5 Questions now that Nintendo is making games for phones

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So Nintendo is finally going mobile – which is BIG news. Here’s five questions we’re asking as a result.

new-nintendo-3ds

1) Isn’t this different to what the company has said before?

Yep. In the past the company has alternated wildly between outright denial and leaving the door open but ruling it out. For example, producer Kensuke Tanabe told Gamespot this time last year:

“With games like Mario and Donkey Kong, the control input is such an important part of that; I think if you’re trying to replicate that feeling of control that you have traditional to those games, translating those to a smart device, that’s a just a really, really difficult task.”

So today’s announcement does mark a significant break with the past.

2) So why is Nintendo doing this?

For all of the PR bullshit talk about “passion” for games or whatever, the answer is simple: cold, hard cash. The rise of smartphones has transformed the economics of gaming – with the price of software crashing from the £30 you used to pay for a Game Boy game to £1.99 you pay for a mobile game. This has happened in tandem with the ability for game app sales to scale much more massively – millions more people will buy and play, say, Angry Birds or Candy Crush than the latest Zelda or Mario, because they don’t need a separate device to play it.

Mobile apps have many other advantages too: Regular updates, micro-payments, social media integration and heck, even the device you’re playing on is probably a technically better machine than a 3DS given you may have paid £600 for your phone – so the graphics and stuff will be better on there too.

The danger for Nintendo is that as people get more used to mobile gaming, the benefits of shelling out on a 3DS (or even a WiiU) decrease. Unless you really love Nintendo’s characters, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

Perhaps though, Nintendo thinks it can have the best of both worlds: The advantages of using iOS and Android as platforms, but with the brand advantages of Nintendo’s pantheon of characters and properties.

So for Nintendo, it essentially boils down to a case of follow the money.

3) What are the risks?

Here’s the thing: Whilst the WiiU is struggling, both of Nintendo’s own consoles are not performing completely terribly – and there is still a small but dedicated audience out there for them.

The risk for Nintendo in going mobile is that it could accidentally destroy what has until now been a very reliable business model. Is its business model not sustainable in the long run? Perhaps. But in the short term, it was still performing okay. So Nintendo is gambling with the company’s future.

Since the Wii signalled that Nintendo didn’t want to compete with the Sony and Microsoft big hitters, Nintendo has basically positioned itself as an artisan boutique – separate from everyone else, both on consoles and mobile.

Perhaps one worst case scenario is that by joining the fray and going mobile, Nintendo won’t have the impact it expects. Whilst it will almost certainly have a leg up in terms of name recognition, is there really any guarantee that consumers will choose to go for Metroid over Candy Crush? Nintendo could be on the same trajectory Nokia was after the rise of the iPhone: The old stalwart on a slide towards irrelevance.

Another risk is around Nintendo’s business model and brand. Nintendo has cultivated an image as being family friendly and amongst gamers, it is essentially a company that everyone loves – it is difficult to imagine a multinational corporation with more goodwill from consumers. But what if when it joins the app store, suddenly it gets greedy? How far away from a micro-payments PR disaster are we? If Nintendo follows industry trends, don’t be surprised if we see a “freemium” Pokemon game where it’ll cost you a five to capture a Mewtwo. And doing something stupid like this could destroy the Nintendo brand.

4) What sort of games are we likely to see?

This is perhaps the big question for gamers. As of yet, Nintendo hasn’t announced any specific titles that will be released with DeNA on mobile. The company has said that it won’t be porting over titles, and will instead be making games optimised for mobile (so think touchscreen controls). So really we’ve no idea – but it seems unlikely unless Nintendo can solve the control problem that we’ll see anything resembling a traditional Mario platformer.

5) What does this mean for the future of the WiiU, 3DS and future Nintendo consoles?

Presumably it will depend on the success of Nintendo’s mobile venture. Despite the inevitable claims that the company will continue to make games on its own hardware, I wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo gives up on handhelds if it creates the next Candy Crush.

The WiiU is still different – and whether Nintendo will follow it up (and we’ve no reason to think that it will not) will depend more heavily on a calculation regarding the PS4, Xbox One, and the plethora of newer home console devices (like the Nvidia Shield).

James O’Malley