We won't see any concrete details about Nintendo's next game platform, the mysteriously code-named "NX," until next year at the earliest. However, in the meantime, we know Nintendo's hard at work building up the concepts that'll make the platform tick, and that means a truckload of patents defending their efforts. One of these patents, unearthed from the U.S. Patent Application database, reveals that Nintendo's considering a game console that ditches traditional optical media like DVDs and Blu-Ray discs completely.
It's strongly implied in the patent application that this console, if it ever came to be, would download game software from the Internet onto a hard disk drive instead of launching games from a disc. From the abstract of the relevant patent:
STATIONARY GAME APPARATUS, GAME APPARATUS, GAME SYSTEM, RECORDING MEDIUM AND SPEED CONTROL METHOD
An example system includes an internal hard disk drive storing a program and/or data, a communication unit transmitting/receiving a program and/or data via a network, and a processor executing a program stored in the hard disk drive to perform game processing. The example system is not provided with an optical disk drive for reading out a program and/or data from an optical disk.
There are two key points to take away, here:
- This refers to a "stationary game apparatus," which is a fancy patent-speak-y way of saying "home gaming console." Later in the patent application, it's stated that this stationary game apparatus doesn't come with a built-in screen and needs to be connected to a TV to display images. So it's definitely a game console in the traditional sense, not some kind of hybrid.
- In case you had any doubt, this console will not include an optical disk drive at all.
Frankly, such a move wouldn't be too surprising. Nintendo's been hinting for more than a year now that their new platform will closely resemble modern consumer computing platforms like Android and iOS, both of which have 100% digital software ecosystems. And the best way to efficiently share software between multiple devices is to have multiple local copies of that software, licensed digitally to the user's cross-device account. Moving to a strictly digital software approach would be an easy way to meet the goal of delivering an iOS-like experience for playing Nintendo games across a wide range of form factors.
This idea's seen mixed response over the years. During the early days of Xbox One, when it was rumored to have no optical disk drive, many were up in arms about the supposed death of the physical video game. Some were warmer toward the idea, believing that the conveniences of digital outweigh the shelf appeal and sense of ownership that comes with physical. It's hard to say what the response would be to a disc-less Nintendo console in 2015, 2016, and beyond.
It's possible, of course, that a disc-less console won't mean the end of physical media. The patent also mentions that game data can be downloaded to, saved to, and updated using external SD memory cards:
The card slot 19 of the game apparatus 1 may receive or discharge the memory card 7 such as an SD memory card. The card slot 19 can read or write data from/to the attached memory card 7. In the present example embodiment, the game apparatus 1 is able to read out the first basic program 24 or the second basic program stored in the memory card 7 through the card slot 19, and to store the read-out program in the first memory 11 or the internal HDD 13. This can realize, for example, version upgrade of the first basic program 24 and the second basic program 25. It is to be noted that the version upgrade of a program may be realized by downloading a program from the server apparatus 9 through the communication unit 15.
The way SD card integration is discussed in the patent is pretty fuzzy, though. It could simply mean that you can allocate save data and update data to an SD card instead of to the internal HDD. It could mean that you can download entire games to the SD card. It could even mean that SD cards will be a method of delivery for software, and we'll be able to store our update data and save data on a physical card without having to download any data to our HDD at all.
Using SD cards as a way to store games would have other benefits, of course, that aren't mentioned in the patent: game data could be easily portable across multiple devices, while only having to be downloaded once. SD cards could even be easily accepted by a handheld platform, which wouldn't be possible with optical discs. This could give a hypothetical upcoming Nintendo platform most of the benefits of both physical and digital games, all in one package. That's a pretty interesting prospect.
If you're curious about how all this really looks on paper, Nintendo drew up a conceptual diagram outlining the architecture of this no-disc platform.