At the time of this writing I’ve had around 12 hours to digest the latest Nintendo megaton, which I was only awake for at the time of announcement because I couldn’t sleep last night. Overall, I think its mobile deal with DeNA foreshadows some potentially good and bad things for the future of Nintendo and its platforms. It’s way too early to tell which outweights the others.
However, I think we do need to look at this in terms of how it tackles what remain Nintendo’s biggest problems.
I don’t think Nintendo is going to launch headfirst into making free or 99-cent mobile games. Nintendo head Satoru Iwata has railed for years against the eroding value proposition of mobile games. Everything about the DeNA deal screams caution: Nintendo will develop the games while DeNA only handles the infrastructure back end. However, I do think Nintendo stepping into mobile gaming is an admission that its dedicated hardware is failing.
On the games themselves, Nintendo always wants to be different and I think it’ll continue to try to do that even in the mobile space. It will probably try to maintain the usual quality of its games, which it knows is paramount to maintaining the value of the IPs people want on mobile in the first place. To that end, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo tried to stomp onto iOS and Android with premium-priced games. In the end, instead of mobile having a bad influence on Nintendo, in the best case scenario Nintendo could end up having a good influence on mobile.
If any one developer is strong enough to try to change the way games are valued and sold on mobile platforms, it’s Nintendo. I know the kids who play iPhone games still care about Mario and Pokémon, and I think there are enough people willing to pay $10 or $20 to get those games on their phones and tablets. Enough people might pay those prices to try to shift the idea of what works on mobile, and this is coming at a time when public opinion is starting to turn against in-app purchases. Apple is trying to promote pay-once-and-play games, to which Nintendo could be a huge boon.
This next point is speculation because I actually haven’t had any hands-on experience with how Android works, but if I understand correctly Google Play is’t the sole software channel for the entire operating system. Other companies sell Android games on their own store, and DeNa is helping Nintendo create a software platform that will extend to Android. Personally, I see Nintendo trying to establish an Android eShop so it can maintain control over its games there. Just a thought though.
Here’s my big problem with Nintendo’s latest move though: as far as I can tell it only helps sell more of its software, not its hardware, and hardware is Nintendo’s problem right now.
Nintendo reaffirmed that hardware is still an important part of its business by revealing it’ll start talking about new hardware next year. Actually, hardware isn’t even Nintendo’s biggest problem, it’s third party support, and this DeNA deal does nothing outside Nintendo’s own games. When “NX” finally comes to fruition, Nintendo can no longer sit back and hope the newness of the platform draws third parties. It needs to reach out to them in ways it never has before. For a lot of people this mobile deal makes it seem like Nintendo is inching closer to becoming a third party developer than attracting them.
The reason Nintendo stayed away from mobile for so long is fear that once customers got their fill of Nintendo games there, they wouldn’t see the need to buy Nintendo’s own hardware. Iwata seems to think kids might start on mobile and graduate to conventional consoles and handhelds, but I’ve seen basically no evidence that ever happens. Those people don’t need dedicated consoles in their lives, only dabbling in them when the Wii came along, and I don’t think many of those people graduated to PlayStation and Xbox. Nintendo will have to very carefully calculate its mobile software to make its “main” products seem attractive.
Sony hasn’t faced any pressure to go into mobile, and has in fact recently scrapped mobile plans, and that’s with a handheld system the 3DS absolutely destroyed. You don’t see people begging for Gran Turismo on the iPhone because people are happily buying PlayStations. You might be able to compare aspects of Nintendo’s situation to Microsoft, but only to Microsoft’s non-gaming divisions. Microsoft is pushing mobile Windows as well as Microsoft Office on competing mobile OSs, and this is due to the ubiquity of Office as well as the hardware-agnostic nature of Windows. Nintendo’s intellectual properties are in a similar situation. Maybe Mario and other characters have reached a point of popularity where they transcend hardware?
If that’s true, maybe Nintendo needs to take an approach that, like Microsoft’s, makes its mobile software feel complementary to its “main” platform. I use Microsoft Word and Excel on my iPhone, but I use those things in conjunction with Word and Excel on Windows. We already know Nintendo and DeNA are setting up an online infrastructure that will run through many different devices, and it will probably connect different formats of Nintendo’s games to each other. I’ve already seen a neat idea of letting someone edit and browse Mario Maker levels on a tablet before playing them on a Wii U. Maybe allow someone to play local multiplayer between Wii U and 3DS games with a mobile companion app. It just has to be something that makes Nintendo’s main platforms continue to hold value. I wonder if, in the most extreme case, we could end up seeing an entire Nintendo-branded operating system that’s hardware-agnostic.
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