With Nintendo about to unveil what should be the last bit of details on its newest risky console, I felt it a good idea to look into why it's a good thing that Nintendo is such a crazy risk taker.
Nintendo is one of the oldest video game companies out there. In the ‘80s they revived the gaming industry where it had collapsed and became the cornerstone of entertainment for many of us. They alone are probably why many of us pursued this industry. They are also one of the oddest companies out there, taking more risks than a normal company would dream of doing.
Let's look at a few first.
A Few of the Risks
For years Nintendo followed the standard progression of consoles: new generation, more powerful hardware, very minor innovation. For Nintendo's home consoles, this trend lasted up through the GameCube. The same happened with their handheld consoles. However, it was with the handheld market that Nintendo truly started its attempt into obscure, crazy consoles. One of, if not the, first sign was the Virtual Boy. Released back in 1995, Nintendo hope they would bring the feeling of 3D gameplay to a mobile platform using a red goggle-like display that had to sit on a stand. Is wasn't really portable and the console tended to give people headaches and thus failed miserably. Their next crazy idea was officially announced in January of 2004 and launched November of 2004. This system was the Nintendo DS, which brought into the world a system that 2 screens, one of them being a touch screen. Having a touch screen was simply unheard of in 2004 as the mobile gaming market didn't mean "mobile phones" yet to the majority of the gaming audience. On top of that, having 2 screens were odd and there was likely many concerns that having a second screen would be too distracting; especially if you were using the touch functionality.
As we all know at this point, those worries and concerns over such oddities were put to rest once the system truly got rolling. The DS brought us some very unique gaming experiences we hadn't had before, some interesting brain exercise tools, and even gave us a platform that allowed us to relive some of the glory days of 2D gaming. It was also very friendly for the casual audience with an easy to use touch interface as well as very accessible games and software. With all of this, it went on to sell on par with the best selling home console of all time, the Playstation 2.
The DS then influenced Nintendo's next home console. Unveiled in 2005, the Wii (known then as the Revolution), had many people wondering what Nintendo was up to. At that time Nintendo had only revealed the console and not the input method. When they later revealed that the controller was the Wii-mote which had been created for the purpose of motion controls, there was a mixed reaction of excitement and worry. Some of us loved the possibility of holding and controlling a game's sword by actually swinging the Wii-mote around. Others thought it just simply wouldn't work. In the end, the Wii was a little bittersweet for Nintendo. The easy controls allowed for a much larger casual audience to play games for the first time and likely attributed to the majority of the Wii's sales. However, due to the lack of power, the amount of badly designed move controlled games, and the boat loads of shovel-ware, most core gamers turned their nose to the console despite some very solid core games.
On the Horizon
Now before us is another Nintendo oddity: the Wii U. With Wii sales slipping, they felt it a good idea to go ahead and get a new home console out early. Not only will this one support all Wii games, controllers, and peripherals, but will have a tablet-like input device (called the gamepad) with actual face buttons and joysticks. It's basically a giant DS. The main difference is the concept of asynchronous gameplay, where a player with the gamepad can have a completely different image and gameplay experience but still can interact with other players whom are using other controllers and looking at the TV. Nintendo believes that this, and the gamepad in general, will provide players with whole new ways of playing games. There's also Miiverse, which is like the offspring of the Dark Souls death note mechanic (players could leave notes where they died that other players could see in their games even if they weren't playing together) and Facebook. Like with the previous odd consoles, many think that this is too out there, and Nintendo should just focus on the console arms race.
Why These Risks Are A Good Thing
Anyone who follows history (both inside and outside technology) knows that the question "what if" and "what is needed" lends its hand to advancement. Any form of technology used today, including the computer you're using to read this post, likely spawned from one of those two questions. When it comes to more powerful processing power (both in terms of CPU and GPU), we are governed by Moore's Law. The progress made in GPUs were likely due to the growing influence in video games in the 1990s. However, today GPUs are growing at a rate of 2x speed per year, influenced by not just video games, but CGI and HD video editing. There is also talk that the rate of hardware advancement under Moore's law will drop, meaning that it will take more time before we see a 2x increase.
Also, in the 1980s video games were seen as a toy or as fad; in fact, some of those outside of the gaming audience still see it as a fad. The reason was likely due to the fact that video games were too difficult and had controls that became increasingly complicated. They simply were not accessible and were only an interest to a niche group, though that group did grow.
It is because of these things that Nintendo's risks are such good things. The hardware arms race has become a standard thing outside of console gaming. Nvidia and ATI come out with new video cards at least once a year, with each one more powerful than the previous and sometimes with brand new and potentially mind-blowing advancements. As consoles can be seen as an affordable solution to gaming as compared to full-blown PC gaming, the affect that hardware has on console gaming is, mostly, better graphics. It's also very simple to do this over attempting to create new experiences. Now we are at a stage of "what if" when it comes to games. "What if we could control the movements of that sword with this controller by swinging it?" "What if I could easily interact with friends even when I'm not playing a game?" "What if I could control this game just by saying or even thinking commands?" Because of questions like this, and because of the accessibility achieved by the Nintendo DS, we were given the Wii. Though not perfect we could control games with movement better than previously in any form of home console. Also, it brought video games to a world of people instead of a single group. Not only did this help Nintendo, but the industry as well since more people began to accept gaming as a means of entertainment. This was further achieved due to the release of iPhone and eventually Android phones. Even now we are seeing interactive entertainment entering industries outside of gaming, which was likely helped by the increased support. We also saw great improvements over the Wii motion controls via the Kinect and PS Move. Both pieces of technology, though not used much at all in core games, are great items doing things we didn't think possible in gaming before. The Kinect alone has a strong hacking audience which has done some amazing things, such as leading a blind person around.
In the business of video games, risk is often, and understandably, avoided. Companies fear that an unusual concoction will not sell and thus tend to re-hash and re-release games from previous years in order to maintain profits. However, there is a growing group calling out for new experiences. Though it doesn't always have to come from hardware (games such as DayZ and Journey have proven to provide new experiences through software), doing so provides windows of great opportunity. Had it not been for Nintendo, gaming would likely be viewed as a simple fad by far more people and be far less accepted now. Also, we would likely not have the Kinect, PS Move, nor Microsoft SmartGlass. Though they don't always have to be successful nor maintain their success, a planted idea can blossom to amazing advancements. For that I am thankful of the risks taken by Nintendo, not just because I get to play games in a new way, but because it can and has opened the door to something far greater. If we continue to open these doors, then the video game experience of our dreams could be right around the corner.
I can't wait.