After years of denying any interest and avoiding the issue, Nintendo has become a fully committed mobile developer. Yes, having the company mascot appear in its first game was a strong signal of how serious it took the mobile platform, but that was just dipping its toe – its current and upcoming lineup of software shows that the experiments have worked and the Kyoto company has jumped fully into the mobile pool. Business is booming.
Nintendo's road to mobile development was a little rocky. Miyamoto was disappointed with Super Mario Run and cited its fixed cost model and aspects of its design as mistakes. The game underperformed according to in-house expectations, but hits like turn-based battler Fire Emblem Heroes and action RPG Dragalia Lost have proved hugely successful – enough to greatly outweigh misses like Miitomo, the lifestyle… social... thing that Miitomo was.
As former President of NOA Reggie Fils-Aimé explained last year, it took time to figure out what would work for the company in the mobile space:
Home system games, if transplanted to a mobile device, wouldn’t transfer as well. We needed to work through monetization... as we’re driven to make money. And we needed to work through how to be effective on platforms and marketplaces that we ourselves don’t own. That took time.
It seems that the company is still learning, but Nintendo are proving adept at operating on other company’s hardware, and with the mobile audience dwarfing that of the dedicated video game hardware market, that’s just as well.
Although not developmentally linked to the recently released Pokémon Rumble Rush or Pokémon GO, the company benefits massively from brand association with the latter's monster success, and its connection with Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee directly feeds the mobile audience into its dedicated hardware ecosystem (although, with 3DS finally going into that good night, Switch has that ecosystem to itself). That game co-opted the mechanics of Niantic's mobile hit in a direct effort to attract mobile gamers to Switch, but as Reggie mentioned, it's Nintendo's goal to have its IP across a variety of media and have them all feed into one another.
Nintendo’s next mobile venture, the upcoming Mario Kart Tour, went into a closed beta on Android devices this week and initial leaked impressions have revealed the first details. It's an 'auto-driver' in much the same way as Super Mario Run is an auto-runner – you simply steer with a finger and tap to use the items you pick up. Choosing the correct combination of character and kart gives you an advantage on specific tracks which appear to be taken from the main games. Reports that the multiplayer might not function as expected indicate it won’t offer quite the same curse-inducing experience as the main entries, instead working in much the same way as the Toad Rally mode in Super Mario Run and using a CPU-controlled racer to ‘represent’ a friend’s profile. That said, it appears to be a relatively fully-featured version of the kart racer offering solo MK thrills-and-spills in portrait mode with just a single digit, albeit with the requisite tiered currencies, rewards and levelling common to mobile games.
Beyond getting Mario Kart in the hands of more people, how Mario Kart Tour will feed back directly to the main series is less obvious than with Pokémon Go. To a certain extent, it seems less important - more people interacting with the IP is enough on its own. It seems that the company learned a little quicker in the mobile sector than it did in the online space, and it has quickly caught on to the systems that make the most profitable mobile games tick, as evidenced by Fire Emblem Heroes, Dragalia Lost and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. Mario Kart Tour seems laden with plenty of opportunities for players to drop cash, even if those systems don’t jive comfortably with Nintendo’s squeaky-clean, family-friendly image and it is all too aware of this. While you'd imagine dovetailing the two areas of its software business would be a goal - with one platform leading consumers to the other - perhaps keeping these branches separate has its benefits.
Keen to avoid the nickle-and-dime reputation associated with the worst microtransaction mechanics, its mobile partners have reported being told to limit how much players can spend, an odd position for any company with shareholders to take. More drastically, as Belgium takes action against ‘pay-to-win’ mechanics in games (instigated by the backlash to EA’s convoluted loot box systems), Nintendo recently announced that its Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem apps are being pulled from the country, closing up shop in August, while future apps that use similar systems simply won’t release there. With those mechanics so deeply baked into those games, it highlights the potential pitfalls ahead should other countries take measures to curb microtransactions.
In a mobile ecosystem often characterised by waves of low-quality clones and clickers, Nintendo has an established brand and reputation to protect. This is very much a double-edged sword – on the one hand any game that launches with the Nintendo name attached gets instant recognition and cache, but it will also take the brunt of any criticism should public opinion or, perhaps worse, governments turn against the kind of games it’s putting out under its brand, which could in turn infect its other concerns. From this perspective it benefits the company to keep its mobile efforts isolated from its wholesome hardware offerings.
Console software profits can start to look quaint in comparison to the kind of money some companies are raking in with free-to-play games
However, when you look at the vast sums of money to be made, it’s easy to see how investors’ eyes might haze over when Nintendo President Shuntaro Furukawa discusses the further potential of dedicated hardware over alternative ways of delivering Nintendo games to consumers. That’s not to say shareholders are dissatisfied with Switch’s performance, but as we occasionally see from some of their tone deaf questions, it's understandable that massive mobile profits might draw attention from the hard-earned dollars dedicated hardware brings in, however steady that business is. Console software profits can start to look quaint in comparison to the kind of money some companies are raking in with free-to-play games. King’s Candy Crush mobile series had players spending an average of $4.2 million a day last year. Every single day. The logical question in some investors’ heads – especially the ones who aren’t gamers – must be ‘why bother with this messy console business at all?’ A steady influx of mobile hits could do the same amount of business, no?
Nintendo is a cautious company, though; one that's built a legacy over years and one accustomed to the total control of a platform owner. Following the Belgian ban and with all the political rumblings over loot boxes across the globe, its cautious approach isn't unwarranted. As a family-friendly brand along the lines of Disney, jeopardising its reputation for a few easy millions (or billions) is a lot to ask. It’s taken a big step getting in the mobile pool – it’ll be a while yet before we see any showboating dives. We can all imagine incredible ways mobile versions of their biggest IPs could potentially interact with the Switch games, but keeping them separate is the safer bet.
So, while we wait to see what happens to loot boxes and 'pay-to-win' mechanics over the coming months and years, we’ll continue to see the company pumping out its IPs onto mobile devices, but we imagine they'll have only conservative cross-promotional links to their Switch-based counterparts. It'll be fascinating to see if the connections between Pokémon Go and Pokémon Sword & Shield expand on the limited Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee link, but our gut says it'll be a similar set-up.
What's next in the pipeline? Coming in 'early summer’ is puzzler Dr. Mario World, an IP which arguably fits naturally in the mobile space. Details are scarce at the moment, but it’s easy to imagine how it might work on mobile. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. Following the Switch’s launch the Wall Street Journal reported that there was a Zelda game in the works for smartphones, but we haven’t heard a peep since. What form could that take? A proper top-down Zelda with timed dungeons or unlocks? A match-three rupee game hosted by Tingle that somehow transfers currency to the next console Zelda? We'd play it.
Other franchises are more obviously ripe for a mobile iteration. Puzzle games would seem a no-brainer, but we’ve yet to see a Nintendo branded Picross game on mobile. Something like Game Freak’s Pocket Card Jockey could work very well. Mario Kart Tour seems to show that racers can work, too, so how about 'F2P-Zero', a mobile return for the blisteringly fast franchise we all want to see Nintendo working on again…
Okay, perhaps not all the company’s IP is appropriate on mobile, but it seems the intention is to increase investment in the mobile sector, so we can expect to start seeing a wider variety of genres coming to our phones. That might make console gaming diehards anxious, but we can perhaps take solace in the fact that Nintendo is so slow to adopt new trends. It’ll be a long while yet before the company gives up on dedicated hardware.
Would you like to see more interaction between Nintendo's mobile and home console output? Do you think the company is overcautious when it comes to protecting its brand? Share your thoughts in the comments.