Embracing Nintendo’s New Mobile Strategy

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Posted March 20, 2015 by Eric Gerson in Video Games

Yesterday, Nintendo president Saturo Iwata made some major announcements detailing big new plans for the company’s future. These announcements included confirmation that Nintendo’s next dedicated gaming hardware, code-named “Nintendo NX”, is currently in the works. However, with no other details about the device being shared, the spotlight was squarely on the real focus of Iwata’s presentation: Nintendo’s new partnership with DeNA, a mobile software and e-commerce company.

Rumors of Nintendo entering the mobile games space have been circling the blogrolls for years. And now, thank to a strategic business alliance between the gaming giant and a major mobile publisher, those rumors have come true. And while at this point, no actual mobile games have been officially confirmed, the most important question to ponder, and the one angry internet trolls are currently venting about, is what this move means for Nintendo Fans.

Before I answer that question for you, let’s start with the facts. For those unfamiliar, a search for DeNA on the app store (or their portal/social gaming network Mobage) will return a bevy of popular titles. Many are licensed games, including a few Transformers and Star Wars games, and others are mainstays of the mobile app marketplace, like the popular Tiny series (e.g. Tiny Tower, Tiny Deathstar, etc), and the deck-building RPG Blood Brothers. They are also largely “freemium” titles. Long story short, while not everyone may be a fan of these types of mobile games, there is no doubting that (a) DeNA has major chops in this space, and (b) many of their products are quite successful (at least monetarily). As for the Nintendo side of this partnership, while we still don’t know exactly what a mobile Nintendo title might look like, thanks to some follow-up press from Iwata himself, we know that the first of their smartphone games will arrive this year, and that Nintendo will be handling the development on most of these products internally (with DeNA handling the “services” side of things). In other words, these wont be simple licensing deals, allowing DeNA to run rampant with Nintendo’s prestigious stable of IP.

A sampling of the DeNA/Mobage games available on Google Play

A sampling of the DeNA/Mobage games available on Google Play

With that in mind, let’s get back to question at hand. What does this new partnership mean for Nintendo fans? I think to reach the most logical conclusion, we need to consider both the potential good, and the potential bad. And because I am seeing more of the latter than the former around the web today, let’s start with the bad. Most detractors are singing one of the following familiar tunes: “freemium sucks”; “mobile games are trash that don’t appeal to the hardcore”; “this will divert Nintendo resources away from the Wii U and 3DS, where they need to focus”; “this will drag Nintendo’s IP through the mud”; and so forth.

On point 1, I can’t help but agree to some point. Personally, I have not been a huge fan of most freemium mobile games. While some of my friends obsess over Clash of Clans or Candy Crush, I’d much rather pay $5 for a full featured title, no strings attached. That’s not to say I’ve never enjoyed a game with in-app purchases; for example, Mobage’s own Tiny Tower series had me very hooked for a very long time, and I never spent a dime. That said, we have no proof that Nintendo’s mobile titles will embrace similar economics, though it’s a strong inference based on DeNA’s current track record.

Point 2, however, is nonsense. Yes, the super-hardcore may never warm to mobile games. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are a huge market that attract and wide, diverse player-base, and that many mobile titles are quality, well-constructed games (Monument Valley anyone?). From casuals devouring every game King releases, to the hardcore trying to master every battle in Infinity Blade, to the middle-ground fan enjoying their time with Five Nights at Freddy’s, mobile games are here to stay, and it is nothing but wise for Nintendo to try to boost their faltering business with piece of this rather large pie.

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Not every mobile game is as simple as Flappy Bird

As for points 3 and 4, based on the messaging we’ve received from Nintendo since this announcement, neither are of any concern. First of all, as mentioned before, Nintendo has been clear that they will be handling development on these titles internally, with DeNA handling the “services.” While this may lend credence to the predictions about a freemium business model, it certainly thwarts any fear that these games will be cheap, low-quality cash-ins. Nintendo is never cavalier about the use of their characters, and their main-series titles are largely a beacon of careful crafting. There is no reason to expect less from any mobile offering Nintendo produces. That said, Nintendo has also come out and said that Shigeru Miyamoto, a game developing legend and Nintendo’s most iconic idea man, will not be involved in the production of mobile titles, focusing solely on the Wii U and 3DS. At first glance, this notion may seem contradictory to the former. However, I see it more as insurance that, while Nintendo will be directly ensuring the quality of the mobile titles through in-house development, their biggest guns will not be diverted from their dedicated gaming platforms in the process.

Considering the above, I think we can comfortably set aside the arguments of the detractors and focus on the potential positives, which in my opinion, far outweigh any remaining credence in the above points of view. To be completely frank, when I read Nintendo’s announcements, my eyes lit up with rampant excitement. And my reasons for this excitement falls into any one of three buckets: (1) the financial opportunities for Nintendo; (2) the new unified membership approach; and (3) the games (of course).

The financial opportunities may seem a bit obvious. And to some extent, we’ve already touched on them above. A hit mobile game can mean big, BIG money–just look at Flappy Bird! Whether freemium or not, and based on the ubiquity of the IP, a mobile game featuring Nintendo’s recognizable characters has a very good chance of making bank just through sales and in-app purchases alone. But the potential financial impact of that success extends further than that. How many of your non-gamer friends know what Candy Crush is? Or Angry Birds? Almost all of them, I’d wager. Now, how many know what the Wii U is? Or that there was a new Mario Kart title released last year? Without a doubt, that number is far fewer. Now imagine a world where instead of Candy Crush, everyone was addicted to a Nintendo branded title. I bet the latter number grows just from pure increased brand awareness. Take it one step further, imagine where that Nintendo branded mobile game is tied to the release of a Wii U title somehow, or interacts with that title somehow (more on that later). Bottom line, by hooking into the casual marketplace, Nintendo can also effectively boost the sales of their more traditional gaming products through increased brand recognition and built-in advertising. And more money for Nintendo is nothing but good for Nintendo fans.

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One of the most exciting parts of Nintendo’s announcement

The next point was only briefly touched upon Nintendo in their announcement, but is one of huge importance. In the wake of the now-defunct Club Nintendo, it appears a new membership service will be introduced, that will be jointly developed with DeNA, and which will be unified across the 3DS, Wii U, smart devices, computers, and future consoles. The specifics about such a service is unclear–will this only relate to mobile games? Will this replace our incorporate with out Nintendo Network IDs, so we have one profile with data synced on all platforms? Will this include a new rewards service like Club Nintendo? It is too soon to tell, but either way, it is a relief to hear that Nintendo is aware of the need for unification across their different platforms. From the difficulty in transferring data from the Wii to Wii U, or from the 3DS to the New 3DS, to the lack of cross-buy for Virtual Console titles, laundry list of ways in which a unified log-in for Nintendo products is sorely needed goes on and on. And even though this ephemeral “service” identified in the above image is still a mystery, if DeNA’s partnership helps us get closer to what we see on the PlayStation Network across the PS4, PS3, and Vita, then bring it on.

Finally, and most obviously, we come to the games themselves. Let’s start with what we know works in the mobile space. We already mentioned Candy Crush and King’s other games, which are all fairly straightforward puzzle games based on age-old formulas. Nintendo could likely find similar success with mobile versions of their most popular puzzle games, like Dr. Mario, Pushmo, and Pokemon Puzzle League (which I personally would KILL for on mobile). Another mainstay of the mobile game space is the infinite runner, like the aforementioned Flappy Bird or the immensely satisfying Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run titles. This formula could certainly work Nintendo franchises like Mario Kart or Star Fox. In fact, there was  fairly addicting infinite runner game from GameLoft that was tied to the release of Iron Man 3 whose gameplay was actually quite similar to Star Fox‘s. And imagining being able to control an Arwing on an infinite flight on my smartphone with drags and swipes of my finger, and tapping to blast Andross’s minions from the sky, seems too intuitive to pass up! And don’t get me started on the Monuments Valley/Captain Toad Treasure Tracker comparison. ::mouth waters:: That’s not to say Nintendo couldn’t adapt their games to fit the mobile marketplace in new, more creative way, and I fully expect them to do so, but even considering the lowest common denominators of mobile game genres, Nintendo’s IP seems like a shoe-in.

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It isn’t hard to imagine Captain Toad-esque levels working on a tablet

More exciting ideas arise when we reconsider the unified membership service detailed above. With that service in place, we may see Nintendo mobile titles that are able to interface with their 3DS or Wii U big brothers. What if playing mobile Treasure Tracker levels unlocked hidden stages on the 3DS version. Maybe I could farm for rupees or improve my items in Zelda for Wii U by playing a phone-based puzzle game that takes place in Hyrule. I could even access my Pokedex, manage my inventory, and help level up my Pokemon from Pokemon X & Y through a separate app on my phone.

Let’s get even more ambitious. I read a particularly insane idea for an Pokemon alternate reality game, where you can collect different Pokemon by traveling to different real world locations. Just walking around Manhattan would fill your Pokedex with tons of new critters. Certain Pokemon would only be available in certain locations (like a certain stores or in social areas), and might differ based on the time of day or limited-time promotions. My phones pedometer could be used to level the Pokemon I’ve collected, and I can then use my amassed poke-team to battle my friends, all on my smartphone! This concept may be pie-in the sky, but just thinking about it gets me warm and fuzzy all over.

Bottom line, while the hardcore audience may decry mobile games, I see nothing but positives in Nintendo’s partnership with DeNA, both for the company, and for me as a huge Nintendo fan. And if handled correctly, this could be a major boon for Nintendo’s business and brand on a very large scale. I can’t wait to see what they cook up!


About the Author

Eric Gerson

A karaoke visionary and an avid gamer, Eric has been a Nintendo fanboy since birth, and a PlayStation owner since the PS2 era. An equal-opportunities gamer, Eric believes games are either good or bad, irrespective of their genre or setting. PSN and NN ID: GerStud101.