Nintendo is heading back to black, with the company's financial announcements this week revealing that it's expecting to post a fairly reasonable profit for the full year. For a company that's largely been mired in red ink since the end of the glory days of the Wii, that looks like pretty fantastic news; but since I was one of the people who repeatedly pointed out in the past when Nintendo's quarterly losses were driven by currency fluctuations, not sales failures, it's only fair that I now point out that quite the reverse is true. The Yen has fallen dramatically against the Dollar and the Euro in recent months, making Nintendo's overseas assets and sales much more valuable in its end-of-year results - and this time, that's covering over the fact that the company has missed its hardware sales targets for both the 3DS and the Wii U.
In short, all those "Nintendo back in profit" headlines aren't really worth anything more than the "Nintendo makes shock loss" headlines were back when the Yen was soaring to all-time highs a few years ago. The company is still facing the same tough times this week that it was last week; the Wii U is still struggling to break 10 million units and the 3DS is seeing a major year-on-year decline in its sales, having faltered significantly after hitting the 50 million installed base mark.
"In spite of the doom and gloom around downward-revised forecasts for hardware, Nintendo was still able to pull out a list of this year's million-plus selling software that would put any other publisher in the industry to shame"
In hardware terms, then, Nintendo deserves all the furrowed brows and concerned looks it's getting right now. Part of the problem is comparisons with past successes, of course; the Wii shipped over a million units and the DS, an absolute monster of a console, managed over 150 million. In reality, while the Wii U is having a seriously hard time in spite of its almost universally acclaimed 2014 software line-up, the 3DS isn't doing badly at all; but it can't escape comparison with its record-breaking older sibling, naturally enough.
Plenty of commentators reckon they know the answer to Nintendo's woes, and they've all got the same answer; the company needs to ditch hardware and start selling its games on other platforms. Pokemon on iOS! Smash Bros on PlayStation! Mario Kart on Xbox! Freed from the limited installed base of Nintendo's own hardware - and presumably, in the case of handheld titles, freed to experiment with new business models like F2P - the company's games would reach their full potential, the expensive hardware division could be shut down and everyone at Nintendo could spend the rest of their lives blowing their noses on ¥10,000 notes.
I'm being flippant, yes, but there's honestly not a lot more depth than that to the remedies so often proposed for Nintendo. I can't help but find myself deeply unconvinced. For a start, let's think about "Nintendo's woes", and what exactly is meant by the doom and gloom narrative that has surrounded the company in recent years. That the Wii U isn't selling well is absolutely true; it's doing better than the Dreamcast did, to pick an ominous example, but unless there's a major change of pace the console is unlikely ever to exceed the installed base of the GameCube. Indeed, if you treat the Wii as a "black swan" in Nintendo's home console history, a flare of success that the company never quite figured out how to bottle and repeat, then the Wii U starts to look like a continuation of a slow and steady decline that started with the Nintendo 64 (a little over thirty million consoles sold in total) and continued with the GameCube (a little over twenty million). That the 3DS is struggling to match the pace and momentum of the DS is also absolutely true; it's captured a big, healthy swathe of the core Nintendo market but hasn't broken out to the mass market in the way that the DS did with games like Brain Training.
Yet here's a thing; in spite of the doom and gloom around downward-revised forecasts for hardware, Nintendo was still able to pull out a list of this year's million-plus selling software that would put any other publisher in the industry to shame. The latest Pokemon games on 3DS have done nearly 10 million units; Super Smash Bros has done 6.2 million on 3DS and 3.4 million on the Wii U. Mario Kart 8 has done almost five million units, on a console that's yet to sell 10 million. Also selling over a million units in the last nine months of 2014 on 3DS we find Tomodachi Life, Mario Kart 7 (which has topped 11 million units, life to date), Pokemon X and Y (nearly 14 million units to date), New Super Mario Bros 2 (over 9 million), Animal Crossing: New Leaf (nearly 9 million) and Kirby: Triple Deluxe. The Wii U, in addition to Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros, had million-plus sellers in Super Mario 3D World and Nintendo Land.
That's 12 software titles from a single publisher managing to sell over a million units in the first three quarters of a financial year - a pretty bloody fantastic result that only gets better if you add in the context that Nintendo is also 2014's highest-rated publisher in terms of critical acclaim. Plus, Nintendo also gets a nice cut of any third-party software sold on its consoles; granted, that probably doesn't sum up to much on the Wii U, where third-party games generally seem to have bombed, but on the 3DS it means that the company is enjoying a nice chunk of change from the enormous success of Yokai Watch, various versions of which occupied several slots in the Japanese software top ten for 2014, among other successful 3DS third-party games.
Aha, say the advocates of a third-party publisher approach for Nintendo, that's exactly our point! The company's software is amazing! It would do so much better if it weren't restrained by only being released on consoles that aren't all that popular! Imagine how Nintendo's home console games would perform on the vastly faster-selling PS4 (and imagine how great they'd look, intones the occasional graphics-obsessive); imagine how something like Tomodachi Life or Super Smash Bros would do if it was opened up to the countless millions of people with iOS or Android phones!
Let's take those arguments one at a time, because they're actually very different. Firstly, home consoles - a sector in which there's no doubt that Nintendo is struggling. The PS4 has got around twice the installed base of the Wii U after only half the time on the market; it's clear where the momentum and enthusiasm lies. Still, Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart 8 managed to sell several million copies apiece on Wii U; in the case of Mario Kart 8, around half of Wii U owners bought a copy. Bearing in mind that Nintendo makes way more profit per unit from selling software on its own systems than it would from selling it on third-party consoles (where it would, remember, be paying a licensing fee to Sony or Microsoft), here's the core question; could it sell more copies of Mario Kart 8 on other people's consoles than it managed on its own?
If you think the answer to that is "yes", here's what you're essentially claiming; that there's a large pent-up demand among PlayStation owners for Mario Kart games. Is there really? Can you prove that, through means other than dredging up a handful of Reddit posts from anonymous people saying "I'd play Nintendo games if they were 1080p/60fps on my PS4"? To me, that seems like quite a big claim. It's an especially big claim when you consider the hyper-competitive environment in which Nintendo would be operating on the PS4 (or Xbox One, or both).
Right now, a big Nintendo game launching on a Nintendo console is a major event for owners of that console. I think Nintendo launches would still be a big event on any console, but there's no doubt that the company would lose focus as a third-party publisher - sure, the new Smash Bros is out, but competing for attention, pocket money and free time against plenty of other software. It's not that I don't think Nintendo games could hold their own in a competitive market, I merely don't wish to underestimate the focus that Nintendo acquires by having a devoted console all of their own underneath the TVs of millions of consumers - even if its not quite the number of millions they'd like.
"The market seems to be changing faster than Nintendo is prepared to keep up with, [but] I'm not convinced that any of the company's critics actually have a better plan right now than Satoru Iwata's "stay the course" approach"
How about the other side of the argument, then - the mobile games aspect? Nintendo's position in handheld consoles may not be what it used to be, but the 3DS has roundly trounced the PlayStation Vita in sales terms. Sure, iPhones and high-end Android devices have much bigger installed bases (Apple shifted around 75 million iPhones in the last quarter, while the lifetime sales of the 3DS are only just over 50 million), but that comparison isn't necessarily a very useful one. All 50 million 3DS owners bought an expensive device solely to play games, and the lifetime spend on game software of each 3DS owner runs into hundreds of dollars. The "average revenue per user" calculation for Pokemon on the 3DS is easy; everyone paid substantial money for the game up front.
By comparison, lots and lots of iOS and Android users never play games at all, and many of those who play games never pay for them. That's fine; that's the very basis of the F2P model, and games using that model effectively can still make plenty of money while continuing to entertain a large number (perhaps even a majority) of players who pay nothing. Still, the claim that moving to smartphones is a "no-brainer" for Nintendo is a pretty huge one, taken in this context. The market for premium, expensive software on smartphones is very limited and deeply undermined by F2P; the move to F2P for Nintendo titles would be creatively difficult for many games, and even for ones that are a relatively natural fit (such as Pokemon), it would be an enormous commercial risk. There's a chance Nintendo could get it right and end up with a Puzzle & Dragons sized hit on its hands (which is what it would take to exceed the half a billion dollars or so the company makes from each iteration of Pokemon on 3DS); there's also an enormous risk that the company could get it wrong, attracting criticism and controversy around poor decisions or misjudged sales techniques, and badly damage the precious Pokemon brand itself.
In short, while I'm constantly aware that the market seems to be changing faster than Nintendo is prepared to keep up with, I'm not convinced that any of the company's critics actually have a better plan right now than Satoru Iwata's "stay the course" approach. If you believe that PlayStation fans will flock to buy Nintendo software on their console, you may think differently; if you think that the risk and reward profile of the global iOS market is a better bet than the 50-odd million people who have locked themselves in to Nintendo's 3DS platform and shown a willingness to pay high software prices there, then similarly, you'll probably think differently. Certainly, there's some merit to the idea that Nintendo ought to be willing to disrupt its own business in order to avoid being disrupted by others - yet there's a difference between self-disruption and just hurling yourself headlong into disaster in the name of "not standing still".
There's a great deal that needs to be fixed at Nintendo; its marketing and branding remains a bit of a disaster, its relationships with third-party studios and publishers are deeply questionable and its entire approach to online services is incoherent at best. Yet this most fundamental question, "should Nintendo stay in the hardware business", remains a hell of a lot tougher than the company's critics seem to believe. For now, beleaguered though he may seem, Iwata still seems to be articulating the most convincing vision for the future of the industry's most iconic company.