For four consecutive months now, Microsoft´s Xbox 360 beat Nintendo´s Wii-console in monthly US-sales numbers, according to NPD group. For many weeks in a row, Sony´s PlayStation 3 beat the Wii in weekly Japan-sales numbers, according to Media-Create. A look at the upcoming software-lineup isn´t a pleasant one: There´s Donkey Kong Country Returns, Kirby: Epic Yarn and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, accompanied by third-party blockbuster Disney Epic Mickey, and that´s … it. Due to this current situation, many folks began wondering about Nintendo´s follow-up system to the Wii. Is Nintendo wondering, too?
Only months ago it seemed as if the Wii-phenomenon would go on, and on, and on. Now that is a long forgone past. With virtually no third-party support outside of a selected few that can be counted on one hand, hardly significant first-party releases remaining and a hardware that was old when it launched, but simply isn´t part of developers´ environment today, Nintendo has to react. The big questions are: In what way, and when.
One could argue that Nintendo could still have a great year 2011 in terms of first-party offerings, and they´d be right. With Sakaguchi´s The Last Story, a potential killer-app is on it´s way – to Japan. Unlike The Last Story, which could still go either way, Monolith Software´s Xenoblade was released months ago and there´s no sign of a western release. Meanwhile, those gamers that are lucky enough to understand Japanese and imported the game report almost exclusively great, positive things about this enormous RPG, and whenever someone posts links to videos of Xenoblade on message boards, lots of folks think that it almost looks as good as an HD-game due to the sheer size of the seamless ingame-world. Add Zelda: Skyward Sword, and 2011 could see three big, hardcore-focused experiences on the Wii in one single year. Not even the Wii´s first year would have seen such high-quality in such a condensed time frame.
However, and it is a big “however”, that is all speculation, hope, hypothesis. Knowing Nintendo, it could easily turn out that only Zelda releases in 2011 in western regions and is delayed to October/November to function as the big holiday-game. Also, no matter if these three games are released or not, they could hardly be called system-sellers (well, Zelda could, but not in a drastic way). Even with the Wii´s big lead over each of its competitors, Nintendo cannot be happy about decreasing sales numbers. So, what we´re looking at here is: Unhappy gamers, unhappy Nintendo. A revolutionary combination, if one dared to say so. When both consumer and producer are unhappy about the current situation, a change in pace is the only logical consequence. Many enthusiast gamers already fantasize about what kind of hardware Nintendo could/should use for the Wii Too, and most of them expect a new home console in 2012. At its current sales-level, I´d say that is a wrong assumption. 2011 is closer to reality.
Now, there´s a lot of factors to be considered when talking about a hypothetical Wii-successor, which makes it so much fun, but also so complex to talk about. Most importantly, 2011 is the year of the Nintendo 3DS´s launch, Nintendo´s next handheld system. As far as I remember, the GameBoy Advance and GameCube also launched pretty close to each other, but nonetheless, launching two important hardware devices in one year seems a lot. From the consumer´s point of view, who has only so much money and time. From the software developers point of view, who can only create so many games. And from a business risk´s point of view, which would be high, considering all factors together. There´s also the problem that putting out something as important as a home console in such a short amount of time is risky in terms of marketing, getting word out to the targeted people. And then there´s a much more profane problem: What will the hardware be like?
If Nintendo went for a typical successor after risking it all with the experiment called Wii, everything would point towards a system that eclipses both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Faster processor, better graphics card, more ram, and so on. It would feature high definition, probably up to 1080p, maybe have hidden capabilities for future plans of 3D-support, and be the strongest video game system for the time being. Which, so most people think, would be at least a year. There´s several problems, though, with this concept of expecting Nintendo to follow their competitors´ road. One of them is the assumption that third-party developers would happily jump over to this powerful Nintendo-system and support it with all their multi-platform titles. A Nintendo-system accompanied by games like Mass Effect, Deux Ex 3, Assassins Creed or Grand Theft Auto? Sounds great – just as it sounds unlikely. For better or worse reasons (worse, for the most part, sigh), third-party developers have … developed a strong believe of being unable to see success on a Nintendo-system. They always argue with either Nintendo-games being too overwhelming or the Nintendo audience only buying Nintendo-games. Taking a look at the Wii´s lineup, who can honestly blame these consumers? But it is true, there is more competition on a Nintendo-system. And no matter of truths and lies, third-party developers do not like Nintendo-home consoles ever since the N64.
Another problem against this typical way of building a nextgen-system arises when asking: For how long would this hardware be considered powerful, and what would happen once Microsoft and Sony 1-up Nintendo? If we expect a Wii Too that´s basically to 360 and PS3 what Xbox was to GCN and PS2, then the difference would be noticeable, but not all-deciding. Would current Gears of War-gamers buy a Nintendo-system, assuming its online-structure came close to the one they´re used to? Or would these gamers stay with Microsoft since they don´t give a fox about Nintendo-games? And once Nintendo´s competitors released their nextgen-systems, Nintendo would be stuck in the “outdated technique”-situation again. Yes, a system with technology of the current HD-systems would probably be a lot friendlier towards down-ports than the Wii is, but who would be left buying this console, then? The same people that currently buy a Wii, with the crucial difference that the Wii´s expanded audience does not care about HD or better visuals. They´d be happy with the Wii as is and have no need to pay a premium for an HD-system. Chances are that an HD-Wii Too would sell considerably worse than the Wii now, since its potential audience would be limited to the Nintendo-fanbase, which, being generous, consists of maybe 10 Million gamers. Which is not much when you´re in global business and coming from a market leading position.
It is kind of ironic, but by entering the blue ocean, Nintendo killed off the red ocean completely – for themselves. Re-entering the directly competing business (and with both MS and Sony offering motion controls, it is as direct as it can be) is a difficult matter at this point in time. That´s why I think that there won´t be a typical successor-system to the Wii. No “more powerful hardware, that´s it” kind of direction. Nintendo´s one and only way to ensure market dominance and business safety is to find a new blue ocean. Nintendo has to innovate – or die (I´m sorry for the dramatic choice of words here. Of course, Nintendo won´t go bankrupt over one failed system). It´s that innovation that is just so hard to predict. Sony took Nintendo´s wiimote and improved its motion control-capabilities. A standard Wii-remote plus, that is currently on its way, wouldn´t be a solution to ensuring enough difference in terms of feature offerings. “The Nintendo difference” is needed here, quite literally. What can Nintendo do to offer a different core-experience with their nextgen-system compared to MS´s and Sony´s?
The answer obviously is not 3D. Not only did Nintendo-boss Satoru Iwata already tell the public that the company would wait for high market-penetration of 3DTVs before considering support, but also is Sony promoting 3D as a feature of their system. If Nintendos answer is even better motion controls, what would those be like? Data gloves? Hardly something mass-compatible and probably not that much of a difference to Sony´s Move or an upgraded camera for either Xbox 720 and PS4. Even though I personally love to think of a 3D-visor that would put the player inside a virtual world like never before and freeing gamers from the need of a TV, that is not happening either. Too expensive, to incompatible to the masses. Another concept I enjoyed talking about in the past is the home console-handheld-hybrid system. But considering that the 3DS has already been announced, with neither a TV-out nor the power to allow HD-gaming, this can be ruled out, too, since Nintendo wouldn´t want to have its new handheld and home console compete THAT directly with each other.
The best way of differentiating themselves from both competitors would be to look into building the whole system around certain (until now software-based) features that Nintendo hasn´t made significant use of, yet, as well as MS and Sony only having used them as a small part of they strategy. It certainly wouldn´t be a strategy that MS and Sony couldn´t copy, but it´d be such a weird, unusual concept for a home console that it might scare away MS and Sony from following – see the Wii for past evidence. What type of feature Nintendo could focus a whole home console on, that I cannot say. There´s lots of possibilities, one crazier than the other. Nintendo could build a MMO-based system with built-in 3G, that combines all games offered for the system in some kind of always socially connected way. There´s also my old concept of an A.I.-system that would feature an enormous HDD and allow gamers to combine different games´ data to create completely new experiences. Along these lines, Nintendo could also build a system that is all about creating and sharing content, like a system based on a 3D-Scribblenauts – gamers would create all their hardcore-games themselves and share their creations with each other, while Nintendo and other developers would sell finely crafted experiences with newly added content that in process could be used by gamers to build even more stuff by themselves. There are many more crazy ideas that could be mentioned here, but it only gets less realistic and won´t bring us any closer to the truth. What can be said is that Nintendo is in a difficult situation, no matter how successful the Wii was for many years. A simple HD-upgrade won´t be a solution, that I am sure about. What this solution will be? Ask me again in late 2011/early 2012.