In my last article, I discussed the just-announced partnership (or, “business and capital alliance”) between Nintendo and DeNA. I explained how having a new mobile focus, and leaving the manual development in DeNA’s hands, frees up Nintendo from some of their broader demographic obligations. It also markets their properties and pushes people toward their new hardware.
Now this brings me to the NX.
There has been a lot of speculation that the recently name-dropped NX may be a hybrid or “fusion” system; where the handheld meets the console. While I feel that there may be some logical truth to that, I believe that the NX refers to a common, shared architecture rather than a single hybrid device. One hardware platform or the other will not be biting the dust.
If you consider Nintendo’s previous handheld devices and their console counterparts, you may notice that they seem to be approaching a convergence of technology, largely through the console game ports they supported. The Game Boy (Color) line-up was essentially a portable NES and lasted many years, while the Advance family sported many Super NES quality titles (and countless ports) during the GameCube era. The DS demonstrated an ability to support N64-quality games, even if that went largely unrealized. Now with the 3DS, we are seeing several GCN/Wii-like games. So, is the truly portable Wii U next in line?
I think the long-term goal may be to have a series of devices that operate the same software, somehow, but that the NX will be only the first-step towards that. An interim solution to replace the Wii U and the 3DS and introduce the concept of an integrated platform, even though it wouldn’t yet be fully realized.
Statements from Iwata
In a Corporate Management Policy Briefing in March of 2014, Iwata shed some insight about Nintendo’s long-term goals:
“We are hoping to change and correct the situation in which we develop games for different platforms individually and sometimes disappoint consumers with game shortages as we attempt to move from one platform to another, and we believe that we will be able to deliver tangible results in the future.”
“Apple is able to release smart devices with various form factors one after another because there is one way of programming adopted by all platforms. Apple has a common platform called iOS. Another example is Android. Though there are various models, Android does not face software shortages because there is one common way of programming on the Android platform that works with various models. The point is, Nintendo platforms should be like those two examples.”
“When this happens, home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.”
In fact, at another Corporate Management Policy Briefing a year earlier in March of 2013, Iwata shared the following:
“In terms of our platform integration … we are not saying that we are planning to integrate our platforms into one. What we are saying is that we would like to integrate software development methods, operating systems, and built-in software and software assets for each platform so that we can use them across different machines. … The more we can share software across different platforms, the more development resources will be left for something else. Platform integration does not mean creating one type of platform, but the point is that the united method of software development will enable us to share our most precious software assets across different hardware.”
What else can we gleam from the little Nintendo has shared? Well, at Q & A session held by Iwata for Nintendo’s 75th Fiscal Term Results Briefing, Iwata revealed “we are calling it a ‘new concept’, we are not thinking of this as a ‘simple replacement’ for the 3DS or the Wii U”.
The Market Challenge
Nintendo’s future consoles will share a common architecture, a unified operating system, and (through DeNA) a universal online/membership service. While there are some definite development synergies to be had here to be sure, how would this address the game drought that Iwata alluded to? Even if two devices, and not a single “hybrid,” if Nintendo wants software ubiquity like is seen across iOS and Android devices, then Nintendo’s next console and handheld systems will need access to each other’s content libraries in some fashion.
Furthermore, Nintendo has two conflicting markets, and they know it. At that same recently financial briefing, Iwata explained that, “since we are always thinking about how to create a new platform that will be accepted by as many people around the world as possible, we would like to offer to them [a new concept] by taking into consideration various factors, including the playing environments that differ by country.”
In Japan, portables are king; a perfect companion to pick-up-and-play while out on public transit. The Wii U’s off-screen play was partly envisioned because most Japanese households share a single television as well. In North America however, it is not uncommon for a household to have multiple televisions, with children even having their own. Often, a home theatre-esque experience is preferred.
I’m not going to conjecture specs or hypothesize technical aspects, beyond some reasoning, but I think I can guesstimate at least some of the unique shared functionality these platforms might feature based on what Nintendo has done and said in the past. Or at the very least, I can propose what I would like to see Nintendo attempt – at a blue-sky level.
What We Know
- With the 3DS and Wii U, Nintendo is stretching their in-house development resources thin. At times, it appears to only be able to give attention to one platform at the expense of the other. They wish to correct this.
- With the exception the GameCube and Wii, each new console iteration was developed from the ground up. Nintendo wants to move towards a family of devices.
- Nintendo wants to leverage this family architecture to address gaps in their software library across devices.
- In the past, pre-Virtual Console emulation, Nintendo’s attempts at bringing handheld games to the console consisted of technical architecture and physical hardware nearly identical to their handheld counterparts. The Super Game Boy and Game Boy Player enabled games to run through native hardware, not emulation – albeit through a separately sold accessory.
- With the Game Boy Advance and GameCube, Nintendo experimented with using the handheld platform as a second screen and controller for the console – although largely unrealized.
- With the release of the New 3DS and the addition of a second analog stick and two additional shoulder triggers, the revised handheld can be used as a Wii U GamePad-like stand-in (as seen with the recent release of Super Smash Bros.)
- Nintendo has been experimenting with cross-buy releases recently through the eShop.
There are obvious synergies to be had by integrating their architecture and operating system, as Nintendo seems poised to do. However, if their desire is to relieve the gaps in their software library, Nintendo needs their console and handheld to be able to play the other’s games.
The Next Handheld
With the 3DS’s eventual successor, I picture a return to a more Game Boy Advance-like form-factor and horizontal orientation. Still a dual-screen platform, but with a second screen that slides out instead of keeping with the clamshell design in-use since the GBA SP. The hardware would be large enough, like a PSP or PS Vita, such that it could be used comfortably as a GamePad for Nintendo’s next home console. This is why I propose the hidden slide-out second screen, so that when used with the home console we can avoid having to consider three different screens, while maintaining the potential for dual screen gameplay at all times.
It would be everything we come to expect thanks to the New 3DS and the Wii U GamePad. While a standalone system, a key aspect of the platform would be to supplement gameplay and provide additional functionality to Nintendo’s next console – as a GamePad replacement; the console’s second screen and one of its alternate controller options (as I am a fan of the Wiimote + Nunchuck).
Most important, I think the portable system and the home console will support remote play with each other. While both systems would have their strengths and unique libraries, they could be marketed together, launched together, maybe even sold together in a bundle. The idea being that if you have one, you need the other: that they complement each other; that they integrate with each other.
The Next Console
I think the console offering, in terms of power, will be somewhere between a Wii U and a PS4. The portable, on the other hand, may very well be at least a portable Wii U. I do not think Nintendo is going to choose to compete in Sony’s playground in terms of power. And that may very well continue to isolate third-party support. Hence, I reason, the need to utilize a single chipset and common codebase between the two platforms – enhancing their in-house game production, and sharing their software libraries in both directions. Nintendo’s recent musings about lifting region lock restrictions with the NX platform also lends weight to this idea. They would be making up the difference in a lack of third-party support with a stream of software.
Part of that would be being able to play console games away from the couch or away from home while on-the-go. Or playing a portable game on a big screen using the console as a terminal, perhaps with some enhancements – like graphical improvements or local multiplayer. How better to address potential software gaps on one system or the other than being able to play the libraries of both seamlessly? When one has a lull, you will not notice. Play what you want on what you want, how you want, out of the box. Day one.
Nintendo has recognized that it has some faults and difficulties to overcome. They have a long-term plan, internally, and have hinted at even more devices in their family in the future. However, to get there, and sustain it, they need to make some changes. Nintendo is entering the mobile space, which is well suited to revisit their more readily accessible fare while leading a new audience to their more traditional offerings. They hope to address gaps in their releases. Simultaneously, they are unifying their architecture and operating systems to build upon on their hardware offerings. And they are launching a new online service. It will be a very interesting ride to see how Nintendo moves forward, grows, and strengthen themselves as a company and development house to continue producing games in some of the biggest franchises around.