On Console Releases and Why Nintendo Still Makes the Rules

So the internet has basically exploded since GameInformer posted rumors yesterday that Nintendo is set to unveil a brand new, HD console within the next two months.  For me, the announcement was exciting but not at all surprising.  For the last few months, I’ve been predicting that a new Nintendo console is imminent.  The signs are all there, so there’s no real reason to discredit the rumors.  But, before I get into the future of gaming consoles, let’s take a quick look at their history.

The way consoles worked in the past was basically such: The big gaming companies would unveil new systems all around the same time (usually within a year of each other).  These systems would tout advanced graphic capabilities and improved processing power over previous consoles.  The systems would release, compete for awhile, and then the cycle would start all over again after about 5 years.  When Nintendo released the Wii almost five years ago, however, it broke the rules.  The Wii was more advanced than the GameCube, but the jump in power was exceptionally minimal.  The system lacked any HD output (it was beginning to go mainstream at that point), but it compensated for its lack of power by incorporating a never-before-seen style of playing — motion control.  It was a gamble, aimed at captivating the so-called “casual gamer,” and, for Nintendo, it paid off big-time.  The Wii remains the highest-selling game console of all time.

Contrast this with the PS3 and Xbox360.  While lacking the uniqueness of the Wii, both systems are clearly leagues beyond the little Nintendo console in terms of power.  Sony and Microsoft played more by the rules on this one.  They released new consoles that didn’t necessarily offer anything new as the Wii did, but they did push the boundaries with how much power you could fit in a system.  Naturally, this made the systems more expensive, but that’s how the “console game” used to work.

Sony and Microsoft played it safe by releasing more powerful versions of what came before. Nintendo, however, had a completely different strategy.

Fighting the Wii, however, proved a much bigger struggle than Sony or Microsoft anticipated.  The low price of the Wii, combined with its incredibly unique approach to gaming, made it a huge seller.  Despite the power of the PS3 and Xbox360, the Wii was selling faster than retailers could stock the shelves – for many years in a row.  Nowadays, everybody and their grandmother (quite literally, in this case) seems to have one.  Nintendo broke the rules (or rather, wrote its own set of rules) and it won.

After that, Sony and Microsoft decided that they would re-write the rules for how the “console game” worked.  For awhile now, the two companies have touted their systems as having a ten-year lifespan.  “The old rules don’t apply anymore – consoles are so powerful now that we only make new ones when we deem them necessary.  Our systems can hold for a good ten years.”  This idea seemed to be amplified when both Sony and Microsoft released their own form of motion control last year in an attempt to prolong  system life and entice more casual gamers to pick up their systems.

"Move" and "Kinect" were attempts to reinvigorate consoles without actually releasing new consoles.

Nintendo, however, never made any timeline statements; instead, they said, “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”  This caused mixed reactions among analysts.  Some stated Nintendo would try to go the 10 years like their competitors; others claimed that the low-power Wii couldn’t survive a lifespan that long.  Nintendo had managed to separate itself from the rest of the game industry’s tactics, and nobody really knew what to expect.

Personally, I feel that the best rule for releasing new consoles is this: when developers can’t create what they’re imagining anymore, it’s time to upgrade.  With this philosophy, it makes sense that the XBox and PS3 would keep going – developers are still finding that they can push the boundaries.  These consoles may have been released five years ago, but they’re still pretty robust.  With the Wii, however, it’s another story.  Third-party developers have stated for a little while now that the Wii doesn’t provide enough, but it’s never been a problem for Nintendo itself until recently.  When “Metroid: Other M” was released last year, developers were reportedly shaving seconds off of cutscenes in order to fit the game on the disc.  This was a first-party game, produced exclusively by Nintendo, that was having trouble fitting within the system’s parameters.  At this point, I have to imagine that Nintendo began seriously contemplating a new console.

The developers of "Other M" also produced the game at a higher resolution than the Wii could handle and downgraded it for mass release.

Speaking of third-party developers, this is another major reason for a new Nintendo console.  Consoles live or die by the games they release.  The PS3 wasn’t popular when it first released, partly because the game lineup was lacking (it was also hugely expensive, but that’s not part of this discussion).  Conversely, the original XBox took off like a rocket because of such popular, genre-defining games like Halo.  Nintendo’s flagship franchises are always reliable but, recently, it has struggled with quality third-party games.  During the GameCube era, this aspect was beginning to slip, but it didn’t manifest itself fully until the Wii.  In recent years, third-party companies have all but abandoned ship with the Wii.  All of the rumors involving Nintendo’s new console stress Nintendo’s renewed focus on getting third-parties excited, and it makes sense.  More games to get excited about means more opportunities to sell the system.

As for the signs I saw that predicted a new console, none of them had much to do with “Nintendo needs an HD system to compete” or “The five year cycle is almost up!”  Nintendo has proven with the Wii that factors like power and HD are not game-breaking factors.  The Wii has done quite well without it.  One indicator for me was the inability to fit games as fully imagined on the system (as I stated above).  One of Nintendo’s higher-ups once candidly joked that the day Miyamoto comes up with an idea that can’t work on the Wii, then they’ll develop a new console.  Given the lack of Miyamoto-produced games this year, it’s very possible that this has happened.  The biggest sign, however, is the lack of any major first-party games this year (seriously, a new Zelda is about the only known game of note for the entire year – Zelda is good, but not good enough to keep a console floating all by itself).  If that’s not a sign that Nintendo’s thoughts are elsewhere, I don’t know what is.  After all, by this point, most of the major Nintendo franchises have already had two major releases on the same system (something that rarely ever happens).  The rumored Wii price cut for next month is also a pretty good indication that the Wii is nearing the end of Nintendo’s planned lifespan.

I have no doubt this game will sell by the truckload, but the only big Nintendo release of 2011? Something has to be up.

What does this mean for game consoles as a whole?  Quite simply, it means that Nintendo is still making its own rules.  Microsoft and Sony tried to change them with a longer lifespan than usual, but Nintendo, who changed the rules first by introducing a radical concept like the Wii, will change them again when they decide to introduce a new console earlier than the competition was expecting.  Does this mean Sony and Microsoft will introduce their next successors sooner than they wanted?  Maybe.  I doubt it, but, if Nintendo does unveil a new console this soon, it will put a lot of pressure on the two companies to compete.  Think about it – the Xbox360 only just started equaling the sales of the Wii this year (the PS3 has yet to do so).  If there’s a new Nintendo console next year, that’s what everyone will be buzzing about.  XBox will fall in the sales again.  By unveiling a new console this soon, Nintendo would change the rules – either the other companies will have to release their consoles sooner in order to compete, or Nintendo will have firmly and decidedly separated itself from the rest of the industry by choosing to release consoles at a different time than everyone else.

The final (and most obvious) question for us now is, “What will this new console be like?” To be honest, no one really knows.  The rumor mill is going crazy, stating anything from plausible theories to completely ridiculous ones.  The thing that makes it so hard to predict is that it’s Nintendo —  The company firmly established with the Wii, DS, and now 3DS that innovation is the key to their approach.  Whatever the new Nintendo console may be, I can guarantee it won’t just be the Nintendo version of a PS3, just as I’m sure it won’t be the HD version of a Wii.  I’m certainly not an expert in the industry, but I think it’s safe to say that the next Nintendo console will try something we haven’t seen before.  Right now, we have no idea what that is.  And that’s part of the excitement of it all.  That’s how Nintendo plays.

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~ by digitallysmitten on April 15, 2011.

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