What can Nintendo do with a new console to bring it back into ascendency, after the Wii U limps to the finish line?
It's a difficult question to answer. It's been a decade since the launch of the company's last massively successful piece of hardware -- the original Wii -- and the video game market has gone through major changes in that time. The 3DS is a reflection of this: It's a success, but in a much more measured way than the original, world-beating DS.
There's a lot to unpack, but with a year until the system launches, a lot that Nintendo can do to put it into a position to succeed. Gamasutra's editorial staff sat down and discussed just what might work, and the consideartions that make it a tough battle.
Christian Nutt: Nintendo has announced that its next system, the Nintendo NX, is due to be released March 2017. The only other really concrete detail we have is that the Wii U Zelda game will also be available for the NX at launch.
There's plenty of speculation about what the system might be capable of, or what it might be like. But a more interesting question might be: What should it be like? What does Nintendo have to do to recapture its console business?
Chris Baker: I hope they surprise me and come up with some crazy new blue ocean breakthrough that reshapes the market in ways I never dreamed of.
But my gut instinct is that what Nintendo should offer is a console/mobile hybrid, like a Wii U controller with full console functionality inside of it. It connects to your TV when you're home, and it's also a touchscreen mobile game device with a full set of joypad controls for when you're out and about.
Pragmatically, I think the company needs to create some sort of device that offers unique Nintendo experiences, but also does most of the things that a comparably priced Android tablet would do.
Again, I hope Nintendo doesn't anything like that. But if I'm honest, that's my personal sense of what the pragmatic sensible move would be for them.
Kris Graft: “What should Nintendo do”: a tried and true topic for video game journalists the world over. LET’S DO THIS.
So to stray away from speculation for a moment, we’re at a point now where we can objectively identify a couple key factors where Nintendo slipped up with the Wii U:
It was too similar to the Wii. The average person was confused as to whether this was a new product or not. Now that Nintendo is further removed from the Wii’s success, I expect the next console to be significantly different.
And more significantly:
Nintendo screwed it up (again) with third-party developers. This is a classic Nintendo stance, and understandable given the strength of its first-party properties, but Nintendo has to take a cue from Sony and make sure that it creates an ecosystem that is outwardly supportive and inviting to third-party game makers. Nintendo needs to capitalize on the inherent enthusiasm developers, big and small, have for Nintendo -- it can’t afford to squander that enthusiasm for another console generation. Support outside developers in tech, marketing, and any other capacity to help them become a success on the NX.
If NX can correct these two things, I think that’s a good start. Oh, and also maybe give the NX a bit more oomph, power-wise.
Bryant Francis: There are two ideas about the NX that stand out to me. First, how does it set itself up to consistently hit Nintendo’s target market (kids/their families) and second, can it use cartridges and flash memory to reduce console costs and maybe build further Amiibo integration?
The first question is REALLY HARD to me because I think Nintendo’s "games are toys, kids play with toys, therefore we make games for kids/families" philosophy struggles under the weight of Minecraft and mobile devices. Nintendo as a first-party game developer mostly hasn’t adapted to the changing baseline gaming experiences children have these days, UNLESS you look at Mario Maker and Splatoon as Nintendo coming to that realization.
The success of Amiibo may be another springboard for them to keep kids interested in Nintendo games, but that could also take a hard hit if the toy-to-game market takes a hit from over saturation. Could the fate of Nintendo rest on "kids just don’t care about Nintendo as much anymore?"
The second question is less hard because I think it makes a lot of sense. It’s unconventional, it fits Nintendo’s age-old brand of cartridges, and I don’t think players would be fazed by it since 3DS games still use cartridges. Maybe this would let Nintendo focus some costs on turning the controller into a functional gaming device?
I also agree with Kris that the NX will need the support of third party developers to live. There isn’t a console on the market now that can sustain only in-house development, and if anything Sony and Microsoft seem to be grappling with the fact that their console exclusives aren’t smashing the market as much as they used to.
KG: I’m gonna double-down on my opinion that capitalizing on outside developers’ enthusiasm for Nintendo is the most significant action the company must take with NX.
Now as an overall strategy as a whole, to Bryant’s point about Nintendo’s kid market, the company is taking the right step by heading to mobile properly. Nintendo has had the talent (and luxury) of attracting the family-oriented audience to its dedicated consoles. With mobile, Nintendo is going to where its audience went. I’m not sure exactly how NX is going to integrate with mobile, but after seeing so many people (not just kids) fawn over the non-game but very Nintendo-y Miitomo, I’m really interested to see Nintendo's new multi-pronged strategy.
Of course, the problem is that the place where Nintendo’s audience went is the single most competitive market place in games right now. Whoops.
I do think that the family market still does and will care about Nintendo, and heading to mobile helps get in front of that audience. But to my point about mobile competition, with all the options kids have these days on a cheap Kindle Fire, a lot of them would be just as happy playing Geometry Dash. That’s the kind of thing Nintendo is up against now. So it becomes not a question of “do kids care about Nintendo anymore,” but “will they care enough to play a Nintendo game over Minecraft Pocket?”
Additionally, make no mistake, when I talk about “family” and “kids” market, really I’m talking about the “mass market,” which Nintendo has been keen to lock down for the past few decades.
CN: It's easy to say that the Wii U suffers due to a lack of third-party support. It's obviously true, and it's also true that the support that the 3DS receives bolsters its appeal greatly, too. But I think there are some important questions to make when considering the "third-party developer" thing.
- The first is that Nintendo's devices tend to be unique, which means that developers need to cater to them, and often means even "straight ports" aren't straight ports. I think it's safe to assume the NX is in this camp. (This is a primary reason I think Nintendo won't show it at E3 -- in the past, management has spoken about a desire to avoid spoiling the secret sauce of its left-field console designs so they can't be ripped off by the competition well before launch.)
- The second is that now that we know the NX won't be sold at a loss, we can't assume it's on par with the PS4 (Neo) etc., especially if we consider that it likely has unique technology baked into the hardware, which would likely complicate manufacturing (the GamePad is probably a lot more expensive to manufacture than a DualShock 3.) The fact that it runs Zelda doesn't tell us much more than "it's as powerful as a Wii U," which is around as powerful as a decade-old Xbox 360.
- The last and most important thing is audience. The Wii U had current-gen ports aplenty at launch (Mass Effect 3, Call of Duty, and even Watch Dogs all came out for the system.) Nobody cared. The third-party games that are actually hits on Nintendo platforms cater to Nintendo audiences: Stuff like Shovel Knight.
- So what does the NX's audience look like? Is it the 20-something gamer who grew up with the N64 (that's my picture of the core North American Nintendo consumer, based on both anecdotal evidence and Nintendo's statements) or is it a more mainstream, Wii-like audience? That's presumably what Nintendo wants to get back (again, based on things it's said, and things it's planned, like those mobile hooks Kris talked about) but I can't imagine a single (Western) studio will take a leap toward the NX's audience without solid proof (zillions of units sold).
- And with all this in mind, what third-party developers should Nintendo be courting...?
It's a tough spot to be in; I think Nintendo has to really define the console and make it appealing to consumers -- and that means everything from creating a wide range of exciting games (both new and old IP) to creating a system-defining experience like Wii Sports which makes the clear the use-case for the console to consumers and developers both.
Now, if any company is up to a challenge like that, it's Nintendo. But it's also a huge challenge. I think there are some promising signs for the software lineup (the fact that the Wii U is being jettisoned early bodes well for the NX; the unification of the company's handheld and console dev teams should boost its efficiencies.)
As the saying goes, never count Nintendo out. The company will surprise you, particularly coming from an underdog position. I have a good feeling about the NX. But the stakes have never been higher, and the challenges have never been more stark.
Alex Wawro: Yeah, as much as I want to see Nintendo do more to encourage third-party development (especially indie development) for its hardware, I have a hard time seeing how doing so would be of immediate benefit to devs. It seems easier than ever for developers to release their games across PC, PlayStation and Xbox, often at the same time, and I don't think adding a Nintendo console to that list would significantly impact the fortunes of either Nintendo or most developers.
(It would be great, though!)
And Christian, I also think you're on point in surmising that Nintendo is very much interested in getting back to Wii-like levels of audience and playerbase. I think that's probably impossible with just a new console, these days; more people than ever are playing games, but mostly on their mobile devices. Now if Nintendo could launch a console that ties into players' mobile devices in a meaningful way, say by allowing for the use of smartphones as controllers and encouraging developers to build games with mobile app tie-ins? I think that could make it easier to draw people in (you don't even have to hand them a Wiimote, you just tell 'em to pull out their phone) and afford Nintendo's developers some interesting new avenues of game design to explore.
KG: Very good points. BRAVO.
So to respond, I’m talking about third parties, I don’t mean to bring up a discussion analogous to “If Dreamcast can get EA Sports, it’ll win!” (#CLASSIC.) I’m more talking about the smaller independent studios: the Yacht Clubs, the Renegade Kids, the Image & Forms. Don’t you get a sense that there should’ve been more of these developers who have that Nintendo enthusiasm (and commercial success) on the Wii U?
External Wii U developers I’ve spoken with over the years have said they’ve been happy with the relationship with Nintendo and the company’s support once they’re in the loop, but the outreach and evangelism to devs of all sizes was not there in the same way it was with PlayStation 4’s launch. Heck, the guy Nintendo hired to reach out to independent devs left because Nintendo was upset that he was reaching out to devs. That is not inviting, and not supportive to people who make games, and Nintendo needs to change that.
Am I saying that INDIES WILL SAVE NINTENDO? I don’t know, maybe! One thing indies can do is give people a reason to buy and engage with the NX when they’re waiting for big Nintendo releases. These games can be crucial, particularly during the launch phase of a console. I think PlayStation 4 proved that. Make it as easy as you can to make and sell games on NX -- start there.
Also, NINTENDO IS SO COMPLICATED ALL THE TIME. I just can’t take it. I hope they do well.
BF: To build on Kris’s point, there was a lot of analysis that the PS4’s initial outperforming success was built on the back of a solid library of titles that included indie titles, while the slightly more expensive Xbox One hadn’t quite built the [email protected] library and program they’ve got today. I do think Nintendo is the only console maker on the market right now who doesn’t seem to want as big of an APP STORE, and would benefit from being a games-first games-only device.
CN: To get out of the woods of "third parties" for a minute, do we have any clear picture of what Nintendo can do that will make its game console products broadly appealing to consumers?
It's obvious what the missteps are with the Wii U are, from physical design to naming and marketing. But even with a total do-over -- what will really lure people in and make them think a console is something they need?
That idea that the mobile games tie in to the console games is incredibly alluring, but from my vantage, it's hard to imagine; on the other hand, whales will be whales. What say you?
BF: I don’t have any savvy answers to this, sadly because by now it looks like the answers are "big money" problems, not "savvy placement" problems. Nintendo’s push to mobile also came with those plans to expand licensing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if tie-in products helped boost visibility for Nintendo characters, which made young audiences more interested in Nintendo games, which leads to families buying Nintendo consoles. I think the drive of "I want to play THOSE games" needs to be 100 percent in Nintendo’s favor, and Nintendo knows it can’t win the battle of using graphics to sell consoles, so another reason needs to exist.
If this standalone playable handheld controller works out, that could also be a huge sell for families, since they’d effectively be buying two gaming systems for the price of one. I’ve seen some popularity with the Wii U among parents as it allows them or their kids to swap the game to a small screen while something else takes over the big screen. If that became more viable and stable, Nintendo might be able to rebuild its space as a family-first console, with a stable of games meant for younger audiences and their parents, and rebuild their console space as “the family console” and not a “we have games too” against Sony and Microsoft.
AW: I hope they just ship a space gray set-top box called the New Nintendo Entertainment System. The controllers could double as remotes, and it could have a tie-in app that lets smartphones work as controllers. The top doubles as an Amiibo shelf.
In all seriousness, the console market seems to be up in the air right now and that makes the traditional fool's game of predicting Nintendo's next move seem nigh impossible. The notion of a family-oriented home console with some sort of portable functionality seems appealing, but could Nintendo make something like that affordable enough to drum up widespread adoption without selling it at a loss? Would anyone buy it? Who knows!
Guess we'll just have to wait and see.
KG: Ways to make NX broadly appealing? Dang, that’s a question for all consoles. The answer is probably “don’t be a console, be a nice mobile phone.” I’m not saying consoles are dead, but amid PlayStation 4’s success, even Sony knows that for the long-term, the dedicated console business isn’t the mass-market play. The acquisition of Gaikai and the slow but certain steps into cloud-based gaming/remote streaming (hey, don’t laugh, it’s gotten better!) is Sony’s tangible acknowledgement that games are moving away from a dedicated piece of hardware.
Christian suggests that NX needs to lure people in and make them think a console is something they need. I’d go a step further and say any new console these days needs to make an exceptional argument as to why it even exists. And in order to be as broadly-appealing as possible, the NX’s answer to that question can’t just be “we exist because we have first-party Nintendo games.” Wii U had those, and that wasn’t enough. I know this is super-simplistic, but the NX just needs the games to be relevant. And guess where games come from? Nintendo needs to capitalize on the enthusiasm of talented (particularly smaller) developers who can fill out the console’s library with great games, and do everything they can to support the game makers. And the company needs to make the NX appealing enough to consumers so that it can build an install base that’s too large for hesitant devs to ignore. (Hello, I’m repeating myself!)
And after typing all of that, I think of the Wii’s success, which was in large part driven by a single pack-in game. But times have changed. Maybe NX will have the Wii Sports / fun hardware combination that drives its success, but I feel like that was lightning in a bottle; virtually unrepeatable. Nintendo may as well hedge its bets and not solely count on capturing that same kind of magic. There’s an amazing grassroots enthusiasm among game devs that companies like Sony, Valve, and Oculus have nurtured, and these small devs don’t necessarily make only “small games.” Keep the game developers happy and engaged with a platform, and so often, everything else seems to works itself out.