Random, unorganized thoughts on Nintendo’s future.

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This is really nothing more than a passing thought, but I felt it was worth mentioning. I haven’t done any in-depth analysis, so take from this what you will.

Sony and Microsoft — undoubtedly the two major console makers at the moment — are in the midst of a heavyweight fight for the title ‘King of the Consoles.’ But Valve’s Steam Machines might have a major impact in that fight at some point in the future.

Because Steam Machines are basically souped-up consoles, they’ll directly compete with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Another way of looking at it is to say Steam Machines are compact, TV-ready PCs. Valve also developed SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system, for these game-centric computers, which means there is a built-in user interface other than Windows. It’s designed specifically with gaming in mind, but is expected to make use of all the popular streaming apps, such as Netflix and Hulu.

On top of that, Steam already boasts 3,000 games in its library, and more than 65 million user accounts. When you factor in that every one of those games is only available in a digital format, and that Steam is known for its wildly popular sales that discount their games by tremendous margins, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a device.

Now, Valve obviously creates many great games all on its own, so you’ve got some built-in exclusives from the very beginning. And then, if you factor in any PC-only game devs (are there any?), that’s another group to help wage war on Sony and Microsoft. It’s unknown what the baseline price of a Steam Machine will be, but it’s expected to be marginally more expensive than the $400 PlayStation 4, and the $500 Xbox One.

So really, these are all companies trying desperately to do very similar things with their powerhouse consoles. However, while that war is raging, Nintendo is content to do its own thing, completely separated from the rest of the industry, for better or worse.

So I started wondering if Nintendo can make this work to their advantage. We’re still a solid four or five years away from a new Nintendo console, while Sony and Microsoft probably expect seven years to a decade out of theirs (I’m not really sure what Valve’s plans are for Steam Machine upgrades). After that, who knows if we’ll still be buying home consoles (I say we will), or if we’ll be playing through some kind of streaming cloud service by way of a small plug-in device, similar to Apple TV.

But I think the important thing to remember is that Nintendo still views themselves as a toy company, and not a tech company like Sony and Microsoft. They’ve always centered their games around their hardware, and I don’t envision that really ever changing. So it’s almost assured that they’ll release a console, or some type of traditional hardware, after Wii U has come and gone. If my expectations are correct, Nintendo will probably have a new device out at least two years before their competitors. I’ve heard talk about Nintendo perhaps merging its handhelds and home consoles into one super device, although the specifics of such a thing would require a lot of work to figure out.

But right now, Nintendo is a niche developer. Their games are universally hailed as some of the best in the industry, but their home console gets very little support from third party developers. Unfortunately, this has lead to abysmal sales. People buy Nintendo consoles for Nintendo games. That’s just the way it is. And perhaps that’s the way it will always be, because it’s just not in their blood to follow the herd.

The heralded, longtime president of Nintendo, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was known for his pioneer attitude, as he thought very little of copying industry trends. Upon his death, current Nintendo president, Satoru Iwata, stated, “The entire Nintendo group will carry on the spirit of Mr. Yamauchi by honoring, in our approach to entertainment, the sense of value he has taught us — that there is merit in doing what is different — and at the same time, by changing Nintendo in accordance with changing times.”

Those aren’t the words of a man looking to emulate his competitors.

It’s no secret that Nintendo has been slow to adapt, but they are consistently making small strides to catch up in areas such as universal accounts, online play, etc. They are slowly, but surely catching up to the industry standards.

As a company with reportedly close to $11 billion in the bank, and absolutely no debt, they can certainly afford to do whatever they like. They can take risks and experiment in ways other developers and console manufacturers either won’t, or just can’t. I mean, surely people realize that Nintendo could make a beastly, behemoth, Megazord of a console if it wanted. That’s the safe route. But they choose not to go along with everyone else, because they want to differentiate themselves from the rest of the industry.

With regard to handheld gaming, Nintendo is still king. The 3DS is dominating its only real competition, Sony’s PlayStation Vita. However, the Vita still has a solid following.

Sony is really pushing the Vita because of its Remote Play service, especially in the wake of Vita TV, because it means all of your digitally purchased games, whether for Vita or PlayStation 4, are playable through those devices, even if you’re not at home. This is a step in the direction I mentioned earlier regarding a “streaming only” type game device.

Microsoft, apart from its Smartglass app and the Xbox feature on Windows 8 tablets, doesn’t really seem to have anything in the works (at least publicly) with regard to a handheld device.

Some have argued that mobile gaming will be the end of dedicated handheld devices, but I strongly disagree. Obviously I don’t have any kind of crystal ball, but I just have to think there will always be a market for true handheld gaming. Regardless of how powerful smartphones become, there’s no way to optimize them for the type of legitimate gaming offered by handheld devices. 

Handheld gaming is also on the rise in Japan, by the way, as consoles seem to be dropping a bit in popularity. This is largely attributed to the fact that most people are always on the move, but also have little space in their homes for big consoles. So there’s still a demand, in Japan and worldwide, for dedicated handheld gaming devices. And if there’s anyone who can lead the way for a new generation of handheld gaming, it’s Nintendo.

Everyone was floored when they unveiled the original Nintendo DS, and I think we’ll probably be blown away once again when the successor to the 3DS comes around however many years from now. I’m sure their next home console, whether or not it works in conjunction with or as a handheld system, will be something far and away different from what Sony and Microsoft (and Valve) are doing.

A lot of what I’ve mentioned is based purely on anecdotes, rumor and speculation. I may be off on everything I talked about, because there’s not a lot of hard evidence when looking that far ahead. All that said, Nintendo may be struggling at the moment, but you should never count them out.

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