Living with the Second Screen

When I saw the the early publicity shots of the Wii U, I was excited for the game pad’s possibilities. It would be months until I actually got to hold one of the comically large controller tablets, but I could imagine its benefits: another screen for menus and maps, another input for new control schemes, novel multiplayer dynamics, and more. However, I rolled my eyes at one of its uses, the option to play a normal console game using only the touchpad and not the TV.

Why would someone willingly play one of Nintendo’s glorious console exclusives on a tiny, low-res screen when they had access to a full size TV? Is TV time really at such a premium that people would willingly turn their console gaming into quasi-handheld gaming? Is single-tasking really such a burden? These questions ran through my head, ensconced themselves as preconceived opinions and were then promptly shattered by hands on experience. GamePad only play is by far my favorite Wii U feature and has helped change the way I think about consoles.

At the most shallow level, a lot of my admiration for the GamePad can be lumped into that dreaded buzzword, “multi-tasking.” Everyone thinks they’re great multi-taskers (and most of them are wrong), but there are some tasks that truly don’t require your full attention. For example, collecting some stars I missed on the first level of Super Mario 3D World while watching Star Trek reruns. Neither task is presenting me with unfamiliar situations, so I don’t need 100% of my focus, yet I still find enjoyment in devoting time to each one. I work long hours and my leisure time is at a premium, so the ability to squeeze more things into the small amount of free time I have is extremely valuable to me.

This multitasking ability becomes even more valuable when it benefits other people. I guess my wife, Hanah, and I are more similar to that cheesy family in the Wii U promos, as the ability to use the console while the other person watches TV has been a revelation. Looking back on it, I suppose the six to nine hours I spend watching football every Sunday is a bit monopolistic. Both of us have walked in on the other person watching TV while doing some Wii Fit exercises. If the option is to sit on the couch or burn a couple calories, why not chose the latter? After you’re done, you can swap with the other person.

The Wii Fit example ties into a broader concept of friction. When I turn on my PC or console to play a game, I’m actually initiating a multi-step process. I’m firing up the TV, turning on the sound, the system, getting myself situated on the couch, navigating through OS menus, then load screens, and then more in-game menus before ever getting to the game. Even if this process only takes a couple minutes, playing a game definitely feels like a “thing” and sometimes I don’t want to start a whole thing. This type of friction is far less apparent in the mobile gaming space where playing a game is often just a matter of waking up your phone or opening up your DS. A couple clicks and a couple seconds while the save state is loaded drops you back into a game before you even have time to think about it.

The Wii U GamePad alleviates the friction that traditionally separates the deliberate gaming experiences from the opportunistic ones. Just as I play a few games of Super Hexagon or a few turns of a turn-based strategy game on my phone while waiting for the train, I can now burn through a few Mario levels during halftime while still keeping up with highlights. In the era of persistent, always on-line games, a smooth transition between playing and not playing will a key factor in keeping consoles relevant. Suddenly, the PS4’s streaming Remote Play connection to the Vita becomes extremely appealing. With a low-friction barrier to play, hybrid single and multiplayer experiences like Destiny stand to benefit. I can easily imagine tooling around by myself, exploring the world or crafting things on the second screen, and then firing up the TV once I party up with friends or happen upon a particularly dramatic scenario. In a landscape that is increasingly about who can keep players within their ecosystem, Nintendo and Sony have the distinct advantage of having solutions for delivering full console experiences that don’t compete with other demands on leisure time; they integrate with them.

My only reservation about this new direction in the concept of the second screen concerns lack of focus on game mechanics themselves. When not being used to display the game, the Wii U GamePad is often relegated to a being a fancy map display or a clutter drawer for in-game menu UI. There are certainly exceptions such as Wario Ware, but the second screen often feels like an afterthought from a design perspective. The Wii U gamepad usually lacks the direct impact of something like an analog stick or motion control. Without the benefit of being bundled in with every system, the Vita is in an even worse position to exert design influence. Without a mandate or a clear use case, it seems like both these second screens will be most effective in gradually shifting our expectations around what it means to play a console game.

Ultimately, that’s my post powerful realization about the GamePad and the Wii U overall. It’s a console that is more accommodating to time and lifestyle than any other one that I’ve ever owned. With the aid of the second screen, you don’t live with the Wii U. The Wii U lives with you.