Expectations mount for NX in 2016
Less and less time remains before the putative year-end launch for Nintendo's latest; is a console launch in this window even possible, let alone desirable?
Last year, it was loose lips in the supply chain for console manufacture, now it's seemingly loose lips within Nintendo's own marketing department, but there's a common thread to every leak or rumour that spreads about the platform holder these days - they all point to a late 2016 launch for the company's next console platform, codenamed NX.
The numbers Nintendo was said to be targeting for NX that were floated around from sources at overseas parts suppliers checked out pretty well. Similarly, the more recent marketing leak has lent significant credibility by being on the money regarding the now-announced Pokemon Sun and Moon titles. It's all still in the realm of rumour - a dedicated faker could have done the maths required to arrive at plausible manufacturing numbers for NX, just as we did when we dissected the claims; someone with knowledge of a soon-to-be-announced Pokemon game could have tacked on fake information about an upcoming console in order to troll gaming forums. It happens.
"A rapid build-up and launch for the NX would give the company a blow-out Christmas, since Nintendo platforms pretty much always do well at launch"
Besides, in the skeptics' corner, there are some solid reasons to question the 2016 launch window. For a start, there's the simple fact that we know nothing about NX. It's already March, and all we know is a codename and some vague, hand-waving stuff about the console bridging home and handheld paradigms. That's pretty much it. Assuming a November launch, that would leave Nintendo with a grand total of eight months to unveil, explain, market and promote an entire new console launch - even assuming that they were to start that process tomorrow. It's not impossible, of course; that eight months would encompass E3, GamesCom, Tokyo Games Show and as many Nintendo Direct shows as the company wanted, so getting the message out there is plausible... But bear in mind that this is also the year in which Nintendo's mobile gaming partnership with DeNA will bear its first fruit, and while I maintain that the company views that as a support to its console business, not a replacement for it, it's reasonable to be dubious of the idea that it would willingly completely overshadow the marketing of those games with a blitz of promotion for a new console.
There's also the simple matter of history to consider. Nintendo has never, as far as I can recall or uncover, announced a console in the same calendar year that it released it. The pattern for its systems' pre-launch promotion has been fairly consistent since the turn of the millennium; a slow build-up from the reveal of hardware to further details and the introduction of software, with a launch often as much as 18 months after the unveiling. Compressing that into eight months (or seven, or six) might be possible, but it would be totally outside the pattern of what Nintendo has done up until now with its consoles.
On the other hand, Nintendo is in a pretty unique situation right now. It has a new CEO who, although he's essentially pledged to follow the path Iwata set the company upon, will also have his own way of doing things and his own vision for the firm. It also has an absolute albatross in the form of the Wii U, which has not been saved from commercial disaster even by successful, acclaimed games like Splatoon and Super Mario Maker - and, almost uniquely for the company, it faces giving the Wii U an early bath at the same time that its all-conquering handheld platform, the 3DS (which has done very well despite not matching sales of its predecessor, the DS) is also slowing down significantly. Nintendo does face entering 2016 without a particularly strong handheld or home console platform and only the 3DS' installed base to keep things ticking over - which might be a significant impetus to speed things up on the introduction of something new.
Let's think in more details about the factors that would be involved in launching the NX by the end of the year. It would absolutely have benefits; perhaps the most clear one is that it would prevent 2016 being a "wasted" holiday season for Nintendo. The flatlining Wii U and the rapidly slowing 3DS suggest that without the introduction of a new platform this year, holiday 2016 will likely be Nintendo's worst for many years - arguably not something Kimishima will want on his report card so early in his tenure. A rapid build-up and launch for the NX would give the company a blow-out Christmas, since Nintendo platforms pretty much always do well at launch - and of course, this would also place NX in the window to receive a prettied-up port of the upcoming Zelda title for Wii U at the same time as the Wii U version itself launches, a mirror of the very successful strategy the company used for Twilight Princess across the GameCube and Wii a couple of hardware generations ago. Even if the game isn't totally exclusive to NX, a Zelda game at launch would be an enormous boon for the new platform and a great way to ensure a solid holiday season.
"Perhaps a short, intense few months of promotion is actually a marketing advantage over a year or more of drawn-out arguments regarding the merits of a still-vapourware device"
It's definitely a short period of time, though, and the window in which Nintendo can announce the console is probably quite limited. It's highly unlikely that it would wait for E3 to unveil its plans; much as turning up with a brand new console to the show would be a very effective way to "win" E3, it's probably more sensible to unveil some aspects of the device, at least, in a Nintendo event well ahead of the show. Indeed, if NX details aren't revealed to some degree either this month or next, I suspect a 2016 launch can be said to be entirely off the cards - although I wouldn't actually put money on that, since if we're talking about reducing the pre-launch promotion window from 18 months to 8 or 7 months, why on earth not make it six, or five, or four?
In fact, it might be more instructive to think about that window in terms of how other devices manage it. Consoles are actually quite unusual in having a lengthy, protracted period where everyone is talking about them, everyone is showing off software for them, but nobody can buy them. Compare that to smartphones or tablets, which are generally available to buy within a matter of days or weeks after they're first unveiled. That short lead time doesn't seem to stop Apple's devoted fans from camping out to buy a new iPhone; perhaps a short lead time for a console might actually spur fans to excitement, rather than denying the new system a build-up? If the NX console is really a complex concept that it takes people a while to get their head around, then perhaps that will be problematic - you don't want to launch a device that hardly anyone actually understands yet - but if it's merely an interesting twist on the familiar, then perhaps a short, intense few months of promotion is actually a marketing advantage over a year or more of drawn-out arguments regarding the merits of a still-vapourware device.
Whatever Nintendo actually plans for the NX, it will represent a very dramatic choice for the company. A 2016 launch will be an aggressive strategy that overturns its previous approach to console launches and suggests dramatic reforms under Kimishima's guidance. Pushing its launch out into next year, though, will leave the company facing a bleak holiday season with an ailing, albeit still popular, handheld device and a home console that's almost totally dead in the water - and even with the prospect of a Zelda swan song on the Wii U, that will be a bitter pill to swallow for Nintendo. The company is, in some regards, painted into a corner - no matter what it does next, it'll require a very different Nintendo difference.
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