For a decent amount of time Nintendo's been fielding questions about Unity support for the 3DS, and the answer's often been the same - it's being considered and it's a desired inclusion on the portable. The problem is the reality that the 3DS is derived of technology that was ageing even in Spring 2011 when it launched, and so the practicalities of running Unity are a challenge. The 3DS is powerful and wonderful in its own ways, in a very Nintendo way, but in the cold light of day engine suppliers like Unity don't care a jot about that if it can't deliver the raw specifications required.
The announcement that Unity support is coming to the New Nintendo 3DS / XL is certainly welcome on multiple levels, in that case. From an immediate gaming perspective it opens the door - potentially - to a raft of new games on the eShop. While quality varies, the Wii U eShop would be a sparce place without Unity support; it's simply a reality of the current-day download scene that a significant number of studios use Unity. For development studios it's affordable, reasonably powerful and has a sizeable community of users, all vital factors when making games on a budget.
Some truly excellent games have arrived on the Wii U courtesy of Unity, and this support could broaden horizons in similar ways for the New 3DS. Instead of the PC and rival console games that make their way to Wii U, we have the prospect of a number of titles originally developed for iOS, Android and even Vita being candidates for ports to Nintendo's latest portable. We suspect a number of small publishers and developers hoping to make their games go further and earn more will be considering their options once this support arrives, plus will no doubt be eager to see just how capable the New Nintendo 3DS is with the engine.
Of course, this influx won't happen without Nintendo showing similar levels of support as it has on Unity. Though porting within Unity will be on the table, developers still have financial and time-restrictive obstacles - dev kits, developer status with Nintendo, support with lotcheck and specific requirements of the eShop. All of that will mean, for better and worse, that developers will have to be confident of making a profit on the new system; with the Wii U Nintendo has alleviated risk with free licenses and - in some cases - loaned dev kits.
Another challenge is with the userbase. The 3DS family of systems may have shifted over 50 million units, but the New iterations only account for a relatively small percentage of that figure due to their recent arrival. The last official figures we were given were 1.84 million units sold in Japan up to 31st December 2014, and 335,000 units sold in Europe and North America over their launch weekends in mid-February. Not bad figures, of course, but it's a much smaller userbase for Indies to consider when weighing up their options.
We'll see just what impact this has, but it's an announcement that suggests we could be looking at a reasonable stint on the market for the New Nintendo 3DS, especially if it gets on a roll of eShop-exclusive releases not available on the older models. In light of some premature exclamations that the 'Nintendo NX' platform is bringing an early demise to the Wii U, in particular, this is a small reminder - potentially - that Nintendo can't simply hurry out its next generation, whatever form it'll take. The NX won't even be revealed until 2016, on current plans, so it's not exactly around the corner.
It is feasible, though, that this is simply another step in closing the gaps between the portable and home console spaces for Nintendo. We suspect the Unity-based libraries between the New 3DS and Wii U will be largely different - as highlighted in the likely sources of ports above - but it's another dividing line that's beginning to blur. The technical discrepancies between the systems are notable, but it's not inconceivable that long term Nintendo will look to simplify matters for itself and third-parties with scaleable and largely matching portable and home systems. We've suggested this already in the past, though it's only a theory.
It's a theory with legs, though, and this is just the latest step. Granted, Nintendo has been actively trying to support Unity to the 3DS family for a while, but it's interesting that the New model - with all of those similarities to the Wii U in control schemes, amiibo support etc - has been given that level of support. We've already seen some cross-over in games from Nintendo and even smaller publishers like Curve Digital between Wii U and all models of the 3DS, and this feels like another step down that road.
In any case, taking down boundaries will likely be at the core of this move, whether driven primarily by Unity alone or whether Nintendo offered a helping hand and provided a partnership deal, as it did with Wii U. We're curious about the minutiae of detail and a release window for this support, too - we've reached out to Unity to learn more. If this support is integrated promptly, 2015 on the eShop could potentially be a little busier and more diverse than we'd expected.
Ultimately, this writer's main feeling with the news is optimism; it could help to stimulate the eShop on the New 3DS with download games that were previously out of reach. One of the best things about the Wii U is its relatively vibrant Indie scene, and Unity can play a part in expanding that picture on the portable. Yes, it's late, and questions are inevitable over its viability on the New system alone rather than the broader 'family', but there's reason to be excited.
Looking long term, too, an increasingly strong relationship between Nintendo and Unity can only be a good thing.