Nintendo and Smartphones: No New Leaf

Putting Nintendo franchises on smartphones would reach more players - but it might be economic suicide in the long-term

Amidst all the speculation and chatter about Nintendo's future, there are moments when it is crystal-clear exactly why the company has been such an intrinsic part of the world of videogames for nearly 30 years. Watching social networks light up with chatter about Animal Crossing: New Leaf - a game which lacks built-in social media functionality yet has provoked more sharing and discussion within my networks than any dedicated social title of the past five years - is one of those moments. At its very best, Nintendo is spectacularly, peerlessly and almost embarrassingly good at making games.

"Here we stand; a niche game launched on a handheld platform which every last ounce of conventional thinking declared dead on arrival two years ago"

In a sense, that is the factor that both drives and negates the often tedious debate over whether Nintendo should abandon hardware and focus its efforts on third-party publishing for mainstream platforms. That the discussion is so long-lived and so intense is a testament to the often unstated fact that Nintendo is not just a platform holder - it is also the most consistently successful and critically acclaimed publisher of games in the world. The unseemly vitriol of the platform wars may blind us to that fact on occasion, but the sheer depth and breadth of Nintendo's software and franchise catalogue is a match to any media company on earth, let alone any game publisher.

Animal Crossing, lest we forget, isn't even considered a top-rank Nintendo game. It will probably outsell most other games this year - Nintendo has, almost uniquely among publishers, mastered the knack of keeping its games selling consistently for months or even years, rather than relying on an initial sharp spike of demand to determine success or failure - yet alongside the likes of Mario, Zelda, Mario Kart and Pokemon, it's considered niche. Here we stand, though; a niche game launched on a handheld platform which every last ounce of conventional thinking declared dead on arrival a mere two years ago, yet I haven't seen such a consistent outpouring of social sharing of a game experience in a very long time. This speaks, of course, to the kind of people who comprise my social networks, yet beyond that I think it also hints at an extraordinary universalism which Nintendo has mastered far ahead of most of its rivals.

So here's the core of the argument - Nintendo enjoys a powerful universalism, an appeal that effortlessly leaps across gaps between demographic groups which seem to be gaping chasms to most other creators. Meanwhile, we've got a pair of new platforms - smartphones and tablets - which are doing the same thing to the world of hardware. Where a handheld game console might hope to sell a hundred million devices in its entire lifetime, Apple sold more than that number of iPhones last year alone, while Samsung's handsets more than doubled that number. Tablets, too, have become a device of choice among a huge range of demographic groups - my own mother, long possessed of the notion that touching the wrong button on a keyboard would cause the internet to explode, has now begun an unsubtle campaign suggesting that an iPad Mini would make an excellent birthday present.

"To switch to third-party development would be handing control of hardware creation to the uncaring whims of companies whose driving impulses have little to do with what makes great gameplay"

A software maker unrivalled at creating entertainment loved by everyone. Hardware platforms which excel at finding their way into the pockets and bags of everyone. It's a match made in heaven, surely? Is there not a sense of inevitability about the next iteration of Animal Crossing being a smartphone game - a sense that a game with such universal appeal is almost wasted by being confined to a platform with such niche appeal?

That sense absolutely does exist, however uncomfortable it may be for Nintendo's traditional fanbase - myself included. Oh, I recognise the discomfort well enough. Logically, rationally, I recognise that there are a lot of bonuses to smartphone gaming, not least that my smartphone is in my pocket all the time while my 3DS - lovely console though it may be - simply doesn't come out with me unless I'm carrying a bag or wearing a coat, which is probably less than half the time. I live in Tokyo, a city where it's altogether more common to see adults playing 3DS games in public than it would be in the UK, but that's still undeniably a factor too. The reality is that even given the obvious downsides of lacking the dual screens or the physical button controls, I'd probably play my 3DS software more if it was on my phone. I owned the superb The World Ends With You as a DS cartridge for many months before finally playing it - when it came out on iOS. And yet, and still... The notion of Nintendo developing for smartphones discomfits me. Something about the notion suggests a loss of the company's purity of purpose, the very thing that has made it so very, very good at what it does.

Traditionalist emotions aside, I think there are a few genuinely valid reasons for that feeling - some of which Satoru Iwata probably had in mind when he said recently that while developing for smartphones would probably make sense right now, staying the course would probably make more sense in the long run. The first and most obvious is that of all the platform holders, Nintendo has been the most successful at integrating its software and hardware development into a single symbiotic process. Software concepts inform Nintendo's hardware creations; its finest game design minds feed their ideas directly into the labs which create its consoles. The extent to which Nintendo's best games fit so snugly with the functionality of its hardware is absolutely no accident. To switch to third-party development would effectively be to throw away that hugely successful symbiosis - handing over control of hardware creation to the uncaring whims of companies like Apple and Samsung whose driving impulses will generally have little to do with what makes for great gameplay.

Great game development talent would survive that transition, of course, even if it lost a little something of its edge along the way. All the same, you are suddenly looking at a Nintendo which must compromise its vision to fit with devices that are fundamentally designed to let people tap out emails and look at webpages on a glass slab, rather than devices designed around the core notion of game interaction. It's not insurmountable, but it's still a blow to the very strengths which have made Nintendo's games great.

"Once you've released a free-to-play Mario and successfully monetised the game, does your audience still love Mario enough to buy the next one?"

The other concern, of course, is the business model. If we're going to talk about Nintendo being a master of universalism, there is very little in the world of games than is more truly universal in its reach than a free-to-play game on a smartphone platform. These games reach out to absolutely vast audiences undreamed-of by the traditional games business, as industry commentators and comment thread trolls are quick to point out at the drop of a hat. A single successful free-to-play game can easily achieve more downloads than an entire successful console platform's installed base. Isn't this where Nintendo's future must lie?

That's a dangerous argument for free-to-play advocates - who have many extremely good points and in whose camp I often find myself - to embark upon, though, because it starts to raise major questions about the value of a customer, or even the very definition of the word "customer". Yes, you may have had 10 million installs of your free-to-play game - but in the modern market, the first response to hearing that isn't "wow, amazing", it's "how much did that cost". Acquiring customers isn't free and making money from them isn't easy. How many of those people pay and how much they pay is another question entirely - and that's not even the toughest question. If you're Nintendo, with franchises in your stable which have been absolutely beloved and hugely commercially successful for three decades, the real question is this - once you've released a free-to-play Mario, reached a huge audience and successfully monetised the game, does your audience still love Mario enough to buy the next one, or have you just served the goose that laid the golden eggs up for a free-to-play dinner? I'm sure that it's possible for beloved franchises to retain their goodwill as free-to-play games - but if I was Nintendo, I'd wait to see evidence of that before committing the family jewels to the chase. (It's no coincidence, I'm sure, that the company's first free-to-play experiment on its own platforms will be a Steel Diver title - obscure enough that nobody will really care if it, ironically, sinks.)

"Nintendo's existing markets may be niche, but they're reliable niches that pay good money for high-quality software"

There's a Catch-22 at work here. Uncomfortable as the notion makes me as a game fan, the problems associated with moving to tablet and smartphone hardware are probably surmountable given Nintendo's development chops. Moreover, it would probably make sense in the end, both commercially and, I admit, from a gaming perspective. I'd play more Nintendo games, joyously, if they sat alongside the likes of Puzzle & Dragons on my phone. However, the Catch-22 arises from the free-to-play issue. I'm an advocate of free-to-play for many games, but Nintendo's classic franchises don't generally fit that profile - which is fine, except that the rise of free-to-play has, inevitably, muddied the waters for premium-priced games on smartphone and tablet platforms. I paid 8.99 for The World Ends With You through gritted teeth, because it was on the App Store, apparently oblivious to the fact that I'd paid 20 for it on the DS previously. Our perception of value on those stores has been forever hammered by the availability of a glut of free software. Don't blame F2P for that; F2P is the sensible reaction to a marketplace where distribution costs have fallen to zero and prices have rapidly followed, but the fact remains that Nintendo faces a tough challenge if it wants to sell premium-priced software in an ecosystem increasingly focused on free downloads.

Ultimately, I think that Nintendo will probably stick to its guns and avoid third-party publishing for as long as it possibly can, precisely because of that Catch-22. Its management would undoubtedly like to put Nintendo games on smartphones right now - they're traditionalists, no doubt, but they're not stupid or unaware of what's happening in the world. Yet even while some companies are making a fortune from the App Store, Google Play and their ilk, Nintendo is quite right to be incredibly wary of the economic factors at work in these marketplaces. Nintendo's existing markets may be niche, but they're reliable niches that pay good money for high-quality software - and if you're safeguarding the greatest treasure trove of IP in the games business, there are times when playing it safe makes a whole lot of sense.

Related stories

Over half of HQ Trivia staff tried to oust CEO

Co-founder Rus Yusupov survived demands for his removal, but the search for a replacement chief has begun

By James Batchelor

Apple invested a reported $500 million in Arcade partnerships

Financial Times' sources reveal the high price of Apple Arcade subscription service

By Matthew Handrahan

Latest comments (21)

If I was Nintendo I would outsource and leverage mobile platforms for lite games... and free advertising. They don't even have to make money from the platforms... just use them to make consumers aware of their full games and platforms.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Dave Brickley Executive Producer, SUMO Digital5 years ago
I don't own a 3DS but I'll buy one to play New Leaf.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
My problem with the F2P model and Nintendo games:

World 1-1 Free
World 1-2 $0.99

You simply have an incompatible game design (one that has been established and loved for decades) and financial model.

Nintendo makes "Nintendo style" games. They don't make "F2P style" games. BMW doesn't produce the Mini to tow large motorhomes behind it no more so than does Nintendo produce games that function under the F2P model.
6Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (21)
Slade Wilson Financial Analyst 5 years ago
It would be total suicide. Nintendo knows what its doing better than we do.

Smart phones are about low quality software. Not High quality

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Slade Wilson on 28th June 2013 12:56pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 5 years ago
The only people who care about free to play games are the suits who want to fill there pockets with money. People whoknow business but dont play games. Therefore they dont understand that a F2P mario or animal crossing will destroy those franchises. They will become generic and unexciting. In real games... not F2P you progress through levels through skill and playing the game well. In a F2P game you get progression by paying more money. I cant see how this can work with a game thats competitive. Where finishing the game isnt enough, but you go through speed runs and discover secrets and you can play the game differently in order to see what you can do better. It would really suck, to discover a hidden level in a Marion game, only to have to pay to actually get access to it, or find a hidden power up only to have to pay more for it. Nintendo's games are very fluid and have good pacing. That would be ruined if it went to the F2P model.

The only people who play F2P games are people that never played games in the first place, they will bump into a F2P game play it for a while, maybe make a few transactions but the quit soon after. At least most people I know anyway. Its not a model that rewards players for there gameplay skills. mario or nintendo's games would not work this way.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee5 years ago

I was kind of with you when you suggested that the F2P model can't just be thrown into any game and expected to work. What I really disagree with is that idea that only 'suits' care about F2P and only 'people that never played games' play F2P.

I personally have no doubt that F2P is a viable business model for many titles, specially in the online/download arena and that there are many people who are interested in them, not just a gamer who accidentally comes by a game that happens to be free.

Games like CSR and Real Racing prove the model works. As it is likely for Killer Instinct 3 to show a working example on consoles, where fans of a pretty sophisticated fighting series will lap it up. Not everyone will agree with the model but those who are fine with it will play it and maybe even throw money at it for more characters...
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
KI3 is F2P?

I may need a drink now.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee5 years ago
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Adam: KI is a bad example because it kills CHOICE in a modern fighter. I have dozens of old fighting games here where the fun comes from trying out every unlocked character, finding one or two or hell, ten that I like and learning their moves through solo and versus play. If Double Helix were remaking Karateka or Yie Ar Kung Fu or Fighting Street, I could see one character being a good idea. Other pay fighters out there at least give you a slightly better deal (although I hate those as well).

Sticking EVERYONE with the same character is a bad idea that FORCES a purchase of more content and while new players will hop on that nonsense, some KI fans who prefer other characters aren't keen on the idea of not seeing them unless they reach for that credit card. That and should the online shop not work correctly at launch, there will be a lot of Jagos twiddling their thumbs at home or playing something else while they wait for a fix...
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Sam Brown Lead Audio Programmer, TT Games5 years ago
Incidentally, am I the only one who's a bit meh about Nintendo? They've never really grabbed me as a gamer, but admitting as much to my peers feels like telling a bunch of Scientologists I think the whole Xenu thing is a bit silly.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 28th June 2013 3:48pm

0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee5 years ago

I only just realised that they are only supplying one character for the game, so yes compared to other fighters with paid for content it is a bad example. I do think the title itself will go on to be successful and show the model can attract console players, there are other games I expect to do so too, however I don't agree with that design choice.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
@Adam: I also think it will do well, but it has to overcome the growing swell of disrespectful idiots who are yelling " IT'S NOT RARE!" and "Double Helix"? Who are they? I never heard of them, so they must suck!" and so forth and so on across the internet.

Still, I'd rather see the game have multiple characters and a handful of arenas out of the gate and the buying in kick in for more stages, outfits and special characters. That would at least be fair to older KI fans who aren't into Jago or (wait for it...) might actually want to play as a female fighter (hell, there SHOULD be that option anyway! A male or female XBO owner MAY just want to play as a female character. What a concept!)... ;^P

I'm not sure what this will be rated, but I have the feeling that you may hear of kids or teens bugging mom or dad to buy them new characters and getting turned down at some point if the parental units or other supervising adult aren't willing to do so or find the idea of paying for characters a bit strange...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Greg Wilcox on 28th June 2013 4:14pm

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Lee Sheldon Professor of Practice, Worcester Polytechnic Institute5 years ago
A quick look at top selling games in the iTunes App Store shows XCOM, KOTOR, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Bastion selling fine. An older great game like KOTOR sells at a premium and doesn't need to go near the F2P model. I see no reason why Nintendo can't treat their catalogue, in particular its old catalogue with so many classic hits, as a chance to sell more games to newer audiences in the $10-$20 price range without the perceived taint of F2P.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Charles Herold Wii Games Guide, about.com5 years ago
I'll admit, I don't understand the worship Nintendo receives. For me, they're like any game publisher; they put out some good games, and they put out some that underwhelm me. Their best games, like Skyward Sword and Metroid Prime, are fantastic, but things like Animal Crossing or Pokemon hold no interest to me at all. But then, I didn't grow up with Nintendo - I didn't grow up with videogames at all, because they barely existed when I was a kid - and I think my lack of nostalgia effects my appreciation for their products.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
But then, I didn't grow up with Nintendo - I didn't grow up with videogames at all, because they barely existed when I was a kid - and I think my lack of nostalgia effects my appreciation for their products.
@Charles: And you're writing the Wii games guide? (Pulls out rocking chair and portable porch, puts in teeth): Now, sonny, listen up (smack, smack)... When I was your age, we allllll played, um... uh... what was i taking about again?.... ZZzzzzzzz.... *SNNNORK!!*

Heh - anyway, a lack of nostalgia only means you need to study more to gain that appreciation, that's all.

I've been a fan of the company but have outgrown some of the titles they see and sell as classics (like many other fans who want to see them do more with some new IP or less with the ones they trot out on a regular basis). That said, Nintendo knows what they want to do (most of the time), they follow their own path (which doesn't always work) and when they succeed, it's sometimes after a major blunder (virtual Boy, GB Micro, the 3DS' launch/launch window, poor Wii U marketing, et cetera).

Some sort of "control of the ecosystem" also comes into play. Nintendo has a certain "safe' feeling to it, where as any creep can get their paws on a device and use it for no good around others. If Nintendo branches out into that world, there's a higher risk of some jerk using one of their products in a way definitely not intended by the company.

I guess another issue might be performance across a wide range of devices as well. Nintendo more likely wants to feel as if players are getting the "best" possible experience (as some say) "ONLY a Nintendo system can provide" (eye roll and a chuckle there). i don't think they'll ever move to other devices unless that have a stake in creating one (not every tablet or phone is good at gaming).

Heh... imagine them saving RIM and Blackberry from doom by teaming up to make a phone/gaming console? I think I just broke something in my brain when that popped into my noggin just now...
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.5 years ago
Lee, not all games transition well to a purely touch based input. Look at classic Nintendo games that have transitioned to the DS and 3DS. Are they solely touch based? Not at all. So that tells me that even Nintendo with their own touch capable hardware knows that those games are still best played with tactile inputs. Not just that, but they get to fully control all aspects of that game on their own online store. Why in the world, as a business, want to ever give up that kind of control just to be on some else's platform.

Question. Why do we never hear of this kind of 'put in on mobile' demand regarding Sony or MS? Why? Because we know damn good and well they'd not do it either when they have their own online stores.

Charles, it's not solely a nostalgic aspect but a fact of them covering such a large portion of the market with various products to various consumers that are of high quality for decades. When you do that, and let's not forget that it was all tied to their specifically designed hardware, it's not hard to see why they are so touted.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Randy Marr Customer Service Representative, Blizzard Entertainment5 years ago
Is there a reason, specifically, that this conversation keeps happening regarding Nintendo, solely, and not Sony and Microsoft? Why is nobody asking for Final Fantasy XIII on Mobile platforms? Why is nobody demanding Sly Cooper Mobile? Or Fable: A Legend In Your Pocket? It's -only- Nintendo who "needs" to make the move from their own platforms, when the 3DS is doing just fine.
1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Because it is "in" to condemn Nintendo to doom (even if the company is more than 100 yrs. old, have redefined the market once or twice, and has insane cash reserves to sustain one or two failed platforms.)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Francisco Montero on 28th June 2013 8:28pm

2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd5 years ago
@ Randy and ironically it's very likely Nintendo will be the LAST to ditch the dedicated game console of the big 3.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Paul Jace Merchandiser 5 years ago
Or Fable: A Legend In Your Pocket?
That game has existed at frat houses for the better part of 30 years:P But Microsoft has slowly started to release some of their franchises on mobile, though it was usually just apps. Theres a new Halo game called Spartan Assualt that comes out next month for Windows 8 PC's, tablets and phones. If that does well I suspect they will start making similiar moves for some of their other first party franchises.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 29th June 2013 1:26am

1Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 5 years ago
The only people who play F2P games are people that never played games in the first place, they will bump into a F2P game play it for a while, maybe make a few transactions but the quit soon after. At least most people I know anyway.
Right. So the problem here is, you have no real experience with the serious/good F2P games, and so don't understand F2P.

World of Tanks is an F2P game that's a great game, makes lots of money, has a lot of serious players, and works really well as an F2P title. Until you have some comprehension of why and how this game (or something similar to it) works, I'd suggest you may want to stop commenting on something you don't understand.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.