Nintendo’s Fils-Aime Expects Wii U’s Killer App to Be Social Networking

The small tablet that comes with Nintendo’s Wii U, used as a game controller or to change the TV station and watch videos, is the most obvious distinguishing feature of the new game console.

But in an interview, Nintendo North American President Reggie Fils-Aime said he believes the Miiverse, the game console’s social network, will be the unexpected hit.

“I think that it will pleasantly surprise people,” he said. “As the network grows and the installed base grows, it will prove to be a true killer application for the system, and I say this loving what we have done with Nintendo TVii and loving all the games. Until you try it and experience it, you may not totally understand it.”

At the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash., Fils-Aime sat down with AllThingsD to talk about the company’s first game console to come out in six years. Nintendo finally announced two weeks ago that it will go on sale in the U.S. on Nov. 18, after originally unveiling it more than a year ago. The basic package will cost $300, and a more deluxe version will cost $350.

Fils-Aime said the big change with this console compared to the original Wii is that it provides more reasons for everyone in the family to use it, whether it’s to monitor sports scores on the GamePad, search for shows on Hulu or Amazon’s video services, or even to play games. “I compete against time on the PC, time watching TV, and time spent on social networks,” he said. “I already compete with all that stuff, and now you can do it in a new and engaging way.”

Specifically, Fils-Aime called attention to the Miiverse because he said there are no other social networks that are specifically built around gaming. Facebook is first a social network with games running on top of the platform, and other platforms, like Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have a Game Center, where game players can go to see high scores or interact with friends. Microsoft’s Xbox also allows players to become friends and chat about their game accomplishments, but Fils-Aime maintains the Miiverse is “a key differentiator compared to other companies in our space.”

The Nintendo Miiverse will appear on the start-up screen as a virtual hang-out, where avatars walk around a virtual “plaza.” Game players will be able to post their thoughts in “speech bubbles” that appear over their heads with text or drawings — sort of like status updates on Twitter or Facebook. The Miiverse at launch will be accessible only through the Wii U, but eventually it will be available using any Web-enabled device.

“People have to leave the current paradigm behind to understand what we are trying to do. Miiverse is going to be embedded right on the game platform, so literally some of the activity will be able to happen immediately as people experience it,” he said.

Nintendo is also investing heavily to integrate social experiences built into TVii, which allows users to access their TV guide from the GamePad and to control their set-top box using infrared technology. It also allows them to connect to other video apps, like Hulu and Amazon, or to a TiVo if they have one.

The GamePad will serve as a resource where consumers can look up additional information about what they are watching, which is commonly done today on phones or laptops. In additional, Nintendo will provide a timeline of screenshots based on what you are currently watching on TV. In a demonstration, Zach Fountain, who heads up TVii for Nintendo, showed me how a snapshot of a touchdown appears moments after it happened during a live game, or how scenes from “Modern Family” propagate the timeline as they happen, with the key moments selected by content curators. Users can comment on the moments, and then share the comments to Twitter or Facebook if they choose.

The service will take a lot of work behind the scenes since content curators will have to identify the bigger moments, write captions and create the polls.

Nintendo is closely collaborating with a company called i.TV to pull it off. Some technology will be used to make the process more automatic, but it will also take a lot of human interaction since it will be supported 24 hours a day.

The equivalent undertaking would be if Facebook were to hire content creators to write and post pictures to users’ walls based on their activities or interests. Fils-Aime said i.TV will be managing the TVii timeline, while Nintendo will be using both internal and external resources to monitor the Miiverse. The Miiverse and TVii are free to anyone who buys a console.

Because of the chatting capabilities across the whole system, Nintendo will be offering strict parental controls, so that parents can dictate how much they want their children to see. If children do have access to the Miiverse, “we’ll be leveraging technology, the community and our own reviewers to determine what’s appropriate for the masses,” Fils-Aime said. “What Miiverse is doing is quite different from anything else that’s being done, especially with the ability to hand draw messages and things of that nature.”

Nintendo has not said how many Wii U’s it expects to sell, but it is forecasting 10 million units combined for both the original Wii and the Wii U this year. Already, retailers have sold out of the limited quantities made available for preorders, but more will be available on launch day. “We are looking to max out production as quickly as possible,” he said.

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