We're in the midst of a brief spell of Nintendo NX rumours, possibly as a result of it appearing behind closed-doors - according to multiple industry sources such as MCV - at E3, and the timelines that point to a 2016 release have cranked the rumour mill into gear. First there were reports of manufacturing timelines and a planned summer 2016 release, which had a blend of possibility and eye-raising unlikely assertions. More recently we have speculation that the NX platform won't compete with the PS4 in terms of power.
The source for this latest rumour is Liam Robertson of the Unseen64 parish, a group well known and respected for digging up information on cancelled projects, abandoned prototypes and general games industry secrets. Liam has even written on Nintendo Life recently, so while these are still rumours and his source and info may not be 100% accurate, there's certainly a case to be made that it should be considered solid information. It could all change by the time NX is revealed to the world, but the very idea that the system could fail to challenge the grunt of PS4 and Xbox One - as they're very similiar, in broad terms - is one that's got people talking.
First of all, what do we mean by 'power'. It actually encompasses various aspects, but for many is associated with graphics and how pretty games are on a system. That's certainly one angle, but power isn't just about processor speeds and graphics cards, but can relate to memory and how a system calculates and processes data. For example, a trend with the Wii U is that with game designs that are scripted, linear or stage-based it can shine, but courtesy of its GPU and CPU balance it can sometimes struggle with open world games. Watch Dogs, the Assassin's Creed games and LEGO City Undercover are examples that can chug a little. Power can also relate to networking capabilities, the ability to multi-task and more besides.
A good example with the PS4 is that, in some specifications, it's on par with a mid-to-high end PC, but is lagging behind hulking gaming rigs. Yet it can deliver impressive results when in the hands of the right developers, as it's a dedicated gaming machine designed to make the most of its resources for gaming and in-game recording / streaming. A typical PC gamer may have a rig 'better' than a PS4, but if they're running Windows and assorted background software may struggle to match the performance of a game on Sony's system. There's a degree of apples and oranges to this, but the point is that power is relative to how it's used and how it's allocated; developers of open world games want a different set of hardware strengths to those creating a linear, graphically intensive experiences.
Anyway, talk of NX 'power' does naturally bring to mind the games that we'll end up playing, and the sorts of experiences currently defining the current-gen in Sony and Microsoft circles. Some of the most critically acclaimed and hyped games of the year are also the most demanding for hardware, such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Batman: Arkham Knight, while procedurally generated experiences like No Man's Sky are given a lot of focus. The trend for some is to have large worlds that are fully integrated, have limited or no loading screens and have reams of content and freedom. Now, Nintendo may be doing that in its own way with Super Mario Maker as a creation tool, but Wii U - as a necessity - is more about tightly structured experiences. That's not a criticism, just the nature of the game library on the system.
With NX, Nintendo's in an interesting place. Its timing (let's assume late 2016 / early 2017 at this stage) certainly points to taking over for the 3DS, and as we've written before the Wii U's struggles will likely see that fade away too. Our continuing instinct is for a platform that, in some way, incorporates both portable and home console gaming, potentially with the option to opt for one over the other or have both. Nintendo's being close-lipped, naturally, and we could be wrong.
Whatever form it takes, talk of limited 'power' aren't necessarily surprising, especially as Nintendo will have been closely monitoring its own recent results and general industry-wide trends. Nintendo has had two poor launches with systems that came out with a premium price - 3DS then Wii U - and the former was partly rescued by a handsome price cut in its first year. In both cases the pricing could be tied to confidence following the dominance of the DS and Wii, but also to Nintendo's general approach of trying to sell hardware at a profit per unit, while Sony and Microsoft have been known to subsidise their systems, make a loss and count on revenue from games and accessories to fill the gap.
The Wii, in particular, was a lesson of how less powerful but clever hardware could succeed, especially helped along by undercutting the costs of its rivals. The 3DS took off once games were allied to a cheaper price, despite it having less grunt that the Vita, but the Wii U had the issue of being relatively expensive - while lacking a 'generational leap' under the hood - and failing to take off conceptually with the mainstream audience.
My personal instinct is that the masses, in a broad sense, respond to technology in two distinctive ways. Either something is perceived as cutting edge and high quality, and is worth paying out for, or tech can be cheaper but offer throwaway fun. So the latest iPad will cost a lot but deliver the whizz-bang apps from aspirational Apple adverts, while a budget tablet - like an Amazon Fire - is cheaper but functions quite well, offering readily available if not advanced entertainment. The middle ground is fairly empty, or full of those Windows tablets that not many people buy, and the last-gen did the same in gaming - the Wii was fun and cheap in its early years, while the 360 cost more but was HD. Both had large audiences.
The Wii U, arguably, fell into the doomed middle ground when it launched, and so Nintendo needs to target that lower bracket. The product can be fun, exciting and enticing, but it also needs to be affordable, with a cost low enough to seem like a relatively mild investment. A lot of commerce is psychological, so targeting a price like $199 would serve Nintendo better than $299 - the fact is that Nintendo isn't deemed 'premium' in the market, with the 3DS launch and Wii U proving that. Nintendo is associated more - in relatively recent history, we're not talking about the old days - with affordable fun.
The only way to be affordable is to be clever with old technology, as Nintendo was with DS, Wii and - to some extent - 3DS. What's both thrilling and terrifying about NX is that it'll probably sink or swim on concept alone, as the gaming space is full of cheap or common gaming options - namely last-gen systems and tablets / smartphones. The idea of the NX will need to grab the attention of millions of consumers, and have experiences that make it a must have platform. A portable / home console hybrid would perhaps help with that, as over 50 million 3DS units have been sold even in this most challenging of generations. A mix of innovation and familiar experiences are sure to be front and centre.
On the topic of 'power', then, it could come down not just to what the NX has and but how it uses those resources. The Wii was a spruced up GameCube but had motion controls, and the concept of the NX will need to combine with enough juice to draw in the intended audience; that core audience isn't likely to be those currently enjoying a PS4 or Xbox One, unless the concept is so clever that the NX is an addition to any gaming setup, rather like the Wii was a 'second' console of choice for millions. The power could come from how the system works in the Nintendo Network, or potential integration between different hardware, and how it changes the way we play games.
The combination of price, 'power', concept and public perception will all be key for the NX. We can't wait to see what it'll deliver.