Happier times in the third-party stakes
Happier times in the third-party stakes

Well, there are quite a few mumblings and rumours kicking around about the Nintendo NX once again. Talk of a release this year (again) and Nintendo pulling the Twilight Princess trick with the next main entry in the Zelda series (it being on both Wii U and NX) are doing the rounds. Some have been convincing, following up older and similar assertions while reinforcing semi-logical predictions; some less so, but it's another period where the mysterious next gen system is being discussed a great deal.

Courtesy of regular Nintendo Life contributor Liam Robertson we shared a rumour of our own - that EA and Nintendo are in discussions around sports titles for the NX. That link has the ins and outs, based on Liam's conversations with EA sources, but the summary is that EA has had NX development kits for some time, and is particularly keen on exploring its sports franchises for the system. It wants Nintendo to up its game in marketing to that demographic, however, and also wants various sports apps to feature on the hardware as they do on the likes of PS4 and Xbox One. Apparently.

It's worth addressing why we tagged this as Rumour, and why we hesitate and often don't share rumours from sources unfamiliar to us unless they firm up on their details or establish a reputation over time. Even though we know Liam well and trust him fully based on his work and track record, and recognise the fact he's been speaking to multiple sources, articles like these are still marked as rumours due to the simple fact that sources and company employees may not have the definitive picture and latest details. These articles can be fascinating and are great for debate points, but should always be treated with some care. We don't get every call right, but I for one have learnt from mistakes and generally prefer caution when dealing with 'leaks' and sources.

The inevitable image from EA's 'unprecedented partnership' moment
The inevitable image from EA's 'unprecedented partnership' moment

That said, I read the EA article (written by my colleague Damien) and the information it references, and my first instinct - on the basis that its contents are correct as of right now - is to be slightly pessimistic about the idea. I know I wrote at the start of the year about this being a time for Nintendo optimism, and I will try to stick to that - optimistic about third parties, though? That's trickier.

I still believe, and it's a personal opinion, that Nintendo is now in its own bubble in the games industry, which is both a positive and negative. It means that its franchises and approach to hardware and game design are unique, and you can have success stories like the 3DS that are driven primarily by exclusive games, with occasional ports and multi-platform releases. This has allowed the big N to make a dedicated gaming portable work in an age of smartphones and tablets, and can strengthen the bond between fans, gamers and Nintendo's brands.

On the flipside it can lead to a scenario like the Wii U, which has a batch of top-class exclusive games but nevertheless has failed to hit a critical mass, a point where sales pick up momentum and generate increasing buzz all the while. An example of a home console that achieved this was the Wii in the last generation and the PS4 this time around - early momentum setting the ground for sustained success over multiple years. The key difference is that the Wii was a concept machine that exploited the so-called 'blue ocean' of new gamers, whereas PS4 was the better value 'triple-A' machine when it launched. The Xbox One started slower, arguably because of its higher price and some arguments over performance, and is still trying to match PS4 momentum globally, never mind overtake it.

For Nintendo, though, a failure for a concept at mainstream level can be terminal to a hardware's long-term outlook, because of that aforementioned bubble. When you look at Xbox One and PS4 release schedules they're rammed with major releases from the likes of Ubisoft, Activision, EA and more, constantly filling release gaps and dominating a lot of gaming conversations online. Nintendo isn't in these conversations, but rather in its own areas where fans talk about Zelda, Mario and more first/second party games a heck of a lot, or perhaps direct attention to neat downloads on the eShop (whether old or new). Kind of like this place and many other sites, forums and sub-Reddits.

A pretty decent Wii exclusive
A pretty decent Wii exclusive

As I'm pretty sure I've argued in the past, that can be an acceptable state of affairs when Nintendo's concepts and hardware are paying off. Yet with each new generation comes the question of how Nintendo hardware and third parties can get along. The Wii and DS, due to their concepts and hardware limitations, forced major publishers to adapt their games yet also struggle - in some cases - to shift copies. Such was the size of each system's userbase, though, that EA kept churning out FIFA games on Wii (bad ones, admittedly) and many others (I recall loads of Sims games on DS and Wii, too), and even tried to produce exclusive content such as Wii Motion Plus vehicle Grand Slam Tennis. These sorts of games were often scaled back or 'alternative', and exclusives such as Ubisoft's Red Steel 2 also found themselves in bargain bins rather quickly. Connecting the Nintendo audience with third parties has been a problem for quite some time, and the Wii and DS era established the trend further.

The 3DS has attracted its own unique array of third party titles (RPGs galore from the likes of Square Enix, Atlus and Level-5), but that's just another example of the bubble. The home console space is trickier, and as this is where the NX is likely enter the market in some way - again, the system is a mystery beyond rumours and educated guessing - that's the key focus. It's no surprise that EA is interested in the hardware, and I'd bet the likes of Activision and Ubisoft are also among the first to have received NX dev kits and information. Reliable sources spoke of behind-closed-doors NX meetings and concept demonstrations as early as E3 2015, and that didn't surprise me one bit.

If I was a betting man I'd put all my money on Ubisoft, Activision, EA et al all talking big when the NX is announced, announcing a handful of games each for the system's launch window. Heck, Ubisoft is a dead cert, as it'll back pretty much anything initially and see how the sales go, while Activision still happily brings the Skylanders games - for example - to Nintendo hardware. The question is whether early release will be the right games. To go back to EA, its strategy with the Wii U was self-defeating from day one, even if factors like limited development kit access may have been a feature. It released a half-baked and old-tech FIFA 13 and a version of Mass Effect 3 when a Trilogy compilation was coming out on PS3 and Xbox 360, as two examples. No-one needed to be a genius to see the flaws in those plans, and when sales were poor - as they deserved to be, frankly - EA left the building. It was a disaster from the off.

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Funnily enough though, I think Ubisoft got a tough rap from some for its early Wii U efforts. After all, ZombiU was an enjoyable - albeit buggy - exclusive when the Wii U launched; it was an early show of faith. What Ubisoft perhaps got wrong was that it was too quick to get scared off from that commitment, with the delay to Rayman Legends - in order to accommodate PS3 and Xbox 360 versions - causing plenty of anger among Wii U owners that could already see the writing on the wall. The original issue, though, that prompted that rash back-peddling from Ubi, was the fact the ZombiU had mediocre sales despite hefty marketing efforts, and then it was clear that the Wii U itself was stalling badly after its launch month.

When you take the various factors of what went wrong with third parties and Wii U, it's easy and relatively fair to point to what those companies did wrong. On the flipside, though, the buck stops with Nintendo. It failed to sell enough Wii U systems, for which it's responsible, and few executives would sanction development costs on hardware with a small install base and a fiddly infrastructure. It's easy to forget how limited the eShop setup was early on for publishers, for example: season tickets and DLC are more common now, but I remember how awful the processes were for Zen Pinball 2 - which was one of the boldest early download-only efforts - with Zen Studios talking of working around eShop challenges. There was also talk of the CPU and GPU internals being unconventional compared to rival systems and giving porting teams headaches. When you combine flighty triple-A publishers with a low userbase and some system-level issues, you're heading for a quick and slightly messy divorce.

All of those negatives are lessons learnt, hopefully, so let's assume the best for now and that the NX will have processing grunt and strong infrastructure. Even if that's the case, the likes of EA and their enormous contemporaries still can't simply churn out middling ports with no discernible innovations and expect the tills to ring. Why? Well, there's the Nintendo bubble, and the old adage that gamers buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games. We're in an age where a number of gamers likely have multiple systems - a machine that runs all those multi-platform blockbusters, and then a Nintendo console for its own unique games.

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With NX landing in the middle of the PS4 / Xbox One generation - whether that's this Holiday season or in 2017 - it has even less chance than normal of seizing that mantle as the primary triple-A blockbuster machine for the masses. Since the PS3 / Xbox 360 era I think Sony and Microsoft have turned that sector of the market - a battle over almost-equal iterations of dozens of 'triple-A' games per year - into a two horse race. This current generation has extended that, and I struggle to see many - whose main gaming preferences include the likes of FIFA and Call of Duty - choosing Nintendo's next system as their primary hardware.

The Nintendo brand simply doesn't fit in that part of the market, and reversing that would be incredibly difficult. The problem is how that reality also fits with an industry where the world's biggest publishers, that have largely shied away from Wii U (and to a degree 3DS), can release games and actually make money on the upcoming NX hardware. Make no mistake, it's a money game, and if these publishers make a profit on NX releases they'll make more games - it's not ideological when they ditch Nintendo systems like the Wii U, it's business.

The below-par ports and late re-releases didn't work on Wii U, so perhaps affordable but clever innovations and unique features are the way to tempt audiences into prospective NX multi-platform games. If the bulk of the consumer base is already enveloped in PS4 and Xbox One version, the Nintendo versions of major franchises - like FIFA, Madden and more besides - may need to target a broader demographic and bring something entirely new. Those innovations are dependent on the hardware, but let's speculate there's a portable aspect to the system - a FIFA or Madden game could have tactical or training aspects of gameplay to fill 5 minutes of time on the bus, or in-game activities that use travel and Wi-Fi hotspots to trigger new features. A bit like StreetPass after a few Red Bulls.

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The problem with that argument is that this was arguably tried in the past with exclusive games and features from third parties. Much also depends on what the NX concept allows developers to do, how cheaply and easily they can develop on the hardware and how much Nintendo is willing to work to make these games a success. The EA sources talk about a desire for Nintendo to match the efforts of Sony and Microsoft in supporting bundles, pushing the hardware in marketing and - basically - spending a lot of cash.

In the end anything will be better than half-baked ports sent out to their inevitable failure. Nintendo undoubtedly needs to deliver to make the NX generation lucrative for the major third parties, namely by successfully selling the systems. Yet EA, Ubisoft et al also need to consider what makes the Nintendo market tick, and how they can appeal to that particular demographic in the games industry.

If the world's biggest publishers go in heavy and try to force PS4 and Xbox One-style approaches on a prospective next generation Nintendo audience, their Nintendo bubble will burst yet again.