Ever since Nintendo reported a $228 million loss for 2014, a year in which the company was expected to generate $1 billion in profits, CEO Satoru Iwata has been throwing out a lot of ideas, gameplans, and buzzwords for the future of the company. There's been talk of partnering up to expand the Nintendo brand outside of video games, launching 'Quality of Life Devices' (still waiting for some more clarity on that, Iwata), and creating a 'unified platform' through Nintendo Network IDs. The last of these is the one I find to have the most intrigue and potential.
So what exactly does a 'unified platform' for Nintendo mean, and how will it benefit gamers in the future? Nintendo executives like Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto have dropped a few hints as to their current thought process, but I'd like to take it a step further and explore just how much could be accomplished with a true unified Nintendo platform.
What Does It All Mean?
So what is a unified platform, and why is Nintendo focused on it now? As Satoru Iwata explained in an investor report earlier this year, Nintendo has come to the realization that there is too big of a divide between their handheld and home console products, and as a result there's too much divide between their handheld and home console consumer audiences. This limits the install base for their games, as you need a Wii U to play console games like Super Mario 3D World and you need a 3DS to play handheld games like A Link Between Worlds. This also means that at the launch of every new device, that install base drops back down to zero. DS and Wii have a combined install base of over 250 million units sold, but that doesn't help NIntendo sell games to this generation, because 3DS and Wii U each had to rebuild the handheld and console audiences from scratch.
How can Nintendo change up this formula? Starting with their next iteration of consoles, they want to utilize Nintendo Network IDs to create a system of getting games into consumers' hands in which your account is more important than the device you own. What this means is that in the future Nintendo wants a much larger percentage of their games to be playable on more than one device. Your 'handheld' games would be playable at home on the big screen, and some 'console' experiences would be playable on the go. How is this accomplished? For starters, Nintendo is combining their handheld and console development departments together and using Wii U's architecture as a sort of foundation for future consoles.
In this perspective, while we are only going to be able to start this with the next system, it will become important for us to accurately take advantage of what we have done with the Wii U architecture. It of course does not mean that we are going to use exactly the same architecture as Wii U, but we are going to create a system that can absorb the Wii U architecture adequately. When this happens, home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.
Last year Nintendo reorganized its R&D divisions and integrated the handheld device and home console development teams into one division under Mr. Takeda. Previously, our handheld video game devices and home video game consoles had to be developed separately as the technological requirements of each system, whether it was battery-powered or connected to a power supply, differed greatly, leading to completely different architectures and, hence, divergent methods of software development. However, because of vast technological advances, it became possible to achieve a fair degree of architectural integration. We discussed this point, and we ultimately concluded that it was the right time to integrate the two teams.
For example, currently it requires a huge amount of effort to port Wii software to Nintendo 3DS because not only their resolutions but also the methods of software development are entirely different. The same thing happens when we try to port Nintendo 3DS software to Wii U. If the transition of software from platform to platform can be made simpler, this will help solve the problem of game shortages in the launch periods of new platforms. — Satoru Iwata
Iwata went on to compare Nintendo's architectural plans to iOS and Android. While Nintendo's next hardware lineup won't use identical hardware, both the next handheld and console will be similar enough to Wii U in structure that it will be a much smoother and connected process.
How Can Nintendo Take Advantage of It?
Combining the development teams together and establishing Wii U's architecture as the starting point is all well and good, but what about the future? What are the benefits of these decisions in the next generation? There's lots of possibilities, and I've got a few
demands suggestions for the Big N.
First off is full integration between handheld games and the TV screen at home. With the next iteration of consoles using similar architecture, and the home console undoubtedly packing more power, there's no reason (aside from a special 'gimmick' like 3D that's handheld-exclusive) why there should be a lack of compatibility. If you're playing the latest Pokémon game on your handheld and you decide you want to go big, tap a button and sync it up to your home console to display it on the TV. It can be that simple with the two devices being 'brothers in a family of systems' as Iwata put it.
This also means complete Virtual Console integration, and lots of eShop integration in general. While I don't expect the next Nintendo handheld to be a powerhouse, 3DS is capable of performing above an N64 level, so the next handheld should have no problem whatsoever handling any Virtual Console games. Nintendo has repeatedly stated that it takes time to port the old games to new architecture, but the next handheld and console will use the same style of architecture as Wii U, so Wii U's full library of Virtual Console games needs to be available on day one for both new devices, and any games you already own digitally on 3DS or Wii U need to be accessible without paying again or going through a painful system transfer process. Nintendo has taken the first step towards eShop integration by connecting your balances via Nintendo Network IDs. Money you load up onto your 3DS eShop account can be spent on Wii U, and vice versa. The next iteration of Nintendo systems need to take it a step further and combine into one eShop.
There are games that in a way take advantage of being on a higher-spec machine that plays on a TV and there are games that are designed to play better on a portable machine. But certainly we’ve gotten to an age where the technology has advanced and it’s become more and more possible to have a similar experience running on a lower-spec system. And even within the Wii U itself we have the Virtual Console, which sort of is an exhibit of how you can have one type of play that is at a higher-spec level and another type of play at a lower-spec level as well. So certainly I think there is possibility in that area in the future. — Shigeru Miyamoto
Miyamoto thinks there is a possibility (can we upgrade that to a goal, Nintendo?) of the next handheld being able to run many of the same games as the next console while providing a 'similar experience,' and pointed to the Virtual Console as an example. A bit later in the interview, Miyamoto was asked why there is no cross-buy on the current Nintendo platforms, and Miyamoto apologized and said he would "think about it" (again, let's make that a goal to be met, not just a casual idea) for the next generation. If Nintendo truly wants the focus going forward to be more of an account-based system than a device-based one as Iwata has said, this is a must. If you purchase a game on your account, and it is compatible with both the home console and the handheld, you should be able to play it on both devices without paying for it twice. This includes the entirety of the Virtual Console lineup and any eShop titles (or even first-party titles that aren't overly graphically taxing, like 2D platformers) that can feasibly run on a handheld without tarnishing their quality.
Moving past game compatibility, a unified Nintendo platform also opens the door for device compatibility. If Nintendo opts to stick with the GamePad in the next generation, their next handheld essentially fills that role. This means that the next handheld could and should be able to function as a second (or third or fourth) GamePad, performing all of its functions. Nintendo promised in both 2012 and 2013 that Wii U games that utilized two GamePads were coming, but recently backed off those claims stating that it would be unrealistic to expect people to buy a second GamePad. With a unified Nintendo platform, they wouldn't have to. Nintendo handhelds have always sold more than their console counterparts, and the next handheld is likely to launch before the next home console. This means by the time a new home console comes out there will already be a handheld install base in the millions, which means millions of pseudo-GamePads already in consumers' hands. This would also eliminate processing issues with using multiple GamePads, as the handheld could handle a lot of the processing itself, whereas the current GamePad relies almost entirely on its console to crunch the numbers. Additionally, Nintendo could even launch a cheaper, GamePad free console model for families who already have one or more handhelds that can take its place. In fact, Shigeru Miyamoto even went so far as to suggest that that there might not even be a true next gen home console, but that the handheld would fit both needs.
The question of whether or not we want to take a portable system and a home console system and decide if maybe, as the computer processing power improves, we could just simply say we'll stick with a portable and make it something that could also be a home console system is a question that ties directly into product strategy, and is something I can't really go into detail on. — Shigeru Miyamoto
While I hope Nintendo doesn't push forward with that idea, as it would limit what they could do in terms of processing power, it's good to see that Nintendo is on board with the idea of integrating their next handheld into the console experience. It's good for the gamers, and it breaks down the divide between two install bases, which is good for Nintendo. Right now Nintendo is slowly dipping its toes into the idea of creating a truly unified Nintendo gaming platform, but it's time for them to cannonball in.