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The game has changed for Nintendo on mobile

Last year smartphones were set to be Nintendo's saviour; with the successful launch of Switch the calculus has changed

Two years ago, Nintendo looked like a company faced with a common dilemma; change, or die. Its strategy of sticking firmly to the traditional platform holder business model while trying to skirt around the Teraflop arms-race between Sony and Microsoft had gone magnificently in the Wii era, but as Sony fixed a generation's mistakes and reclaimed its crown with the launch of PS4, Nintendo faltered.

The Wii U had perhaps the most disappointing commercial performance of any console from a major player in the industry's history; meanwhile, assessments of the 3DS could not ignore the fact that, while selling very well in its own right, the handheld significantly underperformed its forebear, the DS.

This happened against a background of Nintendo's actual creative output firing on all cylinders. Critics and (diminished) audiences loved the company's games; indeed, it was clear from the output on the Wii U and the 3DS that the firm's long-term future as a creative powerhouse was secure, with big, bold titles from new young creators taking centre stage and wiping away any fears raised by Shigeru Miyamoto's musings about retirement plans. The problem wasn't software quality; the problem was that the platforms on which that software was appearing seemed to be in terminal decline.

"Last year, mobile was all anyone wanted to talk about in relation to Nintendo... Then Switch launched, and it felt like the whole world lost interest"

It's a little early to announce the halting of that decline just yet - if the Switch really does end up beating the Wii U's lifetime sales in its first year on the market, then we can talk about that - but the narrative has certainly changed since Switch stormed onto the market. Between the success of the new console and the voracious demand (matched to anaemic supply) for the NES Classic and its just-announced SNES successor, the story of Nintendo now isn't about decline at all. Rather, some of the more excitable commentators are already wondering aloud about the return of the Wii boom years, and even the more moderate voices are being swept along in the enthusiasm.

The call for Nintendo to "change or die" has largely disappeared, since the company seems to be on track to prove that it can survive without changing very much at all, thank you very much. Without the "or die" clause, it's an exhortation that loses much of its power, and with the loss of that power goes all of the attention that was formerly being paid to Nintendo's most tangible effort to change: its commitment to smartphone games, through a long-term deal with Japanese mobile game firm DeNA.

Last year, that was all anyone wanted to talk about in relation to Nintendo. Pokemon Go, although not a Nintendo title, was the phenomenon of last summer and seen as proof of the incredible prospects for Nintendo IP on smartphones. The arrival of the firm's own games on mobile was so hotly anticipated that notorious videogame curmudgeons Apple even changed the way the iOS App Store worked especially to allow "pre-orders" of Super Mario Run. A success in downloads but a poor performer in revenue terms, Mario Run was soon followed by a well-received successor, Fire Emblem Heroes, which performed much better commercially, though still without troubling any of the big beasts of mobile gaming in their roosts atop the revenue charts.

"In Nintendo's situation, there's a genuine case to be made regarding how much they're willing to risk the future to secure the present"

Then Switch launched, and it felt like the whole world lost interest in Nintendo on smartphones. The company has at least two smartphone games in the pipeline this year, and on paper they should be generating a lot of buzz; Animal Crossing is arguably the company's best-loved casual franchise and its 'play a little every day' structure is a perfect fit for mobile, and it's reportedly to be followed by a Zelda mobile title later this year. Yet you could hear a pin drop in coverage of these upcoming games, while the appearance of even a logo for a resurrected franchise in the company's E3 broadcast has generated acres of coverage and discussion.

This is not, in itself, surprising. The games media has struggled for a decade with the fact that the huge audience that plays mobile games simply isn't interested in reading about or discussing games in the same way as the console and PC audience. What's a little more concerning, though, is that Nintendo itself hasn't had much to say about mobile games of late. Audiences are fascinated by the Switch and the Classic consoles right now; the billion-dollar question (quite literally) is whether Nintendo itself has also lost some of its interest in smartphones as its more traditional business has returned to health.

To be clear, I'm not implying that Nintendo is about to abandon its deal with DeNA or stop working on mobile titles. The toothpaste is out of the tube and can't be squeezed back in; Nintendo is a smartphone developer now, and it will remain such in future. This is, rather, a question of focus and priorities - and corollary to that, a question of how much flexibility and latitude Nintendo's mobile teams will have to play with its IP.

It wouldn't be entirely surprising if the success of Switch had rekindled opposition to mobile within Nintendo to some degree. The business approach of Super Mario Run, which was more like a classic Shareware game than a modern F2P title, spoke not just to a desire to experiment in the space, but also to a deep-rooted suspicion and dislike of the F2P mechanics which dominate mobile games. That Fire Emblem Heroes ended up using F2P systems was partially down to being a game more suited to those systems, but it also suggested that Nintendo was learning from its mistakes in this new arena.

"The parameters of the experiment have changed. Mobile must now match the resurgent Nintendo's needs, and not the other way around"

It seems probable, however, that many of Nintendo's designers (who are unusually powerful within the company, compared to most other firms in the industry) were not terribly enamoured of the lessons they were having to learn. When it was a matter of 'do this or the company is finished', they might have begrudgingly worked within the confines of the F2P model that has proven so successful elsewhere; with Switch selling faster than the firm can produce consoles, the argument that this is not necessary will have welled up again.

This is more than just the old "but I don't like F2P" argument, which is tired and dull and has done the rounds so very many times. In Nintendo's situation, there's a genuine case to be made regarding how much they're willing to risk the future to secure the present. The resistance to F2P within the company comes in part from discomfort with the sharper practices that are clear in the business models of some other mobile gaming firms, but also from a genuine desire to protect the value of its IP.

Nintendo, after all, is essentially a vault of extremely valuable IP which both provides the secure foundation for the firm's existing business, and relies on that business to maintain its value and relevance. Safeguarding that IP - perhaps the second most valuable library in the world, after the Walt Disney Company's vast holdings - is absolutely crucial to Nintendo's long-term future. The responsibility to pass the IP library on to the next set of hands in better condition than it was received is something that senior staff at the company take extremely seriously.

If Nintendo really has improved its fortunes in the console market, and the mobile space is now seen as an interesting new venture rather than a lifeline from drowning, the calculation changes entirely. Mobile may not lose focus (not much, anyway; a little is perhaps inevitable), but the push to accept F2P systems with which its designers aren't entirely comfortable has lost its inexorable nature. How Nintendo engages with mobile in general and F2P in particular is now going to be on its own terms.

One consequence of that is likely to be that Nintendo's games, while successful and profitable, never really challenge the top of the mobile revenue charts - which tend to be occupied by games that take an approach to F2P that, in Nintendo's eyes at least, is likely to damage the IP by association. (It's notable that for all the revenue flowing through mobile gaming, the only IP created in the space that seems to have any broad value beyond fuelling direct sequels is Angry Birds, a game that wasn't F2P in its original incarnation.)

Nintendo's experiment with mobile isn't over by any means, and in the long term it remains a hugely important. It still wants to succeed, but the parameters of the experiment have changed. For the resurgent Nintendo, mobile must now match the company's needs, and not the other way around.

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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.

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