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What Nintendo needs isn't smartphones, but surprise

The industry's top company only succeeds when it does the unexpected

Nintendo blew it. That much is clear, and even Satoru Iwata doesn't debate it - Nintendo blew it. The financials could be much worse, but the unit sales? Way, way below targets, and in the case of Wii U, way below sustainability. Nintendo blew it! Shout it from the rooftops, if you can find space on a rooftop next to all the people who are already shouting it, with altogether too much peculiar jubilance in their snide, told-you-so voices.

Nintendo blew it. Blew what, though? That's a tougher question. The company's year has been a lot more complex than anyone is giving it credit for. In 2013, Nintendo was proud owner of the best-selling console in every major territory worldwide, and launched an enviable range of first-party software titles that sold over a million copies each - more than any other publisher out there. The company retained its crown as the biggest platform holder and the biggest software publisher in the business.

Yet, Nintendo blew it, because it also had a platform that utterly under-performed even the most conservative of estimates - a console that, on its current trajectory, is set to undershoot the low bar set by the GameCube and become the firm's worst performing home console ever. Moreover, Nintendo blew it in a subtle but crucially important way - with startling incompetence for a company of its size, the firm predicted sales figures for both the 3DS and the Wii U which were absolutely ludicrous and then failed to revise them as the year carried on, meaning that even the solidly performing 3DS has undershot its targets, while the Wii U looks even worse than it ought to (which is pretty bad to begin with).

"Nintendo's stock didn't tumble too badly after it revised its guidance, largely since nobody with a clue actually thought the firm was going to hit its targets anyway"

This latter aspect has made the coverage of Nintendo's situation even more negative than it would already have been (and there are plenty of people waiting to pile onto the company at the slightest provocation), since it covers up the success of the 3DS and its software line-up - seriously, 3DS has had an amazing year for software and is now set up with a library that effectively secures the console's future - in a heavy smearing of corporate incompetence. It has also, understandably, deeply annoyed shareholders, because they rely on companies making accurate predictions to figure out whether or not to pick up stock in a firm. That said, Nintendo's stock didn't tumble too badly after it revised its guidance, largely since nobody with a clue actually thought the firm was going to hit its targets anyway. Incidentally, the company's stock price is about 50% higher today than it was 12 months ago, in line with the rise in the Nikkei 225 index - which means that Japanese investors, at least, are rating the company as broadly neutral rather than actually negative.

Still, Nintendo blew it, and that means lots of people are making angry noises. Iwata must go, say some; Nintendo must exit hardware, say others; time for Mario on smartphones, say still others. The owners of all of those voices are going to be disappointed - not least, I believe, because very few of them actually understand Nintendo as a company or the Japanese corporate environment in which it operates. They don't understand that activist shareholders don't mean a tuppenny damn to a company whose shares are largely held by a combination of the founding family, the senior staff and (more significantly still) the complex web of interrelated share- and debt-holdings that connects Nintendo with Japanese banks and other corporations, none of whom have the slightest concern in being "activist" except in the most extreme of circumstances. An earnings miss? Pah! Japanese corporations routinely missed annual earnings every year for decades after the Asian Financial Crisis of the early 1990s, but shareholder pressure to change top management never materialised then, and it won't materialise now. Iwata is secure until he does something sufficiently wrong to have a taint of scandal around it, and that's deeply unlikely to happen.

Exiting hardware? Absolutely no chance. Nintendo's primary view of itself is as a toy company and its core business model is selling hardware (generally profitably) and then selling software that runs on that hardware (extremely profitably). The synergy between the company's hardware side and its software side is legendary, as is the extent to which each Nintendo platform is designed with the requirements of planned first-party software in mind. For that reason alone, it's likely that the Wii U will eventually have a clutch of startlingly excellent games, matching last year's critically acclaimed Super Mario 3D World in quality - although whether that will actually do anything to resuscitate sales is another question entirely. The point is that this approach isn't going to change; the inertia behind Nintendo as a hardware company is immense, and moreover, despite this year's earnings miss, it's largely working. Nintendo is, pretty much every year, the largest and most successful game software company in the world. Would it retain that crown on someone else's hardware? If you rush to answer "yes!" to that question, either your crystal ball gazing skills are excellent or you haven't thought about it hard enough; I don't think there is a good answer to that question right now, and I know Nintendo will be eyeing Sega's post-hardware decline and thinking about its own potential fortunes as one-among-many on a smartphone app store. Right now, Nintendo has around 40 million 3DS owners who are keenly anticipating future first-party releases from the company - keenly enough that they start to agitate and make noise if there's ever a gap in the release schedule. Would that be true on iOS, or Android, or even on a competitor's console platform?

"one of the company's failings, in some regards, is that it still doesn't really have a global outlook, with Nintendo of America and Nintendo Europe being rather stunted"

How about a limited engagement with smartphones, then, even if they wouldn't make the leap entirely? That's plausible. Nintendo's primary point of reference for its product decisions is Japan - one of the company's failings, in some regards, is that it still doesn't really have a global outlook, with Nintendo of America and (even more so) Nintendo Europe being rather stunted local offshoots whose actual contribution to the firm's planning and success is pretty obviously minimal. In Japan, smartphone games are a huge sector, and interestingly, there's seemingly more of a market for premium-priced games than there is in the west, where free-to-play is increasingly the only show in town (although premium-priced games are carving out an interesting niche there too). There is, I believe, some potential for Nintendo to start putting Virtual Console titles on smartphones, perhaps initially through a tie-up with one of Japan's carriers. However, I'd expect this roll-out to be slow and careful, with Nintendo incredibly mindful of the possibility of damaging its core brands by launching Mario or Zelda games tainted by emulation problems or crap touchscreen controls. Still - it could happen, and is by far the most likely of the "demands" being made of the firm to actually be met in some limited form.

If Iwata isn't going to go (he's not), Nintendo isn't going to exit hardware (they're not) and the company's future isn't on smartphones (it's not, although some cautious toes in that water may be seen in time), then what is Nintendo's reaction to its present situation going to be?

I've stated this before, but it bears repeating - Nintendo has incredibly, insanely deep pockets. The firm has set aside a vast war chest over the course of its successful years, and it can easily ride out even the complete failure of a console platform, supporting that platform sufficiently to satisfy consumers while quietly working on a replacement. That's what Satoru Iwata told me Nintendo would do if the Wii failed completely - they'd make something else and try that instead - and I see no reason why that logic would have changed. If anything, the firm's financial position is even stronger now than it was then.

What will Nintendo make? There's a lot of speculation around that, but most of it is evolutionary. A faster, more powerful DS / 3DS style handheld. A Nintendo tablet, capable of handheld gaming and being hooked up to a TV. A full-spec next-gen console built to rival the PS4. All of these are options for the company - the tablet computer one is even an interesting one, combining as it does the handheld market (which Nintendo always dominates) with the home console market (where it's hit and miss). However, they all miss the crucial ingredient which Nintendo actually requires to bring itself back to success - surprise.

"Nintendo needs the element of surprise. It surprised the hell out of everyone with the DS, it surprised everyone with the Wii"

Nintendo needs the element of surprise. It surprised the hell out of everyone with the DS, a daft, stupid idea for a handheld console that everyone expected to be trounced by the much more comprehensible PSP. It surprised everyone with the Wii, a weird, tiny, underpowered system with a controller that looked nothing like we expected - so odd that it led me to rather bluntly ask Iwata what he planned to do if everyone hated it and the system flopped, hence his comment above. The DS is the best-selling console in history (or at least, tied for that honour with the PS2); the Wii trounced the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the last generation of hardware. Nintendo does exceptionally well when it surprises people. It creates a clear gap between itself and the competition and makes "the Nintendo Difference" into more than just a silly slogan. Even those who own a more "mainstream" console end up wanting a Nintendo one too, because it's so interesting and different, while those from outside the core gamer market find themselves intrigued by the very peculiarity and curiosity of the devices and their software.

3DS and Wii U fail the surprise test. They're practically indistinguishable from their predecessors, both in appearance and in branding. 3DS suffered terribly from being mistaken for a new version of the original DS hardware; the Wii U, I suspect, is doing even worse, with many consumers not realising that it's a new console entirely and not a new controller for the Wii. There's been a disastrous failure of communication, branding and marketing, which has compounded the more basic error - assuming that the success of the Wii meant people wanted more of that kind of thing. Nintendo's strength is providing people will surprises, things that look daft to begin with and then turn out to be precisely what we always wanted and never realised. If it's to successfully come back from its present mess, it needs to do so by surprising us, not by following along the dull path analysts would now demand of it.

That, I earnestly hope, is what the company is working hard on in Kyoto right now. I don't want Nintendo to abandon the Wii U, and I don't think that will happen. The installed base is small, but big enough to be worth caring about, and the console still has the makings of a profitable platform, albeit a niche one. However, alongside continued support for the Wii U (and hopefully, a drastic change in marketing and branding), Nintendo is hopefully also working on something else; something more important and simply more Nintendo; its next big surprise.

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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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