You've now doubt heard the news: Nintendo is finally going to (co-)develop games for smart devices (and, apparently Windows PCs?) and they have confirmed the development of their next gaming system, code-named the "NX." Big changes for the house of Mario.
Let's dig into the theories, implications, and wild guesses.
THE MOBILE PRESENT AND NOSTALGIC REVENUE
It's no secret that investors and analysts alike have been urging and pleading Nintendo to enter the mobile games marketplace for years now, especially during the 3DS' early struggles and the Wii U's continued lack of massive sales. But Nintendo always said "no." So why now?
Part of the answer is obvious: money (okay, really obvious). But that part of it is so obvious that it doesn't really shed any light on the "why now?" question. Amiibo sales are incredible, Nintendo just launched two amazing Smash Bros . games, some huge-selling Pokémon titles, and more.
Honestly, I don't think they're doing this now for the short-term cash-in, and I don't think they will make the loads of profit that investors expect. Remember that we are dealing with Nintendo here, and they aren't a company that does the expected.
The real problem Nintendo is facing is not any kind of current financial crisis: they have plenty of 20+ year-old fans who will continue to buy every iteration of hardware, every mainline franchise game, and all manner of toys and t-shirts for years. What they have a lot less of are young kids who primarily game on devices featuring Mario & Co.
If you've been out in public in the past few years, you've probably noticed that kids are on smartphones and tablets all the time. They are not nearly as often on a 3DS or Vita, much to my personal dismay. It's to the point where Nintendo runs the very real risk of a whole generation of kids not growing up with Nintendo's venerable stable of characters. Call it a play to prevent the loss of future nostalgic revenue.
THE FREE-TO-PLAY FUTURE
Fact: if you're talking about mobile gaming, you're going to end up talking about free-to-play games.
Truth: we're going to talk about Nintendo games on mobile, and they're almost certainly going to be free-to-play.
Don't believe me? Check this out: Kotaku did a great piece on DeNA, the company with whom Nintendo is partnering, and their slew of free-to-play games, so it's pretty much a guarantee that any smartphone games coming out of this alliance will have in-app purchases.
Regular readers may remember that I've already covered Nintendo's original free-to-play experiment, Rusty's Real Deal Baseball on 3DS. I actually thought it was a really clever take on the payment approach that felt honest and fair, so there is hope against a future of paying for more lives in Mario or extra rupees in Zelda.
But DeNA is going to bring a different perspective to the equation, and they may look to influence Nintendo to be more aggressive with the seedier side of free-to-play gaming: progress gates, social sharing, and pay-to-win scenarios. My gut tells me Nintendo will be too concerned with upset parents to engage its consumers in these ways, but the potential is troubling.
We don't know anything about what types of games Nintendo has in store for the mobile market, but I'm very curious to see how involved legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto will be in this new endeavor. Previously, he had said that he wasn't a fan of touch-only gaming and that he wanted to shift his development focus away from products geared toward "passive" gaming fans. News flash: smartphones are primarily button-less devices aimed at the widest possible audience. Does that mean he won't be involved?
While I doubt he will be heavily involved in the day to day development of most of these new, mobile games, I hope he's willing to lend his eye to the production of these games because it's depressing to think about Nintendo's franchises being introduced to a generation of kids via anything less than a true, Nintendo-quality game.
Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said, "To ensure the quality of game experience that consumers expect from this alliance of Nintendo and DeNA, only new original games optimized for smart device functionality will be created, rather than porting games created specifically for the Wii U home console or the Nintendo 3DS portable system." Original content for mobile is certainly good news, as anyone who has tried using a virtual joystick can attest. And I do think that Nintendo understands the importance of protecting its franchises from subpar games; if they didn't, they wouldn't have weathered years of pressure before making this decision.
But what about the actual gameplay?
Mario is a game about precision platforming, a notoriously difficult concept on touch devices. Endless runners have proven effective by removing the left-to-right movement and just letting gamers focus on the jumping, but how can yet another endless runner stand out in the marketplace? Its only real leverage would be the Mushroom Kingdom coat of paint, and I believe Nintendo will want to introduce their own innovation in this space. So they could try a different style of game starring Mario, but will that effectively communicate the value of the character and his impact on the gaming landscape?
It's easy to see the trend here: I'm asking far more questions than I'm able to answer. With each of Nintendo's franchises built closely around a specific type of gameplay and renowned for always nailing the right "feel" to the controls, there are some very real challenges for Nintendo overcome in their expansion to the mobile landscape.
THE NX: A NEW CONSOLE APPROACHES
Putting the mobile news aside, the other half of Iwata's bombshell was that a new console, currently code named the "NX," is under development. Really, though, each of the first party hardware makers are always developing their next console; it starts the moment the last one hits store shelves. So the only news here is that Nintendo felt it was appropriate from a timing standpoint to publicly announce it and give it a name (if only a temporary one).
The Wii U celebrated its second birthday in November 2014, so it seems a little premature for the company to be talking about its next hardware. However, the 3DS launched in March 2011 and, while it did just a get a great new redesign, is a little closer to being ready for a true successor.
The really interesting thing, though, is that Iwata didn't specify whether this will be a home console or a handheld console. He said, "As proof that Nintendo maintains strong enthusiasm for the dedicated game system business, let me confirm that Nintendo is currently developing a dedicated game platform with a brand new concept under the development codename 'NX'." Note that he is careful to use the term "platform" instead of "console" or "handheld."
It's my opinion that Nintendo will launch the NX as a hybrid device that allows for portable gaming but is also powerful enough for the living room. (I should state that I'm not the first to develop this theory; Colin Moriarty of Kinda Funny Games has had this theory for a while).
Back in 2013, Nintendo announced that they were "unifying" their home console and handheld hardware divisions "to create more innovative and attractive products." While Apple TV allows screen mirroring from an iPad to a television, Nintendo has already shown an interest in bridging the gap between a screen in your hand and a screen in the room with its unique Gamepad controller for the Wii U. However, one of the biggest initial consumer misunderstandings about the Wii U is thinking that the Gamepad is, itself, a tablet that can de-tether from the console; in fact, it can't go more than 15-30 feet from the base unit without losing the video signal.
By creating a device that leverages the mobile processing power of a handheld device, the extra power of a home console, and the unique local streaming ability of the Wii U, Nintendo could create a new type of "DS," a "dual system" that can help Nintendo leverage their handheld gaming prowess with their hit-and-miss home console track record to create another "must-have" device.
For even more information on what Nintendo might be thinking, I'd recommend reading TIME's exclusive interview with Iwata. He mainly gives PR-friendly responses, but it's at least a relief to hear him talk about wanting to protect the integrity of Nintendo's I.P. (intellectual property).
What do you think of the announcements? Are you ready for Nintendo on your iPhone or Android device? What kind of games would you want to see on mobile? Do you want a unified/hybrid system for Nintendo's NeXt console?
Leave your comment below and join the conversation!