What’s NXt for Nintendo?

Back in March, Nintendo announced that they were working on a new “dedicated game platform,” with the codename “NX.”  No other details were offered other than to say that the NX will be a “brand-new concept” and that the company “[hopes] to share more information” in 2016.  The announcement came during a press conference in which Nintendo announced its plans to develop games for smartphones, so the point of this reveal was to reassure stockholders and/or fans that the company is not abandoning dedicated gaming hardware.  And, for now, that’s all we really have to go on: a codename and a vague notion of when we will learn more.  Well, that and our infinite capacity for unfounded speculation!

Not the NX, probably.
Not the NX, probably.

There are two big, obvious questions:  What is the NX?  And when is it coming out?  To the first question, there are really four potential answers: a home console, a handheld, some sort of home console/handheld hybrid, or something else entirely, a genuinely “brand-new concept.”  For now, let’s set aside the “something else entirely” category, as that’s a bottomless pit of speculative potential and there’s only so much Internet to go around. 

The home/portable hybrid idea has been gaining a weird amount of traction (i.e. more than none) lately, popping up in podcasts and other speculative articles and blog posts.  This doesn’t make much sense to me.  True, Nintendo has recently reorganized their corporate structure to combine handheld and home console R&D into one division, and, more recently, president Satoru Iwata spoke of the need to have more unified architecture across Nintendo’s platforms.  This could suggest a hybrid system, but Iwata also noted that it could mean more, not fewer, platforms, a Nintendo device for every consumer group.  But releasing a home/portable hybrid would seem to be the worst of both worlds: the comparatively underpowered performance of a handheld mixed with the high cost of a home console.  Just adding an HDMI port, increased storage, and a bundled controller to a 3DS would drive its price up quite a bit.  A 3DS currently sells for $200, and it doesn’t even come with a power cord.  I love my 3DS, but do people really want to pay $300 or more to play 3DS games on their 55” televisions?

That the NX might be a new handheld seems like a reasonable proposition.  The handheld business has always been Nintendo’s strong suit: four of its six best-selling hardware platforms have been handhelds, including the top two, and they’ve never had a handheld flop.  On top of this, the 3DS is older than the Wii U, and would logically be the next in line for a replacement.  I really don’t think this is the case, though.  For one, Nintendo just released an updated version of the 3DS – the confoundingly named New 3DS – and it would seem like a bad idea to turn around and release the system’s successor.  Granted, Nintendo did release the DS less than two years after releasing the redesigned Game Boy Advance SP, but this situation is different for two reasons.

Game Boy Advance SP: like a Game Boy Advance, but foldy.
Game Boy Advance SP: like a Game Boy Advance, but foldy.

For one, the improvements the SP model made to the Game Boy Advance were basically cosmetic; the shape and layout were different, and it had a hinge.  Sure, the battery life and screen brightness improved, as is pretty much always the case with handheld redesigns, but the Game Boy Advance SP was essentially the same piece of hardware as its predecessor.  The New 3DS, on the other hand, is a significant improvement over the original 2011 system.  In addition to your typical ergonomic and battery improvements, the new handheld has face-tracking for improved 3D, NFC for Amiibo support, more processing power, a second analog stick-like thing, and two extra shoulder buttons.  This isn’t your typical “same great taste, fresh new look” redesign; this feels more like a 3DS version 1.5.  And Nintendo is treating it as such.  Improbably, despite the awkwardness of building a unique brand identity around the name “New 3DS,” Nintendo has begun releasing games exclusively for the upgraded system, beginning with Xenoblade Chronicles 3D last month.  Bearing this in mind, replacing the 3DS so soon after a redesign would seem less like replacing an aging system shortly after an end-of-life cosmetic redesign, and more like replacing a still-young piece of new hardware.  This, to me, doesn’t seem likely.

Another difference between now and 2004 is that the DS was originally launched as a “third pillar” in Nintendo’s hardware lineup.  It was (ostensibly) intended to exist alongside the Game Boy Advance, not replace it.  In retrospect, this seems like an obvious hedge, giving Nintendo cover to continue iterating on the Game Boy lineage if the DS turned out to be a flop, or at least leaving multiple options on the table for the next move.  But the reality is that Nintendo did, for a while, support all three “pillars.”  Another redesign, the Game Boy Micro (ditching the “Advance” signifier despite being the only system in the line that didn’t play pre-Advance Game Boy games) was released in 2005, a year after the DS came out, and games were still being released for Game Boy Advance as recently as 2007.  Nintendo even released a Zelda game, The Minish Cap, exclusively for Game Boy Advance around the same time they were launching the DS.  They may not have been fully committed to the three pillars idea, but it was clearly more than just marketing speak.  By the time the NX comes out, though, Nintendo will already have three pillars: the 3DS, the Wii U, and the newly announced mobile gaming platform.  It doesn’t seem likely that Nintendo will release a fourth pillar, especially one that would directly compete with two of the other pillars.

No, what seems most likely is that Nintendo will replace its weakest pillar.  And that would be the Wii U, the home console.  I’d be thrilled if Nintendo came up with a genuinely transformative “brand-new concept” that reinvented gaming.  But what I fully expect is for the Nintendo NX to be what my gut immediately told me it would be: a new home console.  Which brings us to the second question: when will it come out?

Right now, all we really know is that we’ll know more in 2016.  Granted, 2016 is a long ways away, so there’s plenty of time for Nintendo to change its mind about its messaging plans, or to have to respond to leaks, but for now let’s take them at their word.  The first scenario that comes to mind unfolds like this: preliminary details for the NX are announced at E3 in 2016, including at least tease of what the “new concept” entails, along with a sizzle reel of games in development; the system is fully unveiled at E3 in 2017, including the proper name, pricing, and release date, and there are playable demos on the show floor; and, the system is released during the 2017 holiday season.  This follows the pattern of the last two consoles (although the initial 2005 Wii reveal got punted to the Tokyo Game Show to make time for troubleshooting).  If we put the release date at November 19, 2017 – the last three Nintendo consoles have come out on the third Sunday in November – that would be one day shy of five years after the Wii U’s release.  This would be pretty par for the course for Nintendo, whose hardware generations have all been about five years, except for the extra year or so they waited to release the Wii U and SNES.  [Note: I’m using North American release dates for all of these, just because.]  So, a holiday 2017 release is certainly a reasonable prediction.

Not the Nintendo NX, probably.  (Image: John Lloyd
Nissan’s version of the NX. (Image: John Lloyd)

But there’s another scenario to consider.  That initial reveal could come early in 2016, either at another event or in a Nintendo direct, followed by a hands-on at E3 that year and a release in holiday 2016 or early 2017.  Is this likely?  Who knows?  Probably not.  But I think it would be a good idea, and it does make sense for a few reasons.

Consider Nintendo’s relationship to E3 lately.  The last two years, Nintendo hasn’t held a traditional press event, opting instead to release a prerecorded video of their announcements.  Nintendo has apparently booked a theater for this year’s E3, but it seems to be a 299-seat theater, so while they might be having an actual press conference this year, it will be a far cry from the big spectacles Sony and Microsoft always put on.  Nintendo has also been making a lot more use of Nintendo Direct presentations in the last few years, and is perfectly willing to make big announcements in this format; lately, E3 has just seemed like another Nintendo Direct, albeit a pretty big one with a bunch of demo booths attached.  The point here is that it’s no longer necessary, or even prudent, to assume that Nintendo’s product rollouts will be scheduled around E3.  If they plan to unveil the NX in stages, it isn’t necessary that these announcements occur one year apart at two different E3 press conferences.  Nintendo’s big announcements these days all seem to come from Nintendo Directs; sometimes during E3, sometimes not.

You won't see this kind of spectacle at E3 in 2015.
You won’t see this kind of spectacle at E3 in 2015.

Nintendo’s disengagement from E3 seems to fit into their larger philosophy of Going Their Own Way.  Over the last couple of generations, they’ve made a point of bowing out of the hardware battle between Microsoft and Sony.  Nintendo makes no attempt to create comparably powerful hardware, they target a different audience with most of their software, and they emphasize the unique features that differentiate their consoles from the others.  They view themselves as entirely distinct from the rest of the videogame market, and they would like you to view them that way, too.  To that end, it might make sense for Nintendo to decouple itself from the cyclical console release schedule, and put out its console smack in the middle of the hardware generation.  In other words, Nintendo consoles shouldn’t be seen as part of any hardware generation but their own.

At this point it’s clearly too soon to speculate on the release date of the PS5 or the Xbox… Two?  The current consoles were released about seven years after the PS3 (and eight years after the Xbox 360).  Another seven years would put us at holiday 2020.  Releasing the NX in 2017 would give Nintendo plenty of breathing room.  But consider that Microsoft, after watching the original Xbox get trounced by the Playstation 2, cut their losses and released the (very successful) Xbox 360 after just four years, beating Sony to market by a year.  Microsoft is currently being coy about their sales figures, but the PS4 is outselling Xbox One by as much as two-to-one.  Sales for these two consoles are generally strong, so it’s hard to call the Xbox One a failure, but suppose that the trend not only continues but worsens, and the gap widens.  If the PS4 starts looking like the far and away sales leader of the current generation, might Microsoft once again try to get a jump on their competition and push the next Xbox out the door in 2019 or 2018?  If Nintendo releases a console in 2017 that emphasizes innovation over horsepower and Microsoft (and then Sony) follows up with a much sexier console a year later, we could be looking at a repeat of the Wii U debacle.  If Nintendo is trying to avoid comparisons – or at least unfavorable comparisons – they’re going to want a bigger window than one year before the powerhouse consoles start rolling out.  If Nintendo’s plan is to stand apart, they need to really stand apart; the Nintendo console needs to be a thing unto itself, not one of three.  If Sony and Microsoft are Coke and Pepsi, in other words, Nintendo doesn’t want to be RC Cola, they want to be Snapple.  Releasing the NX in holiday 2017 doesn’t guarantee them the window they need in order to stand apart; holiday 2016 does.

Releasing their consoles in the off years between Microsoft’s and Sony’s consoles serves Nintendo in another way, too: it helps them fill their new niche as the Second Console.  Undeniably, part of Nintendo’s core audience consists of older gamers who are nostalgic for the games of their youth.  Gamers like me.  We’re adults now.  We’ve (putatively) matured and have turned to Xbox and PlayStation for games like BioShock and Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto and everything else that grown-ups play.  But we still love Mario, so some of us have a Wii U plugged into HDMI 2 waiting for Nintendo’s too-rare but always excellent first-party games.  Even Iwata admits as much.  I doubt that making a glorified PlayStation accessory is high on Nintendo’s list of goals, but embracing their role as one part of a multi-console home is probably a good idea, especially if Nintendo remains committed to their strategy of releasing low-cost hardware that emphasizes innovation over horsepower.

Not the Nintendo NX, probably.
Not the Nintendo NX, probably.

Part of me would love to see Nintendo roar back with a high-powered system that stands toe-to-toe with the other two, and gets all the multi-platform games that I love.  But, given the choice between trying to dethrone one of the two current console titans or trying to carve out their own niche, releasing the Other Console might be the better choice, and certainly seems the most in keeping with everything Nintendo’s done in the last few, well, forever.  If they do go that route, then it makes sense to give consumers a window of a few years between Nintendo consoles and Microsoft/Sony consoles.  Expecting gamers to walk into Best Buy one day in November and plunk down a thousand bucks for two new consoles and a handful of games is a big ask; many people pick one or the other, and lately they’ve been picking the one that isn’t from Nintendo.  (I’m sure a lot of people saw the Wii U as basically an Xbox 360 that didn’t play their huge library of Xbox 360 games and had a weird controller, and they didn’t see the point in buying one when the new Xbox was just around the corner.)  On the other hand, offering gamers a new console a few years after they bought their last PlayStation and a few years before they’re going to buy their next one is a much more consumer-friendly proposition.

Another reason to think Nintendo might want to bring out the NX sooner rather than later is that they might not be able to make it to 2017.  There just aren’t enough games on the horizon.  There’s Splatoon, a new IP launching in a few weeks; there’s Mario Maker, the build-your-own-2D-Mario-game game due out in September; there’s a new Zelda game, originally slated for this year but now delayed into 2016; there’s a new Star Fox game, due out sometime before the Zelda game, which is now a meaningless distinction; there’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, out now in Japan and coming west soon; and there’s Yoshi’s Wooly World, also due out this year.  These are all first-party titles; obviously, there are third-party games on the release schedule, but, equally obviously, there aren’t many.  And there are some other projects, such as Project Giant Robot and Project Guard, that Nintendo has teased in the past and which might someday germinate into actual games.  And, of course, there’s whatever else Nintendo has up its sleeve.

But remember, this is Nintendo.  They live and die on the strength of their top-tier first-party software; they just don’t get the third-party support needed to flesh out a release schedule.  Nintendo needs to always have big first-party games on the horizon – your Marios, your Zeldas – to give people something to look forward to.  A Nintendo release schedule is a quiet equilibrium punctuated by occasional entries from massive, iconic franchises.  There will of course be more games announced for the 2016 schedule, but there’s only so much left in the pantry.  We’ve already had two Super Mario games (plus a Super Luigi kind-of game), a Smash Bros. game, a Mario Kart game, a Donkey Kong game, a Mario Party game, a Pikmin game, a Pokémon game, a Kirby game, and even Wii Fit and Wii Sports games.  And we’ve seen Nintendo stretch their key franchises even further than before, releasing the Zelda spinoff Hyrule Warriors, the Super Mario 3D World spinoff Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, an HD reissue of Wind Waker, and the aforementioned Mario Maker.

Splatoon: the next big Nintendo franchise?
Splatoon: the next big Nintendo franchise?

I certainly hope Nintendo has some rabbits left to pull out of its hat, but it’s hard to imagine what they might be.  When Nintendo releases a console, you can make a pretty reliable list of all the big first-party games that are going to come out, and most of those have already come out or are due out soon.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nintendo announce a new 3D Mario game at E3 next month – it is the 30th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., after all – and I’m always crossing my fingers for a new Metroid game.  A new Pokémon game wouldn’t be that big a surprise, either, especially considering the success of Amiibo.  But what other franchises can Nintendo dust off to fill out its release schedule?  PilotwingsKid IcarusNintendogs?  Steel Diver?  Sure, some of these games would get a small subset of fans really excited, but most of Nintendo’s untapped existing IP has limited mass appeal, and new IP – while desperately needed – can’t be relied on to drive sales or keep people’s attention.

So, from here, 2016 looks pretty thin.  There will be a Zelda game at some point, Star Fox might get pushed into 2016, and maybe there will be a Super Mario or Pokémon game.  Maybe there will be a few things – like Metroid – that get fans excited but don’t necessarily sell all that well.  And then there’s 2017.  I just don’t know how Nintendo fills that gap.

So maybe they don’t.  The company has certainly been content to let some of their previous consoles go gentle into that good night.  Maybe Nintendo puts all their effort and all their promotional energy into making a splash with the NX; so few people own Wii Us, what difference does it make if they’re not playing any Nintendo games in 2017?  Neither are the rest of the NX’s target market.

Only, the situation is a little different this time.  Nintendo, despite its recent troubles, actually has a bit of momentum going.  Amiibos are selling like gangbusters, with 10.5 million units shipped and Nintendo struggling to meet demand; the recently announced mobile games partnership with DeNA caused Nintendo’s stock price to jump and, unless horribly bungled, should generate both revenue and buzz, at least in the short term; and Nintendo finished fiscal 2014 in the black, the first time it’s done that since 2011.  Heck, they’re even getting roller coasters.  So it would seem like a bad business decision for Nintendo to go dark for a year or so before releasing the NX.

Roller-Coaster-web-001
Not the NX, probably.

The thing about Nintendo’s recent (and near-term future) success is that it’s tentative.  They’re making money, but some of that profit is attributable to a weak yen.  They’re selling Amiibos, but the appeal of Amiibos is that they interact with games.  In other words, Nintendo needs to keep releasing games with which your Amiibos work.  Similarly, I expect at least some of Nintendo’s mobile games to tie into console games; so, these console games need to exist.  Basically, Nintendo is making a lot of their money in ways that are tangential to the hardware and software that supposedly make up the core of their business.  Without that core, though, this is an untenable position.  Absent a slew of as-yet-unannounced Wii U games, Nintendo will need the NX to serve as the foundation for their lucrative window dressing business.  Releasing the NX in holiday 2017 would require Nintendo to stretch a pretty soft lineup of upcoming games over the next two years or so.  Releasing it in holiday 2016 would allow them to release games at a pretty steady clip between now and, say, next summer, along with the corresponding lines of Amiibo figures and mobile games, keeping their momentum going strong into the launch window for the NX and the inevitable Amiibo 2.0.

Also, consider Nintendo’s announcement that they will be focusing on 2015 games at this year’s E3.  This seems a bit weird, considering that 2015 will be almost half over by the time E3 rolls around.  Of course, everyone wants to use E3 to start the hype train for their upcoming holiday releases, but convention dictates that a good chunk of your time should be devoted to teasing what’s coming in the years ahead.  Wouldn’t you expect Nintendo to at least fill us in in what it has planned between now and the next E3?  Shouldn’t we at least hear about spring 2016?

Not if it would tip Nintendo’s hand.  Nintendo has a handful of upcoming games in development, but there’s only one that we know won’t be out in 2015: The Legend of Zelda.  Speculation is rampant that Nintendo is planning to Twilight Princess this new Zelda game and transform it from a late-in-life Wii U savior to an NX launch title.  The delay announcement wasn’t along the lines of “delayed until such-and-such a date” or “delayed for this many months.”  Nintendo just announced that they “are no longer making a 2015 release [their] number one priority” and that they’ve discovered “several new possibilities” while developing the game; it’s currently listed as TBD on Nintendo’s calendar.  This seems like an unnecessarily vague way to announce a delay.  They’re almost begging people to read between the lines.

So let’s suppose the rumors or true, that Nintendo is holding Zelda for the NX.  Are they going to hold it for two years?  That doesn’t seem likely.  But let’s also assume that every game tentatively slated for a 2015 release actually makes it to market on schedule.  (The lack of a Zelda game for this Christmas almost necessitates that Nintendo find a way to make this happen.)  If Nintendo spends E3 talking only about these games, then we’ll know absolutely nothing about 2016 or beyond, and all we’ll know about the temporarily titled The Legend of Zelda is that the horse doesn’t run into trees.  Maybe the reason we won’t know more than this is that we can’t.  Maybe the reason Nintendo can’t talk about anything beyond 2015 is that the only thing beyond that is the NX.  Maybe Zelda’s being held for the NX, and any other big 2016 or 2017 games that would normally get teased well in advance – like a new Mario or Metroid or Pokémon – are also NX games.  Maybe Nintendo’s going to spend 2015 clearing its slate, and then spend 2016 releasing mobile games and Amiibos, and buttering us up for the NX, due out later that year.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Console Generations
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Console Generations

Of course, all of this is wishful thinking.  What I think Nintendo should do and what Nintendo thinks Nintendo should do are often very different things.  And Nintendo, for all their bold decisions, is also a weirdly cautious company.  Whatever they do with the NX, they’ll probably do it slowly, with a very deliberately paced series of announcements and product rollouts.  They’re not just going to drop the NX in our laps with a dozen launch games and fifty new Amiibos.

The biggest factor in the NX’s release date, though, might not be whether a 2016 release is a better idea than a 2017 release.  It might be a simple matter of logistics.  Can Nintendo get the NX done in time for a 2016 release?  Who knows?  Microsoft put together the Xbox 360 in four years, and the NX will probably rely on comparatively older tech than the 360 did, so it’s certainly possible.  Obviously, Nintendo started work on the NX way back in 2012; every console maker starts working on the next one the minute the last one’s out the door.  But at the time, they might have imagined they had six or seven years before they had to put these things in boxes.  They might have spent that whole first year on ridiculous concept drawings of holographic-based consoles that are controlled with your eyes and powered by dreams.

When did Nintendo decide to throw in the towel on the Wii U?  That’s the key question.  If they saw the writing on the wall in the first six months and decided to roll up their sleeves and get the NX done, then it might be ready by the end of 2016.  If, on the other hand, they quixotically believed until a few months ago that they could turn this thing around, then there’s probably little chance that the NX will be ready to go hands-on at E3 2016, which is pretty much a prerequisite for a 2016 release.  A small part of me wonders if Nintendo might somehow still believe that the Wii U can be salvaged, that Splatoon and the promise of a new Zelda are enough to get another ten or twenty million consoles out the door, and the NX won’t come out until 2018.

Or maybe they’ve been working on the NX for even longer.  Some people think that the Wii U is just a placeholder between the Wii and Nintendo’s next big idea.  I don’t necessarily buy this; the Wii U is an oddly expensive, complicated placeholder.  But maybe there’s some truth to it.  Maybe Nintendo’s been cooking up some radical new concept since 2010 or 2008.  Maybe this and maybe that.  Predicting Nintendo’s next move is something you do for kicks, not for results.  The company’s behavior is as inscrutable as a cat’s.  If I had to put my money on it, I’d put the NX in late 2017, but I think there are reasons that a 2016 release isn’t out of the question.  But what I expect most of all, of course, is to be surprised.  This is Nintendo, after all.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “What’s NXt for Nintendo?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s