Talking about Nintendo often involves careful consideration. It means talking about controllers, about innovation, new strategies and markets, and depending on who you talk to it may involve a degree of either bitterness or delight. Ever since Iwata’s ‘blue ocean’ strategy – that of appealing to new and wider markets than the established core demographic with new ideas and innovations – it’s been very difficult to evaluate Nintendo’s progression without talking about money. They are in no need of saving after all. The Wii U was a commercial and critical failure on the whole, but while many gamers will complain of Nintendo not catering to the ‘core gamer’ and bowing out of the big three’s console battle, it’s important to remember that the Wii dominated both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 in sales.
Iwata and Nintendo achieved this in a wonderful way: images abound of your Nan on a Wii fit balance board, of the family gathering round for nine holes of Wii Sports golf. Outside of the console market, adults and non-gamers would bust out a DS on the tube, training their brain while they commute to work – Nintendo had staged quite the coup. “I’m not really a gamer, but I’ve got a Wii,” was a line that you’d hear a lot.
It didn’t quite endure: Large swathes of the Wii-buying, non-gamer audience have since flocked to mobiles and tablets for casual experiences that follow them around, and can be dipped into. As mobile technology soared and smartphones inhabited the center space, mobile gaming took off in a huge way. Now, in 2016, mobile gaming accounts for 39% of the total market share – that’s $36.9 billion out of $99.6 billion – and that’s larger than the PC gaming audience – clocking in at 27% – by a big chunk. With the failure of the Wii U, and the enduring lack of desire to directly compete with Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo is setting its sights on the mobile market.
Plenty of Fish in the Blue Ocean
Due for release in 2017, there are still plenty of questions hovering over the NX, and in order for Nintendo to convince people of the experiences on offer, it will need them to invest in new hardware and take the gamble. This isn’t a problem when it comes to mobile gaming. As proven with the runaway success of Pokémon GO, there is a colossal install base waiting for Nintendo. Developing for the mobile markets means cutting out hardware concerns and concentrating solely on game development – something the company has started doing with its recent announcements of Super Mario Run, Animal Crossing, and Fire Emblem.
Much of the casual market that migrated over to tablet and mobile gaming can be re-captured. In a similar way to our streets being crowded with Pokémon hunting zombies, imagine a world of Goomba-hopping, sword-swinging, village-building commuters. It leaves Nintendo free to pour efforts into game development and innovation, two things that it has proven to excel at.
Beyond graphics, quirks, and the kind of games on offer, the one thing that made the Wii stand out from the crowd was its controller. Unlike anything else out there, it offered gamers a brand new way to experience games, and though there were some broken televisions and finicky hang-ups out on the Wii golf course, by and large it was a popular way to play. The DS, too, allowed gamers to reach out and touch their games; this meant certain kinds of experiences were at home on the DS and the Wii. Resident Evil 4 for instance is at its best when on the Wii: there is nothing like waiving your red-dot laser around with complete freedom and lining up head-shots with speed and precision. The RTS found a comfy home on the DS, with games like Fire Emblem and Heroes of Mana providing intuitive and tactile experiences not possible elsewhere.
It was the ‘why hasn’t this happened before?’ element to Nintendo’s recent announcement that struck the hardest. It seems obvious: take some of the most beloved IP in gaming’s history and apply it to a wide market sure to recognize the plumber’s famous red hat. Touch controls are perfect for Nintendo’s games; they’ve already done it many times on the DS with great success. The upcoming Fire Emblem game, for instance, is an obvious winner – a wide-screen view of the battlefield, and the ability to touch your units and move them around like chess-pieces is perfect. Something like Animal Crossing uses touch controls on the 3DS, and the relaxed rhythm to its play is ideal for dip-in-and-out sessions on the tube – or even at work. Given the success of Zelda titles like Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, it’s surely only a matter of time before Link hook-shots his way into your pocket.
There is a legitimate concern that the mobile market is already crowded with excellent experiences, and that Nintendo would have to strive that much harder to make a mark. Though we need only look at the power of IP to gain some perspective here. The relatively small success of a game like Ingress – made by Pokémon GO developer Niantic – compared with the gargantuan success of Pokémon GO highlight’s Nintendo’s advantage. Though both games are relatively similar, the brand power behind Nintendo launched one of them into the stratosphere, while the other remains relatively unknown to the majority of mobile players.
This same brand power is likely to draw people in to Animal Crossing, over comparative games like Castaway Paradise and Happy Street. Fire Emblem may well have a tough time against hugely successful mobile games like Clash of Clans and Age of War, but as soon as a Zelda, a Metroid, or a Donkey Kong follows in Mario’s footsteps, nostalgia will become an almighty selling point.
It may well be that Nintendo finds its footing within the mobile space and finds itself unchained: the freedom to experiment without the need to sell people on new hardware will set loose some of the company’s innovative minds. Perhaps pricing will be an obstacle for progress, or perhaps it will find itself stymied by an incredibly over-crowded market place. If there’s one thing to bear in mind, it’s this: Nintendo has never allowed its competitors to interrupt its creativity or innovation before, and given its track record of attracting new audiences, we have absolutely no cause to doubt it now.