Nintendo's partnership with mobile game developer DeNA to create games for smartphones has torn a rift through the Internet so large, you'd think Ganon from The Legend of Zelda was responsible.
It's understandable. Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata once vowed never to make games for smart devices in the first place, essentially calling the mobile market a place where hucksters gather "as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow — the value of video game software does not matter to them."
He isn't wrong. Instead of making good, long-lasting games like you would find in Nintendo's library, mobile titles typically revolve around generating revenue rather than solid gameplay — tap your phone to make pretty lights appear, buy gems so you can get to a harder level, then buy more gems, rinse and repeat.
Similar practices have bled into the AAA console market, too, with copious amounts of on-disc DLC, paid services just to access peer-to-peer online multiplayer games, season passes, mobile apps and half-finished games shipped with game-breaking bugs on the rise in the last several years. With the walls of traditional gaming crumbling, Nintendo was seen as the last bastion where games could just be games.
However, after struggling with low sales for the both the Wii U and 3DS, it looks as if Nintendo has given up the good fight and is stepping in line with the rest of industry with a plan that involves making smartphone games in hopes of luring customers into buying Nintendo hardware. In other words, Nintendo wants to make free-to-play playable commercials for its "real" products.
"By taking this approach, we firmly believe that doing business on smart devices will not shrink our dedicated video game system business and will instead create new demand," Iwata said in a press statement.
Chris Kohler of Wired warns this plan could backfire, that players will just stop at the free-to-play content and not bother moving on to the premium stuff. He cites the roughly 98 percent of fickle players who move on from free-to-play games after one go. However, in Nintendo's case, with its high-quality franchises and instantly recognizable characters, people may want to take the dive and explore better options. No one's going to care about Flappy Bird Knockoff No. 960 on their smartphone, but if there's a Legend of Zelda mobile game that points in the direction of a larger Zelda experience on a new Nintendo console, people may take notice. If Nintendo was going to just make games on mobile in the way that people have been screaming at them to do, then those games would only show the appeal of smartphones. Nintendo's not doing that.
The new focus on mobile could also solve Nintendo's recent marketing problems. Nintendo has had a tough time communicating its ideas with the Wii U and 3DS. Everyone immediately understood the Wii, which was a smash hit with its TV-like remote, but Nintendo's newer consoles have had an uphill battle from the beginning. Everyone thought the Wii U was an add-on or peripheral for the Wii, and the 3DS, while relatively successful, has had its steam stolen by smart devices. Smarphones may have eaten up the portable gaming sphere (Sony's PlayStation Vita barely registers as a blip), but they are currently the best means of communicating the value of Nintendo's stuff to consumers, including children who've never owned a dedicated console before.
Another thing to consider is that Nintendo's partnership with DeNA isn't limited to mobile games. What they're going for is basically having a shared ecosystem between smart devices and Nintendo devices, something Nintendo has desperately needed between the Nintendo Wii U and 3DS. If Nintendo gets lots of different devices, including PCs, to use the same service, then Nintendo could extend the reach of its brands even further and make the purchasing and playing of games much more convenient for users.
Then there's the new console announcement. Nintendo didn't mention what type of console its "Codename NX" will be, but considering the newfound emphasis on interplaying devices, it will likely be a pair of devices that can seamlessly communicate with each other — a handheld console and a console you can leave at home connected to a TV. This would make perfect sense for Nintendo to pursue since interplay between devices is the direction technology is going — think of the connected home, smartwatches, the cloud, or an evolved version of Nintendo's own tablet-like GamePad for the Wii U. So Nintendo could have data, processed and otherwise, shared not just on the same device, but on disparate devices. A portable console could take advantage of extra processing power through a strong and fast wireless standard. Think of a 3DS-ish device you can take with you, but when you go home, sit on your couch and log onto your Wi-Fi network, all of a sudden you have access to lots more processing power because you're connected to a box of powerful hardware sitting on your stand. The new Nintendo platform will probably be able to talk to all sorts of devices — this new foray into the world of mobile gaming is just the first step toward that.
So, really, until there's something to play on smartphones from Nintendo, there's nothing to fret over. The company that gave us Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong has a long game plan, and when it gets backed into a corner, we get all sorts of weird, disrupting and successful things in the process, like the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS, which — hey — kind of jump-started the world's obsession with touchscreen gaming way back in 2004, didn't it?
Or ... Disney could buy Nintendo and cause the biggest upheaval the Internet has seen since Disney bought LucasArts and Marvel and, well, everything else. But let's cross that bridge if we ever get to it.
Photo: William Warby | Flickr