There's still merit in console secrecy
Not every studio gets the access needed to develop launch titles for new consoles - but there are solid commercial and economic reasons for that
Much attention has been paid this week to a post on the NeoGAF forums by Moon Studios CEO Thomas Mahler harshly criticising Nintendo for failing to provide his company with development kits or information on the upcoming NX console - a failure, he claims, that means "they'll just not have any software support" for the device, as "nobody can just jumble games together in less than a year." Mahler's argument is that this level of secrecy around an upcoming console (which, he concedes, is practised by all the platform holders, not just Nintendo) is pointless and merely harms developer relations and launch line-ups.
It's not hard to understand Mahler's frustration. The company's wonderful debut game, Ori and the Blind Forest, was a huge critical and commercial success, and it's unsurprising that it would be thinking about the industry's next major hardware launch with great interest - and thus feel extremely frustrated when it can't get so much as a shred of information out of Nintendo about what it might aim for with its development efforts.
Hold on just a second, though. Yes, Ori and the Blind Forest was wonderful; but it was also Microsoft-published, meaning that Moon Studios is a company with one game to its name, and one commercial partnership - with one of Nintendo's rival platform holders. It has never worked on a Nintendo platform before and has no relationship with the company. Under ordinary circumstances, I'd expect any of the platform holders to be hugely helpful when a celebrated indie developer approaches them, but an indie developer who's never worked on any of your platforms before, turning up asking for detailed information on a console the most basic details of which remain a closely guarded secret even from your shareholders? If Moon Studios wanted to work on the 3DS (which, need I remind, has the largest installed base of any console out there right now), Nintendo would no doubt be very happy to help; if it wanted to work on the Wii U Nintendo would be delighted, albeit perhaps a little concerned for their mental well-being; but instead of this, the company has turned up out of the blue and asked for access to the most incredibly commercially sensitive information Nintendo has right now.
"Business everywhere is about relationships, and no platform holder is going to hand over that kind of information to a relatively inexperienced developer whose sole existing relationship is with a primary competitor"
Look, I could go off on one here about how Japanese businesses are all about relationships and the establishment of trust, yadda yadda, but this isn't a complex cultural misunderstanding. Business everywhere is about relationships, and no platform holder is going to hand over that kind of information to a relatively inexperienced developer whose sole existing relationship is with a primary competitor (and one might observe that Mahler's reaction to being rebuffed being to run off to NeoGAF and talk very publicly about the whole thing in explosive terms may lead Nintendo's decision makers to feel that they've been rather vindicated in their reasoning). Mahler does understand that, and while he doesn't resist the urge to bash the NX specifically, his key argument is against the whole notion of consoles being shrouded in secrecy pre-launch at all - not just Nintendo's consoles, but all consoles.
Mahler's argument, in essence, is that hardware is a commoditised thing, and that given the lead times and planning involved in a console launch, it ought to be eminently possible to let everyone know about the system's internals (at least in the form of a rough set of guidelines) two years ahead of launch. That way, when the console finally turns up, it'll have lots of software available right there at launch - avoiding what he describes as the dearth of launch software which almost sank the 3DS and the Wii U.
If I'm to dig into that a little bit, I think this argument is predicated on the entirely reasonable idea that hardware specs are far less exciting than they used to be. The PS3's Cell processor was probably the last roll of the dice for revolutionary hardware in game consoles; Ken Kutaragi believed that this chip, designed for massive parallelism, would ultimately power everything from supercomputers to tiny Internet of Things devices, and saw the PS3 in the vanguard of a technological revolution. Kutaragi had an eye for technological melodrama (his previous console had at its heart the "Emotion Engine", remember), but he didn't get it from the wind; game consoles had talked themselves up as technological revolutions ever since their inception, from the increasingly arbitrary "8/16/32/64-bit" designations to the Nintendo 64's talking up of its Silicon Graphics innards.
Nintendo, though, has largely shut up about what's in its consoles since the N64 - a cynic would say this is because it's always been behind its rivals on performance, though it's also reasonable to argue that hardware specs are of extremely limited interest to the audiences Nintendo chases. Sony and Microsoft, meanwhile, have both found themselves buying off-the-shelf components from a very narrow pool of suppliers, which does mean that their consoles (and Nintendo's, to some degree) have become fairly predictable in their evolution - two years out from the launch of their next systems, it won't take a genius to figure out a ballpark for their performance and configuration.
That's all absolutely true - graphics and processing hardware has become more standardised and predictable as it has become commoditised, and that does make some of the secrecy rather less justified than it once was. Having said that, there's a very good recent example of console specification secrecy at work, in the form of the PS4 and Xbox One - the former of which has a significant performance advantage over the latter not least because of a decision to use a much faster form of memory. There's always a degree of industrial espionage between console manufacturers in the run-up to the unveiling of a new system ("industrial espionage" makes it sound far more nefarious and James Bond-esque than the reality, which mostly involves drinking a lot of beer with programmers), but in this instance, Sony's secrecy seemed to hold well enough to allow them to genuinely surprise Microsoft with this aspect of their specification, close enough to the launch that Xbox One's design was already locked down and couldn't reach parity with PS4. With that kind of example so fresh in their memory, what company is likely to decide to throw caution to the wind and start developing their new consoles in a glass box for all the world to see?
Moreover, we're not just talking about graphics and processing hardware - there are other aspects of game hardware which are far less commoditised, much more interesting and much more commercially sensitive. The NX is a very good example, for one simple reason - nobody knows what it is. There's a lot of talk of marrying handheld and home consoles, and maybe mobile, but with the exception of the company itself and the trusted partners with whom Nintendo has already shared details and development kits (because they absolutely are out there, just not being handed out freely right now), nobody in the world actually knows what NX is. We don't know how you hold it, what it looks like, how it functions, if you carry it with you, put it under your TV, or both; we don't know how you'll interact with it or what it's designed to do.
This isn't Nintendo's first rodeo with this kind of thing; it wants the reaction to NX to be as big as the reaction to previous dramatic changes it's made to the console paradigm, from the N64's analogue controller and the DS' dual-screen layout to the Wii's motion controller. Furthermore, it wants to announce the console's unique hardware features close enough to launch to make sure that a dozen half-baked imitators aren't churned out of Chinese factories and shipped to toy stores around the world before the real thing can even get to market. A two-year window between telling the world what it's doing, and actually doing that thing, would absolutely result in the total dilution of its efforts before it even got out the gate.
"That Moon Studios cannot access the system's launch window is one thing, but once the broad details of the NX are out in public, it's creative companies like this that Nintendo must work hard to get on board"
Having said that, Mahler is right; this approach does compromise the amount of software available in the launch window. He underestimates the other side of the equation - the actual value of secrecy to the console launch and to the platform holder's competitiveness - but I also think he slightly misunderstands the way the business of launching a console works. Companies do, of course, want a good console launch line-up - but there's a balance to be struck. Too few games on day one risks consumers deciding to wait and see, which damages sales in the crucial early days. Too many games, however, can be even more damaging, because such a wide choice can split the (extremely small!) early market among too many titles, making it impossible for any of your development partners to make money. A console's installed base is never as small as it is on day one; you want a balance of great titles in the launch window, enough to keep consumers interested, not so many that publishers start backing off because they'll never be able to recoup their investment. The whole point of being a launch title for a console is that although the installed base is small, it's a low-competition environment with lots of very keen consumers and not much software to buy; take that away, and a large number of publishers will most certainly decide to abandon the launch window, because the economics of it will no longer make sense.
In short, while sympathising with Moon Studios' frustration and anger at being unable to work towards the launch of the NX (whenever that may occur, whatever that may be), I find it hard to fault Nintendo's logic in keeping its circle of trust extremely narrow, for now. There's value and commercial logic to its secrecy, and little sense (in fact, potentially a negative impact) to opening up the launch window to all and sundry. The company must, however, take some aspects of Mahler's criticism on board; that Moon Studios cannot access the system's launch window is one thing, but once the broad details of the NX are out in public, it's creative companies like this that Nintendo must work hard to get on board for the second and third waves of software the NX will need to sustain it in the market and to keep it ticking over between the big, first-party pillar releases that will be its bread and butter. Judge Nintendo on its efforts then; if Mahler and his team still can't get their hands on NX dev kits once the company has made the nature of the console public, serious questions will need to be asked (again!) about the firm's third-party relations.
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