From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. It's the turn of NX again today, as Thomas Whitehead highlights the five key challenges Nintendo has to overcome to make the console a success. This feature originally appeared on the site in October.
After whispers throughout the Summer, we've had NX on the mind since we had the firmest indication yet that development kits are now making their way into the world. With every passing remark and apparent leak it seems we're heading towards an integrated platform, possibly supporting both home console and portable gaming in one package, with talk now also of "industry-leading chips" powering the hardware. It's exciting but still vague, with Nintendo stating it'll give the full reveal in 2016.
We've written about how we seem to be entering a new era in NX hype, and have previously shared our thoughts on how we think it could shape up as hardware. The truth is that there's no concrete information out there, however, but there are plenty of considerations to ponder; let's not forget that this hardware will arrive against the backdrop of the ageing 3DS and the poor-selling Wii U. It has a lot it needs to deliver, and we can't stop talking - and fantasizing - about it in Nintendo Life HQ.
Considering the lessons of the past - such as the dominant DS / Wii era - and also of the present, we thought we'd pinpoint five key challenges that we think Nintendo faces with its NX hardware.
Innovation to grab the mainstream
This may be anathema to some that want simple and brilliant Nintendo gaming that's purely focused on fun gameplay and those IPs that many of us love. That'll absolutely be necessary to appease millions of dedicated fans, but Nintendo's in a unique market position in that its impact on the broader gaming market is reliant upon creating a must-have and creative product for the infamous 'blue-ocean' consumers.
The Wii and DS did this, and to a lesser extent the 3DS achieved the same trick - the current-gen portable hasn't matched the success of its predecessor, but its blend of catch-all enticing games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf and neat extras such as StreetPass helped it to stand out. It wasn't the autostereoscopic 3D that served as the portable's unique selling point, as marketing after launch slowly ignored the feature, but rather the wider package that made the 3DS interesting, accessible and affordable; more on those latter two points shortly.
So what does the NX need to do to capture the public's imagination and get living room space alongside smart TVs, tablets and other consoles? Well, Nintendo will have had more creative ideas than we've had hot dinners, though it wouldn't surprise us if simplicity is a watchword. Innovation doesn't have to mean extravagant devices and control schemes, especially as these can be rather expensive. Innovation can rather be about how products and services interact with and influence various aspects of our lives - companies like Apple in particular often centre their design around those priorities.
If this system is a platform with options for home console and portable gaming under one umbrella, for example, how its services work and change the way we play could be pivotal. Sony tried it with Vita and PS3 / PS4, and Apple TV / Kindle Fire TV sort of play in these areas, but Nintendo could take it to another level. Innovation need not be gimmicky, but whatever Nintendo has up its sleeve will hopefully be on-point and tap into the trends of modern day consumers and their lives.
Pricing and options to suit a broad audience
Pricing is vital, and in recently mulling over a Wii U price cut we shared the view that it was - and continues to be - an issue for the Wii U. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, to be fair, but after a generation of gamers associating Nintendo with affordable fun - many then being lured in by smart device gaming - the Wii U was a tad pricey at launch. Not the only factor in its struggles, admittedly, but relevant nevertheless.
Strategically this is an interesting one for Nintendo - it's a company that's traditionally sold hardware at a profit, which made perfect sense when systems were flying off shelves. Yet with the 3DS this didn't work, sparking a rapid price cut and a period of around a year of selling at a loss. That certainly worked in reviving the portable, along with other factors, but nevertheless Nintendo still seems resistant to the idea of effectively subsidising hardware to customers. The problem, though, is that many rivals do, not just Microsoft and Sony but also others such as Amazon and Google with their smart device and TV products. Apple, less so, but as that company is effectively so rich to be master of the universe it's a bit of an exception.
If, and it's a big if, NX is a platform with both home console and portable components - the sibling-style relationship once talked about by Satoru Iwata - then there may be room for budget options, even if they don't come packed with all of the goodies. If the 3DS family (and DS before it) teaches us anything is that you can find room for different-priced options to suit different audiences. Dedicated fans will always be game to spend plenty of money on the latest and greatest products, but it's important not to price out the all important mainstream consumers that don't share the same brand loyalty.
Power to attract cheap and easy third-party ports
This is the category we suspect will cop us the most flak, but we'll go there anyway.
Third-party ports won't make or break the NX, and exclusives will be far more important. Yet this generation has taught us that being frozen out of the multi-platform scene can be damaging in terms of perception - it's not just games like Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed that have drifted away, but the absence of Minecraft has been particularly damaging. It's easy to claim the latter wouldn't sell but, frankly, every version that comes out does well, regardless of how 'old' the game is. The problem with the Wii U is that, despite its strengths, its combination of tricky architecture and requirements makes life awkward for third parties, even those that are interested. Add poor sales into the mix and these companies have understandably walked away.
A theme often mentioned for third-parties in the retail scene, particularly, is the ease of porting. The PS4 and Xbox One, with PC-based architecture and similar specs, make life relatively easy for development teams. The NX surely needs to be accessible in terms of its architecture and have the grunt to live up to the current multi-platform scene. That's not too outrageous a requirement - the PS4 and Xbox One are powerful but not mind-blowingly so - and could be key: talk of the NX potentially utilising x86 technology gives us hope on this score.
Eye-catching exclusive games
As we've said, ports will be useful but not integral for the NX - as always exclusive games will be key. This, after all, is what defined DS, Wii and 3DS - alongside their innovations - and grabbed a broad market. Franchises like Mario, Metroid, Pokémon, The Legend of Zelda et al will all be important, naturally, through new releases and - probably - a few NX remakes.
Concept games can matter, too, and new IPs can flourish when they hit the right notes. On DS we had Touch Generation games such as Nintendogs, the Wii brought us Miis and their game appearances, while recently on Wii U Splatoon has shown that fresh ideas can succeed in a meaningful way. It can feel somewhat like lightning in a bottle by nature - we think Nintendo Land is better than its reception suggests - but a key challenge will be capturing the essence of NX (whatever that ultimately is) and distilling it into a must have gaming experience. Ideally the sort of game that gets attention and playtime in both traditional media and 'new' media like YouTube. Oh, yeah, please embrace YouTube properly, Nintendo, and let channels share your content without hassle or revenue sharing.
As Nintendo often says, games sell systems, and that'll apply to NX too.
Integration with the thriving smartphone industry
Another sticking point that won't please all, but let's embrace reality here. Smart device gaming is becoming dominant in Japan - so will naturally have Nintendo's attention - and is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. It's not going anywhere, and Nintendo's partnership with DeNA and involvement (plus investment) in Pokémon Go is testament to its awareness of the importance of the market.
It's been maintained that games released on smart devices - and potentially 'service' apps - will have a secondary goal of directing and encouraging players to adopt Nintendo hardware. It goes without saying that if Nintendo can make lots of money from its smartphone games and win over new customers for dedicated hardware then it'll be onto a very good thing indeed.
The key, as highlighted earlier in this article, is embracing and tapping into gamer's lifestyles to make Nintendo a core part of their lives. With DeNA's speciality skills in networking and services it's likely that we'll see aspects of smart device apps and NX interacting and overlapping, with examples being the 'loyalty program' that DeNA itself is developing. If this is done in ways that are clever, fun and rewarding it has significant potential. The modern trend - epitomised by the most successful technology companies in the world - is to integrate brands directly into our daily lives; we'd suggest that NX and smart devices can combine and work together to make this a reality for Nintendo.
Whether we're right or wrong with these thoughts, we're sure all Nintendo fans want one thing - a success for the company. Nintendo has often proven itself to be adaptable and innovative under pressure, securing impressive successes off the back of disappointments. It now needs to repeat that trick again.