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Mar 19 2015

Thoughts on Nintendo in the Smartphone Market

Nintendo has announced that they will develop, publish and release games for smartphones as early as this year. While we can expect to hear much more at E3 in June, this announcement is timed well for investors as Nintendo approaches the end of its fiscal year. That aside, this is a truly surprising piece of news. Nintendo had seemed adamant to release their franchises on anything that wasn’t their own console. If Nintendo had announced dropping out of the console business, the world would have been shocked. Still, this piece of news made front pages of Japanese newspapers yesterday. It seems that people are excited to see what Nintendo will do with this format.

What I want to ponder today is how this will play out for Nintendo. I must say, I am not a fan of Sonic the Hedgehog: Episode 4 for my Android. Sure, the gameplay is solid, but I just can’t get used to using a fake joystick in the corner of the screen to control Sonic. It feels extremely unintuitive. That is saying a lot considering that Sonic platform games have traditionally only needed a D-Pad and one button. To hold my phone, move the character using the fake joystick in one corner of the screen and then to use another availble finger to jump and perform other actions is so strange to me. I hate games where I die because I feel out of control of the action.

So, Nintendo will have to take a different approach to this market. I’d almost be sickened to see my favorite game, Super Mario World, be butchered by smartphone controls. That is why the annoucement of Nintendo working with DeNA is interesting, and likely in Nintendo’s best interest. The key factor in Nintendo entering the smartphone market is that they won’t be porting games (at least not this year). That is probably good news; again, do we really want to see some of Nintendo’s old NES and SNES on the smartphone? People may want to have that portability, but people have purchased the 3DS and other portable consoles for that purpose (naturally, people who own a 3DS also plays newer titles, I’m sure). In some ways, I think Nintendo isn’t aiming for nostalgic gamers who want to relive those games. I think it’s aiming for the kind of person who buys smartphone games in the first place. For these people, simply having the franchise and characters will likely be enough.

All of that being said, what genres would work best for Nintendo on smartphones? I think puzzle games are the best genre; they seem perfect for touchscreens. Nintendo is already showing the world what it’s like to combine Puzzle and Dragons with the Mario franchise. Now that they’re entering the smartphone market, I don’t doubt seeing a “lite” version of Puzzle and Dragons with Mario characters. Heck, they could probably easily do a Pokemon version.

What was the reason for Nintendo to enter the smartphone market? Business insiders couldn’t understand for years why Nintendo refused to release games for smartphones. I have to wonder if gamers felt the same way. The fact is that “gamers” are people who own home consoles. Gamers also own portable consoles (most likely the 3DS), but people who aren’t “gamers”, per se, also own portable consoles. And one thing that nearly everyone owns is a smartphone. I think it’s obvious that Nintendo did this for money (what business make a decision without thinking of money?), but they are also doing something wise-they are protecting their property well. By not porting games, Nintendo can maintain its image of superior gaming experiences on its own consoles while selling different types of offerings for smartphone users.

In fact, I think having smartphone games will be key to helping sell its other offerings better. I think of the classic A/B comparison. Companies do it is by offering one thing, B, at a slightly higher price than A. B is far superior to A and requires only a little bit more money. It’s like the idea that if you are already paying so much for A, you may as well pay a little more to get the far superior B. Movie theaters are most guilty, by offering a small drink of 32 oz for $4.75, a medium sized drink of, let’s say, 44 oz for $5.00 and then a large size of 64 oz for $5.25. If you’re already paying $4.75 for a small drink, you can pay 50 cents more to get double the size. Now, in that scenario, nobody really needs 64 oz of cola, and while more than half of that is just ice, people do fall for it. Nintendo’s home console games may look amazing next to its lesser smartphone counterparts.

In this case, Nintendo isn’t offering something as easily comparable as a size of a drink. Nintendo will offer smartphone games that will likely be bite-sized versions of their console coutnerparts. This is not suggest that their smartphone games will be demos of their console offerings. Be assured-their smartphone games will be complete games. They will be complete in the sense that a smartphone game can be-it will feel polished, it will be easily accesible and will have some depth without being overwhelming. Partnering with DeNA ensures some amount of quality control and consistency for their smartphone offerings. And it seems that these game may connect with its console games. To be sure, having the option to use a smartphone in tandem with the Wii U, for example, is quite alluring. One game that comes to mind is a newer trivia-like game called Fibbage that has players create fake descriptions for things. It is all displayed on a big screen, via a home console such as the PS4. A smartphone may be an excellent companion to the Wii U GamePad, and selling even smaller 99 cent games that interact with bigger console games could be an interesting thing.

Until E3 2015, we may not hear much more about this announcement. Investors are happy for now, and I don’t see how this will hurt consumers. All in all, this seems like the right move for Nintendo. While I don’t see this as something that helps me as a gamer, this opens more doors for Nintendo, and I think that alone is beneficial. Let’s see what Nintendo does.