Well, here we go again. Reports (which may or may not be accurate) are claiming that manufacturing of the NX was pushed back to early 2017 to make improvements to the 'console and handheld' integration and to factor in Virtual Reality features. It all seems feasible, if still far from certain and confirmed, but it's been an interesting source of debate for fans. After all, with the hardware falling into next year rather than hitting the previously predicted Holiday 2016 window, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that these sources are correct.
That we don't know for sure, but taken as a talking point the VR aspect brings up an interesting discussion. Would NX incorporating Virtual Reality functionality be a smart move, if true, and what form could it take? Editorial Director Damien McFerran and Editor Tom Whitehead both take on the topic below, looking at the different angles around Nintendo and VR.
The recent report from DigiTimes is a bit of an eye-opener for many reasons, the most important being the fact that Nintendo has previously enjoyed a rather hot-and-cold relationship with the concept of Virtual Reality. The Virtual Boy remains one of the firm's most embarrassing missteps, and while that system is incredibly primitive when compared to the VR headsets of the present day, it's easy to imagine Nintendo's board of directors squirming uncomfortably in their seats when the the word "virtual" is mentioned during a meeting. No one likes being reminded of past failures, after all.
Add to this the fact that Nintendo has previously stated that it's not interested in VR (before later cryptically adding that it is "looking into it"), and the picture becomes even murkier. Nintendo isn't the kind of firm which likes to slavishly follow industry trends, either - just because Sony and Microsoft do something it doesn't automatically mean that Nintendo will follow suit. The Kyoto veteran likes to do its own thing and confound expectations - the DS and Wii are prime examples of that.
Having said all of this, if there's a company which can really sell the concept of VR to the mass market, it's certainly Nintendo. The current tech - despite its futuristic allure - is far from the finished article; Sony's PlayStation VR costs more than the base console itself and requires you to plug in a multitude of wires and boxes, while HTC's Vive asks players to effectively clear their entire living room to make space to play. Couple this with the fact that there's no definative "killer app" for VR yet, and it's easy to see why so many remain skeptical of the idea, despite the obvious swell of gamer interest.
Carnegie Mellon University professor and game designer Jesse Schell recently said - light-heartedly, it should be remembered - that Nintendo could be the VR victor if it applies its traditional approach to the concept. He mentioned a portable VR device which avoided the issue of plugging into your existing console or PC, thereby allowing it to be played anywhere and without any wires and cables to shackle the experience:
Imagine if you strapped a DS to your face, it's like that or imagine if the Virtual Boy didn't suck. I would bet Nintendo is working on one.
Schell may have been thinking out loud with this prediction, but this kind of "mobile VR" is happening already. Samsung's Gear VR uses a smartphone as its screen and is therefore totally wire-free. While there's a tradeoff to consider here - games aren't as graphically impressive as those seen on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or PSVR - the sacrifice is arguably worth it. I've used a Gear VR extensively and come away very impressed indeed; the experience is certainly good enough to be convincing and titles like Land's End and EVE: Gunjack are genuinely appealing adverts for VR.
Gear VR has already sold 300,000 units in Europe and is predicted by some to lead the pack in terms of market penetration. The recent introduction of Minecraft on Samsung's headset won't hurt matters, either. This is the kind of approach I'd like to see Nintendo taking with VR, if the reports are indeed true. If NX really does have a 5-inch screen it could easily be placed inside a headset like the Gear VR - which has its own inertial measurement unit to ensure head-tracking is as precise as possible - and thereby give access to VR without the need to shell out a massive amount of cash, as Sony is expecting PlayStation 4 owners to do.
The catch is that power will be limited and therefore the games won't be as striking as those seen on other formats - but given that the current crop of Gear VR software is still pretty impressive, there's no reason to see this as too much of a negative, and NX could potentially be more powerful than Samsung's latest phones anyway. Besides, Nintendo will no doubt come up with its own "killer apps" which will harness the immersive environment in new and unexpected ways, irrespective of how much processing power is available. It's what it has done time and time again with the DS, 3DS, Wii and Wii U.
While some have reacted negatively to the news that Nintendo could be supporting VR, it's vital to remember that it doesn't have to cheapen the focus of NX - it's an optional bonus, and it could be the unique feature which ensures the console sells to the mass market in the same way the Wii did a decade ago, and that can only be good news for Nintendo fans. It's important to remember that while dedicated players know all about the VR revolution, casual gamers aren't as educated - and NX could therefore be their introduction to the concept. Market intelligence firm Superdata's director of research and head of VR/AR strategy Stephanie Llamas spoke to GamesIndustry.biz in April about consumer awareness of VR, and it's surprisingly low:
The general public are mostly unaware of Virtual Reality with 50 percent of Americans showing no interest in or knowledge of VR. Broad consumer adoption relies on building awareness, but today nearly 80 percent of consumers only occasionally or never hear about VR.
That's a massive open goal for Nintendo, whatever your thoughts may be about VR.
I should probably start by acknowledging an article I wrote earlier this year, in which I was "opening myself up for hindsight ridicule if the NX reveal has a VR component". The headline was that Nintendo and Virtual Reality aren't a good fit in 2016, and bear in mind this was written when many analysts and industry followers expected NX this year. Having read that again I'm pretty happy to extend that to early 2017 too; my key point was simple - VR has major potential to go mainstream, but that will come in the more distant future.
Though people like to talk about decades of Virtual Reality history - which is technically correct - I still see the current devices as the first genuine 'generation'. We have multiple competitors utilising impressive but early technology, and price tags that appeal to the enthusiast market. The likes of Vive, Oculus and PSVR will sell out of launch stock, shift a few million units and be a 'success'. Fair enough and hats off to those companies involved, but let's also be real about this - there's a big gap between rocking the socks off tech-fans with plenty of money to spend, and convincing everyone else to jump on board. As I argued in that January article the next generation of headsets may target that mainstream breakthrough, as they'll hopefully be lighter, more efficient and less expensive.
As it stands this initial generation of VR is a tough sell to normal folks that may wave a Wii remote around or even do a bit of blockbuster triple-A gaming on Wii U, PS4 or Xbox One. That's not a criticism of VR, I think it has the potential to be a broader hit in the future, it's just how I see the current state of play.
Damien makes a number of fair points, and highlights the experiences that the likes of Samsung's Gear VR offer - which I haven't even used (as a disclosure). He talks of the fact it's shifted a decent number of units in Europe, is supported by some interesting games and makes the observation that it's rather affordable (it's about £80 in the UK and $100 in the US and requires a compatible Samsung phone). I can buy into the point that if there's a portable component to NX (which is expected by many despite talk around 'MH' as a 3DS successor, if that's even a thing) then a Gear VR-style device could make sense. As a reasonably priced add-on with a bit of Nintendo magic, I for one would happily pick one up if it was in the optional £80 / $100 bracket.
I'm still unsure of whether it'd be a good move, though. It would depend on how well the technology is utilised, to a degree, and pricing is an issue beyond the unit cost. I've argued in the past that Nintendo, as its brand currently stands, is associated with affordable, clever and colourful fun. The Wii and DS weren't technological powerhouses, but used old technology in smart ways that excited consumers. Price point was key, though, especially for Wii - in the early days the Wii was a good bit less expensive than its HD rivals, which combined nicely with the impact motion controls had on an expanded gaming audience.
Nintendo tried to go the premium route with 3DS, at first, which went so well - along with an underwhelming launch window of games - that its price was cut months after its launch. The Wii U wasn't exactly cheap at launch, either, coming in higher than the price bracket that the Wii had in its favour. Add to the fact the Wii U's concept didn't capture the public's imagination - along with various factors - and we had a perfect storm of retail issues that have resulted in its poor sales.
Many reading these pages may argue that Nintendo produces many games of fantastic quality, and shouldn't be regarded as an 'inexpensive' brand. I'd agree with the sentiment, but the reality is that Nintendo is in that position. Its brand power isn't as a 'cool' tech company that can charge top dollar, so value and competitive pricing is key to getting gamers of all types to take the plunge, like with the reasonably priced 3DS options over the years.
Finally, another issue VR could bring is over-complicating the NX launch. Nintendo's had enough branding issues (Wii U, again) to know that it needs to learn from these mistakes, and needs NX to be a concise, understandable product for consumers. Throw in extra bundles and options with VR and you muddy the waters a little, when the priority should be pitching a shiny new gaming platform that offers a new way to play games, as company President Tatsumi Kimishima insists it will. If it is a platform with both portable and home gaming functionality, perhaps with different SKU and purchasing options, that should be enough to deal with early doors.
Those factors are why I hope the DigiTimes report is wrong, or has perhaps mis-interpreted information from its supply-chain sources. If a VR component is coming to NX, perhaps it can be held back for further down the road, 18-24 months after launch. As Sony and Microsoft are currently showing, the idea of a 'generation' of hardware is falling apart; as that's the case, VR can be an area Nintendo moves into as a mid-generation move, which also allows the technology to get better and more affordable.
Still, if the reports are true I'd pay for any VR extras in NX. But then I'm an enthusiast; something tells me my Wii U-owning parents would scoff at the very idea.