The potential for Nintendo's IP on mobile devices is no longer a point for debate. As Pokemon GO, the first full-scale mobile title game based on the company's IP, trundles ahead with its global roll-out - which is actually going pretty quickly, but certainly not quickly enough for vocal fans in territories as-yet unserved - it is shooting up the top-grossing charts in territory after territory within hours of launch. By some measures, it's already the most popular mobile game ever in the USA, shoving aside former record-holder Candy Crush Saga within a matter of days.
Even more bizarre are the effects which the game is reportedly having in the real world, as its Augmented Reality (AR) game mechanics get players out roaming the streets in search of rare creatures, or congregating around areas designated by the software to battle for control of "gyms", vital facilities visible only to those using the application. Most of the stories about people doing tremendously stupid or dangerous things when playing the game are entirely fake, but there have been impacts both positive and negative from this play mechanism; small businesses seeing a boost in trade in one city, people getting annoyed at late-night crowding in residential parks in another.
"Someone at Nintendo...took the decision to take an enormous risk, marrying one of Nintendo's most valuable franchises to an incredibly niche, unproven and experimental kind of game"
On the sidelines - one such sideline being the entire nation of Japan, where the game has yet to launch - a discussion has started to bubble along about where the credit for this phenomenon rests. For most players, of course, there's no question as to who Pokemon Go can be attributed to; it's a Nintendo game. Those a little more versed in mobile games point out that it's actually largely similar to a previous game from developer Niantic, Ingress, which was far less popular but essentially played in the same way. Nintendo, an investor in Niantic (which was spun off from Google some time ago, and Google also remains an investor), just provided the Pokemon IP - the technology, the gameplay and the development genius is all down to Niantic.
That's true, and Niantic deserves a huge slice of the credit - but this misses the single biggest ingredient in Pokemon Go's success. That ingredient is neither the underlying, Ingress-style game, nor the Pokemon IP in which it is dressed; rather, it is the marriage of the two, the recognition of these two disparate elements being a perfect fit and the careful process through which they've been glued together. Someone at Nintendo - either at Nintendo proper or at subsidiary The Pokemon Company - took the decision to take an enormous risk, marrying one of Nintendo's most valuable franchises to an incredibly niche, unproven and experimental kind of game. The decision may look obvious in hindsight, but that's only because all the best decisions do.
It is still incredibly early in the game's lifecycle and it's hard to tell how much staying power it will have. The sheer intensity of the game experience could accelerate player fatigue; demanding that people actually go out and explore the world around them is a pretty big departure from the usual mobile game fare of idly flicking thumbs across a screen while wondering how long you can drag out this bathroom break for. Equally, though, it seems reasonable to anticipate that while a certain audience of more casual players will fall away from the game fairly rapidly, those remaining will be very dedicated and involved, creating a solid core business for the long-term.
"Nintendo can do something that no other major IP holder is really competent to do - it can think carefully, intelligently and creatively about how to fit its IP to mobile game concepts"
Regardless of how that plays out, however, the concept has been proved beyond a flicker of doubt. Nintendo's IP remains some of the most valuable in the world; easily the most valuable library of IP in the games business, and arguably on a par with other kids' and entertainment IP libraries held by the likes of Pixar or Marvel. One could argue the toss regarding the way Nintendo's IP stacks up to the various bits of Disney all day, but this actually ignores the enormous competitive advantage Nintendo has in mobile games; namely that it is actually a games company. Nintendo can do something that no other major IP holder is really competent to do - it can think carefully, intelligently and creatively about how to fit its IP to mobile game concepts. It employs some of the world's best game designers, and even if they aren't creating the games themselves - as in this case, where development was largely in Niantic's hands - their influence on the company's culture enables it to explore new ideas and evaluate creative risks in a way that for the most part eludes its rivals.
Pokemon GO is an ideal example of that in action - a perfect marriage of IP, technology and gameplay, which might all too easily have been overlooked by other companies who found themselves wary of an unproven and experimental field like AR games. The challenge for Nintendo in the coming years, then, is to find similar perfect matches for its other major titles. It's unlikely that very many of them will have the kind of headline-making impact of Pokemon GO (though, who really expected a Pokemon game to be a top news story around the world in 2016?), but finding the right tech and the right game style to match against franchises like Mario, Zelda, Animal Crossing (which I maintain could be the company's biggest mobile franchise) and all the rest is nothing short of vital if mobile efforts are to breathe new life into Nintendo.
"The massive boost in visibility of and interest in the franchise is likely to turn this year's 3DS game launches into the most successful Pokemon titles in many years"
One thing Nintendo has made clear about its mobile efforts from the outset is that it views them not as a replacement for its console hardware and software business, but as something additive and complementary to that business. An overlooked aspect of Pokemon Go thus far is how perfectly it fits with that vision. The mobile game seems to be making good money and will hopefully become a solid business in its own right; but it has also elevated Pokemon into the global conversation for the first time in years, tapping into the nostalgia of old fans and developing the enthusiasm of new young fans. Later this year, new Pokemon games will launch on the 3DS - and the beauty of Pokemon Go is that it's hard to imagine it cannibalising a single sale of that title. It's very obviously a Pokemon game, yet it's a radically different experience from playing the 3DS games; nobody is going to think "oh, I don't need that, I've got the one on my mobile phone". On the contrary, the massive boost in visibility of and interest in the franchise is likely to turn this year's 3DS game launches into the most successful Pokemon titles in many years.
This is the kind of virtuous circle that Nintendo wants from its mobile efforts - mobile games which enthuse and engage fans of its franchises, which make money in their own right and which strengthen the appeal of the company's console hardware and software. No other company is really in a position to build that kind of business, which is why what Nintendo is doing is such an interesting experiment to watch; it's never been attempted before and nobody even knows if it's possible. If Pokemon GO is the first real trial of this strategy, it's a very good sign for the company's diversified future.