The Nintendo NX, going mobile and handheld with more power?

 

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What’s NeXt for Nintendo? How 2017 is a critical year for the venerable company:

A lot is riding on 2017 for Nintendo. They have a new console, the NX, which is now confirmed for a March release window, and it will likely be the year where we see their mobile strategy take roots, defining where their handheld vision will go through to 2020 and beyond. MiiMoto has been an incredibly successful start for the company, and there are no doubt further opportunities to use some of the rich IP Nintendo has control over on Android and iOS devices.

I’m increasingly convinced that NX will either have a handheld/ mobile component to it, or at very least a strong emphasis on connected or cross-buy play, allowing you to take at least some part of your Nintendo experience with you on the move. Whether this is a replacement for the 3DS, a second / portable screen, or just ties into phone and tablet titles is anyone’s guess really. However, I’d be surprised if Nintendo were to pull out completely from the still profitable handheld market without one last hurrah, even if the company were fully aware it would be less of a cash cow than even the 3DS, which has hardly blown away the expectations of industry analysts after the spectacularly sales of the DS platform.

My own thinking is that an even more complex tablet style controller than the Wii U had would add unnecessary cost to the system, so you’re more likely to see game streaming to tablet and phones. The potential curve-ball to this theory is if Nintendo also replaced the 3DS, with the new handheld being bundled in as a NX controller, creating an instant install base, and boundless opportunity for all kinds of new game experiences which have been all but impossible to pull off in the past – simply because you can’t guarantee every player will have the extra kit needed.

Nintendo has a history of innovation, so I’m clearly missing something here. A more powerful Wii U and 3DS in one box would be a decent value proposition for the hardcore Nintendo fan, but it’s unlikely to entice people in as the Wii did. And this time around, Nintendo will need to sell more than 12m consoles to justify the R&D costs, and to stop investors and analysts calling for them to move to being a pure software house. So what are the possibilities? Rumour has it the NX will use similar chipsets to the Xbox One and PS4, but without significant extra horsepower, the lure of a few easily ported 3rd party games is hardly likely to excite consumers. VR has already jumped the gun, and what little information that exists in terms of possible specs would suggest that the core NX box is unlikely to be powerful enough anyway.

What Nintendo needs is a hook, but something different to the controls of the Wii and the gameplay experience of the Wii U. I think the key for them may be in player engagement and multiplayer. Gamers are putting hours and hours into fewer big games, like Destiny, and couch-based multiplayer continues to make a comeback, something that I think the Wii U has been weak in given the myriad of expensive controller possibilities. If Nintendo can find an equivalent (think Mario Maker, but more accessible/ mass market), and have it work, or at least connect across platforms, then they’ll be onto a real winner. I’m sure there will be traditional games too, and news that the new Legend of Zelda game will also be coming to NX as well as Wii U implies that traditional gameplay will at least be plausible on whatever the system turns out to be.

Turning back to mobile, Nintendo have taken their first steps into the market, perhaps unsurprisingly playing it very safe by using their Mii avatars, and continue to do so by announcing that B-team franchises like Fire Emblem will form the next part of their dipping the company toe into the proverbial sea. If these games can repeat the success of MiiMoto, then expect the bigger franchises to make appearances on mobile in 2017, even if the format of the games is different.

Nintendo is not the kind of company that I would expect to simply port games to phones – it will make the best of the input options available to create the game around the characters and universes. It’s also unlikely to expect a Clash of Clans/ Clash Royale/ Candy Crush style game with Nintendo IP, even if it would inevitably be a big revenue stream. Nintendo tries to lead with new experiences rather than reskin other popular concepts for a quick buck in general, and such a move would leave them open to unusual amounts of criticism.

But, one thing’s for sure. If a new 3DS isn’t part of the NX plan, and 2016 and 2017 generate huge mobile profits for Nintendo, it could be the time they decide to strategically leave the market for dedicated handhelds, even if this means supporting one last child of the venerable GameBoy whilst the transition takes place.

 

Nintendo still has the most valuable portfolio of IP in the industry and an awful lot of consumer goodwill which will guarantee some level of sales; but I can’t recall a year which has been so critical to the company’s fortunes as 2017 will be. Without clear market leadership in either the home or mobile space, the one thing I can foresee is that it will either be the year that they seize that leadership back or be seriously forced to investigate different strategies going forwards.

Whatever happens, Nintendo’s history of surprising even the most seasoned industry insiders has me eagerly looking forwards to whatever the NX is at the reveal later this year.

 

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