Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Successor

With recent talk of new hardware at E3 (denied by Nintendo), discussions about Nintendo’s successor to the 3DS have, not surprisingly, come to the fore.

Having grown up with the original GameBoy, the concept of portable games machine is quite natural to me. Even though I also own a smartphone, I still prefer to keep a separate games device.  I don’t see that going away, and the handheld space, with a strong base of users in Japan which it can then parley into success overseas, is Nintendo’s strong suit.

The challenge for Nintendo moving forward is to not get distracted by smartphones.  In the span of a little over a decade, the company has moved its mobile games machines from a plug-and-play devices like the  GameBoyAdvance to something very much like a miniature PC with an operating system, applications and services.

It’s a major change, something critics of the company often overlook. It also presents the danger of drift, whereby Nintendo chases after an ideal that may only exist in feedback from focus groups and internet forums rather than reality.  It is easy to say, and I hear this quite often, that Nintendo should release something more like a smartphone,  but executing that vague idea is not easy, and that is the kind of drift the company should avoid.

As such, I'm less interested into making lists of franchises I want to see or even services I expect than to outline what I think should be the core principles of the successor hardware.

1) Plug  & Play
The Game Boy Advance - The epitome of Plug & Play

This may seem obvious but the ease of use and quick boot-up of the device that we take for granted today can be the first thing to disappear in chasing after ‘features’ and OS complexity.  Being able to launch a game in under 5 seconds is a must.

Bought a year after my 3DS, my  Galaxy Nexus has a higher clocked dual processor and nearly eight times the RAM of the 3DS, yet my 3DS still performs  just as well (arguably better) than when I took it out of the box three years ago.  My Nexus, saddled with updates to the operating system designed for much faster machines that launched since, is showing its age. It chugs along, pauses, and sometimes shuts down when I want to scroll down or reboots when I least expects it to.  Both machines are not even 5 years old, my Nexus is only about half that.

Complexity has its costs.  And the simplicity and reliability of the fixed hardware model that has been the mainstay of the home and portable video games business offers the kind of reliability and functionality that consumers who don’t necessarily rant on the internet or say anything at all until they vote with the wallets at the store have come to expect.

2) From Silos to Services
Nintendo’s hardware R&D grew out of its roots as a traditional industrial-era company with multiple research and development divisions under a corporate framework. As such, though branded Nintendo, the portable hardware have, since the days of the GameBoy, very little in common with the home console business.  Many of the franchise killer-app for the GameBoy were developed separately from the home versions.

This was not a problem at the time, in fact, it was and is a strength as the different hardware approaches complemented each other and gave Nintendo the competitive advantage of having a handheld business that is distinct and separate from its home console business.

However, as the company has moved its portable machines from the bare bones devices of our youth  that merely ran games to something like computers with services and system OS, there is an imperative to not reinvent the wheel  again and again.

Many Wii Services have shut down
This, I feel, has been the biggest missed opportunity for Nintendo.  Because both the Wii and the DS were ran as silo-like experiences, the company had difficulty translating the experience to the Wii U and to a lesser extent the 3DS.   While keeping full backwards compatibility is welcome, the services from both the Wii and DS have instead slowly gone away, rather than being transferred and built upon to the new devices.  This stands in contrast to the likes of Apple and Google, who builds their services over many years across multiple platforms.  Successful services are kept and improved.   The Google account I signed up for around the time the Nintendo DS was revealed is still working today.

I strain to remember a service introduced on the Wii/DS era that is still around. All of them seemed like platform specific features that have gone away with time.  Heck, even the ability to play games online is going away for those platforms.  

Trivial as it may be, services like the Forecast Channel, Check Mii Out, Everybody Votes Channel that came to define the expanded experience of the Wii are all gone and no effort was made to keep and upgrade those services to the 3DS or Wii U.  These are kinds of things consumers would find difficult to understand. We would expect there to be a weather app when we upgrade our phones.  For Nintendo, the Wii weather app, a concept that was ahead of the curve in 2006, is now MIA on the Wii U.  This is the kind of regression that underscores the many critiques against the platform and its seemingly confused vision.
More importantly, the way Virtual Console games were handled has been the cause of much aggravation.  Rather than treating it as a platform with games transferring from machine to machine, we’re forced to repurchase games again and again.

Therefore, removing the silo effect such that there is enough interoperability between different tiers and generations of hardware should be a key focus for Nintendo.    Services that show up on a handheld should, if it makes sense, also be operable on other Nintendo devices.  And most importantly services introduced on one platform should be maintained overtime and over new platforms.  Too often, the bean counting mentality seems to prevail.

Perhaps no one really checks the Forecast channel, but I did occasionally, and it was something that made the Wii different.  The fact that it’s missing on the Wii U makes the Wii U just another games console, no matter how much Nintendo wants to say otherwise.

The focus should therefore be maintaining  software platforms that run across hardware generations and hardware type.  Things like Miiverse is a good example of this with both the Wii U and 3DS having access to essentially the same service.  The hope is for Virtual Console games to follow a similar path, along with any other services Nintendo wants to introduce.

3) It’s still about the games
Games are still going to matter no matter what spin futurists would like to put on things.  This is why the 3DS continues to sell, and why the Wii U struggles.

More broadly, the company needs to go back to the idea of anything goes that pervaded through the company in 2004.  This is how we got an entire line of point and click adventure games.  There were also many experimental games like Another Code, Electroplankton, EliteBeatAgents among others that defined a lot of the early buzz for the Nintendo DS. The Touch DS!/Touch Generations slogan was a brilliant line of marketing that betrayed the wealth of truly unique experiences covering games that may not have made Nintendo much money, but built a community that underpinned the platform’s long-term success.

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata at E32010 
The tragedy was that after success was reached, Nintendo seemed to have lost interest in the idea of making and marketing those kinds of games. The mood was decidedly different on the 3DS.  While Nintendo President Satoru Iwata stood on stage at E3 2010 with an impressive list of 3rd party developer support, the list of games for launch was sprinkled with ‘portable’ versions of safe bets.  The platform ultimately  struggled out of the gate with boring experiences, downported console experiences and very nearly felt like the relaunch of the PSP.  A powerful machine saddled by an incompatible vision.
With the rise of digital downloads and removal of ‘inventory risk’ it would seem to be an opportune time to go back to just being experimental.  Games that didn’t make sense to publish at retail should be allowed to exist on the eshop.

The hope is that rather than anchoring the hardware launch of the successor to the 3DS with 2-3 major must have Nintendo titles in the ’12 month launch window’  we would have lots more to play.  Small experiences, big experiences and everything in between.

And Nintendo cannot rely on just indies and 3rd parties to fill all of that while they hide away working on another platformer as the variety and quality of those experiences may be narrow.  The company should be actively involved funding projects that may not make a lot of money, but because inventory risks are minimal, should be attempted anyways because it may be worth it.

That’s what is missing in the Nintendo of 2014.  A lot of safe projects are on the horizon, not a lot of variety.