Miitomo is a tricky thing to assess early doors, as it's not exactly what many were expecting. In fact, my first reaction in a sleepy fog was that it was a bizarre decision that appeared to go back to the original idea - mooted back in 2013 - of a Mii-driven app. I felt a sense of slight disappointment and also a little dread, mainly over the seemingly inevitable instant reaction of investors - they weren't particularly pleased. The fact it's now coming in March 2016 isn't necessarily great either, as it had been expected by the end of this year.
For some added context, my initial knee-jerk instincts weren't to be trusted. I had planned to stay up into the early hours for the investor briefing but dozed off before they happened, with my lovely colleagues Damien McFerran and Mitch Vogel saving the day. So I woke up at 4am with a jolt and immediately opened up my laptop to see what had happened; it's best not to trust negative reactions in those circumstances.
I've since been dwelling on Miitomo and chatting about it with colleagues, with the tweets of Platinum's JP Kellams also being rather persuasive, and I think I can see the enormous potential here. That doesn't mean the positive view is bang on and 100% likely to be proven accurate, but I'm quickly coming around to the opinion that Miitomo, rather than being an underwhelming début for smart devices, could be a significant and important product for Nintendo.
The argument is simple: rather than produce a game that functions as a spin-off from established franchises - they'll still come, of course - Nintendo is kicking off with something more ambitious. An app that can potentially be far more significant and useful than a runner or puzzle game. It's aiming to deliver a product that can become part of our daily lives.
Just recently I wrote about five key challenges that Nintendo faces with NX, and point five was "integration with the thriving smartphone industry". Rather than write it out again, below is part of that entry.
The key... is embracing and tapping into gamer's lifestyles to make Nintendo a core part of their lives. With DeNA's speciality skills in networking and services it's likely that we'll see aspects of smart device apps and NX interacting and overlapping, with examples being the 'loyalty program' that DeNA itself is developing. If this is done in ways that are clever, fun and rewarding it has significant potential. The modern trend - epitomised by the most successful technology companies in the world - is to integrate brands directly into our daily lives; we'd suggest that NX and smart devices can combine and work together to make this a reality for Nintendo.
So let's consider how Miitomo is supposed to work - you create a Mii (or hopefully have the option to transfer one from Wii U / Wii / 3DS) - and it's your representative in the app; you then answer a series of questions that your Mii then shares at the right moments. You connect with others through a Friend system, which just like Nintendo's consoles requires both sides to actively agree to the listing, and the app uses data from your Mii setup to initiate "friendly conversation starters" with those on your Friend list. We shared a gallery of Nintendo's slides for Miitomo which show how a conversation starter may be use for hobbies, and then others join in with fully customised individual responses.
The goal of the app is to open up communication for those perhaps too shy to normally do so, and to help us learn more about our friends. Of course online chatterboxes can make use of it too, as they already do with Facebook, Twitter and various other social networks, but the aim of Miitomo is to help others to get involved that would otherwise stay quiet. It's a pretty noble idea, and as Nintendo has acknowledged about 200 million Mii characters have been created across Wii, 3DS and Wii U; it's a recognisable brand.
Despite all of this, how does Miitomo make money for itself and drive its users towards Nintendo products? As those with far more experience than I in smart devices and making money in the games industry have observed (such as Kellams) there's actually enormous money-making potential, and the launch of this app alongside the new Nintendo Account system is significant. Nintendo's stated that Miitomo will "push forward the My Nintendo membership service", so it's safe to assume there'll be crossover between our cloud-stored My Nintendo information - games bought and played, rewards etc - which will factor into our Mii's representation of us in the new social app. On top of that the free Miitomo could be monetised with any number of customisable extras such as outfits - things like Splatoon hats, Star Fox ears etc - or even designer speech bubbles. Yep, a bit like StreetPass Mii Plaza on 3DS.
If Nintendo can convince millions to jump on board the potential for cumulative success and monetisation are clear, as are the opportunities for cross-promotion and highlighting Nintendo products to those users.
In some ways Miitomo effectively looks like a less wacky and more personalised Tomodachi Life, which is unsurprising considering the app's name along with the franchises' success in Japan and - to a degree - in the West. Yet the quirkiness of Miis and that 'Nintendo Charm' can be accentuated to the Nth degree if Miitomo takes off, especially if DeNA builds in intuitive one tap access to share statuses on the likes of Twitter and Facebook - these are, ultimately, far more significant and valuable than Miiverse in this perspective. That sharing could be limited to stock Mii-driven answers - as Nintendo will likely want to avoid personal conversations leaving the app - but images of cute Miis exchanging pleasantries could be yet more useful exposure for the brand. Nintendo's utilised image sharing to social media in clunky ways through its Animal Crossing titles on 3DS, for example, so this could be the next logical step.
I'll wrap this up by coming back to the 'Blue Ocean' referenced in the headline, which is business speak for "be hugely popular with a broad, diverse audience and make stacks of cash". It's a concept that also related to finding an untapped market, a unique product that'll capture the public's imagination. Nintendo achieved this with Wii and DS, in particular, and it's that principle of "expanding the gaming population" which is at the core of this app. My initial reaction was "this isn't what I want as a gamer" and to believe it was a mistake. Yet gaming and entertainment products now go from strength to strength based on how they match our lifestyles, how they become part of our routines. Companies like Facebook, Apple and Google understood this years ago and are now mega corporations.
While Miitomo won't likely have anything like the reach of those giants for Nintendo, it's aiming for a similar thing - to become a part of people's lives. If it achieves that then those consumers will embrace - in their own ways - Nintendo itself as part of their routine, they'll perhaps buy in-app extras or look into picking up a system and a few games. Miitomo, through its very nature, will be used differently by many people, and the hope for the big N is that it can catch on like the various other chat and communication apps that are out there - except this will have a distinctly Nintendo approach.
Will Miitomo take off for Nintendo? I don't know, but I think it has the potential to be a significant and important success not just with established fans, but millions of others that have a dusty Wii under the TV. It has more chance of revolutionising how people perceive and engage with Nintendo than any Mario runner ever could.