Less Than Or Equal #47: Steve Lubitz

I've written a lot on this site about my journey of learning that I have ADD in my mid-thirties, and discovering what that means for the person I've become and where I want to go from here. My friend Aleen Sims had me on her podcast Less Than or Equal this week to discuss what that journey has been like for me, six months in. If you've been curious about the experience of being diagnosed with ADD in adulthood or you think it's possible you might have ADD yourself, I think this is an important discussion to listen to.

Plus, I educate Aleen about the importance of Dunkin Donuts and we geek out about Splatoon for a bit, so there's that also.

Going To The Source

I first learned to code when I was four years old. My parents ended up buying a Commodore 64 despite the fact that it cost nearly as much as a car at the time, and I was immediately in love. (This despite the fact that my early exposure to it involved a lot of attempts at getting me to like Cave of the Word Wizard, which is easily one of the creepiest educational games of all time.)

The computer itself was so expensive that we didn’t get a floppy drive right away, since that was easily several hundred dollars more at the time. We had a couple of games on cartridges that plugged into the back of the C64, but most of what I did with the computer back then came from magazines. At the time, there was a magazine called Compute!'s Gazette, which had the source for programs in the back of the issue that you could enter into the computer and run. Since the operating system for the C64 was effectively BASIC, you could type the source directly in without running any additional software, run it, and have a game to play until you shut the computer down.

So I was primarily using the computer to play games, but I was also learning, at a really early age, what it takes to get a program to run. What's more, this was something that I could do by myself if I took the time to learn it, which I did. I was awesome at coding infinite loops to fill the screen with repeated text. When we eventually got a 300 baud modem and a subscription to Q-Link later on, I'd download public domain text adventure games and dump the source when I got stuck to see what to do next. This was the closest I could get to actual magic as a kid, and that feeling followed me through college and into a job where I get to make something out of nothing on a daily basis.

The thing is, I was lucky for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that I happened to be a boy. In the 80s, computers were very much marketed as something for boys, so it was an easy choice for my parents to go to the store and drop a significant amount of money on it for me to have. If I was a girl, I'd like to think my parents would have been progressive enough to still get the Commodore 64, but statistics say that's considerably less likely. Things have improved since then, but still not enough.

This has been on my mind lately because I'm in the process of figuring out how to introduce my oldest daughter to programming over the summer. She's close to a year ahead in math, so it seems like it's the right time to expose her to programming and see if it's something she likes to do. If she doesn't, that's fine, but it's important that she has that opportunity to be exposed to it and determine for herself if it's something that she could enjoy and be good at, just like I did at an early age.

My daughter is lucky, though, even though she doesn't know it, because most girls aren't in a situation where they can get that exposure early on. Programming is still seen as something "for boys" despite all the change that's happened of late, so there are a lot of girls out there who could be awesome at programming but might not ever end up getting a chance to try it; they might not have parents who are able to help them get started, and signing up for a course either in or out of school can be intimidating if it means potentially being the only girl in the room. (This is true even before harassment becomes a concern; one of my twins, despite our best efforts, bristles at trying anything she considers a "boy thing", and she's six.)

That's where App Camp For Girls comes in. This is a fantastic organization that puts on one week camps exclusively for teenaged girls, with exclusively women instructors, and gives them the opportunity to design and build an app from start to finish in a comfortable environment. They do fantastic work, and right now they're trying to raise funds to expand their efforts to more cities across the U.S. and Canada to be able to help more girls get the start they need to make a living coding. It's a cause that's really important to me, having three daughters who have the potential to do amazing things with technology if they want to, and if you feel the same, they could really use your support right now.

If you're interested in learning more about App Camp For Girls, my friend Aleen Simms has a fantastic interview with their founder, Jean MacDonald. After that, please go to App Camp For Girls' Indiegogo page and donate what you can. If we keep leaving girls' prospects in technology up to luck, things will never improve.

The Wizards

I take it back. I take it all back.

I had my reservations about the Nintendo World Championships. I felt like it was a vapid grab at nostalgia. I said it was crapping on my childhood. I thought it was going to be a disaster. I was so, so wrong.

I didn't start watching from the beginning, so I missed the Splatoon matches and the new weird robot soccer game that Nintendo debuted. When people on Twitter started talking about the competition turning to Super Metroid, I gave in and started up the stream. Watching five people battle against Mother Brain simultaneously was definitely worth watching.

Nothing prepared me for the final round, though, which had Nintendo's Treehouse team craft four of the most devious Mario levels I've ever seen, courtesy of the upcoming Super Mario Maker. The two finalists had to traverse these levels, having no way to prepare for them beyond the natural skill at platforming that they brought with them. This was an absolute sight to behold, both in terms of the downright evil contraptions the Treehouse team was able to dream up, as well as the amazing skill that the two finalists demonstrated by completing them on a time limit in front of a live audience.

Seriously, if you have any warm feelings for a 2D Mario game in your heart, you need to take the time to watch the final round. Not only was this immensely entertaining, but it made me a fan of Super Mario Maker when I was lukewarm at best about it before last night.

E3 is always an exciting time, but the trend has been for a lot of the games to be gritty, and violent, and dark. The Nintendo World Championships was a reminder that games can be fun. They should be fun. And for a few hours, they were incredibly fun. I don't think I've been that invested in watching something other than the Super Bowl in a long time. For 45 minutes, it felt like the Internet came together to watch something completely unexpected, and it was a blast.

I've been fairly skeptical of eSports up to now, but seeing that exhibition of mastery of skill at least partially converted me; it was on the level of any exciting football game I've ever watched. It might even be more impressive to me because I know what's involved in clearing a really difficult level in a platform game, and I know that what I just saw was well outside of my abilities. I have no idea what it takes to really catch a 30 yard forward pass or hit a 90 MPH fastball because I've never done it. I've played a hell of a lot of Mario though, so when I see a chain of five jumps across short platforms with buzzsaws above each one, I know exactly how difficult it is to execute even with hours of practice, let alone sight unseen. I cheered out loud the way I do when my football team scores a long touchdown, and I legitimately rooted for these people I'd never heard of an hour before.

In a year when it seems like so many announcements are being leaked ahead of time that it's hard to get too excited about the keynotes, Nintendo gave us something that we could get legitimately excited about. We got to see two people be exceptional with a controller against a team of people who were exceptional with a set of tools to build the most ridiculous challenges they could dream up. It was entertaining, and completely unexpected, and I desperately want more of it. I may or may not remember any of the games announced this week years from now, but I know I'll remember watching that final round for a really long time.

Making Magic Happen: How CCGs Helped Manage the ADD I Didn't Know I Had

I'm on a roll,

I'm on a roll to success

I feel my luck could change

             - Radiohead, "Lucky"

I'm playing one of my first games of Hearthstone since discovering a recipe for the so-called "Doctor Draw" deck that I'm now using. I've been playing Hearthstone for a few weeks since rediscovering it after they added iPhone support, but this is the first time that I've sought out advice for deck building online. This is a Priest deck; the Priest class revolves around healing and board control, and this particular deck features a card called the Northshire Cleric, which allows its owner to draw an extra card every time a minion is healed. Late in the game, after withstanding an early rush from my opponent, I play Holy Nova, which damages all of their minions and heals all of mine. This clears their side of the board and gives me four extra cards, one for each minion of mine that was damaged at the time. As my hand filled and it became clear that I had the match well in hand, I suddenly felt a rush I hadn't felt in a long, long time. And it felt really good.

My high school gaming experience was all about two types of games: Fighting games and card games. I didn't get an NES until I was 11, and then not until 1990, very late in that system's life cycle. The Super NES came out almost immediately afterward, and that was a non-starter, as far as my parents' willingness to buy one was concerned. I had wanted the NES, I had begged and pleaded for nothing but the NES for five years, and so the NES (and the Game Gear that I got for my Bar Mitzvah, because I was swayed by pretty colors to make the terrible decision to not get a Game Boy) would have to do. The NES would be the last console I'd get until my wife-to-be and I would pool our money in college one summer and get the N64 that would be our first joint possession of many. I had a PC, but most of what I had were Sierra games and Doom, neither of which I was ever able to get the handle of to the point where I could really enjoy them.

This means I missed out on a lot of important games that I had to catch up with later. For some things, this was no big deal; I've since played through Super Mario World and A Link to the Past, and I recently finished Super Metroid for the first time thanks to the virtual console on the Wii U. However, the one game that I was never able to catch up on was Street Fighter II. That's not to say I've never played the game; of course I have, but there's a difference between playing Street Fighter II once in a while at a friend's house or in the arcade and having ready access to it. I could play Street Fighter but I could never really get good at it; that takes the kind of time and obsessiveness that you really only can get as a kid or a teen, the same kind of drive and ability to learn that let me get good enough at NES games to get to the very last stage of Battletoads, past the speeders and the giant snake levels.

There are different levels of play in a fighting game. Anyone can just pick up and play, hit random buttons, and hope to get lucky once in a while. That was the level I was always stuck at, where I was a world class button masher but could never really get to the next tier of play. What happens once you actually learn a fighting game, when you get to the point where you're not just pressing buttons randomly, but you know what each button does for the character you chose and when each button is to be pressed, is that magic starts to happen. All of a sudden you can go from randomly hitting and getting hit to being able to counterattack reliably, and even execute combos that your opponent can't answer. In other words, at some point, the game seems to slow down for you. This is the level I always wanted to get to in Street Fighter, and it remained a constant frustration that I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. It could be that my reflexes were never fast enough, or I never played with the right people who could teach me what I was missing, or I just missed my window of opportunity to learn how to play those games correctly. Maybe it was all three. Whatever it was, the game never slowed down for me. No fighting game has.

I had very few friends in high school, which is something that should come as no surprise in any retrospective that revolves around video games in the 90s. Up through 8th grade, I was in a Jewish day school that dwindled to a graduating class of twelve; everyone more or less at least tolerated each other because there wasn't much choice otherwise. I moved to the public high school in 9th grade, which was considerably larger. Once I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a giant pond, I needed to learn how to swim very quickly, and I never really did. I was either lucky or smart enough to stay out of the line of fire of the bullies, for the most part; I never got physically beaten up, though the threat was always there, that one wrong move would lead to Beatdown City. I mostly kept to myself, kept my head down, and stayed out of trouble. I was terribly lonely a lot of the time, though.

My sophomore year, I became friends with Ryan, who would end up being one of the only real friends I'd have in the school during my time there. Being outside the generally accepted "cool" social circles, we did the only other thing there was to do as a teenager in New Jersey in the mid-90s: We went to the mall and walked around without buying anything. (When I was eventually exposed to the movie Mallrats, it felt like it was a story tangentially about my life; I actually recognized more than one of the malls they visited in that film.) Once the mall closed or we just got bored of doing what we called "the ritual" (read: a loop around the mall with obligatory stops at stores like Electronics Boutique and Spencer Gifts), we would go back to his house and play video games. Ryan had a Sega Saturn, and the only games worth playing on it that he owned were Japanese imports of X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter. We'd play for hours, and I'd be lucky to win a match in any given evening.

I desperately wanted to get better at the game, to feel like I was good at something. I was perpetually on the honor roll, so I was good at academics, but that didn't really count for me at the time. That wasn't valued, I thought, by anyone except for college admissions officers who would eventually look at my GPA, and they were in the future. Being good academically certainly wasn't winning me any friends, because it became abundantly clear early on that, as far as the social order of high school was concerned, my intelligence was a negative trait, and I would be punished if I were to try to make it otherwise. Video games were something I felt like I could be good at, and fighting games were the only kind of game that was out at the time where I felt like I could prove that competitively. I printed out move lists from GameFAQs and studied them, to no avail. Try as I might, it just never happened.

Around the same time, I went into what would become my regular comic book store and noticed the display of Magic: The Gathering cards on the counter. This was an easier sell to my parents than an SNES or a Playstation; instead of needing a $200-$300 console, all I needed was a $12 starter deck. The math was easy, at least at first. I fell in love immediately. Before I knew it, I was a regular at the comic shop's Magic night every Sunday. That became a fixture of my high school life from that point on, and I rarely missed a week; it was the one thing I had to look forward to at the time. No matter how bad the week got, no matter how mean the kids were to me at school, I knew that as long as I could make it to Sunday night everything would be ok, at least for a little while.

What's more, I was actually good at Magic in a way that I never really could be with fighting games. Magic is a really difficult game; the basic rule book is fairly thick, and the game actually gets more complex as different cards interact in ways that the rule book doesn't always cover. That never really bothered me, though; it made sense to me as though I'd been playing the game all my life. The intricacies of the game, like how to balance a deck, how to make the most of the cards available in any given situation, and how to bait an opponent into using up defensive cards on decoys before playing important cards, came to me relatively effortlessly. The same skills that would eventually make me a good programmer also made me a good Magic player; every situation was a problem that I needed to use a set of tools to solve, and I was good at putting the pieces together on the fly. As helpless as I felt playing fighting games, that's how confident I felt when playing Magic. They both put me one on one against another person, but when playing Magic, I knew what to do and I knew how to do it. I could finally win at something.

Magic: The Gathering quickly became more than a game to me. It was an opportunity, once a week, to sit down across the table from someone and prove that I was actually good at something that mattered to my addled teenage brain. Playing Magic went from being something I did to being something I was. I had binders full of uncommon and rare cards meticulously catalogued, despite the fact that everything else I owned was perpetually in a series of piles on my bedroom floor, a dichotomy my parents pointed out frequently. (In retrospect, I either was hyperfocused on keeping the cards organized or Magic was so important to me that I was able to push past the attention issues that I didn't yet know I had to get them in order.) I found channels of Magic players on IRC and downloaded a program that simulated a card table online to be able to play practice games during the week. I spent whole evenings reading web sites on strategy and deck building. School was easy for me at the time; the real study time went to Magic, not academics.

To be clear, I wasn't ever professional level good; that kind of proficiency took a monetary commitment I was never able to make. I don't know that I even won more matches than I lost, looking back on it. I certainly didn't win enough to cover the cost of the cards I needed to buy. But I held my own in the weekly tournaments at the comic shop and the bigger tournaments that were held in the area. I even got to the quarterfinal round in a large sealed deck tournament in Boston toward the end of my freshman year of college; the challenge of beating that many opponents in a row was equalled by the challenge of trying to find a taxi out of downtown Boston at 2:30 AM after I was finally eliminated.

Eventually, though, the cost of the game caught up with me. New expansion sets came out three times a year, on average, and getting the new cards was necessary to stay competitive. My reward for getting on honor roll for a quarter was a box of booster packs, which usually ran between $100 and $150; it was like an extra birthday every time I got one of those, because I spent the whole day opening presents. Once I was in college and on a limited budget, though, the idea of spending that much money to just be able to keep playing became too much. I moved over to sealed deck for a while, but that was never as fulfilling as being able to put together a deck I knew like the back of my hand. After my freshman year of college, I gave Magic up cold turkey one day and didn't look back.

Ultimately, by then I didn't need Magic anymore. When I got to college I found a supportive environment full of people who accepted me as I was, so I didn't feel the need to prove my worth constantly, either to myself or others. A few months after I gave up Magic I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. Magic wasn't a lifeline to get me through the week anymore. It became just another game, and an expensive one at that, so when I closed up the boxes full of decks for good I didn't feel like I needed to open them back up again.

One of the things I learned since being diagnosed with ADD is that, the later in life you're diagnosed, the more damage is done to your self esteem and confidence. What's happened to me as a result of being plagued with inconsistent attention is that I stopped believing that I could actually do the things I'm good at. In general, the expectation is that once you acquire a skill, it's something that's repeatable. Once you're sufficiently skilled at riding a bike, for instance, you're not going to suddenly not be able to ride it again, for instance. For people with ADD like me, though, failing at something you should be able to do easily does happen. I've had spells of time where I'd stare at a daunting piece of code for weeks and not be able to figure out what needed to happen next, and then one day I'd sit down, somehow trigger a bout of hyperfocus, and crank through the whole thing in an hour or two. Or I'd be able to master a really complex technique but not be able to grasp basic concepts in a related area that really aren't that complicated, but I couldn't get my brain to focus in on.

Unfortunately for me, I managed well enough as a kid to evade an ADD diagnosis. I got good grades despite rarely taking a book home to do do homework. I wasn't hyperactive or disruptive; if anything, I was the complete opposite, staying quiet and out of the way. To the people around me, when things that I was clearly capable of didn't get done, this meant I was either lazy or didn't care. I could seemingly do things when I wanted to, so when I didn't, the explanation had to be that I was blowing them off because they weren't important enough to me. The thing is, I did care about what it looked like I was blowing off a lot of the time, but I couldn't get myself to stay focused on those things long enough to get them done. It wasn't that I cared only about the things I became hyperfocused on, like Magic, but rather the things that would trigger hyperfocus were the things I started to care about more than anything else; those were the areas where I knew I could maintain my focus long enough to do what I needed to do.

The problem with hyperfocus is it's difficult to predict when it will kick in. Very often, without the benefit of hyperfocus, tasks felt daunting or impossible. What's worse is that hyperfocus would sometimes leave me high and dry in situations where it had been my saving grace before. This happened enough that I started to question whether the skills I had were really skills at all, because a skill is something that you're supposed to be able to rely on; my skills never felt reliable to me. It was almost random if I'd be able to make use of one of my skills on any given day, as though I was waiting for the right card to come to the top of my internal deck before I could use it. So if what was getting me through life wasn't skill, then the explanation is obviously that I got lucky. So if I've been getting through life on luck and not skill, what happens when that luck runs out, as luck always eventually does?

Taking this all the way to its logical conclusion has left me with a pretty severe case of impostor syndrome, for pretty much every aspect of life. I could look at everything I'd accomplished, be it honor roll in high school, or graduating college, or a performance appraisal or anything that was a proof of my accomplishments, and I wouldn't feel like I earned them, or at the very least that I didn't deserve them. I knew all the places I messed up along the way. I knew all the times that I couldn't do what I needed to do, or I could do it but couldn't will myself to do it, and felt like luck got me through. Even now, knowing what I know, and that what I've accomplished is real and maybe even more impressive because I overcame undiagnosed ADD to accomplish it, it's very easy to go back to that dark place.

I think a lot about failure these days, since it tends to affect me so strongly. Little failures can lead me to beat myself up for a while, especially when I should know better. A bad day where I see the results of several small failures at once, or one big one, can leave me in a funk for days that's very difficult to pull myself out of. I'll tell myself that I'm in over my head, or that I'm a fraud, and that people are going to find out and then everything I've gotten (not earned, never earned) over the years is going to come crashing down like a house of cards. This has gotten better since the diagnosis; I can recognize the failure for what it is and not see it as a harbinger of doom. Even now, though, it takes a lot of effort to see past the yelling voices and realize that the good outweighs the bad. As a result, I'm less likely to put myself into situations where I know I'm likely to fail a lot; I know how that can snowball and it's not good for me.

What I realize, knowing what I know now, is that what made Magic different was that failure wasn't a sign of weakness or that I wasn't good enough; it was an expected part of the game. Sure, luck got me through when I won, because luck was built in. No one wins without getting at least a bit lucky, and any loss could be dismissed by a bad starting hand or the wrong card at the top of the deck. It was the one place where I could compete on equal footing and be legitimately proud of whatever I accomplished, and when things didn't go my way, I could dust myself off and come back the next time because I knew that was just part of the game. I'm only now realizing how much I needed Magic at a time in my life where I didn't feel like I could be good at anything that was important to me.

I try to get back there sometimes, when the failures start to pile up and I need to feel like I'm good at something among everything feeling like it's falling apart. Card games have been out of the question since I gave Magic up, both because of the expense and the difficulty of getting somewhere physical to play, so I've tried what I've always seen as the next best thing, which are fighting games. I've made an attempt at playing almost every major fighting game when they've come out. I got good enough at Marvel vs Capcom 2 to be able to beat the computer on medium more often than not, but playing against another human still ended poorly for me, and I was never able to execute any more than one basic (and fairly cheap) combo with Jin. I gave Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3 legitimate chances when both those games came out also. Street Fighter IV in particular had a setting that allowed people to challenge you as you played single player mode. I left that on for maybe a day before it left me too demoralized to continue. I decided, based on that experience, that I was too old to be able to get good at fighting games now.

When Mortal Kombat X came out a few weeks ago, I tried one last time to see if I could ever get a fighting game to click for me. I'd been assured that the fighting system was simpler than other games, and had been tuned to be more accessible for newcomers. I got advice from one of the best fighting game players I know. ("Don't look at your fighter because you know what you're doing; look at the other player so you can react to them.") That said, I gave the story mode several hours, and while I was able to make progress, I never felt like I had any actual control over what was happening on the screen. I was right back to Ryan's room in high school, hitting buttons with no real feeling like I knew why any button should be pressed. I felt no agency over my character; I was entering commands and things happened on the screen, but those two things felt disconnected, as though the result would be the same if I wasn't manipulating the controller. The experiment ended the same as every other one had, with a sense of frustration that I'd failed at fighting games yet again.

Around the same time, Hearthstone was released for the iPhone. I'd tried Hearthstone when it was in beta; it was a fun game but it had always felt like a really stripped down, basic version of Magic to me. The rule set was drastically simplified compared to Magic, and it felt like all I was doing was lining up minions to fight other minions; there didn't seem to be any deep strategy there to appeal to me. Add to that a client that was slow to load on my Mac, and I quickly forgot about it until I decided to give the game another try on my phone. Once I could load up a game instantly, wherever I was, and I gave it a legit chance, the depth of Hearthstone became apparent to me. What's more, being free to play, I could get into it casually without going down the booster pack treadmill again. I'd lose some games to people who had spent enough money to have a full set of Legendary cards, of course, but that's just going to happen. And I already knew all too well that just having good cards won't win you matches if you don't know how and when to use them.

So I started playing again, taking advantage of the daily quests to maximize my gold to get better cards, and slowly I got better. The first month that I played Ranked mode, it took me a few days to get from rank 25 to rank 20, where you earn a special card back for that month's campaign. The next month, it took me a day. I learned how each of the classes plays, and figured out which ones suit my play style (priest, warlock, druid) and which don't (warrior, mage, hunter). I learned how to build a deck and how to make the cards work together. I learned how to be patient and not to panic from an early game beatdown. I got to the point where I could go into any match expecting to win, and I could brush off a loss and go right back in without feeling like I wasn't really as good as I thought I was.

I didn't realize that I still needed that reassurance, but some days, despite having the diagnosis and knowing my skill is real, I still do. For ten minutes, even if everything else feels like it's going to pieces, I can remind myself that I am as good as I think I'm supposed to be, both in and out of the game. That it's ok to stumble, as long as I go right back in and try to do better the next time. That even a string of failures doesn't mean that the next win can't be a match away. That I don't have to win every time, as long as I can win sometimes, and I know that I'm good enough to win when things go my way. That just because my cards didn't come the right way once doesn't mean my cards aren't good enough to ever win again.

All I have to do is shuffle the deck, draw another starting hand, and remember that I'm as good as I'm willing to let myself be. That's what I needed all along.

Cord Cutting

My girls recently re-discovered Nintendo Land on the Wii U, since Super Smash Bros has mostly gotten old, and Splatoon is still a week away. It's a hidden gem for the platform, and if you own a Wii U, it's worth tracking down, if only to see the unfulfilled potential for the system. Nintendo Land was supposed to be the Wii U's Wii Sports, in that it was a collection of mini-games that showed off what the Wii U gamepad was capable of. There are a lot of ideas that have been minimally explored outside of that title that are interesting to play around with in Nintendo Land: asymmetrical multiplayer, motion control on the gamepad, the touchscreen and stylus as primary input devices, and even some interesting use of the gamepad in a portrait orientation. The problem is that Nintendo Land was never as immediately intuitive as Wii Sports was. If anything, Nintendo Land was as difficult to explain as Wii Sports was effortless, and so it never got to the point where people were curious enough to try it and then appreciate the potential of the system when it was first released.

Asymmetric local multiplayer games, in particular, can be a lot of fun, but they're rare given the limitations of current hardware. The best one I've played was back on the GameCube, and it was called Pac-Man Vs., which came as a pack-in with Pac-Man World 2. In that game, one player would play as Pac-Man on a Game Boy Advance system that was connected to the GameCube, and the others would play as the ghosts on the TV. Pac-Man would play as normal, but the ghosts could only see Pac-Man on their screen when he got close. It was a ton of fun at the time, and there really hasn't been anything like it since. I'd actually misremembered the game as putting the ghosts on GBA systems and Pac-Man on the TV, which made me sad because I thought that it wouldn't be able to be recreated on the Wii U. Hopefully Namco and Nintendo will rectify that oversight soon, but that got me to thinking about what I'd like to see Nintendo do with their next system, currently codenamed the NX, since Nintendo, and the console industry at large, seems to be at a crossroads.

With Nintendo's recent announcement that they're moving into mobile games, they have gone above and beyond to reassure their fans that they're not giving up on consoles. That hasn't stopped some from editorializing that's exactly what they should do, of course. I don't think console gaming is dead or a bad bet to make their next system on. I do think, though, that Nintendo needs to rethink their approach to console gaming in order to justify the existence of whatever their next console ends up being.

If you ask any Wii U owner what the best feature of the system is, most people will tell you that it's the off-TV play, bar none. It's hard to explain how much of a difference this one feature makes, especially when you have more televisions than people. I've ground through long sessions of Mario Kart and all of Super Metroid via virtual console, while watching TV with the family. Especially compared to the unreliable at best Sony equivalent, PS4 Remote Play, the feature works flawlessly, but it doesn't go far enough, in the literal sense. For starters, the range is limited; I can't use my gamepad in my kitchen, two rooms over from my Wii U, for instance. That's kind of a minor quibble, though; when you think bigger, why should the TV need to be there at all?

It's always struck me as backwards that the Wii U gamepad is tethered to a console that's attached to a stationary television somewhere in the house when I'm playing something single-player and off the TV. I'm not alone, either; while I wouldn't go so far to say that it's common, there are people who have devised plans to play Wii U games on long flights. But why should one need to hope for a plane with available AC jacks for something like this? Ideally, the next Nintendo console would be the gamepad, with a real HD screen and the CPU and GPU built into the gamepad itself, instead of simply streaming off the console that's attached to the TV. To facilitate local multiplayer and the times when you do want to play on a bigger screen, Nintendo could offer a box that attaches to the television and pairs with one or more gamepads and additional controllers like Wiimotes and Wii U Pro Controllers. For single player content, though, it would be great to just throw the gamepad in a backpack and attempt to get better at Mario Kart on a plane, for instance; you shouldn't need to place a console on a tray table in order to do that.

Even better, this could make local multiplayer more viable than it is now. The DS and 3DS both have modes where multiple owners of the same game can play together locally; some only require one copy of the game among all the players. If Nintendo could take this mode to the NX, where one gamepad could host a multiplayer game session and any number of controllers or other NX systems could join a game in progress, that would alleviate a lot of the processing limitations that the Wii U runs into when trying to implement multi-screen local multiplayer. Hyrule Warriors lets two people play co-op, one on the TV and one one the gamepad, but the frame rate struggles to keep up. Splatoon also will have the feature, but reports are that will also be limited to one-on-one with no option for split screen on the TV, presumably because the demands of driving two screens push the system to its limit. Offloading each screen to its own system could eliminate a lot of these restrictions, and presumably the processors have improved enough over the three years since the Wii U was released to allow a non-trivial number of additional players on the TV screen.

Once you start thinking along these lines, this starts addressing a lot of problems that plague Nintendo right now. Splitting their efforts between 3DS and Wii U is a challenge, especially since third party support has slowed to a trickle, so Nintendo bears the burden of keeping up a steady stream of releases for two platforms virtually alone. Having one platform that's both portable and capable of traditional console games could address a lot of that problem, because they'd only have to sell one system and build all their games targeting that. Similarly, consumers wouldn't have to choose what kind of experience they wanted to have, or worry about cross-buy; they'd just get both experiences with a game purchase without any additional cost, and presumably the cost to develop would be significantly less for the developer as well, especially for indie developers who are currently offering cross-buy versions of their games. I'm not a game developer, but I don't think it's a stretch to imagine there's a significant cost involved for developing or porting their games to two platforms with different architectures. Since Nintendo seems to be betting heavily on indie games to supplement their major releases right now, anything they can do to make it easier to get those games on their platforms has to be a win.

There's one major snag here, though, and that is the simple fact that this scenario isn't particularly compatible with disc based releases. The Wii U isn't a particularly bulky platform, but what bulk there is comes almost exclusively from the presence of the optical disc drive. In order to get the gamepad to have all the power of the console but still be usable, the disc drive would have to go. There are a number of implications for a move like this, not the least of which is that Nintendo still relies heavily on their retail partners to sell systems, accessories, and now Amiibo. Their decision to partner with Best Buy for the Nintendo World Championships underscores how important those relationships are to Nintendo, and going disc-free could jeopardize those relationships. It would be a difficult sell to retailers to get them to only carry the low-margin hardware but not the higher-margin software. One only needs to look at the machinations Microsoft went through when announcing the Xbox One to try to go primarily digital but keep retailers appeased, and they were in a significantly stronger position in the marketplace than Nintendo is now. There are ways around this; GameStop sells download codes for eShop games in its stores now, so they could expand that program to full retail releases as well, but it's hard to say how receptive they would be to that.

The bigger elephant in the room, however, is Nintendo's terrible handling of digital purchases up to now. Cataloging all the issues with the eShop would take an entirely separate blog post, but suffice it to say that their insistence on tying games to not only a single purchasing account, but a single hardware device, has been problematic at best. I've deliberately avoided purchasing 3DS games from the eShop because I can't share them between me and my two daughters who have 3DS units; once the game is downloaded to one device, it will stay there forever, whereas if I buy a cartridge, the three of us can share the same game on any of our devices. This also assumes the device never gets lost or broken, in which case Nintendo may be able to assist, but not without a long wait and a lot of heartburn. This is already unacceptable in 2015, and will be even more so if buying games on disc or cartridge is no longer an option. The DeNA arrangement is supposed to address this as well, but given how long Nintendo has promised improvement in this area and failed, skepticism isn't unreasonable here.

Obviously, there are no end of people telling Nintendo what to do, and Nintendo has shown time and again that they're going to ignore all of them and do what they think is best, for better or worse. Further, I'm not qualified to tell Nintendo what to do, either; I don't make games for a living, so there could be a million technical holes in this wish list that I don't know because I only play the games that other people make. It's easy to look back at the original iPad announcement for inspiration here, though. Before the iPad was announced back in 2010, there were a slew of artist renderings of the device, few of which imagined it would be as simple as a bigger iPod Touch. That seemed underwhelming to some at the time, but that simple change of form factor was enough to make a drastically different experience. Something simple like detaching the Wii U gamepad from the television could be the change that makes the console that revitalizes Nintendo for the next generation.