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Nintendo reaffirms its toy-maker identity | Opinion

Ventures into mobile games and streaming might have clouded Nintendo's self-image -- but the company is still first and foremost a toy-maker

Nintendo's new Switch hardware is very much the classic Nintendo play. Amidst all of the existing Switch owners and adult Nintendo fans posting semi tongue-in-cheek takes about how much they want one for no particularly good reason, the real purpose of this device might be going a little unnoticed; Switch Lite is designed to take an already successful console platform and make it into a better device for children.

Sure, smaller, lighter and cheaper are great for a pretty wide swathe of the audience -- but at the core of the decision making around this update is a desire to make something that'll work better in the hands of children, and that parents will be more comfortable handing over to them in the first place. Not only is the Lite physically more suited to kids' hands, it's also got no "moving parts" -- i.e. bits that'll get broken or lost -- a practicality on a slimmed down console, sure, but also a callback to the removal of the hinge from the kid-friendly 2DS handheld.

Anyone who loves them some Nintendo knows, of course, that "it's designed with kids in mind" is far from a criticism, and anything but an exclusive statement when it comes to this company. Few other firms are quite so good at managing to create child-focused entertainment that's also outright fantastic for adults. Yet there's still a lingering denial in some quarters of what Nintendo really is -- or perhaps a misplaced desire for it to be something else. Nintendo isn't a tech giant or a media empire in the making; at the company's heart, in its own vision of itself and its audience, Nintendo is a toy-maker, which means its main (but not only) priority is always going to be to entertaining and delighting children and families.

"There's a lingering denial in some quarters of what Nintendo really is -- or perhaps a misplaced desire for it to be something else"

That approach was on clear display throughout the Iwata years, with the late CEO being entirely frank on occasion about his perception of Nintendo as a toy company rather than a tech or media firm, as rivals Sony and Microsoft were (and are). The changes of leadership since his untimely death have been well-considered and have left the company in good hands, but one could argue that Iwata's very single-minded vision of Nintendo as a toy company rather than a tech giant seems a little less clear in a world where the company is launching free-to-play mobile games and working with publishers on using Switch as a streaming platform.

If confirmation is needed of where Nintendo's heart still lies, however, it could be found fairly easily in last week's shareholder Q&A session. These sessions rarely offer direct insights into the firm's plans or thinking, requiring a certain degree of Kremlinology to read between the lines. But the responses of Nintendo's executives to the inevitable questions from shareholders who strongly feel like the firm should be a tech giant or a media empire give a pretty good indication of how the company's leadership feels about the tides tugging them in various directions.

This time out, there was a sense of the company putting its foot down on the tech front -- a sense pretty well backed up by the very conservative changes made in the Switch Lite only a few days later. Sure, the executives paid lip service to the technologies that shareholders asked about -- VR, 5G and so on -- but the polite assurances that they're looking at various things came couched in terms that made it fairly clear that Nintendo has zero intention of being an early mover in a cutting-edge field. The mention of Labo's VR functionality -- which involves slipping a Switch into a cardboard headset -- in response to the VR question clearly wasn't what the questioner had in mind, but it's an almost perfect encapsulation of Nintendo's approach, which is that a technology isn't really interesting until there's a robust, cheap way for people to have fun with it.

The opening of the Nintendo theme park in Osaka will place the company alongside Disney in terms of its strategy

The opening of the Nintendo theme park in Osaka will place the company alongside Disney in terms of its strategy

That philosophy has guided Nintendo for years; the approach that another late Nintendo luminary, Gunpei Yokoi, described as "lateral thinking with withered technology," and one that's firmly rooted in the idea of being a firm that makes toys, not cutting-edge high-tech devices. Of course Nintendo is looking at VR and 5G and all sorts of other acronyms, but it's not committing even to talking about being especially interested in them. Until they're cheap, ubiquitous and robust, they won't fit the company's philosophy.

"Iwata's vision for the firm may not be quite so bluntly articulated any more, but it's still there"

There was absolutely no suggestion in the responses at the shareholder meeting that anyone at the firm is thinking it should be an innovator or early adopter of any of those technologies. I'd be flat-out stunned if we ever saw a 5G-enabled Switch, which is what some reports seem to have taken away from the conference. A "real" Nintendo VR headset will happen once it's something so robust and workaday that you'd happily let a child play with it unattended, and not a moment sooner.

The second key trend you could have picked out from the Q&A was perhaps less evident but still there, and it related to how Nintendo is pushing out into the real world. The executives talked about their new Nintendo store in Tokyo pretty enthusiastically, there was mention of the theme park in Osaka (fantastic-looking model shots of which seemingly leaked a short while ago), and a few other comments about merchandise. Taken alongside several references to the age of their consumers, a clear picture of how the company's leadership see themselves formed -- and it's one we should all be accustomed to by now.

This is a firm which knows it has lots of adult consumers, and isn't shy of playing on their nostalgia, but also knows that its core magic lies in its appeal to children. Thus, its future path involves building out not just great games and IPs, but also real-world locations that can further embed those characters and franchises in the hearts and imaginations of children and their families -- a slow, careful retreading of the old Disney formula. Given that approach, one can see why Nintendo's focus on protecting the family-friendly aspect of its brand was on clear display too -- from its concerns over how the "MariCar" tours in Japan could impact its brand value (especially if there's a serious or fatal accident involving the karts, which is surely only a matter of time) through to the quick discussion about how seriously the company takes the task of policing behaviour in game tournaments.

Iwata's vision for the firm may not be quite so bluntly articulated any more, but it's still there. Nintendo as toy company, proudly and happily claiming its identity as a firm that strives first and foremost to entertain and enthral children and families. This is very distinct from the identities that either Microsoft or Sony have created for their games businesses, and it's arguably why the games industry still needs Nintendo so much even in an era when the company looks downright minuscule compared to the tech-giant competition it faces.

Moreover, it's a philosophy that works. Does anyone really want to bet that the Switch Lite, launching with new Pokémon games on the horizon, rebuilt to fit better in kids' hands, and priced to fit better with parents' Christmas budgets, won't drive the platform to new heights this winter?

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