Talking Point: Nintendo has Nothing to Fear from Mobile Games
Posted by Damien McFerran
Why the rise of mobile gaming won't destroy Nintendo's handheld dominance
These days it almost goes without saying that most gamers own some kind of mobile phone, and a staggering majority of those devices are capable of playing moderately entertaining games. Indeed, Apple's iPhone platform has been graced with some maddeningly addictive titles, such as Angry Birds, Infinity Blade, Canabalt and Flight Control – the latter of which has been ported over to Nintendo's DSiWare portal.
The rise of mobile gaming has been nothing short of breathtaking; before Apple introduced the concept of the App Store, mobile players were limited to crude Java-based titles that carried lofty price tags and boasted painfully simplistic gameplay. What's more, they were hamstrung by the keypad interface of the phones on which they were intended to operate. The iPhone's intuitive touch screen changed all of that overnight, and Apple is now raking in millions from download sales.
Apple has also torn up the rulebook when it comes to pricing, much to Nintendo and Sony's obvious dismay. The average iPhone title is around 99 cents (or 59p if you're of the British persuasion), which is many, many times less than the cost of a DS or PSP game. This has led many people to assume that Apple has the handheld war sewn up, and that Nintendo and Sony will struggle with their expensive software.
In terms of pure economics, it's hard to disagree – most people will admit they'd rather pay less for something than pay more, after all. If the success of the iPhone leads to cheaper games, then it can only be a positive thing for all customers, regardless of which platform they happen to own.
The recent explosion in mobile gaming (twinned with the popularity of tablets such as the iPad) has led many so-called industry experts to predict the impending death of traditional handheld games consoles. However, such a line of debate refuses to acknowledge one simple fact: a worrying number of mobile games are about as deep as a puddle and cannot compete with the best that veteran developers – such as Nintendo – have to offer.
You might assume the person in possession of this viewpoint is a rabid Nintendo fan boy, but that isn't the case. In fact, many of the Nintendo Life team own either an iPhone, iPod Touch or Android-based device and regularly indulge in a spot of mobile gaming. We're certainly not blind to the appeal of quick, easy gaming fixes, the type of titles around which mobile's success here is built. It's just that the titles created for the iPhone don't offer anywhere near as much depth as your average handheld console game.
Take Gameloft's Sacred Odyssey as an example. Heralded as the iPhone's answer to The Legend of Zelda when it launched, this visually stunning RPG adventure certainly has its heart in the right place, but the quest itself is pitifully short when placed alongside Dragon Quest IX or either of the DS-based Zelda instalments.
This disparity is partly due to the fact that Apple currently doesn't have any in-house game development talent. Gameloft – the company behind Scared Odyssey – may be a prolific publisher on download services, but their catalogue pales when placed alongside studios such as Capcom, Sega and of course Nintendo. With no first-party studio to pump out killer titles, Apple is at the mercy of its third party supporters to ensure a steady stream of must-have hits.
Another problem is the low number of exclusive must-have titles. Games like Angry Birds are undoubtedly massive sellers on the iPhone, but they're not format exclusive – the famous bird-flinging phenomenon is already available on Android and PC, with more conversions planned. Conversely, a game like The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass will never be released for a competing handheld format. Like other first-party DS titles, it was created by one of the finest development teams on the planet, and what's more, the people working on it are intimately familiar with the host hardware and can exploit every trick in the book to make their games compelling.
The DS has its fair share of terrible games, obviously. When you sell in excess of 125 million hardware units, you can expect opportunistic third-party developers to leap on the bandwagon and push out any old rubbish in the hope that it will shift a few copies. This is now what is happening with the App Store, which has become saturated with copycat titles thrown together in the space of a weekend.
However, despite the high amount of shovelware available for the DS, it's Nintendo's games that prove to be the main draw. Such titles lend a console like the DS (and the 3DS) an allure and desirability that goes way beyond mere technology. The recent launch of Pokémon Black and White – which sold a staggering one million copies in the space of a day in North America – proves that Nintendo has a loyal and dedicated fan base that isn't swayed by cheap download prices and short-burst gaming concepts.
There's also the small matter of control. While many iPhone lovers will gush for hours about how the touchscreen has made gaming more intuitive and accessible, there's no denying that "traditional" games are a poor fit for buttonless machines. This point of view has been given an unlikely supporter in the form of Chair Entertainment's Donald Mustard.
Mustard's firm is responsible for Infinity Blade, one of the most popular iOS releases of the past 12 months. However, when speaking about the sequel to the Xbox Live Arcade-based Shadow Complex, Mustard was quick to rule out a release on an iOS device. "I still cannot think of a way that we'd be able to bring over the precision controls [to touchscreen devices] that Shadow Complex needs to be amazing," he said. "Shadow Complex is designed for a controller. I'm not a fan of trying to shoehorn console controls onto touch screens. They don't feel right. You just lose so much precision." Wise words indeed – and spoken by one of iOS's most esteemed developers.
The question of interface is often overlooked by those who see traditional console games as too complicated or confusing, but for any gamer worth his or her salt, it's worth noting. If iOS becomes the number one mobile gaming platform, titles which require precise control and multiple buttons to play will be all be wiped out, paving the way for a flood of "me too" Angry Birds clones aimed at casual players and nobody else.
Although there have been plenty of people predicting the downfall of companies like Nintendo and Sony, few have given thought to the fact that perhaps mobile and console gaming can co-exist. Mobile games are perfect for those moments when you have a spare minute but don't have your portable console at hand, while traditional handheld gaming offers the deeper fix you need when you're sat at home and another family member is hogging the television, preventing you from hooking up the Wii. There is no reason why these two mediums cannot operate together side-by-side.
One prediction that cannot be denied is that the playing field is changing. The iPhone has confounded critics who expected it to fail as a gaming platform; in fact, the machine has created an entirely fresh sector of the market, with non-gamers suddenly finding how addictive interactive entertainment can be.
The success of the system has also changed people's perceptions about how much a game is worth; although your average iOS title may offer less gameplay than a DS title, it's being sold for a fraction of the price. This shift in pricing – as well as the removal of costly distribution channels – has also allowed legions of talented bedroom coders to get their products noticed by a wider audience, as well as make a decent amount of cash. That's most definitely a positive thing, and fingers are firmly crossed than Nintendo and Sony will take note and push down the cost of their download games to a more acceptable level. Opening up DSiWare to independent teams would provide a near-endless stream of innovative titles, just as it has done on the App Store.
With many younger gamers swapping their aging DS consoles for iPod Touch devices, it's folly to argue that there isn't some crossover in the market and Nintendo appears to be well aware of that fact. The same conflict is likely to rage on when the 3DS is launched worldwide this month – on the same day as the Apple iPad 2, no less. Apple is clearly gunning for Nintendo and Sony, and if the critics are to be believed, the future of the handheld console is looking bleak.
However, as you might have gathered throughout the course of this feature, we don't subscribe to that blinkered viewpoint. We argue that the 3DS offers things that Apple can never give: the support of Nintendo, proper physical controls and a vast catalogue of multimillion-selling franchises. Apple may have the casual crowd in its pocket and the iPhone is unquestionably perfect for that quick gaming fix, but Nintendo's control over the handheld market isn't quite over yet.