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Nintendo's disappointing year on mobile

Smartphone games are proving to be a challenge for Nintendo - and the problems are more basic than a failure to embrace F2P

Here's another entry for the very, very long annals of "times when the complex and rapidly evolving nature of the games business left most people who try to analyse or predict it looking a bit daft"; we're reaching the end of a financial year in which Nintendo finally did what analysts have been shouting about for years and launched some of its top franchises on smartphones... And lo, the relatively miserable performance of that sector is going to be a mere footnote to the stunning success of its latest home console. "Oops".

I don't say this to dunk on the analysts who have demanded Nintendo's entry into smartphones for so long (well, okay, maybe a little bit), but rather to underline the fact that it's not just the soaring success of Switch that has defied expectations; the company's fortunes in the mobile space have been equally surprising, just in the opposite direction.

"The performance of the games released so far has been downright disappointing for the most part"

Of course it stands to reason that any firm will take a little time to find its feet in a market as radically different as smartphone games, but after the peculiar toe-in-the-water experiment of Miitomo, Nintendo has not been shy in its approach to mobile - it's launched games based on Mario, Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing, with Mario Kart up next and a Zelda title reportedly in the works. That's a pretty solid cross section of one of the most valuable and successful libraries of IP in existence, and yet the performance of the games released so far has been downright disappointing for the most part.

I say "for the most part", because it would be churlish not to mention the bright spot - Fire Emblem Heroes, which mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower reckons has raked in a reasonably solid $295 million in revenue in its first year, absolutely dwarfing the performance of the other two games. Yet this in itself points to the depth of Nintendo's problems on mobile; Fire Emblem is arguably the least recognisable and popular franchise among the three thus far launched, it was certainly the game that appeared with the least fanfare, and yet it's the only one doing decent business. The performance of the hugely hyped Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp, on the other hand, have been extremely poor given the relative strength of their franchises and the huge marketing push that went behind them.

Most analysis of what's happened to Nintendo on mobile focuses on the business model, and yes, it's absolutely true that Mario Run was a noble but misguided attempt to avoid F2P entirely, while the more successful Fire Emblem Heroes uses the more common F2P monetisation (albeit a commendably light touch version). Figuring out how to fit a business model to its franchises in a way that doesn't end up devaluing the IP itself is a tricky task and it's fair to say Nintendo didn't get it right out the gate, and is probably still struggling internally with some of the decisions involved.

"This is the crux - you can't just say that Nintendo's mobile problems are down to its failure to adapt to F2P business models"

Yet Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp employs a F2P system that's not notably more "light-touch" than Fire Emblem's, and it's flopped fairly hard nonetheless - Sensor Tower reckons its revenues are running at just over a fifth of Fire Emblem's for a comparable post-launch period. This is the crux - you can't just say that Nintendo's mobile problems are down to its failure to adapt to F2P business models, as if an embrace of that paradigm would be a magical cure-all for its issues. That notion almost held together when we only had two data points - Mario Run wasn't F2P and it flopped, Fire Emblem was F2P and did okay - but the addition of a third data point has confounded the problem.

When you look a bit more closely at Nintendo's mobile titles, you start to see a deeper issue; while the company has grasped the core concept of needing not just to slap its IP on any old title, but rather to distil the key things that people love about its games into a form that works on mobile, it's actually not very good at that process yet. Nintendo's mobile games to date have been exceptionally polished and accomplished, but they just haven't really been compelling to play for very long. In the even more inexcusable case of Animal Crossing, they haven't actually been very much fun.

Mario Run was a pretty clever effort at translating some of the joy of Mario onto a smartphone - the fluidity of movement, more than anything else, being the core DNA it shares with its console brethren - but it entirely amputated the sense of discovery and puzzle solving that creates a meta-game for Mario titles. That, as much as the ill-advised pricing strategy, suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of how mobile works; that long-term meta-game is absolutely crucial when your game is really all about getting people to come back for a few moments here and there for weeks or months on end. Animal Crossing, too, seemed to miss out on a great deal of what actually made Animal Crossing into such a phenomenon; here, even more bizarrely, the game pared away many of the systems that encouraged console players to come back day after day for months on end, precisely the goal towards which smartphone developers have been struggling since day one.

"There's still a bright future for Nintendo on smart devices, if the company chooses to seize it"

Where Fire Emblem Heroes really worked, on the other hand, was not just in its adoption of F2P. I'd argue that this was actually secondary to the fact that it made a far better fist of translating what's great and appealing about Fire Emblem into something that works on a smartphone. That it's a stripped down experience is a given, but the structure of it - short battles that last a few minutes with clearly defined end points, backed up by a meta-game that permits plenty of fiddling and tuning - is damned near ideal for mobile in a way that the other titles simply were not.

One might reasonably ask, of course, just how important this stuff is given the stellar performance of the Switch. Doesn't Nintendo have bigger fish to fry? Yet that's really the point - that self-same argument is almost certainly being repeated within Nintendo at the moment. I don't doubt that Nintendo remains committed, at a management level, to making its franchises work on smartphones. And I don't doubt that its mobile partner DeNA, for whom the Nintendo deal is close to make-or-break, is throwing every ounce of its weight behind making this work. Tatsumi Kimishima, Nintendo's president, also seems committed - which is perhaps unsurprising, as the biggest promise of a successful mobile business for Nintendo is that it will provide steady ongoing revenue to smooth out the often steep peaks and deep troughs in the firm's financials, a benefit with enormous appeal to the fiscally-minded Kimishima.

At the same time, though, who within Nintendo right now is going to make the case that the company's best minds need to be focused on fixing its enormous design approach problems on smartphones? The Switch is a runaway hit with an audience that's ravenous for new games and experiences; smartphones might pay off in important ways down the line, but who's going to pull talent away from Switch development to focus on that sector?

As such, it's hard to have high expectations for Mario Kart and Zelda, the two games that will supposedly complete Nintendo's existing contract with DeNA, though negotiations regarding a future relationship are undoubtedly already underway. These are two of the biggest franchises in gaming, and both of them are riding high on the success of recent Switch titles. Their appearance on smartphones should be major events, but while I don't doubt that the hype for them will be immense, I don't think Nintendo's track record or its present attitude to mobile games suggests that they're going to make remotely the dent in the company's bottom line that their brand names might suggest.

There's still a bright future for Nintendo on smart devices, if the company chooses to seize it - but it's going to take a lot more time and effort to get there, and if Switch continues to perform well many within the company may ask if it's an investment worth making.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.