Tuesday, April 19, 2011

4/19: Unveiling Nintendo's Project Gem!

Presidential candidates have a financial reason to vie for office for months before officially announcing: there are fundraising rules that kick in once a campaign is official. Gaming companies have a financial reason to as well: sales of current consoles go into the toilet.
So Nintendo’s silence on what will replace its hugely popular Wii, nearing ninety million units sold over the last five years, is certainly understandable. But drumbeats nevertheless fill that silence: Wii game production has slowed, with very few first-party titles being released. And not to repeat the previous sentence, but if the Wii were a person it would be entering kindergarten and losing milk teeth. 
What the next step will be isn’t something incremental, like it did by adding a camera to the DS (the DSi) or embiggening the screen (the DS-XL). So no HD Wii, or three-Gamecubes-duct-taped-together edition. Nintendo is mum, but here is my evidence for what I’m going to dub not Wii 2 but Project Gem. (You’ll see why.)
Nintendo’s development cycles for both hardware and software is years long, sometimes almost decadal. For instance, the touchscreen that made the portable Nintendo DS such a hit in 2004 was first conceived nine years earlier, as a Game Boy Color accessory. The Wii’s movement-based gameplay was considered for the Gamecube, well before anyone had made a single urine joke about the Wii. Even Super Mario Galaxy’s microplanet gravity system was around in demo form for over a decade.
That they’re working on something is no surprise: skunk works at Microsoft and Sony are surely toiling away at what will be the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 720, or whatever their new names will be. (Both are on ten-year development cycles, so no one expects either to announce anything for the next few years.) The difference, though, is that they’re basically building muscle cars: the most NOS, the better.
Nintendo opted out of that horsepower contest with the Wii, which not only comes in a distant third in terms of processing ability versus the 360 and the PS3 but doesn’t even match up to the original Xbox in some areas. This was Nintendo’s masterstroke, because it allowed them to focus on applications and software for first-party “amusements” (as Nintendo calls its games) that have set all sorts of sales milestones. After years of claiming the Wii shouldn’t even count as a next-gen system, Microsoft and Sony both responded with their own movement-based gaming add-ons last year: the excellent Kinect and the lukewarm Move. 
That brings us to the hypotheticals: what, exactly, will Project Gem be, now that its rivals have their Wii playbook? HD screen? In the controller? Looks likely. But there's something else, I think. 
#1: Project Gem won’t be sheer oomph. Nintendo ceded that terrain a long time ago, and grew incredibly profitable because of it. Its fortune has been in what a key employee called “lateral thinking of withered technology.” In other words, come up with a new idea that can be made with inexpensive parts.
#2: Project Gem is an idea that’s been around for years. Nintendo’s resident guru Shigeru Miyamoto wants his employees to keep a drawer full of ideas they have but can’t implement, due to technological restrictions. Check that drawerful of ideas every year or so, he says, because improvements may make it feasible. 
#3: Project Gem may not lend itself to every game. Want to know how the DS’s touchscreen was implemented into Nintendo’s hallmark Mario games? It wasn’t, not really. Similarly, there’s not much in New Super Mario Bros. Wii that requires shaking a controller: they could have done without it. The idea doesn’t have to be a perfect fit with all existing genres: the goal is to engender new gaming genres.
#4: Project Gem will continue Nintendo’s wet-match approach to multiplayer. Multiplay games are Halo and Call of Duty jocks’ bread and butter, but Nintendo – despite decades of early innovation in the arena – remains all thumbs at it. If that was going to change, it would have changed years ago. Nintendo was smart enough to stay out of the telephony business due to everyone else in there knowing the business better. Multiplayer games are almost as removed from Nintendo’s core competencies as telephones, sad to say, so don’t look for them to host, say, a console version of MAG.
And thus, Project Gem, Nintendo’s new gaming console, will be…a hologram generator. Not just “holographic data storage” but a real, true, just-like-Star Wars hologram machine.
Buttressing facts for this wild slice of speculation: First, Nintendo started calling itself an “amusement” company a few years back, instead of “video game company.” As with WWE dropping the artifice of realilty when it started calling wrestling “sports entertainment,” Nintendo’s nomenclature may have tipped their hand that the next console wouldn’t require a TV to operate. (Also why they seem uninterested in anything looking nice on a plasma.)
Second, Nintendo has a head start with holographic technology. Its augmented reality, or AR, cards that ship with the 3DS produce gaming images against whatever backdrop you place them on. It’s like a They Live video game, except you can only see the game through the 3DS’s viewscreen. (The same tech has been used for years used to draw first-down lines in football games.) 
It is a pretty big step to finding a way to create a device that sprays ribbons of light that would hold a 3D image, and ideally let you interact with it. But the gaming potential for such a device is astounding. Pick-up sticks, Jenga, Operation, doll houses: they could all be done virtually. Card games: the machine could deal and flip ephemeral cards on a table. Remember R.O.B., from way back in 1985? He could be a virtual action figure. Include a camera with the set-up and you could take pictures of your own head. A virtual chat with a friend could include their floating head in your room. 
True, many top-selling genres of games – shooters, adventure fare, RPGs, sports – would have a rocky adjustment. But this device wouldn’t be any better fit for a standard third- or first-person game than the Wii was, and the Wii is the lightning Nintendo’s trying to rebottle here. And who’s to say that there’s not a wonderful way to simulate the net play of a tennis match, or the chess-game strategy of a sniper battle, or the collecting challenge of a Mario title, with a little floating cloud of image?
Third, and most convincing of all to me, is they’ve already shown it off. Here’s a hologram displaying an ad for the 3DS from a February 2011 gaming trade show. Nifty, yes? I’m putting my money down that they didn’t commission a hologram machine just for the fun of it. This would be a prototype of the final machine, delivering gameplay that’s akin to the AR cards, except without having to look through the 3DS to see it and interact with it.
The rumors of a Wii price are lookign pretty substantial, since you can walk into a number of stores and buy one for less money. Buy we're still two months away from the big E3 trade show. That leaves Nintendo without something new to trump. Sure, they have the new suite of big stars coming to the 3DS – Mario, Link, Kid Icarus (the Terrence Malick of video games) – but that’s all to be expected. 
Could Project Gem be announced, and possibly even released, this year? Odds are, no: there are several more million Wiis and Wii games to be sold first. (The stated goal is to outsell the PlayStation 2 …good luck with that.) But next year, possibly. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And as Phoenix Wright (or any other lawyer) could tell you, many wills are ...holographic.
Endnote: yes, for those who are wondering, the inspiration for the name Project Gem is the mid-80s cartoon show Jem and the Holograms. But I decided that while I'm way the heck out here on this limb, I may as well have some fun with it.