Ask Gamasutra: Time for Nintendo to make some mobile games?
Over a year after the launch of the Wii U, there is no question: Nintendo's latest game console is in trouble. Is it finally time to put Mario on an iPhone?
January 22, 2014
Over a year after the launch of the Wii U, there is no question: Nintendo's latest game console is in trouble.
The fact is, not enough people are buying the Wii U. Following subpar sales over the past months, Nintendo had to bite the bullet and project losses for the year, when previously it was expecting a profit.
And once again, there have been calls for Nintendo to go against its tradition of creating games for its own hardware, and release games on mobile devices.
So it's a good time for Gamasutra's staff and contributors to weigh in on the question: Is it in Nintendo's best interest to get into the mobile game business?Kris Graft
Nobody would be saying "Nintendo should release games on smartphones" if the Wii U was actually selling well. But it's not selling well -- so analysts, investors and others are suggesting a forced adaptation to mobile as a short-term corrective measure to increase profitability, without considering that Nintendo is totally unproven in the realm of mobile game development and mobile business models. Making mobile game development (well, trying to make it) a core strength would take more time and work than some people appreciate, and put the company's core business at risk.
Some folks look at Nintendo's (major) problems in selling the Wii U, and assume it's a Nintendo problem -- that Nintendo's formula of integrated hardware and software development is flawed. Well, it's flawed inasmuch as yes, there is very little room for error, whether you're talking about, say, Wii U's marketing (subpar), the third-party support (bleh), developer relations (gasp) or the software release schedule (guh). Because there is so little room for error, when Nintendo fails, it fails big -- but it can also succeed big. That's just the nature of the Nintendo formula, and that volatility scares the crap out of people who are financially invested in the company, so they panic and string sentences together that involve the words "Mario" and "iPhone."
Too many big failures could lead to the demise of Nintendo. But to say that the way to avoid future failures is for Nintendo to willingly take its eye off the ball and wade into the tumultuous world of mobile game development -- competing with the Kings, Supercells and Rovios of the world -- just doesn't make sense. It's odd: There's so much doubt in Nintendo's ability to play to its strengths, yet so much faith in the company to be able to develop new strengths in a new market, and become successful.
Look at the kinds of games Nintendo has always made. Now look at the kinds of games on the top-grossing mobile charts. See the disconnect?
What Nintendo really needs to do is go on NeoGAF and Twitter, read some of the suggestions, and go with that. I'm kidding, of course, but no games company has ever been better than Nintendo at inventing its own spaces, blithely disregarding speculation.
We games journalists thought the Wii was just a kids' toy with a stupid name and a lot of tacky peripherals no one wanted. Wrong. We thought weird-size handheld options wouldn't sell meaningfully. Wrong. We thought Nintendo needed traditional multiplayer and online functionality, we thought the 3D thing was a gimmick, we thought the company had lost interest in its core gaming brands, and that all turned out wrong, too.
Even when it seems willfully tone-deaf to what's going on in the industry, Nintendo's strategies turn out to work. The Wii U looks like the first time in a long generation that it's been wrong. Except even this time a lot of people also thought it would be relatively easy to sell Christmastime families on a shiny upgrade to their Wii. Wrong.
Of course the industry has changed, and the specialty hardware space that Nintendo owns and operates is greatly diminished. While the company's been tending its own garden, the Wii's family audience has moved to mobile platforms. It would seem the company should follow them -- but for a company that's never followed anyone, it's tough to call. And this is a market and an infrastructure in which Nintendo is critically behind. It'll hardly be the simple, logical migration that some would like.
So my answer's "maybe no?" If not, then what? Can't guess -- no matter what we think is a good idea for the company, we're likely to be wrong. Again.
This has been such a long time coming. As an invested Sega player throughout most of my childhood (a "Sega orphan," as I sometimes put it), I feel like Nintendo should be sidling up to its former competitor for a shock blanket, some cocoa and a bit of reassuring advice.
All good things come to an end, and Nintendo's situation with the Wii U is seeming more like Sega's problem with the Dreamcast every month now: a few solid first-party titles are not enough to make a weird piece of home hardware into a strong investment, no matter how you slice it. Mind you, Nintendo has an edge that Sega didn't in the early '00s, in that it still has a good grip on the handheld market (something Sega never really managed), and a good stable of IPs it can take forward.
If Nintendo takes that forward into mobile, it might help, but honestly I think it would only serve as a stopgap measure. Nintendo needs to pivot and completely double down on its core strengths, which currently are the 3DS, its character pantheon, and its first-party devs. Put its titles on other platforms (including mobile), work on a good, worthy successor to the 3DS (not this 2DS nonsense), and forget about home consoles for a while. The era of the Famicom -- as a concept -- has come and gone, and Nintendo needs to catch up to that fact.
Nobody can know whether or not getting into the mobile game business is in Nintendo’s best interest except, well, Nintendo. I want to believe it could be -- the mobile market can be lucrative, and Nintendo’s first-party studio roster is brimming with talent. I’d love to see what they do with a mandate to develop a game specifically for a touchscreen device.
Of course, such a move would seem to put Nintendo in an awkward position. Once the company begins developing mobile games -- especially if it chickens out and brings established franchises to mobile instead of creating new titles tailor-made for the platform — consumer interest in its hardware might dwindle even further.
I think that’s a risk worth taking. Nintendo hardware isn’t selling like the company wants it to anyway, and that’s not for want of great first-party software. I think it’s in Nintendo’s best interest to branch out and try its hand at developing a mobile game with new characters and mechanics tuned for touchscreen devices. A great first-party Nintendo mobile game might give the company a much-needed financial boost, shake up a staid development process and attract new fans that might eventually be swayed -- through canny cross-platform development down the road -- into buying Nintendo hardware.
Sr. Contributing Editor Gamasutra; Independent Game Developer
I'm not the biggest Nintendo fan. I believe very strongly that the company needs to change pretty significantly to adapt to the current state of the world, and it's been grinding away with ancient business practices for far too long. It had a real good run with the Wii, but got too complacent about the internet, user friendliness, and most important to me, developer relations. But that doesn't mean Nintendo needs to throw away the things that have made it unique in order to jump on the current hot platform.
Nintendo is not in dire straits. Yes, the company is forecasting a loss, but it also has massive cash at hand. People talk about the GameCube as a loss for Nintendo, but it made good money on that console. This year was one of the first where it lost money, so it can afford to try, experiment, and fail quite a bit more before it gets into real trouble. And looking at its current console offering, there's a lot more experimenting Nintendo can do, and plenty of opportunity for catch-up, to get into a better situation. What if the Wii U and 3DS virtual console stores were the same, and featured cross-play and save sharing? It's the bare minimum Nintendo should do, along with a revamp of its store.
But it could do a lot more, too. Start incentivizing developers to make games for Nintendo consoles. Drop the Wii U controller and make the cheapest current gen console around. Be the first of the big three to drop the retail chain. There's lots to try, and Iwata and co. are smart enough to eventually figure this out.
What's more, Nintendo is not at all ready for this kind of jump. It's not ready to give up control of its platform, control of its revenue, control of its supply chain, et cetera. A company that can't even manage good relations with developers for its own consoles is not going to do well developing for another platform. On top of that, there's the learning curve. Nintendo is way behind when it comes to learning the current landscape of games, and complained with the Wii U about the costs of learning to move into the next generation - when really it was making the transition the rest of the industry had made around 2005. Sure, Animal Crossing could port over with relative ease, but as casual as Nintendo's titles may often be, they're not very smartphone compatible.
It's a classic example, but we can look at Sega to see how well Nintendo might do as a software-only house. When the Dreamcast died, aside from a few bright glimmers afterward, Sega's soul flopped right out of its body and fell on the floor. The company did well when it knew its console, its audience (because they controlled it), and knew when it could learn from third party competitors on its own platform (not that Nintendo does the latter). Big lumbering companies of any kind have a tough time turning around or changing course. Add a traditional Japanese management hierarchy and you're not going to be making any big shifts without a lot of creaky gears breaking apart.
You could suggest all sorts of alternatives - Nintendo could have a smartphone branch, or a sub-company dedicated to smartphone games. Or it could buy Blackberry (or someone) and make Nintendo phones with d-pads. But would this really solve their problem? I don't think so. Nintendo needs to become a modern company, but it should do so on its own terms, or fail in the process.
I'm fairly certain I am the only Nintendo fan out there who actually likes the idea of Nintendo ditching home consoles, and focusing on game development -- at least for this generation. Here are the facts: People buy Nintendo home consoles because they are a little bit quirky, and/or because they love Nintendo's first-party games. Hardly anyone buys a Nintendo console to play third-party games on it (especially if we're talking about the Wii U - there are barely any to speak of!). So what a Nintendo home console is, is a box that plays Nintendo games and thus, you're paying $300 for the appropriate gear to play perhaps two or three games a year.
So the real question is, why wouldn't I want Nintendo to develop games for other platforms? If Nintendo made games for other home consoles I would buy them in a heartbeat, many Nintendo fans would pick up other consoles to buy them, and markets that Nintendo couldn't fish for before (i.e. those players who don't buy Nintendo systems) would also be up for grabs. I don't know if I like the idea of Nintendo jumping on mobile, per se, but ditching home consoles and making games for Xbox One and PS4 instead would be a massively welcome move from my perspective. Of course, Nintendo wouldn't have to drop hardware entirely either - Nintendo still has a strong grip on the handheld side with its 3DS, which means it could stay in hardware manufacturing, and re-enter the home console market whenever it actually has a properly decent idea for the next-next-gen -- or at least, better than "chunky iPad with buttons."
I'm not going to pretend I know how to fix Nintendo right now -- there are already hundreds of people doing that on Twitter -- but rather, this is my own personal preference of where I'd love to see the company go next. Ditching the Wii U is not admitting defeat, and I hope Iwata and co. realize that.
It really depends on how you define "best interest."
You'll notice from Iwata's comments that he's not talking about making mobile games, but leveraging mobile users to drive interest in Nintendo's products -- a strategy that worked with Animal Crossing. You can argue this point, but as far as reading tea leaves goes, it suggests the company's readiness to make a leap to mobile game development is near zero.
This is significant. It would not be an easy change for Nintendo. If we look at the evolution of the mobile space so far, it's clear and obvious -- has it been an easy transition for anyone?
In specific, so much of the institutional knowledge, culture, and style of creativity Nintendo engages in is not a good fit for the mobile space in its present form. Now, I think Nintendo would in some way be able to change the form of the mobile space if it were to enter it, but the transition for the company itself would be complex and painful. Its technologies and ways of designing games would both be forced to change enormously in a short span of time -- and I think its culture would inevitably and permanently be altered.
I'd be quite interested to see how Nintendo would tackle mobile games. I do think that much of what Nintendo excels at would fit there, and I do believe the company would innovate in terms of control, game design, business, and more.
But personally, I'm more interested in seeing how the company can preserve the game making craft it so excels at while also continuing as a viable business. And that does not prescribe a certain approach. In other words, it may or may not be mobile games.
Suggesting that Nintendo make mobile games as a silver bullet solution to its woes is a shortsighted oversimplification of the challenges inherent in such a shift. It's easy to be glib and point to successes other companies have had. But are those companies anything like Nintendo? Are their games?
Sometimes a company's best interest is to be torn apart and put together again in a totally new way, offering markedly changed products. But I certainly do not presume to say, as so many do, that this is the path Nintendo must take, and as quickly as possible.