No, Nintendo isn't going to make VR games

Saying it's “looking into” VR is merely Nintendo acknowledging VR's existence; the tech itself is anathema to Nintendo's whole design philosophy

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.

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Latest comments (13)

Wesley Williams Quality Assurance 4 years ago
Completely agree, I will be utterly shocked if Nintendo embrace VR, it just goes against who they are as a company and what their focus is.
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Alan Blighe Research Associate 4 years ago
Have to agree too. And this is also why I'm struggling to maintain any interest in VR myself!
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I have to agree, this was a hard pressed executive trying to keep populous under heavy questioning. Nintendo R&D has no ability to swap from NRX development towards a VR approach - though possibly like MS is being rumoured to do, they could do a 'bundle' deal for streaming content onto another's HMD!
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Show all comments (13)
Jordan Lund Columnist 4 years ago
Nintendo is notoriously slow to embrace new technology so this shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Back when the Saturn and Playstation launched, Nintendo took out full page magazine ads saying "You don't need 32 bits to have fun."

When the Gamecube launched, it supported progressive scan video if you had the Component cables for it, but Nintendo wouldn't stock them in stores saying there was "no demand". It wouldn't be until the Wii came out that the console could do 480p out of the box and not until the Wii U that they supported high definition.

So, yeah, not really doing the VR? That's a shocker.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jordan Lund on 5th February 2016 4:50pm

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Simon Keating Director, Rule Of Fun4 years ago
I don't get it. You can still play socially in VR. I look forward to the day when me and my mates can all put on headsets and go fishing for sea monsters together. Gotta catch them all!
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Paul Trowe President & CEO, Replay Games4 years ago
Rob, if you're going to write an opinion piece, then you should label the article as such, not that you know Nintendo is not supporting VR for a fact, because you don't. Your article is super speculative at best. I'm not saying you're wrong or right, but it is only your opinion, however educated it is.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.4 years ago
Paul, it says OPINION in front of the time stamp and blurb on the main page.
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Roberto Dillon Associate Professor, James Cook University4 years ago
Well, let's not forget Facebook bought Oculus, so someone does see social potential in VR...
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media4 years ago
I do get all the opinions I read that say VR isn't social because to me, the social aspect of gaming is couch gaming, physical presence gaming, but in the last few years I'm starting to believe that anyone who sees it that way is part of an endangered species. Social gaming now seems to be mostly online gaming, so with that in mind, I guess VR can be as social as any other platform.
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Matthew Hardy Studying Multimedia/Game Design, ITT Technical Institute4 years ago
A few months ago while working at an LED manufacturing firm, my wife took a meeting with Nintendo. They were interested in acquiring LEDs for their Quality of Life product, a tabletop base fitted with LEDs that somehow monitored you as you slept. They were also interested in other LEDs that could be used in the base for VR applications, which they stated they had been working on.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing 4 years ago
The Sleep monitor is dead, probably because there are many other existing products that do the same thing

Remember that Nintendo operates 5-10 years behind the curve on everything, and they're laser focused on "what's good for Japan is good everywhere" like its 1996. They just figured out all the kids and casuals are on mobile. The idea of online gaming being social is foreign to them. It mystifies me completely that Skyrim is as online as any legit MMO, because the kids do the same quests at the same time and party chat.

They should figure that out sometime after their mystification as to why the NX bombed wears off.
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Rafael Brown Creative Director/Co-Founder, Digital Myths Studio, Inc4 years ago
Anyone who thinks that VR cannot be social hasn't thought about their use of computers or mobile devices anytime in the last 20 years. When was the last time you used a computer hotseat with someone else? Do you consider your computer to be a non social device? If so you might want to wake up to the fact that the vast majority of the world is now social online. Its called the internet. VR can be social in the exact same way that PC, console and mobile are social through the wonders of the interwebs.

The thing about Nintendo that Rob fails to address is that the Nintendo audience is steadily getting older. And frankly it needs to regain the young people its shedding every year. Young people don't play on Nintendo devices the way they used to. Twentysomethings, teenagers and adolescents who have grown up with the internet and facebook play on mobile, on consoles, and on computers. They expect to be always online, always connected and always social. They don't do it with handheld gaming and increasingly they don't do it on a Nintendo platform.

As VR becomes the next platform, Nintendo can ignore it like they did with mobile at their own peril. Ignoring mobile worked really well for them. Just like ignoring the PS4/XB1 worked really well for the WiiU that is about to be shuttered while the PS4 sells as fast or faster than the PS2. Its still very possible for young people to say "what is a Nintendo" just as they now say "what is an Atari?" or "what is a Sega?" Its easy to fade from relevance, just stay still while the world passes you by. I don't however think that Nintendo can afford to or will ignore VR. They are exploring, but they are years behind some companies that have been working on the current gen of VR for the last 3-6 years. They can catch up, but they need to not listen to regressives who tell them to make the same thing in the same way that lets face it, didn't work that well for the WiiU. Nintendo needs to experiment. They need to be themselves, but they need to grow, change, reinvent and do it fast.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rafael Brown on 13th February 2016 10:21pm

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development4 years ago
The Sleep monitor is dead, probably because there are many other existing products that do the same thing

Remember that Nintendo operates 5-10 years behind the curve on everything, and they're laser focused on "what's good for Japan is good everywhere" like its 1996 ...
Most sleep monitoring products I see need to be physically connected. Nintendo is working with ResMed,who made the first non-contact sleep monitor in 2014 so the whole 5-10 years behind the curve is pretty off by about 5-10 years.

As for the social aspect of online / virtual / "Japanese style" gaming, however social online gaming can be it will never be able to replace being in a room with other human beings. We use it because it works well and provides immediate access to a variety of new players, offering novelty and availability of opponents.

It's a completely different vibe seeing my younger siblings play multiplayer games online compared to when they're together breathing the same air with their friends and relatives.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 14th February 2016 4:50pm

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