Nintendo And Mobile Is An Uneasy Alliance, But It’s Still Vital

Super Mario Run
Picture: Nintendo Life

Earlier this week Nintendo confirmed that Dragalia Lost will be shut down after some final story updates, to which the response of many may have been a shrug of the shoulders. The mobile exclusive was an interesting title, though, as it was the only new IP that Nintendo had invested solely into its mobile business, developed alongside CyGames. Though plenty of core gamers have an innate snobbery or antipathy towards mobile games, Dragalia was well-regarded by its fanbase.

Of course, it continues a slow but steady trend — Nintendo is making a lot less noise about mobile. Dr.Mario World bit the dust last year, and even those titles that are showing solid momentum and revenues typically tick along in the background. Nintendo still actively promotes updates to titles like Mario Kart Tour and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp on YouTube and on each game’s specialist social channels, but they reside largely in that separate space which is easy to ignore if you’re primarily a console gamer. It’s all a far cry from when Super Mario Run was given a big push back in late 2016.

Of course, that date is a clue. Nintendo kicked off its major development and focus on mobile when the company was in more difficult times, namely the 3DS and Wii U era. Though the 3DS gradually became a reasonable success, the Wii U was a flop by any mainstream gaming console metric, and Nintendo was under pressure to deliver profits by expanding into other areas. Then, as it is now, the mobile gaming space presented an opportunity for significant income.

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

Before we dive into this topic further, we do recommend giving a read to this excellent article on GamesIndustry.biz, which explores a perspective that Nintendo is shifting to an arm’s length approach to mobile. We’ll likely cover some similar points before digressing, but we certainly suggest checking it out.

As mentioned above, when Nintendo embarked upon 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 to keep the ship on an even keel, Nintendo will have been developing Switch while dealing with a lot of doubts. He was remarkably brave, ultimately. The company had thrived with a dual approach to hardware — portable and home console — for decades, yet knew the market and its business would no longer support it. If the hybrid Switch had flopped, though, there would have been no second system to help prop up the business.

Yet despite relative success, the marriage between Nintendo and mobile has always felt strained, with the two sides passive aggressively undermining each other. The goal from the beginning was to use the mobile business to drive knowledge and interest in the company’s IP and channel that expanded audience towards its consoles. Part of Nintendo’s identity in the gaming market is as a distributor of polished and often child-friendly games (there are exceptions, of course). It’s also a company that is not often associated with the more controversial practices in modern gaming around gacha-style gambling, excessive microtransactions and so on. The company has moved into and experimented with different forms of DLC, premium pricing etc, but in its console space has mostly avoided major controversies.

Certain standards are expected of Nintendo, and we have seen the reaction when those expectations haven’t been met in console games, but especially its mobile releases. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has faced criticism for its excessive in-app purchases and the questionable value it delivers, with the undertone that it’s not very Nintendo. Then with Super Mario Run we saw Nintendo try to go for a ‘premium’ pricing model, and though it generated some revenue it wasn’t a sustained hit. After all, for many of us we’d sooner just play a mainline Mario game on Switch than spend 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 strategy shift with mobile may see even more outsourcing, and perhaps not that often. Pokémon GO is an obvious example, though Nintendo’s profits from its incredible success were limited as more significant parts of the pie went to developer Niantic and The Pokémon Company. Yet the only recent mobile release from Nintendo has been Pikmin Bloom, a charming AR title once again from Niantic. Nintendo’s internal teams and core partners, meanwhile, have continued to focus and put together an impressive ongoing library for Switch.

We’ve also seen Nintendo get creative — or not, depending on your perspective — in using work done on mobile to bolster its Switch line-up. We’re talking, of course, about the Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass, which spruces up and adapts work primarily done for Mario Kart Tour. As we’ve suggested previously, this works well because many of us that devote hundreds of hours to MK8D on Switch may not play the mobile spin-off at all. So taking that content and using it as an easy-win makes sense, and of course it’s bundled with Nintendo Switch Online, giving that service a stronger sense of value.

To ignore mobile, and its potential monster revenues, would be reckless and – perhaps – a tad arrogant.

Overall, though, Nintendo doesn’t talk about mobile much at the moment. No wonder; 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 that inherent discomfort with the mobile market, with the ingredients for a mobile smash hit not necessarily blending with Nintendo’s public perception or IPs.

It’ll 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 work well, with partners producing a hit app that doesn’t infringe too much on Nintendo’s ‘core’ business. Yet to ignore mobile, and its potential monster revenues, would be reckless and perhaps a tad arrogant. Nintendo is raking in the cash right now, but it’s only one bad idea or disappointing launch away from its hardware business being in trouble; not at risk of collapse — Nintendo has plenty in the bank to weather a storm or two — but certainly at risk of spooking shareholders. If the Switch successor 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, the relative struggles of the 3DS and Wii U followed the utter dominance of DS and Wii; one hardware generation 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 over-priced PS3, and Microsoft took the goodwill and growing fanbase of the Xbox 360 and released the initially maligned Xbox One.

Products like the LEGO range help Nintendo grow its brand beyond core gaming
Products like the LEGO range help Nintendo grow its brand beyond core gaming (Picture: Nintendo Life)

Mobile, along with the LEGO licensing deals, movie projects, theme parks, merchandising and more, play a role in keeping Nintendo steady in the event of a rocky gaming hardware generation. To move away too far from that enormous potential market after just 5-6 years would perhaps come back to haunt the company, and while the company may be focusing elsewhere at the moment, we don’t see it moving away from mobile entirely, however well Nintendo consoles are selling.

Even if many of us on these pages aren’t particularly interested in mobile games from Nintendo — certainly not when compared to their console output — that doesn’t mean they’re not potentially important for the future. The company has learned a great deal about the mobile space since the Miitomo days, and even as individual titles like Dragalia are retired, we’ll be seeing the Nintendo logo appearing on mobile splash screens for a long time to come.

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