As the Summer months drift towards their conclusion (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) we head into Fall / Autumn, and what that brings is a period of great intrigue in the world of Nintendo. On the one hand the company will eventually need to spill the beans on its NX system and - in one stroke - end all of the debate over what it actually is, and on the other it'll be getting into mobile gaming in a bigger way. Looking back now we see that Miitomo exploded out of the gates but then fell away just as quickly, with interest dropping fast due to the limitations of the social app. That obviously won't have been Nintendo's plan, but that's the reality.
Pokémon GO (in which Nintendo is an investor and not, remember, the core beneficiary) has, as all know, been somewhat different. It's been a phenomenon, and it's still - at the time of writing, amazingly - the highest grossing app on iPhones in the US. That's one snapshot of data, but it's a revealing one - download numbers fall due to tens of millions already having it, and the bubble only goes so far, but none of that has blunted its continued money-making power as it has a sizeable and loyal audience. Here's the key bit - that's despite thousands of gamers (probably) declaring on forums and social media over the past month or so that they're done with it, fed up with 'broken' features and Niantic's shutdowns of third-party apps and tools.
That, right there, is mainstream reality. The demographic of dedicated gamers and enthusiasts is smaller than many would like, and is only one part of picture. We know how big the hardcore Nintendo demographic is based on the falls from the Wii / DS generation to the current era - few outside of the hardiest fans, clearly, have bought into the Wii U. How else to explain phenomenal sales of key Wii U titles - as of 30th June there had been 13.02 million consoles shipped, yet Mario Kart 8 has shipped 7.7 million units. That is bonkers (also impressive), and provides a glimpse of a loyal audience in its millions, with various other Wii U titles shipping three million units and above. That's impressive on one hand, but those numbers aren't good enough for a multi-billion-dollar corporation like Nintendo.
What's our point? Well, it's that Nintendo - like every other entertainment company - needs to appeal to the mainstream. It will try to do so on its own terms, however, as it did with the dual screen and touchscreen of the DS and the motion controls of the Wii, and as it has to a respectable degree with the 3DS. The broader gaming public is incredibly broad and diverse, too, and is actually made up of lots of niche areas - when you look at the 3DS you see neat hardware with a varied library, appealing to different people in different ways. The Wii U, on the other hand, was not enticing enough to a lot of people - if you aren't an all-in gamer or a Nintendo fan on some level, it evidently doesn't offer enough value or desirable content to be worth a purchase; price is another key factor where it went wrong.
In order to be a success on the scale it desires Nintendo needs to cultivate and satisfy its fanbase, of course, but it also seeks more than that. It wants as sizeable an audience as possible, and with that it can entice third-parties and other companies to invest in its platforms. The more games a system has the happier the audience - of all types - is, and then we all win; that's why Nintendo hasn't been shy in pitching the as-yet-unrevealed NX as a new way of playing games, with a likely attempt to appeal to gamers of all persuasions. It's true you can't please everyone, and to try to do so is folly, but that's not to say you should only try to please a small number of people - that's just as foolish.
How does this relate to Nintendo and mobile? It's the fact that the iOS and Android space matter a great deal for Nintendo, in a variety of ways. As we've argued before, tilting at these windmills is a futile activity. It'll happen whether we want it or not. Nintendo sees the mobile space as key to its future - in itself a U-turn in policy when announced in early 2015 - and has invested many millions of dollars with that in mind, forging a complex corporate partnership with DeNA. This isn't a flash in the pan, a cautious dip into new waters - Nintendo is fully invested in making mobile work for its business.
Thankfully, on these pages we've seen many in our community show an openness to this, or at the very least acceptance. Miitomo undoubtedly sparked backlash and caution, with its issues and design flaws frustrating and concerning many, but now we head towards a different phase - Nintendo games / experiences on mobile. Yet there's still a sentiment from some that it's a form of blasphemy, a betrayal of values, for IPs such as Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem to have games coming to non-Nintendo hardware. Let's consider the angles for that perspective.
Personally, I'm not a huge mobile gamer myself, and am firmly in the live-and-let-live but not interested crowd with Pokemon GO, having tried it and not enjoyed it a great deal. I also enjoyed Miitomo for a week before going cold on it rapidly, and at the moment I don't play any games (at all) on my phone. Yet I'm not worried or annoyed about the upcoming mobile titles; on the contrary, I'm excited.
An understandable argument is that bringing a beloved franchise to mobile will distract and / or detract from full console / handheld entries. Yet we're not convinced that'll be the reality, and the structure of Nintendo's mobile development also suggests as much. The current setup appears to be a team effort with DeNA, with Nintendo's partners inevitably handling a lot of infrastructure and network aspects of releases.
The stated intention is to use mobile release to reach a new audience and draw them towards Nintendo hardware, not push them away. Though it's perhaps a little flawed at the moment, My Nintendo also reinforces this, offering regular Platinum Point rewards from playing Miitomo which can be spent on outfits for the app or rewards on Wii U and 3DS. A popular word for mobile strategies like this is 'synergy' , and it's appropriate - mobile is there to strengthen Nintendo's dedicated gaming system business, not weaken it.
It's worth also noting that Nintendo is keen to assuage concerns of 'main' releases in series drifting towards mobile. Earlier this year company President Tatsumi Kimishima pitched both Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing on mobile as introductions to the series, with the latter even having scope to interact with console / portable games in the franchise.
On Fire Emblem for mobile:
We expect that many consumers will experience Fire Emblem for the first time on their smart device, so this application will offer a more accessible style of gameplay compared to the titles for dedicated video game systems. At the same time, we still aim to provide a fully engaging experience as a role-playing simulation game.
On Animal Crossing for mobile:
As I mentioned before, the Animal Crossing series for dedicated video game systems is well-loved for its long-term playability, so we want to offer a connection between the smart device application and the world of Animal Crossing on dedicated video game systems. This will make it even more fun to play in both ways, while offering a new style of play for smart devices.
We are developing this application to provide consumers with strong value suitable to smart devices while also generating synergy with our dedicated video game system business, as this is one of the goals of our smart device business.
There's a clear intent for consoles, namely NX and 3DS in 2017 and beyond, to still take the lead for the company overall, and the upcoming amiibo update in Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a reminder that games even a few years old can be revisited to utilise more current releases and products. It'll be intriguing to see whether Animal Crossing mobile integration will come in New Leaf or an as-yet-unannounced NX entry in the series.
For some, none of that is re-assuring, and that's to be expected. Yet to ignore the mobile market is a mistake for a company like Nintendo. On some occasions successes will make huge revenue (as Pokémon GO has for Niantic, The Pokémon Company and to a lesser extent Nintendo), while on other occasions mobile releases will simply provide valuable brand awareness with millions of new players. Nintendo will no doubt want to achieve both with its future mobile games - monetisation and brand enhancement.
It's worth remembering how vital the smartphone industry is in many aspects of modern business, including video games. Apple is hosting its latest live conference event today (7th September), and it'll dominate headlines while the latest iPhone - including a headphone jack or not - will sell millions upon millions of units. A vast majority of people in wealthy countries have a smartphone, and plenty browse games on the iOS and Google Play stores and try them out.
That's an audience that should be targeted. The key point for the more 'traditional' gamers among us is this - if Nintendo does well in mobile, that may help the company sell more NX (and 3DS, to a lesser degree) systems; that's a good thing for everyone.
Naturally a lot happened shortly after this article was posted. Super Mario Run is coming to iOS in December, while Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem are now delayed until after that release. Pokémon GO is also coming to Apple Watch.