Nintendo's Mobile Gamble
Nintendo and DeNA prepare to make history... or Flappy Mario
3Nintendo’s decision to start developing games that will be compatible with smart devices was always likely to cause some consternation among the faithful.
Whilst it isn’t quite the ultimate climbdown that some would like to portray it as, it does mark a clear departure from the dogmatic pursuit of the traditional console model that has been such a hallmark of Nintendo’s success for so long.
For those unaware, Nintendo have announced a partnership with Japanese mobile games services firm DeNA, which would see Nintendo buying 10% of DeNA’s stock, whilst 1.24% of Nintendo’s would pass the other way, thus creating the kind of bond that would see them both mutually benefit from the joint venture. Assuming it’s successful.
Nintendo have spoken about the mobile sphere before, but it was always assumed that they were tentative in their commitment to begin down that road, largely because of the need to safeguard the perception of their IPs as amongst those of the highest quality. Mobile gaming has changed a lot, but overwhelmingly the most lucrative examples are those with the gameplay to payment balance skewed towards the latter, to the detriment of the former. So, a traditional games company entering that field is rightfully viewed with scepticism.
There has also been the question of Nintendo’s most iconic characters becoming too ubiquitous, and thus eroding the unique selling point of their own consoles. Critics would point to the franchises languishing with metaphorical cobwebs on them, soon to be forgotten and losing all semblance of marketability with the masses. But on the other hand, we’ve seen many newer games series ride the crest of a wave of public adulation, only to be killed off by excessive production of sequels in too short a space of time by avaricious publishers. It’s a balancing act, and one that this latest deal shows Nintendo are keen to at least attempt to get right.
The worries are clear though, and hard to ignore. That this isn’t just the evolution of a company’s approach, and one that’s seen it disregarded by many core gamers, but instead it’s driven by a weakened CEO who’s been browbeaten by shareholders. The plight of the Wii U, even in a mini upswing of fortunes, is hard to ignore, and the console sector - both in front of the TV and handheld - is getting ever harder to wring large profits from. With the wealth of iconic franchises in Nintendo’s vault, it’s little wonder their share prices rose by around 25% when the story of this partnership broke.
The good news is that this isn’t a total partnership, but rather an alliance based on existing skills. Nintendo have made it clear that they’ll be dealing with the development, whilst DeNA will work on the back end, the underlying structure of services and servers. There’s also the relieving news that the quick-buck option of ports has been ruled out, instead the whole roster of Nintendo’s IP will be available for use, but only in the form of new titles that have been built with the hardware they’ll be on in mind. For a company whose experiences have centred around precision gameplay, that’s a huge relief, and should go some way to allaying fears that half-hearted ports with clumsy controls would start to mire the public image of one of the industry’s premier games makers.
The problem is DeNA’s track record is pretty steeped in the kind of titles that core gamers sneer at. Those that use the “freemium” model, where gameplay can be lacklustre and repetitive, and where in app purchases are necessary to overcome the obvious hurdles that are erected solely to elicit payments from players. Nobody wants to play a Mario title with an obvious lack of power ups or lives, and a little box that pops up like a cold-caller every five minutes. DeNA looks a perfect partner for getting across to the widest audience and making money, but those concepts don’t always go hand in hand with quality.
It’s not all doom-mongering though, and looking at the type of game Nintendo are most famous for might just point to where it can find a middle ground without resorting to derivative cash-ins. The Mario platform games have evolved in many ways, but the basic structure has remained steadfast and simple: a series of levels to be traversed, with set criteria in each, and a distinct beginning and end. Perhaps more than any other mainstream games developer, Nintendo’s most iconic franchises' staples fit the idea of segmentalisation that is so often a core of mobile titles.
Rather than elicit money from players based on an artificial series of gameplay boundaries, the level system could be the route to profitability. We’ve already seen that episodic content and DLC can accrue more than a game’s initial selling price, so who’s to say that a middle ground couldn’t be found by a company in the mobile sphere?
Of course, it could just end in a raft of questionable titles with a Mario theme applied for branding. And even if it did, all is not lost, as the partnership comes with one - arguably far more promising - remit, and that’s to help replace the Club Nintendo service. The way in which Nintendo have thus far approached the issue of online membership has been a core reason it's gained a reputation as a company slow to modernise.
Whilst other console manufacturers were making online gaming a priority and linking content to accounts, Nintendo have muddled along, dragging heels with friend codes and tying content to machines. Now, DeNA is working with them to create the successor to Club Nintendo, and it’s not just optimism that’s leading many to believe that it might finally embrace all the ease of use niceties we’ve come to expect as standard in this age of online consoles.
In line with new hardware that’s being worked on, dubbed the NX, this could be the biggest sign that the more holistic mindset of weaving handheld and home consoles closer may finally be coming to fruition. A future of interconnected Nintendo devices, content that can be transferred between them, and who knows, maybe a subscription model that rewards the fanbase like the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection, could finally leverage all the good will and multiple system ownership that’s embodied Nintendo’s ardent fanbase for decades.
Or we could just end up with a different loyalty points scheme, some free Luigi wallpaper on offer to those who've stuck the course, and some highly forgettable games. With Nintendo, it’s anybody’s guess; who say Amiibos coming?
But they’re sitting on a gold mine of IP, and this doesn't have to be a move made to the detriment of their existing console business, but could in fact be beneficial - and maybe even complementary - to it. The margins for producing successful console titles look to be getting squeezed amid growing sequel-itis and a select few franchises' gargantuan marketing budgets. If there’s any way to tap into the fortunes to be made in the mobile sector, it could help keep Nintendo buoyant in the home console market for some time longer, which is good news for everyone.
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