When 50,000-odd attendees crowded into the Los Angeles Convention Center last week for E3, there was an elephant in the room. The gaming industry’s annual confab and new release showcase was conspicuously missing the Nintendo NX—a new gaming console, rumored for a 2017 release, that Nintendo will say almost nothing about. Game developers are tight lipped, and many of them don’t know many more details than the general public.
None of this would matter, except for the fact that Nintendo’s one of the biggest names in the gaming world and the NX’s launch will be one of the biggest consumer electronic pushes of 2017.
I experienced plenty of the NX wall of silence first hand. Nintendo of America wouldn’t give me any comment on or off the record, beyond the very little that’s already slipped out to the press (see below). At a press conference at the posh Ace Hotel for Ubisoft’s latest slate of games that build on franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance, the French gamemaker disclosed their latest Just Dance game would be coming out for the NX as well.
When asked by an audience member for more details on their Nintendo NX dancing game, Ubisoft’s Michael Burk said that "All we can say about NX is what we already said about NX."
However, enough has leaked out from Ubisoft and other game developers to learn a bit more about the Nintendo NX … and how it will capitalize on the two things that make the Wii successful: Social gaming with friends and attracting casual mobile gamers to buy consoles.
Just Dance, a popular (and quite fun) series of dancing games, relies on motion control. As one game writer who also attended the press conference, Elia Pales of Nintendo Enthusiast notes, just mentioning the game implies a lot about the NX’s capabilities. Pales also focused on the fact that Just Dance was the only NX game Ubisoft announced at the press conference, which featured everything from Star Trek virtual reality games to new South Park role-playing games.
The motion control aspects of Just Dance build upon one of the most commercially lucrative aspects of the Wii family of consoles: Motion detectors which set the standard for the industry and added a group fun dimension to the consoles.
The newest game in Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild has also been announced for the NX. At E3, the game was available as a demo, but only in its Wii U version.
Speculation around Breath of the Wild has centered around the game being the likely flagship launch title for the NX in 2017. Although Nintendo hasn’t confirmed anything like that, it would seem so: Zelda is a beloved franchise, and the new game features a massive playing world, a host of new features, and functionality that makes it a long cry from previous jaunts through the kingdom of Hyrule.
Meanwhile, Nintendo is figuring out the nuts and bolts of any major business launch: Distribution, consumer interest, and monetization. Bucking a trend towards online purchases of games being the rule rather than the exception, GameStop CEO Paul Raines confirmed in an earnings call that the Nintendo NX will have physical media. This is big news not just for GameStop, but for Best Buy, Target, Walmart, and a host of other retailers who have seen Steam and similar competitors disrupt (and eat into) their traditional profit models.
During the earnings call, GameStop EVP of Business Strategy Mike Hogan added "Should the new NX perform only slightly better than the Wii U, it would generate 2.7 billion dollars in incremental sales over the first two years. Should it perform at even half of the level of the Wii, it would generate 7.5 billion units of incremental sales over that time frame." Part of the expectations surround one of the few bits of information Nintendo has released about the NX. According to Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, the new system’s controller will incorporate "a brand-new concept." Many industry experts are now speculating as to just what this "brand-new concept" could actually be.
Part of Nintendo’s challenge is that while the original Wii was an iconic gaming system, the Wii U that Hogan spoke about didn’t have anything close to the impact of the original. It had respectable sales that, in terms of scale, didn’t do quite as well as the Wii. The Wii revealed Nintendo’s sweet spot—families, parties, and groups of social gamers looking at video games as casual entertainment instead of hypnotic, hyper-detailed virtual worlds.
Adding to the challenge, Microsoft is planning a new console of their own, the Xbox Scorpio, which they also announced at E3 (along with plans to let Windows 10 users play Xbox games on their PC).
Nintendo, which already delayed the E3 (fans and analysts expected a Q4 2016 launch), has to juggle a number of factors: Creating a killer slate of games initially available for the platform, guaranteeing an attractive price point for the platform and its early games, and fending off aggressive competitors like Sony and Microsoft. But judging by the buzz at E3, Nintendo has a large assortment of fans waiting to be impressed. As long as Nintendo gives them something that meets their expectations, they have a bright future assured.
Update: This article was updated with attribution of Ubisoft press conference quote to Michael Burk.