With Nintendo’s recent troubles in the console space, discussion often turns towards alternatives to their current aspirations. Whether it is going third-party, sticking to handhelds only, or re-entering the arms race, everyone seems to acknowledge that some change must be made. Personally, I have been in favor of the console/handheld hybrid solution. This is primarily because of Nintendo’s relationship with third parties and their divided software efforts between two platforms. I feel that the time has come for Nintendo to embrace their differences and strike out in a way that allows them to disregard third-party trends and the need for multi-platform support.
I do not think there is any way for them to accomplish this outside of a hybrid device that consolidates their markets. I believe that everyone would win in this scenario. Gamers need less hardware to play the games they want which saves them money and space for more games, which, in turn, benefits those who make the games. With a single device and no divided attention, Nintendo would not face the droughts they do now.
There are a number of ways that Nintendo could approach a hybrid device. They could create a generic platform that supported multiple devices as is done with iOS and Android. This would allow them to make one game that could work on a console or a handheld, scaling to best work on each as iOS apps do between an iPhone and an iPad. They could also create what is essentially the inverse of the Wii U: a device that is housed within the GamePad, but can also cast video and audio signals to the TV, much like the Wii U does to the Wii U GamepPad.
I thought it could be a fun experiment to put together our own concept of a Nintendo handheld/console hybrid and would be even more fun to do so as a democratic group. This article presents a series of polls whose chosen results will define the build of this theoretical system. When all of the parts come together, I will write a faux unveiling of the for the theoretical device, complete with mock-ups and price points based on the choices you make. Would you like to play along?
Hardware Performance and Architecture
Mobile technology is a really exciting place right now. Consumer technology is shrinking in size faster than it is growing in capacity. The processors and GPUs powering affordable smart devices today are getting quite close to the GFLOP performance standards of the last generation. The chips coming out at the end of this year and into the next are surpassing that benchmark. Modern mobile processors, like the Snapdragon 801, are even capable of Direct X 11 shaders. Our goal for this theoretical hybrid is merely to match or exceed the power of the Wii U.
Option 1 – Shrunken Wii U Architecture. Since the GameCube, Nintendo has been using the same architecture for their consoles. Though the Wii U is vastly more powerful than the Wii, it is running on similar chipsets, which allow the system to be underclocked into a virtual Wii for backwards compatibility. The problem with this approach is that it ignores the changes in technological trends, which results in less bang for the buck from their hardware. The advantages are backwards compatibility and, in the case of this option, the complete lack of a learning curve.
In essence, Option 1 would be a portable version of the existing Wii U and should automatically support all digital copies of Wii U games without any changes. The shrinkage of existing technology moves at a slower pace than the development of new technology that was designed to be small, meaning a portable Wii U later would be more expensive than an existing Wii U now. Staying the course also means that others will see it as simply a portable Wii U and considering the reputation of the Wii U, this could give the new system an unfair negative stigma among gamers, press, and third parties.
Option 2 – High Performance. Another option is to disregard cost and push for maximum performance. It isn’t infeasible to make a portable device of comparative spec to the PlayStation 4 in another year or two. It would mean, however, that Nintendo would have to push for a higher price point than they ever have before. But is that such a bad thing? As a Nintendo gamer, you would only need one device from them rather than the typical two. The 3DS launched at $250 and the Wii U launched at $350 (deluxe), so anything under $600 is a bargain for the gamer who would buy both devices at launch. Besides the higher price, negatives of this route would also include a bulkier device, limited battery life, and greater heat output. This option would also have Nintendo disregard backwards compatibility and pass on a steep new learning curve to developers.
Option 3 – Next-Gen Mobile Technology. Rather than trying to be the most powerful device that fits in your hands, Nintendo could go straight for mass market components and retain similar, though likely greater, performance to what Option 1 would offer. Like Option 2, Option 3 would have to disregard backwards compatibility, but with the excessive development done on mobile platforms, they would not have to face as steep of a learning curve. Beneficially, they could price the system at a significantly cheaper price than either of the other options.
Operating System and Interface
The Wii U has a nice interface that ties into their strengths as a creative company, but unfortunately, it is also a bit slow and clunky, which would not bode well for a portable system. The operating system itself is based on singular tasks, which can get the most out of the system’s performance, but makes all navigation require fresh load times. There are two ways of addressing this.
Option 1 – Proprietary. With Option 1, Nintendo would stick with their guns and use a single task system much like the Wii U, but perhaps with some refinements to keep it loading faster. Removing the Mii Plaza from the home screen, for example, could allow for lighter and faster navigation. In Option 1, Nintendo would update at their own pace and handle all coding challenges themselves, which would take extra time and money from them, but result in more control over the their software.
Option 2 – Forked Android. Android is a very quick multitasking operating system that, with its latest updates, runs at a fairly light weight. Multitasking on Android is on demand, which allows the software to retain memory until something else needs it. Android is free and open source, and the developers at Google actively update the source code, which is freely available for anybody to use. Also, with many games moving towards mobile, it creates a more simplistic porting route for those titles. In fact, Android APKs should simply run on the device in most cases, depending on hardware compatibility, which means the porting of apps from regular Android to Nintendo’s forked model should be as simple and cheap as can be possible.
A big downside for Nintendo, however, is in piracy control and security. Nintendo’s games would be more easily stolen than ever before, though some of this could be alleviated in the forking process by making significant changes to key processes in their version of Android. Using a version of Android does not mean the system would be limited to mobile-style games. The biggest flaw in Android consoles, like the Ouya, is that they have no library of strong exclusive titles to define their capabilities. This is not a concern for Nintendo.
There are two major methods of touchscreen input for consumer electronics: the more archaic and pinpoint accurate resistive, and the finger-friendly and multi-touch capacitive. Typically, capacitive is more expensive than resistive, though the mass production of capacitive technologies has significantly narrowed that margin. While capacitive is in most regards the superior technology, resistive still has a few practical advantages.
Option 1 – Resistive Touchscreen with a Stylus. This option will be familiar to Wii U and 3DS owners, but to others, it might seem strange and dated. Resistive touchscreen technology works by laying two pieces of plastic material over the screen and, when the two pieces touch by the user pushing down on the screen, it registers a point of contact. With this method, you can touch the screen with just about anything and get a response, but this method does not handle gestures like swiping very well and is unable read multiple simultaneous points of contact. The key advantage is a very naturalistic use with drawing and pinpoint accuracy with the use of a stylus.
Option 2 – Capacitive Touchscreen, No Stylus. If you have a modern smart phone, you have used a capacitive touch screen. Capacitive touchscreens work not on pressure but on electric conduction between two panes of glass. This means the device can read as many points of contact as the software allows and it also means that the screen only responds to specific materials. Thankfully, our fingertips qualify — as well as hot dogs. Capacitive styluses exist, but they are bulkier, less durable, and more expensive; they also don’t have a fine point, which makes them less accurate. The accuracy of capacitive is more than adequate for finger use — and in fact, finger use on capacitive is far superior to finger use on resistive — but falters with precision tasks that require a stylus like drawing or handwriting.
A capacitive touchscreen could hurt the current use of drawing in Miiverse or any other games or apps that use a stylus, but for basic navigation of menus and maps, it would be a notably superior experience. It would allow gamers to use natural gestures like pinching to zoom or moving one finger while keeping another stationary to rotate. Consider the way you use maps on your phone compared to how you use maps on your 3DS or Wii U touchscreen. Though capacitive also requires a fragile glass screen, a company called Corning makes a cheap and durable solution called Gorilla Glass, which is used in most Android devices.
Option 3 – Capacitive Touchscreen with a Wacom-esque Pen. Choosing between resistive and capacitive can be tough when you consider the poor drawing and precision of fingers versus a stylus. Thankfully, another solution exists for this. Companies like Wacom have been developing drawing tablets for PCs for years. Far superior to a simple stylus, a Wacom pen gives you pressure sensitivity and can even offer tilt recognition. These pads are used by drawing professionals everywhere, including those who make the games we play. They can also cost upwards of $1,000 for a screen-based pad.
That being said, Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung has helped in minimizing that barrier by selling a line of large “phablet” phones, which use a capacitive touchscreen but also support a Wacom-esque pen called the S-Pen. The S-Pen, when coupled with a capacitive touch screen, provides the benefits of capacitive technology while also dramatically enhancing the pen-like experience that came from using a stylus with a resistive screen. A Wacom-esque pen interface would, however, be the most expensive option and would require additional hardware in the system itself.
For our last poll, we will consider form factor. There are near infinite variations here, so I have chosen two specific builds to simplify the process.
Option 1 – Clam-Shell Dual Screen. This option would house two screens, similar to the Nintendo DS and 3DS systems. It would add girth to the device when closed and would likely require smaller screens in order to be manageable. There are two big advantages here, a protected screen when the device is closed and second-screen gaming options out of the box. Unfortunately, having a second screen would increase battery drain and raise the expense of the device. It would also make playing on the TV a disorienting three-screen experience.
Option 2 – Flat Single Screen. This option would result in a similar design to Sony’s PlayStation portables, sporting a single large screen and a thinner, longer body. Though the screens and controls would lack the protection a clam-shell would offer, portable durability has decreased that necessity. The bigger disadvantage is the lack of a stock second-screen experience. Though considering the often limited use of a second screen, as well as the ability to cast a second screen to a TV set, its exclusion could be seen as a cost-saving benefit. Plus, a peripheral could always be made for those who want a second screen on the go.
Place your votes by June 2nd to have your voice heard. The winning combination will be presented in all its faux glory before E3 2014 — because, after that, who really cares about the theoretical? Please let us know what you think about this kind of content in the comments.