Editorial: 'NX' Development Documentation Gives Few New Insights, But The Leak is Far From Ideal

Nintendo is secretive enough already, so this doesn't help

It seems that leaks are an inevitable part of the modern gaming industry. We've seen plenty of game leaks come out around the NX / Switch over the past year (some yet to be proven right), while some tech specs of the PS4 Pro were doing the rounds before it was officially announced; specifications for the Microsoft 'Scorpio' have also been rumoured. Today some old 'NX' development documents have been posted online, and the indications are that they're legitimate.

The documents seem to be from last July, which ties in with a period when leaks started to ramp up around the system. They provide an outline of basic functions, how they can be utilised by developers - but, again, in relatively simple terms - and include some dummy concept art of the user interface. If you're so inclined there's information on how the 'HOME' transition will work when suspending software, and there's a sense of how the user interface will likely look in broader areas like friend lists. In terms of these user features, actually, it seems to be a natural follow-on from what we've seen in 3DS and Wii U - there's nothing earth shattering.

There are two key points - the documents are old enough that they provide insight without solid detail, with even some aspects of key specs being listed as 'TBC'; this was Nintendo providing initial development units and documentation to help developers get started on their projects in the 'NX' days. Aside from features and aspects of the user interface crossing over - in some forms - from current-gen systems a lot of the detail has been 'out there' before. For example, reports from Eurogamer and Digital Foundry on the system's graphical grunt and power evidently had some basis on documentation like this.

At this point you may be wondering why I'm dancing around this leak and not going into details? After all, this site has shared a number of rumours and leaks about games and 'NX' features in the past - that's true, when we felt the source(s) in question were likely accurate; we ignored more rumours than we covered. How they're reported is also something that we've tried to get better at, for example treating rumours that we trust as rumours nonetheless, as sources can be wrong and out of date.

This document, along with first-hand accounts from sources, was undoubtedly - in hindsight now we've seen it - a prominent part of the information that trickled out from late Summer onwards. Yet snippets of rumours and loosely drawn concept art of the system (for example), something we saw last year prior to the Switch 'preview' trailer, are on a certain 'level' of importance, I feel. They're annoyances to Nintendo and its partners, and the company will have tried to track leaks, but they've always been a part of online life over the past decade or so. What's happened today is an outright dump of a full confidential document, however; if it had been posted online prior to Nintendo's preview trailer last October or even its January Presentation, the company would have been furious due to the details that would have come out early. In some of the examples of leaks above (take PS4 Pro or 'Neo' as it was known) you can be sure equivalent documents were seen in full - yet they weren't published online by those leakers or reporters, that I saw; there are good reasons for that.

Chances are, in the case of these NX documents, that the developer has been foolish enough to leave identifying information somewhere in the screens and images, so the big N may still react directly against them.

It goes beyond sources, rumours and winks and nods, and becomes the blatant sharing of a confidential document - and many images - over which a non-disclosure agreement will have been signed. That is a key difference; it may seem like a thin line between all of the leaks from before and this document appearing online, but it was enough to give us pause for thought. The temptation was to post about a few of the features along with the accompanying images from the document, but it felt like one step beyond what should be acceptable for reporting. I accept that when it comes to rumours and then leaks, that line and where it should be drawn is highly debatable.

There are frustrated developers out there, which helped influence my own feelings on it. By multiple accounts access to development kits hasn't been easy for some smaller studios, and Nintendo has been rather reluctant to engage with some companies in this pre-launch phase, perhaps trying to keep some aspects of the system's interface and features secret for a pre-launch Direct or information dump on social media. Jools Watsham of Atooi (well known for Mutant Mudds et al as part of Renegade Kid) was unequivocal in his response, and a couple of other developers (Dant Rambo of Choice Provisions being one) either agreed or bemoaned the impact it'd have on Nintendo's openness with smaller developers, in particular.

We asked Jools for further comment, and he said the following.

I just don't understand why someone would leak secret development information. It doesn't help anyone. Devs who are interested in developing for Nintendo platforms can easily sign-up via the Nintendo dev site. Leaking confidential information that is supposed to be locked behind a NDA hurts all developers. Nintendo should be able to trust the developers they work with, but when stuff like this happens it breaks that trust and potentially makes it more difficult for honest developers in the future.

Where the line exists for sharing leaks and not doing so is up for debate. My instinct when seeing the leak was to hesitate, think on it and ultimately not share the content directly. Leaks of limited details - such as a game's existence etc - are part of our reality, but publishing full documentation is arguably on the wrong side of that line. It goes from 'understanding' information passed on third-hand from sources to being outright shared in black and white. It's a tricky area, but ultimately this isn't public interest material like in major leaks and whistle-blowing in far more serious parts of real life. It's just a developer for whom whispering small details for alluring rumours online isn't enough, and has decided to simply drop a full batch of out-dated documentation into the wilds of the web.

Sadly, it could prompt Nintendo to get even more secretive and careful than it already is. We hope it's not the case, but there's a chance that the publication of this document online will make Nintendo-to-developer relations that little bit trickier in the future. That's a shame for both the developers and gamers that are keen to share varied and fascinating titles on the Nintendo Switch.