Kyle’s Game Corner: Mobile Nintendo and New Horizons

Mulling over the implications of Nintendo’s entrance into the mobile gaming scene.

By Kyle England. Posted 03/24/2015 09:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

I was a bit surprised last week when Nintendo announced that it would start releasing games on smartphones– but I wasn’t entirely floored. After all, in Nintendo’s investor briefing in early 2014, company head Satoru Iwata touched on the possibility of leveraging IP on mobile devices to entice people to play on Nintendo platforms. Now, Nintendo is taking this idea a step further and will be releasing games outside of its ecosystem. I want to analyze this new situation and understand how Nintendo got here and what we can expect to come of it.

So how did we get here? If you read the great articles that Time published last week, President Iwata sheds some insights on Nintendo’s path. But what he glosses over is why go mobile? They discuss reservations about going mobile in the past, but there really is no single catalyst discussed. Is Nintendo really losing that much money with Wii U? Were stockholders pushy? Obviously, the reason is to make money. We probably won’t know the exact whys behind this for a while, but it’s important to consider.

It’s kind of a fascinating situation, and one that Nintendo has never faced. But when the mobile games do roll out, they will not be the first Nintendo games released on a device that was not designed by the company. In the pre-NES days, Nintendo licensed out arcade games to be ported for various home computers and consoles, like Commodore 64 and ColecoVision. But once the hardware business got started, Nintendo’s properties became platform exclusive and never looked back (aside from the hiccup with the Philips CD-i deal).

What will be interesting to see is how Nintendo fares in an area of the video game industry that it did not define or even create itself. Nintendo set the standard for what a modern home console is, and essentially created the handheld gaming business with Game Boy. With mobile gaming, Nintendo is jumping into a world that it had no hand in building. A very different type of game and game company are those that dominate the business in mobile gaming.

What is reassuring is that Nintendo has called out some of the practices that drive profits in mobile games. Nintendo does not want to devalue its brands by utilizing practices that might turn people off. Iwata’s exact words are “it’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.”

There is a trend among mobile games to use various methods to string players along and withhold things from them. Free-to-play games can’t give everything to the player upfront because then there’s no reason for anyone to pay money. So, the games take advantage of players with addictive tendencies or impatient people by locking out content unless you wait or pay. Many apps are designed so that players are encouraged to continuously play a little bit every day, which in turn keeps you around long enough to try to sell more stuff to you. The South Park episode “Freemium Isn’t Free” is a hilarious yet painfully true explanation on how the biggest mobile developers make those big bucks.

Hopefully, Nintendo will stay true to its pro-consumer intentions and avoid the Skinner Box method of game design. Remember when Nintendo avoided extra downloadable content in its games altogether? Some Nintendo games would eventually have DLC implemented, but it was implemented in a way that wasn’t terrible, unlike the practices some other companies have a reputation for (Ubisoft, EA, et al.). If Nintendo absolutely must put microtransactions in its mobile games, I hope that they will be integrated with that same Nintendo finesse that makes people say “well, this practice is crap but Nintendo made it not so crappy.” See games like Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball for how Nintendo has handled this in the past.

But as in all things, it’s healthy to approach this new announcement with skepticism. I want to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t be entirely sure until we start seeing some games. It’s going to be weird to have these games on my phone, and not be able to put them on a shelf. Mobile games have almost no longevity from a collector’s standpoint, after all.

We shall see. Sometimes we forget that Nintendo is a business like any other, and we are paying customers. Announcements like this are to get people excited enough to spend money. It’s amazing that so many websites like this one exist and are essentially corporate advertisements when you think about it… But that speaks to the quality of Nintendo; its games entertain and inspire us so much that they capture our hearts. They make us care about what the company does, and get us to start communities and write about the games and devices. And at that point, it becomes more than a business. I’m not a business analyst; I’m just a passionate fan of video games. I write about Nintendo because the games inspire me. And I hope that whatever Nintendo does in the mobile space will keep that spark intact.

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