When I first heard about Project Revolution, I was very excited. With its combination of motion and infrared control, I really felt like Nintendo was onto something special. Many of my friends had different feelings, especially as the Wii’s 2007 launch date neared. They were either cautiously optimistic or outright derisive, but I felt from the get-go that Nintendo had a created a game changer.
I was right. With over 80 million consoles sold (and money made on each one, to boot), Nintendo’s Wii is the undisputed commercial success of the last generation of game consoles, and interestingly so. The Wii was not a direct frontal assault on the already-released Xbox 360 or the forthcoming PS3: sub-par graphics, no DVD or Blu-ray playback, and other lacking features made it pale in comparison to its technically heavyweight competition, and yet, Nintendo created and exploited a new market basically overnight by simplifying the way gamers interacted with their games. Nintendo, while leaving a presence in the hardcore-gamer sandbox that Mario built, began to focus on this entirely new sandbox it had created. What Nintendo didn’t know was that it was not alone.
Another company released a game changer in 2007, and it may have been the sneakiest game console release in history. Apple’s pocket game console, disguised as a phone or iPod, became a real gaming machine in 2008 with the launch of the App Store. Competing directly with the Nintendo DS, and less directly with the Wii, the iPhone/iPod Touch (and more recently the iPad) have done very well, and Nintendo has correctly identified Apple as its most important nemesis going forward. And Nintendo is going forward. Next month, Nintendo will show off the Wii successor (dubbed Project Café) at E3 and we will all get a glimpse at how Nintendo plans to fight Apple in the coming years, and how the iPhone and iPad (and even Apple TV) have influenced Nintendo.
I believe this fight will depend on three factors: hardware innovation, developers, and online experience. “But what about HD graphics, Blu-Ray playback, 3D?” you ask. We’ll get to that later.
Neither Apple nor Nintendo are strangers to hardware innovation, as shown by the motion controls present in both the Wii Remote and most iOS devices. Apple certainly dominates when it comes to touch sensing, but Nintendo has plenty of experience with its DS line of portable game machines as well. As with Project Revolution, Project Café has the chance to raise the bar, and rumors of a touch-screen controller make me anxious for E3. The possibilities for a touch-screen controller are practically endless. While I do not expect something as revolutionary as the Wii Remote or Kinect, I figure that Nintendo will do a good job here, which leads to the next point: you have to have revolutionary software to match revolutionary hardware.
Apple’s iOS devices are practically a developer’s heaven. With an entry price of only $99 (compared to the Wii’s ~$2500), many small developers (and large studios) are finding success on iOS. Sure, prices are low and competition is fierce, but it seems that Apple has reduced the barriers to entry better than any other gaming hardware manufacturer. This leads to a lot of garbage apps, but it also leads to many quality titles. In order to compete, Nintendo needs to ditch its disdain for smaller developers and make it easier to develop for Project Café. Nintendo also needs to let developers control their own pricing and demos and fix the Wii’s onerous Digital Rights Management scheme. Related to the developer discussion, Nintendo has one major advantage over Apple: Mario (and Zelda, and Metroid, and so on). Nintendo’s in-house stable of marketable game franchises is a sizeable advantage against Apple (and Microsoft and Sony) that cannot be discounted.
Finally, when it comes to online experience, both Apple and Nintendo have some work to do to catch up to Microsoft and Sony. Nintendo has openly admitted that they squandered a great opportunity to make the Wii even better than it was through a more robust online experience. Apple has launched Game Center, but hasn’t supported it very well. Nintendo has promised to do better, and the end of this month marks the launch of Nintendo’s eShop for the 3DS (and hopefully the Wii as well). The eShop should give us an idea of how much Nintendo has learned from the Virtual Console/Wii Ware mess. What Apple does with Game Center remains to be seen, although there is hope for it in rumored cloud-computing services that are nearing completion. Time will tell!
So, what about other stuff like HD and 3D? I think Project Café will definitely be capable of 1080p video out, but I don’t think it will be graphically amazing. I honestly believe Nintendo will be shooting to beat the Xbox 360 and PS3 by the slimmest of margins graphicswise, primarily so they can sell the machine at a profit as they did with the Wii. I think Project Café may have a Blu-Ray drive and may also function as a media center similar to the Xbox 360 and iOS devices. I don’t think it will have 3D. I do think it will have a touch-screen controller that will double as a keyboard/mouse/input-device-of-some-kind to allow for easy internet browsing/media center controlling. I hope it has a decent game download service.
At the end of the day, I think Project Café will be the most ambitious product Nintendo has ever designed, and the first aimed squarely at Apple. So, where does that leave Microsoft and Sony, exactly? They have said they will wait at least another year before starting to talk externally about their next consoles, and then things should get very interesting. History has shown that there is little room for a 4th contender in the video game market. Perhaps spacing things out a bit will help, but for now, I guess we just have to wait for E3 and hang out at our favorite gaming blogs waiting for the latest tidbits to drop. I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens. How about you? Sound off in the comments!