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Nintendo and Mobile are an uneasy alliance, but it’s still vital

Nintendo and Mobile are an uneasy alliance, but it's still vital

Image: Nintendo Life

Earlier this week, Nintendo confirmed that Lost Dragalia will to be closed after a few last story updates, to which the response of many may have been a shrug. The mobile exclusive was an interesting title, however, as it was the only new IP that Nintendo had invested solely in its mobile business, developed alongside CyGames. Although many core gamers had an innate snobbery or antipathy towards mobile games, Dragalia was well regarded by its fan base.

Of course, this continues a slow but steady trend – Nintendo is making a lot less noise on mobile. Dr. Mario World bit the dust last year, and even stocks that show strong momentum and earnings usually spin in the background. Nintendo continues to actively promote updates to titles like Mario Kart Tour and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on YouTube and on each game’s specialist social networks, but they largely reside in that separate space that’s easy to ignore if you’re primarily a console gamer. It’s far from when Super Mario Run was strongly postponed at the end of 2016.

Of course, this date is a clue. Nintendo launched its major development and focus on mobile as the company went through more difficult times, namely the 3DS and Wii U era. Although the 3DS gradually became a reasonable success, the Wii U was a flop for all consumer game console metrics, and Nintendo was under pressure to generate profits by expanding into other areas. Then, as now, the mobile gaming space presented a significant revenue opportunity.

The marriage between Nintendo and mobile has always felt strained, with the two passive parties aggressively undermining each other

Before delving into this topic, we recommend that you read this excellent article on GamesIndustry.biz, which explores a perspective that Nintendo is transitioning to a mobile-agnostic approach. We’ll probably cover some similar points before digressing, but we definitely suggest checking it out.

As mentioned above, when Nintendo embarked on a quest to expand into mobile – at the time in partnership with DeNA – it was partly a reaction to troubled times. While the eventual revival of the 3DS helped keep the ship in balance, Nintendo will have developed Switch while facing plenty of doubts. It was remarkably brave, in the end. The company had thrived on a dual approach to hardware – handheld and home console – for decades, but knew the market and its business would no longer support it. If the hybrid switch had failed, however, there would have been no second system to help sustain the business.

Yet despite relative success, the marriage between Nintendo and mobile has always felt strained, with the two passive parties aggressively undermining each other. From the start, the goal was to use the mobile business to generate knowledge and interest in the company’s IP and channel, which broadened the audience to its consoles. Part of Nintendo’s identity in the gaming market is as a distributor of polished and often kid-friendly games (there are exceptions, of course). It’s also a company not often associated with modern gaming’s most controversial practices around gacha-style gambling, excessive microtransactions, and the like. The company moved in and experimented with different forms of DLC, premium pricing and the like, but in its console space it mostly avoided major controversies.

Certain standards are expected of Nintendo, and we’ve seen the reaction when those expectations have not been met in console games, but especially in its mobile versions. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has been criticized for its excessive in-app purchases and the questionable value it offers, with the nuance it is not very Nintendo. Then, with Super Mario Run, we saw Nintendo try to go with a “premium” pricing model, and while it did generate revenue, it wasn’t a lasting success. After all, for many of us, we’d rather just play a core Mario game on Switch than spend the money on a touchscreen alternative.

Pikmin Bloom, developed by Niantic, is a rather charming AR experience
Pikmin Bloom, developed by Niantic, is a rather charming AR experience (Picture: Nintendo / Niantic)

In the GamesIndustry.biz article, a reasonable point is made that Nintendo’s very clear shift in strategy with mobile could see even more outsourcing, and perhaps not so often. Pokemon GO is an obvious example, though Nintendo’s profits on its incredible success were limited as larger slices of the pie went to developer Niantic and The Pokémon Company. Yet Nintendo’s only recent mobile release has been Pikmin Flower, a lovely AR title once again from Niantic. Nintendo’s internal teams and key partners, meanwhile, have continued to focus and build an impressive ongoing library for Switch.

We’ve also seen Nintendo get creative – or not, depending on your perspective – in using the work done on mobile to bolster its Switch lineup. We are of course talking about the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass, which embellishes and adapts the work primarily done for Mario Kart Tour. As we suggested earlier, this works well because many of us who put hundreds of hours into MK8D on Switch may not be playing the mobile spin-off. at all. So it makes sense to take this content and use it as an easy win, and of course it comes bundled with Nintendo Switch Online, giving this service a stronger sense of value.

Ignoring mobile and its potential monstrous revenue would be reckless and – perhaps – a bit arrogant.

Overall, however, Nintendo isn’t talking much about mobile right now. Not surprising; the Switch is flying high, and the company has also been busy with its theme park expansions and the upcoming Mario movie. There’s also this inherent discomfort in the mobile market, with the ingredients of a mobile hit not necessarily melding with public perception or Nintendo’s IP addresses.

It will be interesting to see what happens with Nintendo and the mobile space in the next 2-3 years, then; perhaps the “arm’s length” strategy will be used and will work well, with partners producing a successful app that doesn’t encroach too much on Nintendo’s “core” business. Yet ignoring mobile and its monstrous revenue potential would be unwise and may be a bit arrogant. Nintendo is making money right now, but it’s just a bad idea or a disappointing launch away from its struggling hardware business; not at risk of collapsing – Nintendo has plenty in the bank to weather a storm or two – but certainly at risk of scaring off shareholders. If the successor to Switch were to fail, for example, Nintendo would potentially have a period of significant difficulty adjusting its business and presumably rushing to another new system.

Let’s not forget that the relative struggles of the 3DS and Wii U followed the total dominance of the DS and Wii; a generation of hardware can make a big difference in fortunes. It’s not just Nintendo either – Sony went from stratospheric heights with PS2 to early struggles with the initially overpriced PS3, and Microsoft took the Xbox 360’s goodwill and growing fan base and released the Xbox One initially decried.

Products like the LEGO line help Nintendo grow its brand beyond the base game
Products like the LEGO line help Nintendo grow its brand beyond the base game (Picture: Nintendo Life)

Mobile, along with LEGO licensing deals, film projects, theme parks, merchandising and more, play a role in Nintendo’s stability when it comes to generating tough gaming hardware. To stray too far from this huge potential market after just 5-6 years could possibly come back to haunt the company, and while the company may be focusing elsewhere for now, we don’t see it moving away from mobile altogether, however well Nintendo consoles are selling.

Even though many of us on these pages aren’t particularly interested in Nintendo’s mobile games – certainly not in relation to their console release – that doesn’t mean they aren’t. potentially important for the future. The company has learned a lot about the mobile space since the Miitomo days, and even if individual titles like Dragalia are retired, we’ll see the Nintendo logo popping up on mobile splash screens for a long time to come.