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The history behind Nintendo's flip-flop on mobile gaming

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Did you hear the one about Nintendo "never" putting its content on mobile platforms? About how Nintendo makes its own hardware specifically intended to cater to its software? About how it would dilute those "brands" (think: Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong) to put them on hardware other than Nintendo's?

Clearly Nintendo isn't so worried about that, as it announced plans last evening to work with Japan mobile game giant DeNA on moving its many brands over to mobile. Or, as Nintendo describes the relationship: a "business and capital alliance to develop and operate new game apps for smart devices and build a new multi-device membership service for consumers worldwide." Sounds like a blast!

Joking aside, this is a pretty serious about-face for a company that's repeatedly stated it wouldn't put its properties on mobile. Here's a smattering of quotes from Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata across the past several years on the subject.

  • In 2011 (as translated by Andriasang, originally from Nikkei): "This is absolutely not under consideration. If we did this, Nintendo would cease to be Nintendo. Having a hardware development team in-house is a major strength. It's the duty of management to make use of those strengths. It's probably the correct decision in the sense that the moment we started to release games on smartphones, we'd make profits. However, I believe my responsibility is not to short-term profits, but to Nintendo's mid- and long-term competitive strength."
  • Also in 2011, from Iwata's speech at the 2011 Game Developers Conference (via GamesIndustry.biz): "We make platforms designed to demonstrate the high value of high-quality video game software. But, there is a second, entirely different way to consider the value of software. The objective of smartphones and social networks, and the reason they were created, are not at all like ours. These platforms have no motivation to maintain the high value of video game software -- for them, content is something created by someone else. Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow -- the value of video game software does not matter to them."
  • In March 2013, from an investor Q&A: "Some say that they do not need dedicated gaming systems because they can play a number of games for free or for 85 yen each on smartphones. We believe that neither Nintendo nor dedicated gaming systems are worthy of existence unless our games give consumers unparalleled fun, which games for free or for 85 yen do not supply."
  • In early 2014, Nintendo started showing signs of breaking from its hardline stance. As reported by The Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Iwata says Nintendo will 'actively' use smart devices to 'make connections with customers.' That is, they'll use smart devices as a catalyst to encourage customers to use its Nintendo platforms. Short answer, he's not going to release Nintendo's titles on other platforms."
  • Further breaking from its previous stance, Iwata said Nintendo was exploring mobile platforms without giving further details (via Bloomberg) in the same time frame: "Given the expansion of smart devices, we are naturally studying how smart devices can be used to grow the game-player business. It's not as simple as enabling Mario to move on a smartphone."

And now we're here, today, where DeNA will apparently enable Mario to move on a smartphone.

Will the move be as simple as porting existing Nintendo games to mobile? No, it thankfully won't. As much as you want Super Mario World on your phone, it would almost certainly be a bad experience, and at the very least a less enjoyable experience than playing the game on the hardware it was made to work with.

Nintendo knows this, despite the fact that it's giving in to the enormous mobile market. Nintendo also knows that its faithful audience will potentially panic upon hearing that the company is pushing into mobile, assuming that Nintendo is abandoning its longtime strategy of creating the hardware that powers its software. Essentially, "OH GOD, NINTENDO IS ONLY MAKING MOBILE GAMES FROM NOW ON. OH GOD." This is why Nintendo teased the codename and plans for its next hardware: the "NX."

Here's an explanatory quote from last night's presentation, care of Iwata, with added emphasis from me on particularly interesting bits:

"The NX -- our next-generation platform -- is not directly related to the collaboration. The question on why we made the announcement if it's not directly related: That is because I wanted to communicate that Nintendo will be progressing with video game-dedicated devices with passion, and also we wanted to clarify that communicating our Nintendo IP through smartphone devices -- providing premium content on video game devices where we can persuade the consumers that a very-well-made video game with immersive experience, that kind of experience that will be loved by video game lovers -- we wanted to make it clear that Nintendo will continue that as a core business. Without the explanation, we believe that many people might misunderstand Nintendo [is doing mobile] because it's pessimistic about the dedicated video game industry."

So what changed Iwata's (and Nintendo's) mind on moving Nintendo properties to mobile? "It would be a waste not to use these devices," Iwata said last night. It would be. So why has Nintendo not been utilizing them for years now? Iwata compares it to the maturation of television, and Nintendo's origins as a playing card- and toy-making company.

"It is structurally the same as when Nintendo, which was founded 125 years ago when there were no TVs, started to aggressively take advantage of TV as a communication channel. Now that smart devices have grown to become the window for so many people to personally connect with society, it would be a waste not to use these devices."

In so many words, Iwata and co. believe that smart devices have matured to the point of Nintendo engaging the platform.

Of course, for those of us living in reality, smart devices have dominated mainstream culture for the past several years. The first iPhone launched in 2007. And the first iPhone was far from the first smartphone; it launched long after smartphone gaming established itself. Sure, there are 50 million 3DS handheld game consoles in the wild; there are well over half a billion iPhones out there.

As evidenced by the laundry list of editorials over the years, Nintendo is entering the smartphone game late. It's just not admitting as much.

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