Nintendo is starting to understand something that Apple still doesn't

Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild E3 2016 Nintendo Wii UYouTube/Nintendo‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,’ one of the first games slated to come to the Nintendo NX.

The first details of Nintendo’s next-generation video game console, codenamed “NX” and slated for a March 2017 release, have started to leak out, and it sounds pretty crazy.

The idea, it seems, is that the NX is a portable console, like the current Nintendo 3DS, but it will have some way to hook it up to a standard TV and play games that way, like the current Nintendo Wii U. It confirms a lot of other leaks over the last year or so.

It’s a little weird, especially when you consider the fact that there are conflicting reports over whether the NX will use some modified version of Google Android as its operating system. The finished product will stand out on the shelves, if for no other reason than that it will be like nothing else before it.

But there’s one gigantic reason why Nintendo might want to go down this road, and to borrow a phrase from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, it can be summed up as “developers, developers, developers.” And it speaks to a trend that’s sweeping the tech industry.

Fading superpower

Nintendo is no longer the superpower in video games that it used to be.

The Wii U console is a veritable flop, selling only 13.27 million consoles worldwide in the almost four years since release. The Nintendo 3DS is faring better with 59 million systems sold, but that’s still just over a third as much as its predecessor, the Nintendo DS, which was Nintendo’s best-selling device ever with 154 million units.

It’s meant that Nintendo has entered into kind of a death-spiral from which it’s very difficult to recover.

While both the 3DS and the Wii U have been the recipients of some of Nintendo’s very finest internally-made games to date, there just isn’t a ton of support on either console from non-Nintendo game developers. It’s one of the biggest complaints people have with both consoles, especially the Wii U.

With Nintendo only able to deliver one or two of those top-shelf games themselves, they need outside developers to keep a steady stream of new titles coming in to keep existing console owners happy and attract new ones to the base.

With Nintendo’s console sales so low, though, there’s not much incentive for those developers to put in the effort to bring their games to Nintendo’s camp. And without those games, consumers won’t buy more systems. It’s a vicious cycle with little hope for recovery.

Meanwhile, the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox product lines are happy to pick up Nintendo’s slack in the mainstream market, making themselves the platforms of choice for modern blockbusters from outside studios like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto.”

Playing with power

This is why building one system that’s both portable and for the TV might actually be a smart move.

Sony and Microsoft might have the TV console market locked up to the point where it would be a serious uphill struggle for Nintendo to regain any lost ground there, with developers and consumers alike.

But portable gaming has long been Nintendo’s strength, going back to the original Game Boy. While it’s true that sales of the 3DS aren’t as strong as the preceding DS, it’s still going a lot stronger than Sony’s current PlayStation Vita portable console, which has sold 14.18 million units.

That means there’s far less competition for Nintendo to attract first-tier portable game developers, combined with its much stronger reputation and track record in that market.

The beauty of this plan is that it means Nintendo gets kind of a two-fer deal with developers: Hook ’em in with the portable gaming aspect, and then suddenly, it has a robust library of TV-based games too.

The developer doesn’t have to do much, if any, extra work. Build the game once, and it works both ways. If Nintendo does tap Android, even better, because developers already know how to work with Android. It’s all about knocking down the barriers to making games for the NX.

Then, once those games start attracting customers, it will keep that flywheel spinning. More games appear for the NX, more people buy it.

Ta-da. Death spiral escaped.

The Microsoft-Apple connection

What Nintendo is doing here is actually very similar in a lot of ways to what both Microsoft and Google are trying to accomplish, as the lines between “phones,” “PCs,” and “tablets” all start to blur.

As people look to use their devices in different ways, people don’t care about the underlying operating system so much as they do that their apps or games are available when they want them, how they want them.

With Windows 10, Microsoft introduced a new Universal Windows Platform app standard — basically, a way to sell apps once and have them work on Windows-powered smartphones, tablets, and PCs. By pooling all of those different devices, Microsoft holds, it can make for a tremendous audience that developers can’t ignore.

Microsoft universal windows platformMatt Weinberger/Business InsiderA slide from Microsoft’s GDC 2016 talk.

“The fundamental truth for developers is they will build if there are users,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in 2015.

Similarly, Google is working to combine its Android and ChromeOS operating systems in an effort to make an uber-operating system that can work on laptops, tablets, and smartphones…and win over more developers.

The real holdout here is Apple, which still maintains four different operating systems — MacOS, iOS, tvOS, and WatchOS — with no plans to unify.

When the Nintendo NX launches in 2017, we’ll get a big indication of which philosophy is right. If Nintendo can turn a unified platform into a position of strength after its current period of lagging, it will go a long way towards proving the concept.

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