Nintendo and Mobile Gaming: Could be Cause for Concern

Nintendo announced recently that they would be entering the amazingly profitable realm of mobile gaming. That’s right: Nintendo IPs will soon be seen in the app store right alongside Clash of Clans and Angry Birds, and thousands upon thousands of other cell phone based games. We don’t have a heck of a lot of info on the details yet, but the announcement itself is enough to strike dread into this humble gamer.

Let me be up front about one thing: I don’t care for mobile gaming. For those not terribly familiar with the industry, mobile gaming breaks down into two broad categories: free-to-play (meaning the game costs nothing to download), and premium (meaning the game has a price tag, generally much lower than a full-price console game).

Free-to-play (or freemium) just has a ring of “too good to be true” to it. And in most cases you’d be right. While most FTP games can be played and enjoyed with no investment beyond the space it takes up on your phone, the majority of them are nearly impossible complete without making a substantial amount of in-app purchases (IAP) to obtain additional in-game resources or power-ups. The whole business model for FTP revolves around either encouraging players to make IAP, or running lots of ads. Pick your poison.

Premium, on the other hand, is what we traditionally think of as a vidya game. You pay a certain amount up front, and in return you get the full, entire game, possibly with DLC available for super fans. Many premium games are ports of successful classics from older generations of console gaming, such as ports of the classic Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy games. Generally speaking, premium games aren’t nearly as successful as FTP.

So into this domain steps the House of Mario, ready to capture some of that sweet, sweet cash that flows like a waterfall from the digital wallets of billions of gamers around the world. With mobile becoming the most profitable and easiest to develop gaming platform, it makes sense on paper for Nintendo to want to jump into the fray.

Nintendo has announced a partnership with DeNA, one of the biggest mobile game publishers out there, if not the biggest one of all, period. They put out a staggering number of games, many of them developed by subsidiary studios or licensed titles from major franchises. Some examples of their recent games include Rage of Bahamut, Blood Brothers 2,  Godus, Star Wars: Galactic Defense, and Transformers: Battle Tactics. The DeNA partnership is honestly a pretty smart one, because it means that Nintendo can continue to develop their software in-house without having to worry about distribution. DeNA is an expert at mobile distribution, and can easily handle all the logistics on that end.

Here’s my dilemma: I don’t usually care for DLC, and I like IAP even less. I’m getting older every day, and I remember a time when patches and updates weren’t even possible. When I bought Super Mario Brothers 3, I knew that the entire game was there on the cartridge. The developers hadn’t withheld anything, and if there were problems with the game, they would never be fixed. For good or bad, what you bought was what you got. I like that model. It pleases me to know that if I pay $50 up front for a brand new vidya game, I’m getting the entire game, the fully realized vision of the developer (or as close as it’ll ever get).

In the last decade, many companies have increasingly turned to DLC to pad out their games. Sometimes this comes in the form of well-crafted additional stages added onto an already robust experience, but at the other end of the spectrum are the cheap, half-baked cash-grabs that nickel and dime you for every possible feature and cosmetic change. IAP, to me, feels a lot like the latter. You are given a repetitive game that’s designed to be unbeatable without IAP, because otherwise there would be no way for the dev to make money. I’d rather just pay up front for a complete experience.

There’s also the problem that mobile gaming carries with it inherent limitations. Processing and graphical power are limited, so mobile games can’t provide the types of immersive experiences that console games can. Even a mobile game with high production values — like, eg, Mistwalker Studios’ Terra Battle — can’t come close to matching a console game in terms of animations, level design, or storytelling. I must admit, however, that Terra Battle has some fantastic music.

The Big N has resisted the DLC wave, only implementing it sparingly and always making sure to provide good value. A great example is Mario Kart 8. The game includes 32 tracks out of the box, but two DLC packages will provide 16 each for only $12 total. I’m happy to pay for additional content if it’s a worthwhile addition and the base game is already a robust experience.

Nintendo is also a titan of the handheld market. With the original Gameboy they proved it was possible to provide immersive, engaging experiences with extremely limited system resources. If anyone can craft high-quality mobile games, Nintendo can.

So I guess what I’m building to is this: I’m all for Nintendo’s entry into mobile gaming so long as the games are premium and not FTP. I would always prefer to pay full price and get an entire game than to have features locked behind a paywall. I’m optimistic that Nintendo will opt for a premium model in at least some of its releases, and I believe that the Nintendo name alone will attract huge numbers of purchases, regardless of price. There are also some heartening quotes from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata in a recent TIME interview:

I do not like to use the term ‘Free-to-play.’ I have come to realize that there is a degree of insincerity to consumers with this terminology, since so-called ‘Free-to-play’ should be referred to more accurately as ‘Free-to-start.’

I like this approach. He shows an understanding of the drawbacks with the FTP model, as well as a willingness not to deceive potential customers. Of course, Iwata isn’t ruling out FTP either:

There are games which are more suited for the Free-to-start model. We can flexibly choose between both revenue systems depending on the software content . . . there are games or types of games which are suited for the existing package model, and because there are consumers who appreciate and support them, I have to say that it is a one-sided claim to suggest that a complete transition to a Free-to-start model should be made because the existing retail model is outdated.”

It might sound like typical Nintendo bet-hedging and equivocation, but I get the sense that Iwata is genuinely wary of FTP. He doesn’t want customers to feel cheated by a Nintendo product that feels cheap or lazy, and he’s willing to engage in IAP only when it makes sense for the particular game.

I guess I’m still a bit worried about IAP invading my Marios or my Metroids, but I’m trying to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. We haven’t seen Nintendo IPs on non-Nintendo consoles since 1995 or so (and the less said about that the better), so it’ll be very interesting to see how Nintendo handles the rollout. Will we see Nintendo Phones? New IPs structured around IAP? Premium mobile versions of classic IPs? Who knows! Nintendo has made a habit out of throwing surprises our way. I’m not particularly enthused by the announcement, since I’m a console gamer through and through, but I’m definitely very curious.

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4 thoughts on “Nintendo and Mobile Gaming: Could be Cause for Concern

  1. Are you suggesting here that Zelda’s Adventure wasn’t the pinnacle of video gaming?
    Also, genuinely curious, do you think that Nintendo might be shooting themselves in the foot when it comes to the handheld marketplace? If people can get Nintendo games on their phones, after all, why buy the New-i XLS D2 Majoojoo’s Mask Special GOLD Edition?!

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    • Perhaps, but mobile can’t provide the level of immersion that the 3DS can. I suspect the mobile games will be pretty simple puzzle games or rhythm games. They’ll save their big guns for the 3DS.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I’ve considered that possibility as well. I kind of doubt they’d go that route, though. The American cell phone market is basically a duopoly where no one else can enter without crazy massive investment. Maybe a Japan only thing would be possible, given how big mobile culture is there and how popular Nintendo is. I think it’s more likely that NX is a new console or traditional handheld. But who knows? They might surprise us all.

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