Of Course it is about the Specs Nintendo!

So. The NX. The console that Nintendo will not talk about. It’s launching next year; but multiple third parties still do not have software or hardware development kits. The development kits that are known to be available raise more questions than those kits should answer; with entities like Ubisoft saying the NX will recapture lapsed Wii players; to developers saying the compile kits are taking every PS4 game they can throw at it without an issue. Despite such statements unanswered questions include: Is the final console CPU an x86-64 design or is it an ARM design? Is the GPU a Polaris design from AMD, a Pascal design from Nvidia, a Mali design from ARM, or an Imagination Technology PowerVR chip?  Will that graphics chip fully support Vulkan’s asynchronous shader capability or not? Will the system memory be DDR4, GDDR5, GDDR5X, HBM2, or LPDDR4E? Will the system be an HSA/HUMA memory architecture as in the PS4 or will the GPU and CPU have split memory pools as in the Xbox One?

With likely less than a year to launch; assuming the NX launches alongside the admittedly awesome looking Zelda: Breath of Wind in 2017; these are some pretty big unknowns on any level. Nintendo likes to keep things close to the chest; but it is just flat ludicrous that a large number of third party developers still have no idea exactly what the hardware capabilities will be like in a shipping console.

Nintendo’s refusal to deal with developers took an even more confusing twist when Reggie Fils-Aimé stated that Nintendo was not focusing on the specs; just focusing on the content. “For us, it’s not about specs, it’s not about teraflops, it’s not about the horsepower of a particular system. For us, it’s about the content” – Bloomberg News.

There are so many problems with that statement that I have difficulty deciding where to start. Not focusing on the specifications is how the WiiU wound up still using the even at that time archaic PowerPC architecture when entire industries had moved away.  Not focusing on specifications is how the New Nintendo 3DS leveraged an ARM11 processor built on the ARMv6 architecture processor in 2014; 12 years AFTER the ARM11 had been introduced; 10 years after ARM had introduced ARMv7 (2004 with Cortex-M3); and 3 years after ARMv8 was detailed (2011). Basically; Nintendo’s recent products have shown up to date with out-of-date silicon that use far more electrical power to achieve the same performance as modern chips; give off far more heat and consume far more battery life to reach that performance; and then have either strict thermal limitations or battery limitations imposed upon those archaic slabs of silicon. If the New Nintendo 3DS had launched with an ARMv8 chip inside, which was feasible given some of the vendor launch dates; Nintendo could have fielded a much more powerful device with longer battery life for the same fiscal price. That didn’t happen.

So; yeah; if nothing but just for Nintendo’s own thermal envelopes and desired battery life: THE SPECIFICATIONS MATTER.  They do. They really really do.

I get the impression that (some) Nintendo’s engineers are still stuck in the heady closed-door days of the N64 and Gamecube; where only a company with Nintendo’s resources could commission a processor vendor to bang out a product that could exist within the fiscal constraints of a set-top box.  That’s just not true anymore; especially not with the myriad amount of ARM licensees each putting their own spin on the base ARM design to stuff their product into mobile constraints.

Nobody is expecting Nintendo to once again go toe to toe with Sony or Microsoft and deliver a console that is just as powerful as their latest. What everybody DOES expect is that if Nintendo is several years beyond the launch of a competitor console; that the new console use modern chips to at least be as powerful as that aging platform. I went into this in the last post on the subject of the NX; a wide range of vendors can now offer PS4 levels of performance in packages that fit within the thermal constraints of the WiiU chassis. It is not unreasonable when looking at the on-paper specifications of ARM’s Cortex A-73 processor and Mali G71 GPU to picture a package that can deliver the launch PS4’s OpenGL 4.x / Vulkan Asynchronous Shader 1080p performance in 1440p; while staying within the thermal constraints of the chassis used by the Wii Mini.

Which leads into another aspect where Reggie’s statement is just completely and utterly bonkers. Getting content onto the NX almost requires that developers are comfortable with porting into the system.  Fielding a system that is drastically under-powered compared to the competition puts Nintendo right back into the positions they held with the Wii and WiiU in regards to third party content. There were almost zero games released from third party developers that were content matched between the various systems. The WiiU started strong with a large number of PS3 ports; but as developers stepped away from the PS3 there was little reason to backport newer titles into a dead-end Processor Instruction Set Architecture. The result is that today’s WiiU line-up of third party games is drier than the Kalimari Desert.

Again: The Specifications Matter.  Adopting a processor instruction set architecture that modern software tools do not address simply adds to the workload of any single game developer.

To be fair; the decision of Microsoft and Sony to re-iterate their next PS4 and Xbox entries along the x86-64 architecture does not necessarily lock Nintendo into that Processor ISA.  The market dominance of Android/Linux running atop ARM processors with Mali GPU’s ensures that developers have an incentive to keep their tools up to date for production on those platforms. Which leads back into the intense analyst interest when it was leaked that the NX was, in fact, being built around an Android system.  Which also once again references the massive mistake on Nintendo’s part to not openly confirm that the NX would, in fact, be running a system potentially based on the Android system.

As of right now my own guess is that AMD’s continued troubles with fabrication and chipset design could have cost them the NX contract. As Sony and Microsoft have no incentive to break Processor ISA compatibility or OS compatibility; I suspect their respective Neo and Scorpio consoles are waiting for AMD to iron out production difficulties with Zen and Polaris. Admittedly this guesswork is largely based on the Polaris based RX 480 having the same listed thermal envelope as the Pascal based GTX 1070 (150watt TDP), but is nowhere near the 1070’s rendering performance. No problem for Sony or Microsoft to wait another 6 or so months for updated and revised chips with better performance per watt to land before ramping up production.

Nintendo, however, as mentioned in the last NX article, absolutely positively must break Processor ISA compatibility and OS compatibility. While there has been a long history of co-operation between the Nintendo and business entities that are now in the form of the Radeon Technologies Group; starting with SGI on the N64, then ArtX on the Gamecube, then ATi on the Wii, then AMD on the WiiU; the death of Iwata and the succession of Tatsumi Kimishima to the CEO spot may have put Nintendo in a position to re-evaluate that relationship. It is not unthinkable then that another vendor may have slipped in.

If I had to guess then; I’d say the rumors linking Nintendo to Nvidia might be more accurate than Nintendo may have preferred. Nvidia has a significant development team devoted to getting OpenGL 4.x titles up and running on the Shield family of Android Products. It is not un-imaginable then that Nvidia is aggressively courting Nintendo with their Tegra “Parker” platform.

What I do find hard to believe is that Nintendo would actually select a modern platform for the NX. After hardware after hardware product with archaic and out of date hardware choices for the product market Nintendo aimed for; it’s almost impossible to imagine the company making sensible choices with the NX. It is quite possible to believe that Nintendo genuinely does believe that the hardware specifications do not matter; and that the NX will simply wind up as another WiiU. A console that could have been so much more if Nintendo had just paid attention to the specifications.

It may very well be that Nintendo isn’t able to tell developers about the NX because Nintendo themselves don’t know about the NX. If a decision has been made, as recently rumored, that Nintendo could seek PSVR device compatibility and thus will wait till 2017 to launch the NX, then chances are very good that the internal engineers begging for modern hardware won out over the “if it’s ancient, archaic, electrically and performance per watt impractical for our device’s envisioned usage then we want it” group that oversaw the Wii, the WiiU, the 3DS, and the New 3DS.

Leave a Reply