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Going Android: How Nintendo could learn from Amazon

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Nintendo may have quashed rumors that its next-generation "NX" console will run Android, but that isn't enough to stop the speculators. After all, the company has a history of denials that weren't entirely forthright. Remember how the console maker downplayed talk of a supersized 3DS in early June 2012, only to announce that very device weeks later? Yeah. Whomever you believe, the scuttlebutt raises a big question: Just what would Nintendo do with Android? Would it see much of a benefit versus handling everything in-house? If Amazon's experience building a heavily customized version of Android is any indication, the answer is yes -- but it wouldn't be the cure-all that you might hope for.

More games, but not always better

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata And DeNA President Isao Moriyasu Joint News Conference As The Companies Form Capital Alliance
Nintendo's Satoru Iwata (right) announces mobile game partnership with DeNA.

If you're a long-time gamer, you know that one of Nintendo's ages-old challenges has been getting third-party developers to make games for its TV-based consoles. Big-name brands either skip the platforms entirely or jump ship after deciding that the low sales aren't worth overcoming the technical hurdles of Nintendo's frequently eccentric hardware. And there's no doubt that Nintendo could use some help from outside. It's so heavily dependent on its own titles that its profits are frequently linked to its flagship games' release schedules -- if there isn't a new blockbuster on store shelves, it loses money. In theory, a richer library would prevent that financial roller coaster ride.

That's precisely why Nintendo would embrace Android with open arms, according to the Nikkei rumor. There are already legions of developers writing Android apps for mobile devices, so it wouldn't be a big stretch for them to either port existing apps or write new ones. Moreover, it would open the doors to developers who hadn't even considered living room apps before. Make a few tweaks and that phone app potentially reaches millions more people.

Amazon's experience with its Fire TV media hub would suggest that there's some wisdom to this strategy. Although it launched primarily as a media player with a very Amazon-centric interface, its use of a modified version of Android (Fire OS) opened the door to 1,600 apps and services that, in many cases, are adaptations of mobile titles. The device is likely more flexible than it would have been, especially when it comes to gaming; witness the big-screen versions of Minecraft Pocket Edition and Candy Crush Saga if you need proof. Could Amazon have persuaded at least some of these firms to write apps for a completely proprietary Fire TV? Probably, but Android meant the company didn't have to. A seasoned studio can release Fire TV apps without investing a ton of development time and taking on additional risks.

Amazon's heavily skinned Fire OS runs on Android.

However, that same virtue has also been something of a vice for Amazon. Android might make it easier to write apps for a device, but it offers no guarantees that you'll get better apps. In fact, it frequently encourages quick-and-dirty conversions that do little to take advantage of hardware. The Fire TV version of Game of Thrones isn't really different from what you'd get on a good Android tablet with a gamepad. Even on NVIDIA's Shield devices, some of the biggest releases are straightforward conversions of older PC games like Portal. About the only advantage is playing in your living room instead of your home office.

For Nintendo, these straight-up ports probably wouldn't cut it. The company might appreciate filling in some of the gaps in its catalog, but what's the likelihood that an Android developer would go the extra mile to make a game that shines on the NX? Not high. Although set-top boxes like the Fire TV and OUYA certainly prove that Android games can work on the big screen, there are few compelling reasons to get them if you can afford a higher-powered console or a decent computer. Nintendo won't get you to forgo a PlayStation or Xbox with the same game catalog you could play on your phone, and a title that truly does justice to a system will take a lot of special code. That's certainly possible with Android, but there isn't much incentive to using a ready-made platform if studios still have to bend over backward to offer support.

Tie-ins with other devices

Nintendo's New 3DS and 3DS LL (XL outside Japan) portable consoles

Of course, it's important to remember that Nintendo, Amazon and other big companies don't make just one gadget; they have whole ecosystems, and that's where a common platform like Android can come in handy. Amazon's Fire lineup is strong evidence. Even if you don't like Fire OS, it's safe to say that its take on Android produces a consistent, yet distinctive experience as you hop from device to device. There's no mistaking that the Fire HD 7 tablet comes from the same company that made the Fire Phone and Fire TV, and there are shared features like ASAP instant streaming or Second Screen sharing. If you like one product, chances are that you'll like the others... most of the time, anyway.

For Nintendo, that consistency is all-important. Although the 3DS and Wii U are wildly different in some ways, they share the same kid-friendly experience. Android's support for heavy customization would let Nintendo preserve that whimsical look and feel, not to mention device-independent features, without giving up Android perks like the broader app library, smarter networking and touch support. Whether or not this hypothetical NX was directly compatible with older games, you'd know who made it.

Let's not forget the elephant in the room, for that matter: Nintendo has already committed to making mobile games. Basing a console around Android, however customized it might be, would make it far easier to bring those games to your TV. Just as the Fire TV gives you reassuringly familiar apps from your phone, you wouldn't have to completely reset your expectations when picking up the NX edition of something you've already played. Cross-platform features would get a lift, too. You could see PlayStation-style continuity where you stop playing on one system and resume on the other, or Windows 10-like universal games that you buy once and run on different device types. In that sense, going Android would be as much about catching up on the kind of synergy that Microsoft and Sony have sought for years.

The Google Play problem: missing services

Modified Android could mean an off-limits Google Play store.

Unfortunately, there's a price to pay if you modify Android as heavily as Nintendo would likely want. While Android is very flexible, only the core operating system and a handful of basic apps actually have open-source code that you can tailor to your liking. If you want Google's official apps, you have to get a license and meet certain compatibility requirements (such as app support and branding) that limit what you can change. Without those, you lose access to not only key apps like the Chrome browser and Hangouts messaging, but also the entire Google Play Store. Just like that, about 1.5 million apps (as of June 2015, according to AppBrain) are off the table -- you have to either create your own store or use someone else's if you're going to provide a one-stop software shop.

If you want to see the problems this can create, you just have to ask Amazon, whose Fire line gave up that Google licensing. The Amazon Appstore took years to amass a relatively modest 250,000 titles, and while you're going to see a lot of familiar apps these days (think Instagram, Netflix and Spotify), the odds are still high that something you use on another Android device is missing. And as good as 1,600 apps may be on a video-centric device like the Fire TV, that still limits your entertainment options. You'll get YouTube, but you won't be streaming your Google Play Music collection or playing that hot new game. Amazon mostly counts on its own services, such as Music and Instant Video, to fill in the gaps.

Nintendo would run into a similar app deficit with an Android-powered NX, and might even face worse troubles growing its catalog. Although it has years of experience with online services thanks to the eShop and Nintendo Network, it's new to the mobile world -- it's only just building its first mobile apps and the service that will link them together. You're not likely to see Nintendo-made music and video services, and the console maker might not lure in as many Google Play Store developers as an internet giant like Amazon. Nintendo's trouble adapting to the online space could work against it. Case in point: Consumers can't simply re-download 3DS or Wii U content if they change consoles and must, instead, resort to a system transfer or juggling SD cards.

Whether or not you'd miss most Google services on this potential machine (you're probably not going to check Gmail on your TV), you would likely notice the absence of many Google Play apps, and even some of the offerings on Fire TV. In other words, an Android-based Nintendo console probably wouldn't be the app paradise you'd like it to be. You might get more software than you would if Nintendo went its usual proprietary route, but not nearly as much as you're used to in the mobile realm.

So would Android make sense?

Mario Kart 8
Mario Kart 8 for Wii U

It's possible that Nintendo could pull off an Android-powered gaming system. As you've seen through Amazon's example, though, it would be far from a guaranteed hit. Satoru Iwata and crew would have to work overtime not only courting app developers, but also making sure that at least some of them produce games that are a cut above what you can find on your phone. Amazon managed the former, but has frequently tripped up on the latter. And Nintendo would definitely have to emulate at least some of Amazon's interface approach, introducing its own flourishes and taking advantage of Android's internet-savvy code.

The biggest danger for a Nintendo/Android mash-up would be complacency. Amazon's overall success with the Fire range came through years of fostering a unique, complete ecosystem that gives you at least a few reasons to buy one of its devices versus a run-of-the-mill Android gadget. If Nintendo does indeed pursue the Android route, it can't just resort to putting a friendly face on Android and then expect the apps to come flooding in. If it did, it would risk repeating the problems we've seen with Android consoles so far, where there's precious little to draw you in. Android would merely be the launching pad for bigger and better things -- Nintendo would still need to build the rocket.

[Image credits: Bloomberg via Getty Images (DeNA/Nintendo); Amazon (Fire TV); Google (Google Play); Nintendo (Mario Kart 8)]
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