Nintendo's earnings report and briefing earlier this week were a bit of a damp squib for anyone hoping for more information on the company's future plans; on NX and on smartphone games alike, the company remained utterly silent. We found out that you'll be able to pre-register for the Miitomo smartphone app on the 17th of February, with the app itself to launch in March, but you'd have to be a truly ardent follower of Nintendo's fortunes for that to create more than the slightest flicker of interest. What we actually knew by the end of the earnings report was this - Splatoon is really popular, people are buying an extraordinary number of amiibos, and there's a special Pokemon-themed edition of the 3DS coming later this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pokemon, which is important news because it means it's 20 years since Pokemon launched and we're all really, really old.
The frisson of excitement that spread around the media at the comment that the publisher is "looking into" virtual reality, then, is understandable - for journalists and fans looking for something interesting in the otherwise barren briefing, this was a sip of ice water in hell. Nintendo and VR! VR and Nintendo! An opportunity not only to speculate wildly about NX, but to dust off some hoary old jokes about the Virtual Boy; who could pass up on such a thing?
The thing is, "we're looking into VR" is perhaps the most lukewarm statement Nintendo or any other company could make about VR. On the blandness scale, it ranks alongside "we know it exists" and "we've looked it up and figured out what the letters stand for". To say any less would have required an active dismissal of VR; simply saying that the company knows VR is happening, and is keeping an eye on developments, is the bare minimum that you'd expect from any company in the industry. "Nintendo aware that VR exists" isn't much of a headline, I'll grant you, but it's pretty close to what was actually announced by the company.
"The whole point of putting on a VR headset is to immerse yourself in a different world... if immersion is what you want, it's actually a selling point. It's also sharply contrary to the most basic nature of Nintendo's design philosophy"
Of course, Nintendo isn't going to dismiss VR out of hand; the company knows, perhaps better than most, that technological disruption can come from the most unexpected directions and upset market segments in unforeseen ways. The 3DS will never match sales of the DS, not because it's got a weak software line-up - the software line-up is downright remarkable - but because Apple, a company that spent decades making expensive computers for artists and designers and never had the slightest truck with the videogame market, invented a tiny computer with a touch-screen and sold about, oh, a billion of them, to people who promptly decided that they didn't need another tiny computer just to play videogames on the train. Is VR going to do something similar to other market segments? Sure, maybe (I'd argue that VR's potential to disrupt areas of "serious" computing is perhaps greater than its potential to significantly change the videogame market); either way, Nintendo is absolutely going to be watching it closely and making sure it's not left looking stupid if things take off in an unexpected direction.
For now, though, watching carefully is all anyone should expect of Nintendo and VR. The reality is that, the company's ill-fated experiments with early iterations of the technology notwithstanding, VR doesn't fit with Nintendo's philosophy as a company. Although the multiplayer and social networking aspects of VR are yet to be explored (remember that Facebook is, at great cost, a big player in this field), one thing is absolutely certain about VR interaction - it's remarkably anti-social in a "people in the same room as you" sense. The whole point of putting on a VR headset is to immerse yourself in a different world; of necessity, this involves cutting yourself off from the world, and the people, around you. That's not a bad thing, per se; if immersion is what you want, it's actually a selling point. It's also sharply contrary to the most basic nature of Nintendo's design philosophy.
"Nintendo is about social gaming; if there's one core concept that sums up the brand and the appeal of Nintendo over the past couple of decades, it's that one"
Nintendo is about social gaming; if there's one core concept that sums up the brand and the appeal of Nintendo over the past couple of decades, it's that one. Playing with other people, ideally in a physical, real-world context, is at the heart of the design philosophy that underlies both Nintendo's hardware and its software. The company's home consoles are designed to support multiple controllers easily (the sadly under-utilised core concept of the Wii U was to create asymmetric gameplay opportunities using the GamePad and a clutch of Wiimote controllers, for instance), while its handheld consoles are designed with communication features that enable online play, sure, but are most effectively deployed in enabling communication with nearby players. In software terms, of course, it's not that Nintendo lacks games designed for one player - there's not much social gaming mileage in Fire Emblem, Legend of Zelda or Xenoblade - but many of the core titles that support the company's systems are deeply focused on social play. Mario Kart is perhaps the most obvious of these, but local multiplayer in racing games is nothing new; to see how deeply ingrained in Nintendo's DNA social play really is, think of how the company reworked the role-playing game to encourage local multiplayer match-ups with Pokemon, its expansion of the beat 'em up from a head-to-head experience to a four-player rumble with Super Smash Bros. or even, all the way back then, the reimagining of online FPS gameplay, still in its infancy, into the four-player split-screen of Rare's Goldeneye.
If you've owned Nintendo consoles recently, as most of you probably have, think about what you've owned for them. In my own living room, there's no question which console gets the most usage - in spite of our love for Splatoon, it's the PS4 that's used most, followed by the PS3 - but we own one PS4 control pad, and while there's a second PS3 pad somewhere I don't think it's been plugged in since we moved house over a year ago. For the Wii U, meanwhile, we own a GamePad, two classic controllers and three Wiimotes - and the Wii U is always, always the console that gets turned on when friends come over for drinks. It occupies a very different position in terms of usage and context to the PlayStation consoles, and that is very much by design on Nintendo's part, not by accident. Television advertising for Nintendo games, in Japan at least, strongly emphasises this social aspect; almost every ad features multiple people sitting on a sofa enjoying a game together (boyband members racing each other in Mario Kart, kids putting their heads together to design a fiendish Mario Maker stage that dad won't be able to beat, etc.). The social nature of Nintendo games is front and centre, and strongly contrasts with ads for PlayStation games, which rarely feature any imagery of the (solo) player at all.
"This isn't to say that some aspects of VR technology won't be of interest to Nintendo. Augmented Reality, the technology underlying Microsoft's Hololens, is a much more natural fit for Nintendo"
How would VR fit with that? It's not a question of whether Nintendo's hardware would be capable of it (we still don't know what NX will be capable of at all) or whether the company would be able to make good VR games (the firm's track record surely proves that it's perfectly capable of making good games on just about anything). It's a question of how the entire brand Nintendo has cultivated, the perceptions it has built and the philosophy it espouses, would fit with the image of someone not only playing a game entirely solo (which is just fine), but actively donning a headset to block out the world around them while they engage with that world. In Nintendo's conception of fun, the entertainment value of a game extends beyond the screen to the physical world and the people around you with whom you're competing, cooperating and sharing the experience. VR flies in the face of that, and undermines the nature of the games which Nintendo has been most successful with over the years.
This isn't to say that some aspects of VR technology won't be of interest to Nintendo. Augmented Reality, the technology underlying Microsoft's Hololens, is a much more natural fit for Nintendo; the company has actually messed with AR technology on the 3DS, although it didn't use it for anything markedly exciting, and it's entirely probable that the NX will build on that to some degree (although I don't anticipate anything even remotely like the Hololens headset). Virtual reality headsets, though, are not going to carry a Nintendo logo any time soon - and unless they become a truly disruptive force in gaming, they probably never will. The company has wide-ranging interests, but a clear vision of what it means for something to be a "Nintendo product" - and that's a vision that simply doesn't include VR.