Nintendo's first official foray into smartphone gaming has arrived - in Japan, at least - and it's off to an unsurprisingly solid start. Interest in Miitomo helped to drive it past a million registered users over its first weekend of availability, and the application has soared to the top of the download charts on both iOS and Android in the region. It's far too early to start talking about success in general terms, but there's no doubt about the high level of interest in this, the first fruit of Nintendo's partnership with Japanese mobile game firm DeNA.
The most common question asked about Nintendo's mobile plans is perhaps the most obvious one; ever since the DeNA deal was announced, investors, journalists, analysts and consumers have all wanted to know when Mario will be on smartphones. The announcement of Miitomo as the first title to be produced by the two companies was met with more than a little confusion and disappointment; not only is Miitomo not a Mario game, it's stretching the definition of "game" entirely. The core functionality of Miitomo is more like a light-hearted social network; you create your avatar, answer questions about yourself, read and comment upon your friends' answers. Sometimes a friend's avatar comes to visit your "room", and asks you questions more focused on your relationship with that person; those answers stay between the two of you, and aren't shared with other friends.
It's an extremely unusual application, but not an entirely radical departure for Nintendo; it most closely resembles the company's sleeper hits Tomodachi Collection (DS) and Tomodachi Life (3DS), which shared Miitomo's focus on using Mii avatars to explore social connections. Miitomo is a much more personal and intimate experience than Tomodachi Life, with the ability to link to Facebook and Twitter meaning that most users will find a lot of their real-life friends in the application, and the combination of keyboard input and text-to-speech dictation meaning that users are sharing genuine information about themselves with friends. It's also rather more stripped down than Tomodachi Life, in its current form at least; there's a relatively small range of cosmetic items to acquire for your Mii, and thus far it's not possible to redecorate the room your Mii inhabits - though it's entirely likely that such updates will appear down the line. Being a mobile title, it's reasonable to assume that it's launching with a basic feature set and a roadmap to add new features in future; one of many differences between smartphone and console games which Nintendo will be hoping to learn about rapidly from its experience with Miitomo.
"More than downloading, installing or playing with Miitomo, it was seeing this purchase screen that brought home what a radical change this app signals for Nintendo"
One aspect of Miitomo that Nintendo fans will find reassuring is that from the very outset, it's very clearly a Nintendo product. While DeNA's experience of publishing mobile titles is clear in many respects - the onboarding process for the app is particularly slick and painless, and its seamless integration with lots of social networking and messaging services feels more like DeNA's influence than Nintendo's - the personality and style of Miitomo is instantly recognisable as Nintendo's own. The Mii characters, which the company has learned to use extremely effectively in the past decade, are the stars of the show, and here as in every other place Nintendo has rolled them out, they burst with personality. Friends' Miis appear in a variety of animated poses on loading screens (which are all mercifully short), and the tiny avatars emote dramatically as they read out answers to the questions posed in the app, choosing their reactions based on keywords in the text. The app is also deeply Nintendo-like in its occasionally surprising hidden depths; it hands out "coins", its in game currency, quite liberally, and hides small stashes of them behind actions or objects in the app. Users are encouraged to touch and interact with everything, a design philosophy which is often one of Nintendo's hallmarks.
The mention of in-game currency, though, leads to a discussion which I'm certain is going to provoke extremely strong responses in the coming weeks and months - yes, this is a free-to-play app. The only thing you need to pay for is cosmetic items, and as yet the game has been generous enough (and the store poorly stocked enough) that I've never felt tempted to make a real-money transaction - but the shop page absolutely contains an interface for buying more coins, which start at £0.79 for 1000, and go all the way up to an eye-watering £54.99 for the most expensive package, of 105,000 coins. I've seen full outfits in the store which run to 6,400 coins (that's the most expensive, a futuristic space-suit number that gives me little nostalgia pangs for Phantasy Star Online); based on the coin pricing, that essentially means that a full new outfit for your Mii would cost around £5, assuming you chose to buy it entirely with real money. I'm not sure the debate over whether that's good value or not is a productive one; these items are purely cosmetic so nobody is forced to pay for them in order to enjoy the app, and therefore their value will be decided pretty quickly by consumers voting with their wallets. However, it's certainly a jolt to see a £54.99 in-app purchase in a Nintendo title, even to someone used to seeing these in other mobile games. More than downloading, installing or playing with Miitomo, it was seeing this purchase screen that brought home what a radical change this app signals for Nintendo.
Is Miitomo fun? That's a tremendously subjective question, of course, but with some reservations, I'd say that yes, it is. It's not entirely what I expected, and feels far more at home in the Social Networks folder on my phone's home screen than in the Games folder - but after three or four days with it, I can see it occupying a space in my life not dissimilar to something like Instagram, a quite focused little app that I open once or twice a day in quiet moments to see what friends have shared on the service. As a social network, it's hugely reliant on those friends; if you don't have any close friends using Miitomo, it's entirely pointless. Some may also be a little uncomfortable with the app's very broad generalisation of friendship; you can't set up groups of friends or fence off certain answers to be visible only to certain people, which feels like an oversight on an app that asks you to share some quite personal things about yourself. I find myself frequently skipping questions which I'd be perfectly happy to answer for my partner or my close friends to see, but am less comfortable with sharing with some of the journalists and Twitter contacts whom I added as "early adopters" in the heady hours after the app launched.
Perhaps a more important question than "is it fun" is the broader, contextual question; what is Nintendo trying to accomplish with Miitomo? On this, I think it's clear that the company is attempting to expand its competence on several fronts. Miitomo may not be a traditional mobile game, but the process of developing, launching and supporting it will teach Nintendo valuable lessons that it can apply down the line to its future releases. It will be interesting to see how rapidly the company develops upon the rather bare-bones app released on Friday - if Miitomo quickly adds features and functionality, it will speak well to how Nintendo has adapted to the whole paradigm of games as a service. If it starts to feel abandoned and unloved in the coming months, it will cast a shadow of doubt on the company's whole mobile project. There's a lot riding on this silly, sociable little app.
Nintendo undoubtedly also sees Miitomo as a chance to learn how to do online services right, in preparation for the proper roll-out of its unified network service. The company has had mis-fires and false starts in online gaming for years - some a consequence of the company's laudable if perhaps overbearing focus on protecting children online, and some just down to technical incompetence and a fundamental lack of "getting it" with regard to online services. DeNA, whose entire business has been built around its mobage platform, has clearly contributed a lot of expertise in this field; Miitomo's integration with other online services and the slick, seamless way it uses its network features is a really positive indicator for how Nintendo's implementation of online functionality may evolve in future, particularly on the NX console and in its forthcoming mobile slate of titles.
"Confirmation that the company is capable of being relevant and successful on mobile would answer a great many of the criticisms which have been leveled at it in recent years"
There's also a large degree of experimentation with free-to-play going on in Miitomo. There's one overtly "gamey" bit of the app - a pachinko-style mini game where you drop a Mii avatar into a vertical column full of bouncy, pinball-style pads, attempting to land on a platform to snag a rare piece of clothing or a nice accessory. It costs 500 coins per play, or a single "Game Ticket" (which the app hands out fairly uncommonly for achieving specific goals), and is actually rather frustratingly difficult; I ran through five or six tries in an unsuccessful attempt to get my (or my Mii's) hands on a little cat that sits on your shoulder. Again, this is totally optional and only nets you cosmetic items, but I can see how someone trying to get a particularly desired item could end up burning through a lot of coins very quickly. What will be very interesting to follow is how Miitomo fares in the top-grossing charts over the coming months; it's taking a light touch on monetisation for now, exposing all of its core functionality for free while charging, in various ways, for cosmetic items. Whether this approach succeeds or fails will likely determine much of the firm's strategy for monetising mobile games in future. Don't write off the value of cosmetic items as a way to make money in apps, though; LINE, Japan's mobile communication app of choice and fairly consistently its top-charting app on both iOS and Android, monetises its core app almost entirely, and very profitably, through selling "stickers" for people to paste into their chats. If Miitomo can tap into the same instincts, it could be a very profitable app purely off the back of cosmetic items.
Miitomo will launch in overseas markets soon (the Japanese version already features a full English translation, so it's pretty much ready to roll out), and then we'll really start to see whether this app is a success - whether it's got legs (a test of Nintendo's retention strategies) and whether it's got the potential to make money (a test of monetisation). If it does work on both of those counts, expect Nintendo's stock to soar (it's already had a nice bump in the first day of trading in Tokyo since the app launched); confirmation that the company is capable of being relevant and successful on mobile would answer a great many of the criticisms which have been leveled at it in recent years, and set the stage for the emergence of a very different Nintendo in years to come.