saying 'activate Off-TV play in the menu' or somesuch. One Piece: Unlimited World Red is a good example of this mentality in action, using the 'Pad for absolutely nothing whatsoever unless you activate remote play.
So at the very least, why not stick a map on it? Any number of games, whether RPGs or platformers, feature a tiny on-screen minimap or worse an enormous map that requires you to delve into the menu to view, constantly breaking gameplay flow in the process. My example, Unlimited World Red, is a perfect case in point, offering no onscreen minimap yet basing its gameplay around exploration, thus forcing you into the map screen every minute or so. A map, preferably with some simple zoom controls, would allow you to quickly glance down and make sure you're on track without leaping from menu to menu. A few standout games on the system do this well, but so many more, ports included, simply don't bother.
Too difficult to code? Too time-consuming? Fair enough, you hypothetical developer I've decided to address directly on a whim, especially if you're working on a port. But there's an even simpler use for the GamePad's touchscreen: macros.
PC flight sim veterans will know what I'm talking about. Back when Sidewinders were all the rage and simulators boasted an entire keyboard's worth of commands, the bundled software allowed you to bind a sequence of keystrokes to a single button, letting you trigger a complex set of commands without any effort whatsoever. Deflectors on double front and divert power from engines and link laser cannon fire? One press. Simple.
So how does this factor into Wii U games? Regardless of the genre, there's always some mundane facet of a videogame that takes up more of our time than it should. Typically it's busywork. In an RPG or any game with RPG elements, chances are you'll have to navigate an inventory system with separate pages for consumables, weapons, valuables and armour spread throughout multiple characters. Not to mention skills and abilities. Lore. Party formation. Accessing all of these things requires you to hit the pause button, then scroll through a menu to the screen you need, then tab through to the particular item. All of which takes time and multiple keystrokes, since usually only one menu can be bound to the Select button, and it all adds up over an 8-40 hour adventure.
The alternative, of course, is a handful of icons on the GamePad screen that take us directly to menus we use frequently, but usually requires more than a couple of controller flicks and button presses to access. The peripheral just saved us time, effort and let us concentrate on playing the game, not faffing about with the interface. Developers should take careful notes during playtesting sessions about exactly where players get bogged down in mundane tasks, whether using potions or finding a specific oft-used weapon in a menu or levelling up or whatever, then just slap a button on the GamePad that triggers it instantly. Job done. The GamePad has just improved our gameplay experience in a simple yet fundamental way, with almost no real effort required on the studio's part.
Forget RPGs. Case in point: Assassin's Creed III's horse button. The Wii U version may have its flaws, but much is forgiven when I can summon Connor's horse just by tapping the screen, not by scrolling through the menu to find the whistle and then equipping it and then blowing it. One button and I'm riding into the sunset, and I can celebrate by looking down at the extra map for good measure. Even at a bare minimum, developers could put a clock on the lower screen (whether in-game or IRL), experience sliders, drag-and-drop inventory management, even just a list of the remaining collectibles left in the level. How about a notebook that lets us jot down item locations, helpful advice or locked chests for future reference?
If you've ever played a console game and thought, "gosh, I wish there was a button for that," those days really ought to be over. The GamePad should -- should -- turn busywork into more time spent actually playing the game.
Of course the GamePad is capable of much more despite its one-touch resistive screen. The touchscreen can support wider variety of genres with context-sensitive commands that always fit the situation at hand, such as RTS controls, build queues and useful metrics. Its potential for augmented reality is untapped, so here's hoping Fatal Frame can turn that around in horrifying style. And in fairness a fair few games do use the peripheral intelligently, the highlight being Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate that... shock horror!... lets us choose what useful features we'd like and how to order them. There's scope for plenty of exciting new applications and Nintendo plan to showcase them soon. Hopefully crowned by a Mario game that lets you leap between two separate universes, one of which exists on the GamePad.
But right now, let's stop calling the GamePad a gimmick and start talking about ways that developers really could be using it to make our lives, if not better, just a bit easier. After all, its integrated TV remote and breezy OS navigation already do.