Nintendo and stopping shorter on the hardware chain

There's a lot of Nintendo talk in the Apple community at the moment - here included - likely because both are beloved brands that have created fantastic products from an integration of hardware and software. Both have also been the underdog, battled their way to industry leadership, and yet are still often looked at as beleaguered, unable to continue the streak of innovations past, and eventually, inevitably, doomed. John Siracusa wrote a typically thoughtful piece about Nintendo in crisis on Hypercritical:

But if the time of the game console is not yet at an end (handheld or otherwise), then Nintendo has a lot of work to do. It needs to get better at all of the game-related things that iOS is good at. It needs to produce software that clearly demonstrates the value of its hardware—or, if that’s not possible, then it needs to make new hardware.

Any advice that leads in a different direction is a distraction. There’s no point in any plan to “save” Nintendo that fails to preserve what’s best about the company. Nintendo needs to do what Nintendo does best: create amazing combinations of hardware and software. That’s what has saved the company in the past, and it’s the only thing that will ensure its future.

Nintendo needs to prove that whatever hardware they make is better at certain key things than an iOS or Android device, an Xbox or a PlayStation, the same way Apple had to make the case the iPad was better at certain key things than the smartphone or laptop. That's not an easy case to make, and there are a couple other things that factor into their ability and need to do that.

First, Nintendo never made great hardware. I've owned most of them over the years and while they've provided transcendent gaming experiences, at no point did I ever consider the hardware anything other than a boxy, bulky, plasticky conduit-by-necessity for those amazing games. Second, Nintendo never owned the complete hardware chain when it came to consoles anyway. They were always happy enough to outsource the display part - the television - to whatever other companies filled the market at the time, including one of their rivals, Sony. (And on handheld, where they did own the display, they failed to make great displays. See the first point.)

If you're okay letting a competitor like Sony own the TV, though a tremendous leap, you can become okay with a competitor like Apple owning the intermediary device.

Nintendo is what you see and hear on the screen and what you hold and feel in your hand. The brilliant resurgence of the analog stick aside, Nintendo never even made great controllers, but paired with their games, they absolutely made great experiences.

Which is why I once again go back to Guy English's concept of Nintendo staying in the hardware business, but ending the chain at the controller rather than the set top box. That way the eyes, ears, and hands can maintain that uniquely Nintendo experience, but to an addressable market far beyond what a dedicated console would allow.

It's not iTunes on Windows. It's not Exchange on the iPhone or BBM on Android. It's not PlayStation on Android or Xbox Live on iOS. It's Nintendo doing what they do best in a world where the box, like the TV, is beyond their need to own anymore.

Guy, Moisés Chiullan, and I spent some time earlier today talking about this, and a lot more, on his Screen Time podcast. I'll post a link when it goes live.

Have something to say about this story? Share your comments below! Need help with something else? Submit your question!

Rene Ritchie

Editor-in-Chief of iMore, co-host of Iterate, Debug, Review, Vector, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Nintendo and stopping shorter on the hardware chain

13 Comments

I have to disagree slightly with the comment that Nintendo have never made great hardware. While I would agree that most of Nintendo console (handheld and home-based) have been fairly uninspiring, in my opinion, the design of both the Wii and the DS Lite were exceptional. The glossy white finish of both system almost certainly took inspiration from Apple's iPod models of that time.

And 26 years later, I still play games on my NES. I doubt I'll be saying that about my iPhone 5 25 years from now......I'll probably have an iPhone 17 or something similar.

How come none of your usual buzz words like, useability, didn't make it into this article? Making a game fun to play was Nintendo's most important goal. That's why they were so successful. Nintendo didn't care about having the best hardware specs and they sure as hell didn't care about making a fashion statement.

Making a game fun to play... that is what is important to Nintendo. I remember the SNES, because that is what I owned, and the N64. It was always 10 seconds between deciding you wanted to play and playing the game. Put cartridge in, click on player you wanted to play, and play. I have hated playing games on PS3s and xBoxes because it has always seemed like you have to make 100 choices before you even get to play the game.

I do not agree with your statements. Nintendo has made some great hardware. Just because their hardware is plasticky and bulky doesn't mean it's not good. Nintendo has always tried to make hardware that everyone, especially kids could afford or get there moms to buy for them. This means they've pretty much have to make everything out of plastic. I so much more enjoy playing games on a comfortable (bulky if you will) controller that fits in my hands and make an hour of gaming enjoyable. I think people don't give Nintendo controllers enough credit. Nintendo created a new amazing way to control games with the wiimote, Then they perfected it, just play skyward sword. Nintendo has been doomed every year for some reason or other. I don't think they are in any danger of losing a lot of market share, at least in the next 5 years.

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I'm not sure if Nintendo never made great hardware. To be honest I never gave it much thought and perhaps that was Nintendo's intent. However I do agree that having Nintendo shift their focus to mobile development would be beneficial. I have a young daughter and she has no knowledge of gaming consoles. However iPhone / iPad...that's lingo she understands. I really hope Nintendo considers developing games for iOS and perhaps take innovate some hardware that works w/ MFi.

Nintendo's strength in the hardware was never the quality of the console itself, but rather the quality of the controllers. The D-Pad, analog stick, rumble, and most recently motion control were all brought mainstream (and eventually industry standard) by Nintendo. In my mind, this is what they need to get back to.

That you are so completely wrong regarding Nintendo and controllers is a testament to how successful they have been, because their great hardware simply disappeared into the great games.

- The D-pad. The Intellivision was sort of a precursor, but the cross D-pad all game systems have was created by Nintendo in 1982. The made it specifically to foster their games, and nothing, from Donkey Kong on, works without it.

- Shoulder buttons. Nintendo was there first; the shoulder buttons made the SNES possible, as well as franchises like Starfox and Mario Kart.

- Rumble pack. A lesser contribution, but still one they made that directly impacted the industry.

- The analog stick. The Atari 5200 had a poor implementation of one, but the Nintendo 64 was the first platform to get it right, as well as the first one to make it a core part of the game. Mario 64. Pilotwings. Tons of party type games - Nintendo made their analog stick to drive a specific game experience.

- Motion control. It made new levels of the Zelda and Mario franchises possible. Whole books have been written about how the Wiimote changed system controls, and how others have copied it, but the Wiimote was considered ludicrous before its introduction. But they did it anyways, because it was necessary for the types of games they wanted to create.

Saying that Nintendo never made great controllers, just great games, completely ignores the fact that they *invented control schemes specifically for their great games* You sort of get there acknowledging that their controllers were great "paired with their games" but somehow treat the games as existing in a vacuum from their controllers. For Nintendo, they did not, and do not. They hardware was developed for the software as much as the other way around. I find it curious that the Apple backers who cheer the same informed hardware-software model in Cupertino deny its existence or its necessity in other companies.

"If you're okay letting a competitor like Sony own the TV, though a tremendous leap, you can become okay with a competitor like Apple owning the intermediary device."

Wrong, for two huge reasons.

1) Nintendo is OK with SONY making the display *TO NINTENDO's SPECIFICATIONS*. SONY does not design the display, they manufacture the one Nintendo designs. Would Apple consider it an acceptable for Samsung to not just manufacture chips to Apple's specifications, but also to design it and tell Apple, "this is what you have to work with"? That is essentially what you are suggesting Nintendo do.

2) SONY does not have an approval process for submitting display designs. If Nintendo completes a prototype screen with a different aspect ratio, they do not have to wait an undetermined time for SONY to indicate that screen comports with specific unpublished guidelines. A Nintendo-branded controller for iOS would have that wait period (or, worse, rejection).

You can "become ok" with the above restrictions if you are a) desperate and b) willing to let another company in a very real sense dictate the overall quality of your product, and c) willing to tie the fate of your company to the arbitrary decisions of another.

Nintendo is not nearly that far gone yet.

I think you misunderstood. I don't think he was talking about integrated displays in handheld systems, but rather the standard TELEVISION SETS that consoles plug in to. Nintendo certainly didn't dictate display specifications for the Sony Trinitrons and Bravias.

Apple's controller guidelines don't cut it. Nintendo designs their controllers for the games they want to make. For example, they had to invent the analog stick to make Mario 64. Giving up the control interface to Apple will be the end of Nintendo.

Imagine Apple deciding that OS X will never beat Windows so they might as well become a Windows OEM. After-all, Apple's main strength is in hardware engineering and they still get to do that. Well, it wouldn't be Apple anymore. You are asking Nintendo to sell its soul in a similar way.

What if it's more along the lines of Apple deciding to give up on the ADC connector and just start using DVI (or DisplayPort, or Mini DisplayPort) like everyone else.

Sometimes relying on your own proprietary stuff is the right thing to do, while other times it's an anchor that's just making it harder on your customer.

This article doesn't say "stop making hardware altogether" (which is what your analogy seems to imply) but rather "Stop making proprietary screens and consider using the iPhone or iPad as a screen." (Well, maybe not precisely, but that's one way to take it.)

If we look at what Nintendo does really well, it's create awesome experiences with software and controllers. The Television set was never really that fundamental for them to control, and everyone already had one, so they made things that *plugged in to existing TVs.* So now, the "console" part can be abstracted away, and they could continue creating excellent experiences by making software and controller hardware, but in this case, they'd be making things that plug into the next generation of screens that everyone already has: iPhone and iPads.

I'd argue that's not asking them to sell their soul, just to refocus on new market realities and get back to what actually matters (instead of sinking with the ship of a disappearing market.)

I disagree with you (and agree with others here) that Nintendo never made great controllers - I think the Nintendo controllers have always felt great and worked well.

But really that just reenforces your point about what they should do! Nintendo should make the most kick-ass iOS specific controller ever designed, that would basically envelop an iPhone (or iPad) in some way and become one with it. It could even include a battery pack that hooked to the device for epic marathon gaming sessions.

Suddenly you have an awesome gaming system. You have a Nintendo controller, mixed with the great hardware/screen and OS of the iPhone/iPad, and the awesome software of Nintendo that is controlled via D-Pad or analog sticks. It could even integrate with the Wii, no reason not to... and iOS7 has just the framework additions to make such a hardware addition really practical to build in all sorts of ways. Suddenly Nintendo is designing the parts of portable gaming system they excel at - controls and software.

Come over Nintendo and show iOS game designers how it's REALLY done! I'll be the first in line for the $400 gold version with a re-creation of Goldeneye for the iPad...

This was my thought *exactly.*

I was surprised neither Gruber nor Siracusa has brought up the concept that Nintendo doesn't need to make the TV... so it's conceivable they'd let Apple make the "screen" and focus on the input and interaction.

I don't really see Nintendo as a software-only kind of company, just making iPhone games, and I don't see the market for standalone handhelds lasting more than another few generations. I'm HOPEFUL Nintendo goes this direction, making fantastic experiences for iOS devices by designing hardware and software that work in concert, using iOS as a medium like they use TV sets as a medium. That would be great, let's hope Nintendo's pride, or Apple's restrictive nature, doesn't get in the way.