Since the dawn of the App Store, and by extension, gaming on smartphones and tablets, one iconic brand has remained absent from the revolution: Nintendo. Perhaps the most beloved and historically innovative game maker in the world will have nothing to do with the idea of Super Mario Bros. for iOS.
The daring decision to not ride the success of the App Store is starting to come at a cost. Nintendo is bleeding money as sales of living room consoles like the Wii U plummet. And now the Japanese company is wanting mobile game developers to port their titles to the Wii U. Nintendo understands that mobile-centric games could help sell its traditional consoles, and yet we still aren’t getting any of Nintendo’s own games in the App Store. It’s a frustrating conundrum.
“Nintendo is trying to modify its game consoles so customers can use smartphone applications on them as it searches for a way to return to profitability,” reported The Japan Times yesterday. “Nintendo hopes smartphone software will help spur console sales, which will in turn lead to an increase in popular game titles for them, the sources said.” As John Gruber puts it, that’s the right road to be on, but the wrong direction to be driving.
The Wii U’s controller has a giant touchscreen that Nintendo wants to use as a way to introduce new methods of gameplay. Apple has been tying mobile games to the big screen for awhile. iOS devices can wirelessly connect to an Apple TV over AirPlay and mirror games from the App Store.
The living room console market isn’t as dominant since the App Store popularized $1 Angry Birds downloads, and portable consoles like the 3DS have all but vanished from the general public’s idea of what constitutes “mobile gaming.”
Nintendo doesn’t want to get trampled by the small game startups that making money hand over fist selling to smartphones only. But we still don’t have mobile versions of Donkey Kong, Mario, Pokémon, or Metroid in the App Store. And unless Nintendo’s upper management starts thinking radically different, we probably never will.
“Nintendo selling its games on other platforms would be very similar to Apple licensing Mac OS X to other PC manufacturers.”
Like Apple, Nintendo’s business revolves around using software (the game characters we all grew up on) to sell hardware. While the profit margin on selling living room consoles is collapsing, Nintendo isn’t ready to abandon the business model. As a corporate culture, Nintendo takes great pride in making great games for its own hardware. Decades of tradition have engrained that pride in the fabric of the company. The business economics involved are obviously more complex than that, but the decision to keep a distance can be boiled down to a philosophy.
Nintendo selling its games on other platforms would be very similar to Apple licensing Mac OS X to other PC manufacturers. That will never happen because Apple’s software helps sell Mac hardware and bring in profit. The difference in the two scenarios is that Apple has $100+ billion in cash, and Nintendo does not.
Japan-based Square Enix is a good example of a traditional game maker effectively using mobile platforms as a strategy to promote console games. Older Final Fantasy titles are sold in the App Store, and players get a taste and want to check out the premium titles for PS3 and Xbox.
It’s sad to think that Nintendo is still innovating, and yet losing its foothold. The company’s executives may have to experience an even louder wake-up call before the iPhone is let into Mushroom Kingdom.