Roundtable: Is Nintendo's mobile move a smart play?
The GamesIndustry team discusses the strategy and implications of the landmark deal with DeNA
For the past couple years or more speculation has run rampant about what Nintendo needs to do to firm up its business as millions of players flock to mobile devices. People would often say, "Why doesn't Nintendo just start releasing Mario and other games for smartphones?" And for its part, Nintendo would usually counter by saying that it's essentially never going to water down its flagship IPs with mobile releases, that its games inherently are made to work best with the hardware the company produces.
While Nintendo has been leading the handheld gaming space, mobile games just isn't in its DNA; ironically DeNA is now changing all of that. The Japanese mobile firm's alliance with Nintendo came as a big surprise to everyone today. Nintendo's sudden reversal means that in the not too far future, core franchises like Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pikmin or any others could be on a smartphone anywhere in the world. But is this truly the right direction for Nintendo? Will leveraging the massive global smartphone and tablets marketplace outweigh any concerns about cherished games like Mario being watered down? Or should we trust in DeNA to do right by Nintendo's titles? The GamesIndustry.biz staff discusses the implications of Nintendo's mobile move in this roundtable.
As someone who grew up free from Nintendo consoles, I've often marvelled at the incredible power its brand has over the most sober and sharp of intellects. The rose-tint of those iconic characters and long-running franchises is enough to weaken the objectivity of even the most cynical journalist, but I am not among their number. As a child raised on the Amiga and the PC, announcements like the one today carry not even the smallest hint of nostalgia, and with that in mind I can only view it is a positive step, though not just for Nintendo and DeNA.
"Nintendo IP and Nintendo characters have the sort of hard-won value that could truly alter the way premium prices are perceived by the mobile audience"Matthew Handrahan
Whatever else can be said about the mobile market, to my mind it has a significant problem with the perception of value, both among the people who idly tap away at the most popular titles on the way to work, and among the developers who have to make tough decisions about the time and resources they can possibly recoup in terms of revenue. This I know for sure: many of the smaller developers for whom mobile presented the best opportunity yet at independence and creative freedom are waiting for the pendulum to swing away from free-to-play to a position where a larger slice of that vast audience might actually be willing to pay upfront for a game. The small group of companies making virtually all of the money in that market aren't likely to challenge their own status quo, but Nintendo's entry into the space could change that.
Will Nintendo opt for premium? There's a solid argument in both directions, but I genuinely hope that it does. Nintendo IP and Nintendo characters have the sort of hard-won value that could truly alter the way premium prices are perceived by the mobile audience.
Considering the smartphone world we live in, the 3DS has been performing exceptionally well, but even so the whispers kept coming, hinting at the day that we might see Mario and company go mobile. Well, that day is here and it's happened sooner than I'd thought. During Nintendo's shareholder meetings, investors and analysts repeatedly asked CEO Satoru Iwata when Nintendo would take advantage of the mobile scene; some even called for Iwata's head. I get the sense that Nintendo tried to resist the gravitational pull of mobile for as long as it could but that ultimately, despite every fiber of its being shouting no, it was forced to give in. If the company's Wii U had been a better performer and its bottom line were in much better shape today, this decision likely would have been forestalled.
Like a child refusing to take its bitter medicine but realizing that it was necessary for its health later on, I'm hopeful that this move will ultimately pay off for Nintendo. The company knows that its expertise isn't on mobile, so it's wisely teamed with one of the leaders in Japan in DeNA. Whether DeNA knows how to make a "proper" Mario experience is up for debate, but Nintendo wouldn't have made the deal if it didn't trust DeNA to handle its properties with care.
"Much like Disney and Mickey Mouse have persevered, remaining relevant across multiple generations, Nintendo has that chance now - a chance to keep Mario and other characters in the mainstream cultural consciousness, potentially for decades to come"James Brightman
The bottom line is that Nintendo just vastly expanded its addressable audience to millions upon millions of smartphone and tablet users worldwide. How many 3DS players do you actually see on planes, trains and buses? As popular as 3DS is, most of the time people have a smartphone in their hands and they are playing games like Candy Crush, Game of War, Crossy Road or Monument Valley. Most of the editors of this website grew up with the NES but just how significant is Mario today to a kid who's been handed a smartphone at the age of five? Much like Disney and Mickey Mouse have persevered, remaining relevant across multiple generations, Nintendo has that chance now - a chance to keep Mario and other characters in the mainstream cultural consciousness, potentially for decades to come.
The big question I have about this deal is what kind of oversight Nintendo will have on the mobile projects developed using its IP. In the past, Nintendo has struck a few deals where it had little to no oversight over the final product and the results were disastrous. The Super Mario Bros. box office flop and the CD-I Zelda and Mario titles come to mind. However, when Nintendo retains a bit more control over the process, third-parties have done just fine with the company's IP (as evidenced by Capcom's Zelda Game Boy games and Sega's F-Zero GX and Sonic and Mario Olympic titles).
The problem here is that Nintendo sought a partner for its entry into mobile because it doesn't have the expertise of confidence in that area to do the job itself. Naturally, DeNA will produce something that Nintendo wouldn't have made on its own. And when it does that, will Nintendo clamp down and insist on changes, or will it yield to the mobile firm's expertise and let Mario, Link, or its other icons branch out into unfamiliar territory? Will Nintendo let DeNA make free-to-play games despite its public protestations of price erosion in the industry? How will the mobile world's "minimum viable product" approach mesh with Nintendo's insistence on delaying games as long as it takes to get it right? Can Nintendo let go just enough to make this partnership a success, but not so much that they lose the unique qualities that produced such a world-class stable of franchises in the first place?
A conversation took place in the office this morning between a stalwart Nintendo fan and his colleague - a man who doesn't shy away from a bit of healthy ribbing whenever Nintendo looks to have done something unusual. (In fact, we've all taken to making siren-like 'Wii-U, Wii-U' noises to signal the arrival of the Nintendo Defence Force, but he's usually the ringleader.) The Nintendo fan arrived as his colleague was already at his desk, gathering the day's news. With great relish, he imparted the details of the DeNA mobile announcement with all the gravity of a declaration of war. The fan responded with the classic five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. At first, he simply refused to accept it, assuming it was a wind-up, which he promptly became infuriated by. Then came a long period of insisting it would just be companion apps, like the Pokedeck. Some moments of quiet sadness followed before he was able to discuss it properly.
"If you're the last kid left on the diving board, you've got to make a splash. So it is for Nintendo - having prevaricated about the prestige of its unparalleled IP for so long, there's nothing left to do but jump with both feet"Dan Pearson
As much as the scene was played for laughs, it's a range of emotional responses which is likely to be repeated by many a Nintendo stalwart when they hear about the deal.
It's understandable. Nintendo has flat out denied that this would happen several times, as recently as January. "Mr. Iwata has also stated that Nintendo's intention is not to make Nintendo software available on smart devices," fans were told - a certainty which many took as a staunch defence against any accusations of being "too casual". The refusal to loan out its catalogue to other platform holders has always been a point of pride for Nintendo, and that attitude has been shared by fans. If you want to play Mario, you have to do it on a Nintendo platform, instantly giving them a massive advantage in any argument over who has the best exclusives. If our resident fanboy is any yardstick, there are going to be considerable feelings of betrayal.
The thing is, the whole process of five stages took all of twenty minutes. By the end of it, he was just as excited as the rest of us at the prospect of Nintendo's magic being more widely available - and it's that last stage of acceptance which Nintendo has to focus on. Trying to appease the earlier responses, by easing audiences in with companion apps, demos or minigames, will just prove the doubters right - this isn't something that can be half-assed. To convince those who aren't already Nintendo fans (because let's be honest, even the most shocked of existing Nintendites will always give them the benefit of the doubt) DeNA has to make big, brilliant games which embrace the IP on a scale which rivals that of their original homes. If you're the last kid left on the diving board, you've got to make a splash. So it is for Nintendo - having prevaricated about the prestige of its unparalleled IP for so long, there's nothing left to do but jump with both feet. I'm looking forward to it.
Nintendo has finally acknowledged that those pesky smartphones and tablets aren't going to go away. While this should have been done years ago, a deal with DeNA makes great sense. Nintendo gets the benefit of DeNA's mobile development skills and expertise, and DeNA gets to use the most popular game characters in existence. This should help create more awareness of Nintendo characters among kids (who are moving heavily into smartphones and tablets), and potentially bring them to buy into Nintendo devices and "premium" game experiences on Nintendo hardware.
It's interesting to note that during this announcement Nintendo also announced a new hardware platform, NX, though with no details about it. This affirms that the company still plans to make proprietary hardware. Thus the demise of the Wii U is signaled, and perhaps we'll get more info at E3. The question then becomes what can Nintendo bring to proprietary hardware that won't be found on smartphones and tablets that are produced in numbers that are orders of magnitude larger than Nintendo could possibly hope for? Competing on price and tech specs is not a viable option for Nintendo; they will need to find innovation that matters to gamers in order to make their own hardware a top seller.
Perhaps even more important in the long run is how Nintendo connects these mobile games with its other games. Will they be entirely separate, or will there be some connections between online identities, characters, virtual items purchased? Nintendo has been well behind the networks of Microsoft and Sony; perhaps DeNA's expertise in social networks for gamers can be put to good use. This deal has terrific potential, but only if Nintendo really uses it to its full advantage on all levels. If this is just a check box to satisfy investors (and Nintendo's stock is already up over 14 percent on the news), then in the long run it won't make much difference. Let's hope Nintendo really puts in the effort to this partnership to make it truly special.