An early look at Nintendo’s next generation console

The weekly newsletter that arrived in my inbox this morning was all about the future of the TV, and how its hyper-connected online future relates to gaming as a whole (widgets, streaming, the cloud, oh my!). It was a fascinating read, but I couldn’t help but think about Nintendo the whole time.

Why? Well, because, at least with the Wii (and with the new DSi), Nintendo seems dead-set on making the console converge with the television. “Channels” were only the very basic beginning. In Japan, the next steps, while still basic and crude, are already happening with TV network partnerships and cable guides. It’s all a bit primitive now, but I can see the lattice coalescing before my eyes, and I have no doubt that with its incredible install base, powerful brand, and mainstream acceptance, Nintendo and the true Wii 2.0 will be an incredibly connected online beast for the masses. What we see now is simply the fish growing legs and struggling to crawl up the beach.

Obviously both Sony and Microsoft have pretty connected little consoles themselves, and I don’t doubt that online is the dominant part of their long term strategies (bye-bye physical media!). However, while we can’t write them off, nor should we, I believe it’s Nintendo that is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the coming and inevitable TV paradigm shift. Conveniently for Nintendo, tomorrow’s online TVs won’t have much of an appetite for memory-eating, bandwidth-hogging HD titles. They also won’t be the realm of the technophile or audiophile, because for any such technology of system to survive, it’s going to need more than a niche audience.

These won’t be videogames in the sense that the Xbox 360 and the PS3 play them, of course. Intelligent television devices will be thin clients, heavily reliant on the network for their content. At best, we’re probably talking about TVs which are capable of executing some form of scripted content like Macromedia’s Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight – perhaps a restricted form of Java, at a push. Rich, graphically intensive games will remain the domain of dedicated console devices.

However, if the past three or four years have taught the videogames industry anything, it’s that not every consumer necessarily wants or needs their entertainment to look like Gears of War or Killzone 2. The Wii and the DS, and latterly the iPhone, have shown that low-tech “disruptive” devices can make significant strides in the market, challenging game creators to rethink their perception of how games work in order to wring great experiences from systems whose abilities are far from cutting edge.

Think about it. Nintendo’s strategy, while incredibly disruptive, and responsible for creating and cultivating millions of new interactive entertainment lovers (Nintendo would say it’s the company literally keeping the industry recession-proof at the moment), was a fairly obvious one. They wore their intentions proudly on their sleeves, hidden from no one, even though at first their aspirations drew a fair share of snickers, spite and hatred from the peanut gallery press. They wanted to reach the un-reachable, entice back veteran 1980’s gamers, and even pick off a few of those more passionate game-playing aficionados along the way. They wanted to show that the market (the consumers) were, mostly, tired of the arms race. Tired of technical specs leading press release, burying everything else. Tired of consoles that were, while pretty to look at, lacked the kind of substance necessary to make consoles profitable. And so far Nintendo has done this and more.

What’s the next logical step? Not a console, necessarily, but a delivery system. An “experience.” I imagine it could look a lot like the Wii Home screen, with all those little channels we both love and hate. I very much doubt Nintendo did not know what it was doing when it set up this interface the way it did. As they did with the Wiimote, Nintendo sought to infiltrate the home with something approachable and familiar. Hence, Channels, remotes and pointers. Intuitiveness. Their UI needs no instruction book (although understanding Friend Codes might).

But as GameIndustry notes, the hurdle for this “next generation” of gaming, sorry interactive entertainment, is not a technological one (many cutting edge TVs today have ethernet ports, etc). It’s a commercial one, and it’s a problem you can see in real-time today with the likes of Hulu, online network TV streaming, and Netflix. Cable companies, et al, are hesitant to provide online content, and this new games hub, provided via your TV, will be no exception.

So I guess the idea of a next generation Nintendo “console,” beyond the Wii, is a bit of a misnomer. The Wii has legs, just as its low-powered no frills NES forefather did, and I see it lasting well into the next decade. This is thanks in part to the shot-in-the-arm provided by MotionPlus, and also thanks to the DSi-style “pseudo-refreshes” that are sure to come to the system too. But after that, as TVs change into something glorious (“Permanently hooked into your high speed internet line, it will be a media streaming device, a content aggregator, an application platform” says, I predict Nintendo will already have partnerships and services in place to meet them. It’s already happening in Japan, and by that time the Wii could very well be the best-selling console of all time.

The Balance Board will still only have one game worth playing, of course, but that’s a given.