Nintendo, perhaps, has us in the palm of its Master Hand. As July begins to drift by there's a general feeling and assumption that the NX 'unveiling', whatever form it'll take, could fall as late as September or October. It would be a way to grab headlines heading into the Winter and Holiday season without having to rely upon its actual Wii U and 3DS releases in that period, which have some positives but are also limited in number. It's also the company's line that NX will arrive in March 2017, with the goal that it'll boost the financial results for the year in a similar manner to launch sales of the 3DS in 2011.
Something Nintendo has also done well is maintain the veil of secrecy around the project, with various 'sources' battling for credibility as they gradually contradict each other. Evidently some rumours have far more clout than others, and figuring out which seem sensible can be tricky; generally those that aren't too outlandish seem like safer bets, but plenty of salt is always required.
In any case, even dismissing all rumours there's still logic and evidence for the idea that the NX will be a broad platform offering both home console and portable gaming. It's a drum we've beaten multiple times in the past, and plenty of analysts and investment firms seem to believe that's the case too. With doubts over the veracity of the 'MH' chat of a new portable to properly replace the 3DS, it still seems logical that Nintendo will seek to streamline its gaming products into one range with multiple forms - ultimately to cater to as many people as possible.
To weigh up what we know, it's pretty much certain that the NX has a home console element, or at least the ability to function with a TV. This isn't just due to the fact that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an NX game in waiting, but also because Ubisoft somewhat surprisingly confirmed Just Dance 2017 for the console during E3. The latter company's wording was that the game is supporting all gaming platforms with motion-based controller support, though with the NX quite what that means - Wii Remote compatibility or something else entirely - is for Nintendo and presumably Ubisoft to know and everyone else to find out.
We also have the fact, of course, that under Satoru Iwata Nintendo made a major strategic move in the past few years to unify its home console and portable development teams. The former Nintendo President also spoke on multiple occasions about considering alternative approaches to development and platforms, talking about portable and console elements being closer siblings, while citing the Apple model of iOS compatibility across multiple systems as a point of interest. Current Nintendo President Tatsumi Kimishima, for his part, has repeatedly described the NX as a new way to play games, which is vague enough to mean many things.
It's a dangerous game to predict Nintendo's key unique selling point with NX, and even if there'll be a concept as ambitious as the motion control of the Wii, dual screens of the DS or second-screen controller of the Wii U and its GamePad. Yet with each passing week contemplating the realities of what NX could be in terms of its structure, while accounting for all of Nintendo's business moves and current gaming trends, it seems increasingly inevitable that NX will be more than a single box with a controller.
Not long ago I was down at Nintendo Life HQ chatting with my colleagues Anthony Dickens and Damien McFerran, a day after a preview event at Nintendo UK. When sitting and chatting face to face ideas flow more readily, and thoughts were again drifting to the NX and what we think it could be. It's a conversation that normally ends with "but it's Nintendo so we're probably well off". Yet still, with the moves we've seen from Sony and Microsoft and the current market, our discussion was framed by an idea that would be rather new (but not entirely without precedent) in the dedicated gaming space - where Nintendo produces multiple systems under one umbrella that caters to players of all types around the world.
One of the key changes currently taking place in the games industry - at least with dedicated hardware - is the tumbling down of the 'generations'. Sony is bringing out the PS4 'Neo', a powerful variation on the PS4 that will run all of the same games but do so better, while supporting 4K media playback. It is, in essence, splitting the userbase between those that have the original 'basic' system (as it will become) and the slightly flashier newer variations, though all PS4 games will apparently support both models. Of course this is something Nintendo's done in the portable space multiple times, with recent examples being mid-gen releases like the DSi and New Nintendo 3DS, with varying levels of success.
Then we have Microsoft, which is going further with its 'Project Scorpio' system, though unveiling that at E3 is likely to be considered a strategic error in hindsight. The Xbox One S will arrive soon, which isn't due to boost game performance in the manner of PS4 Neo, but will have 4K media output along with a smaller form factor and a reasonable price. Scorpio, however, is clearly targeting technology enthusiasts, and based on the apparent specifications will be a pricey piece of kit. Microsoft, in also introducing a broader process where games purchased for an Xbox console come with copies that can be played on PCs and other hardware, is trying to blur the lines and essentially make Xbox a consumer-driven range of PC-like hardware. A teenager with a system may have the S in their room running off a small HD TV, for example, while the pricey Scorpio occupies a living room spot while hooked up to the household's 4K TV. It's a model of systems to match different audiences, while all falling under one unified umbrella / brand.
These are key trends, and when talking about NX and all of the factors highlighted above we started to wonder whether separate home and portable units would be all there was, or whether Nintendo's approach would be different entirely. What if there were more SKUs, all under one broad 'Nintendo' brand? In this era of scalable game engines and technology that can achieve impressive visual results with diverse and flexible chips, and with Nintendo avoiding talk of jumping into a technological arms race, there's scope for an interesting and rather different strategy.
Nintendo's challenge, as we've argued is the past, is that its portable systems often do particularly well in Japan, while the home console market is bigger in 'Western' territories. That's the core of the belief that with NX it seeks a dual solution, which is reinforced by patents, listings for games like Breath of the Wild that mention cartridges as potential media and more besides. Yet going further than that, we couldn't get past the potential of a broad platform that supports around four units, each operating the same range of games but, ultimately, catering to different demographics.
As the 2DS has taught us, Nintendo is aware that rugged and simple console forms can succeed when selling to children and - more importantly - their parents. The 3DS generation has brought three variations in a relatively short time: the original 3DS and XL, the budget tablet-shaped 2DS, then the New 3DS. At present the New 3DS and 2DS are the focus, with one notably cheaper than the other but also lacking (out of the box) some optional features such as integrated amiibo support. One is for children, primarily, while the other is for gamers that want all of the features of the 3DS 'family' and are willing to spend more.
It seems likely that NX, in some forms at least, will primarily be a single screen experience - just look at the marginalisation of the GamePad in Breath of the Wild. As we see it, then, there's room for four variations of systems under one 'platform', outlined below with made-up names; yes, we're aware they're not blockbuster ideas on the branding front. That said, I personally reckon the NX generation will have a simple, broad identity in it's name that's iterated easily across different models.
- Nintendo Home - A home console unit with a Pro Controller (or similar) included. A budget price, limiting games to a 720p level of performance. Supports Nintendo Portable (see below and sold separately) for Wii U / 3DS dual screen backward compatibility.
- Nintendo Portable - The high-end portable option, a sleek design and various neat features and ideas included, standalone and also compatible as a controller with Nintendo Home.
- Nintendo Kids - The affordable portable option, lacking some features but still supporting the 'NX' range game library, compatible as a controller with Nintendo Home.
- Nintendo Home+ - A premium home console offering with a higher price, delivering native 1080p gaming on the 'NX' range of games, with features like 4K media output; includes a Nintendo Portable for in-the-box support of Wii U and 3DS backward compatibility.
To be clear, there are no sources informing this, these are just thoughts based on our own conversations, with the recurring joke that this is Nintendo and so it'll likely be something completely different. But still, it's interesting to think of the prospect of a 'range' like this.
As mentioned, above, console generations are breaking down - whether we like it or not. The idea of a console / portable hybrid inevitably also raises doubts around power, and how Nintendo would earn third-party support. Yet the fact is that the third-party blockbuster market mostly ditched Nintendo prior to Wii and DS; what those recent systems and the 3DS achieved in terms of support from other publishers was to attract alternative, sometimes innovative games targeting a different audience. Of course those games are only made when the systems are a sales success, therefore tempting developers to jump in, which is why so many companies dropped Wii U like a hot potato. Yet with multiple hardware variations comes a potentially bigger audience; the key would be infrastructure and development tools across the 'family' that make the development of games affordable and easily scalable for third-parties, minimising their risk.
I happen to believe that Nintendo and related third-parties will change their approach to development and game sales on the big N's next generation of hardware. If each year has half a dozen 'blockbuster' Nintendo games in the next generation, there's scope for a lot of smaller projects which can be sold at budget retail prices and heavily pushed as downloads (even through download cards sold in bricks-and-mortar stores). This kind of library would tempt similarly small but fun experiences from other developers - if hardware sales are good - and also differentiate Nintendo from the Sony / Microsoft triple-A arm wrestle. I think the ship has sailed for Nintendo in that broader triple-A space, but that can also be an opportunity. For every Breath of the Wild-style title as a premier $60 title, there can be multiple $20-$30 games that each offer something to enjoy. There can even be bigger portable-style games, franchises like Fire Emblem that sell for $40 a pop.
How would this be a 'new way to play'? A unified and potentially iterative family of systems, portable and home console, allows people to enjoy a solid library in multiple ways. When you see the variety of patents Nintendo's been submitting over the past two years, there are examples of portable options in various forms or TV-based gaming boosted by cloud processing. It's the ability to play full 'console-style' games on multiple formats, on the go or at home, all under a broad Nintendo operating system that can transition with updated hardware every 2-3 years. Again, generations are ending, iteration is the way the industry is moving.
It need not be confusing to have multiple system versions, either, but branding and marketing are key. For example Apple customers know that they can hop on the iOS store on their iPhone and iPad and simply download apps and experiences shared across the systems. It's lazy to say that consumers can't handle multiple versions of hardware all on shelves at once, as that's the cornerstone of the outrageously successful smart device industry. It's ultimately all about branding, clear communication and having an operating system and range of products that function across iterations. It's possible to make it work without baffling consumers, and Nintendo will surely have learnt important lessons from the Wii U's messaging struggles, in particular.
If you blend the ethos behind iOS and Android with the approach Microsoft is starting to take, but then apply it with a heavy coat of Nintendo goodness, the potential is exciting. Hardware variations to accommodate players of all ages, types and income ranges, all tapping into the same group of games. The sales potential, and then subsequent support from developers, could be significant.
All of this is just, ultimately, a theory. Yet with the current trends in gaming - the rise and continual expansion of iOS / Android, the mid-gen systems from Sony / Microsoft - it's also logical. Nintendo can embrace the modern market in its own way, of course, and importantly deliver hardware to satisfy the broad range of consumers that have bought its hardware in huge numbers over the last decade.
I think it could work, anyway. What do you think?