Could you imagine Nintendo making games that play on both their console and their handheld? Nintendo's top game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, can. He told me he sees that as a challenge but also an "area of opportunity".
We talked about this kind of thing during the tail end of our veryfruitfulconversation at E3 in Los Angeles earlier this month. We were in speculative-future territory here. To be clear, he didn't announce anything. He did not tell me then and there that Super Mario Bros 65 will be co-developed for the Wii U 2 and the Nintendo 4DS. Nothing of the sort. Still, we were brainstorming!
I had been asking Miyamoto about the wisdom of continuing to split Nintendo's development talent across two machines, a portable and handheld, be it the Wii and DS or the Wii U and 3DS.
It's a shame, I think, for, say, some developers at Nintendo to make a marvellous game for 3DS that can't run on the Wii U or to make a Wii U game that can't run on 3DS. I get that there are horsepower differentials and some feature distinctions. But I also see this type of cross-platfrom play becoming increasingly prevalent across iOS devices and PlayStation devices.
I've also seen Nintendo themselves hinting at developments that would enable this, all the while doing things like authorizing simultaneous development and near-simultaneous release for similar but distinct Smash Bros. games for Wii U and 3DS.
Why not converge, I asked?
Well, my question was a bit longer.
Read the exchange we had below and then ponder where all this could go — ideally somewhere very cool. I was talking to Miyamoto and Shinya Takahashi, both through a translator. Together, they manage the game-making of Nintendo's internal development teams and close partners.
Stephen Totilo, Kotaku: I would say that, five years ago, I would never have thought that a game that I could play on my DS should also run on my Wii. Or that a game that ran on my PSP should also play on my PS2. But, more and more these days, I feel that the game that I play on my 3DS should also play on my TV or that the game that I play on my TV should go with me. And I find that with different platforms that option is more and more possible.
I've heard [Nintendo CEO Satoru] Iwata talk about how in the future he hopes to have something more like a unified operating system across all of Nintendo's platforms.
As the people managing the development teams, would it not be more efficient if the team that made a game could make a game that could be played across all of the devices?
And, therefore — long question — but ultimately, do you think in the long term we'll see the merging of the idea of the home team and the portable team, and that one team would make a game that I could play on my TV but also on the go?
Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo: Is this a board meeting?
So, certainly if you look at the show floor, currently the games are designed for the systems they're running on. There are games that in a way take advantage of being on a higher-spec machine that plays on a TV and there are games that are designed to play better on a portable machine. But certainly we've gotten to an age where the technology has advanced and it's become more and more possible to have a similar experience running on a lower-spec system. And even within the Wii U itself we have the Virtual Console, which sort of is an exhibit of how you can have one type of play that is at a higher-spec level and another type of play at a lower-spec level as well. So certainly I think there is possibility in that area in the future.
So, this is a bit of a tangent, but five years ago I think the industry was at a point where many game developers felt that, if they weren't creating games for the highest-spec machine, then they weren't going to get work, that the business would go away.
Miyamoto: "As we move forward, we're going to look at what we can do to unify [our console and portable] development environments."
But over the last five years we've seen that the range of devices that they develop for has expanded, so they're able to decide if they want to create something that is very high spec type of game or something that is for a lower-spec device. So I just think it's good to see the freedom of choice that developers now have.
What I can say is, certainly, within Nintendo the fact that our development environment for our home console is different from the development environment for our portable system is certainly an area of stress or challenge for the development teams. So as we move forward, we're going to look at what we can do to unify the two development environments.
So, particularly with digital downloads now and the idea that you're downloading the right to play a game, that opens up the ability to have multiple platform digital downloads where you can download on one and download on another. Certainly from a development standpoint there is some challenge to it, because if you have two devices that have different specs and you're being told to design in a way that the game runs on both devices, then that can be challenging for the developer — but if you have a more unified development environment and you're able to make one game that runs on both systems instead of having to make a game for each system, that's an area of opportunity for us.
Totilo: It's good to hear you say that, by the way. It's not really a question, but Super Mario Bros. 3 had just been released on Virtual Console in the States on 3DS and Wii U on the same day. You had to pay for it for each download. You couldn't get it for free [on the other platform]...
Miyamoto: Ohhh. That's right. I'm sorry.
Totilo: Maybe you guys can do that differently next time.
Miyamoto: I'll think about it.
We took a bit of a left turn at the end of that exchange, huh? But where he was going was still pretty interesting. Just imagine a future Mario & Luigi game that plays on console and handheld, or being able to play the next Donkey Kong Country on a TV or portable screen.
If you'd like more context for all of this, you should also read Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata's comments about Nintendo unifying their handheld and console operating systems. He made these comments to Nintendo investors this past winter:
Last year Nintendo reorganized its R&D divisions and integrated the handheld device and home console development teams into one division under Mr. Takeda. Previously, our handheld video game devices and home video game consoles had to be developed separately as the technological requirements of each system, whether it was battery-powered or connected to a power supply, differed greatly, leading to completely different architectures and, hence, divergent methods of software development. However, because of vast technological advances, it became possible to achieve a fair degree of architectural integration. We discussed this point, and we ultimately concluded that it was the right time to integrate the two teams.
For example, currently it requires a huge amount of effort to port Wii software to Nintendo 3DS because not only their resolutions but also the methods of software development are entirely different. The same thing happens when we try to port Nintendo 3DS software to Wii U. If the transition of software from platform to platform can be made simpler, this will help solve the problem of game shortages in the launch periods of new platforms. Also, as technological advances took place at such a dramatic rate, and we were forced to choose the best technologies for video games under cost restrictions, each time we developed a new platform, we always ended up developing a system that was completely different from its predecessor. The only exception was when we went from Nintendo GameCube to Wii. Though the controller changed completely, the actual computer and graphics chips were developed very smoothly as they were very similar to those of Nintendo GameCube, but all the other systems required ground-up effort. However, I think that we no longer need this kind of effort under the current circumstances. In this perspective, while we are only going to be able to start this with the next system, it will become important for us to accurately take advantage of what we have done with the Wii U architecture. It of course does not mean that we are going to use exactly the same architecture as Wii U, but we are going to create a system that can absorb the Wii U architecture adequately. When this happens, home consoles and handheld devices will no longer be completely different, and they will become like brothers in a family of systems.
Still, I am not sure if the form factor (the size and configuration of the hardware) will be integrated. In contrast, the number of form factors might increase. Currently, we can only provide two form factors because if we had three or four different architectures, we would face serious shortages of software on every platform. To cite a specific case, Apple is able to release smart devices with various form factors one after another because there is one way of programming adopted by all platforms. Apple has a common platform called iOS. Another example is Android. Though there are various models, Android does not face software shortages because there is one common way of programming on the Android platform that works with various models. The point is, Nintendo platforms should be like those two examples. Whether we will ultimately need just one device will be determined by what consumers demand in the future, and that is not something we know at the moment. However, we are hoping to change and correct the situation in which we develop games for different platforms individually and sometimes disappoint consumers with game shortages as we attempt to move from one platform to another, and we believe that we will be able to deliver tangible results in the future.
Picture: Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata at E3 2011, captured by GameSpot