Faltering Nintendo will be just fine if it moves into tablets

Nintendo's losing money, and won't puts its games on iOS or Android because it doesn't trust anyone else's hardware - so why not start making tablets for gamers?

When the Wii U was first announced at E3 in 2011, one crucial detail was left out by Nintendo of America’s president, Reggie Fils-Aime - whether it was a new console or not. It was introduced as “a new gaming companion”, a logical next step to the Wii’s knock-out success at bringing casual gamers, families and friends together. The videos showed the new touchscreen controller from every angle, but not the new box that it was meant to connect to - the new box that looked almost identical to the old one.

Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata, admitted at the time that it wasn’t a perfect launch, even if he stopped short of calling it a “blunder”. The problem is, Nintendo’s still struggling against that misconception. Here’s Polygon on Nintendo’s latest “hey guys, did you know the Wii U is an entirely new console?” ad campaign:

"Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii," said Iwata during the company's financial results briefing earlier this year. "We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product."

Iwata said at the time that Nintendo will endeavour to help consumers understand the console and bulk up its software lineup to help the Wii U regain its sale momentum.

Nintendo issued a message to Wii owners in May outlining that its new hardware is not a Wii upgrade but an "all-new home console from Nintendo" that "will change the way you and your family experience games and entertainment."

This week, Nintendo announced that it had made its first annual loss for more than 30 years - that’s as long as it’s been in the computer console business - and that it had slashed its 2013 sales projections for the Wii U from 9m units to 2.8m. Its shares have taken a tumble by 6.2 percent, making it a 65 percent drop in value since 2009. We’re a long way from the heady “Nintendo: We print money!” headlines from five or six years ago, when the DS and Wii were dominant.

Not that Nintendo is likely to fold any time soon, or even consider itself no longer a console company, as happened to Sega in 2001 after the Dreamcast bombed. As Keza MacDonald at IGN points out, Nintendo effectively has $10bn in cash reserves from its last three decades of pretty much constant profitability, so it can suck up a few years of losses while it figures out where to go next. That’s the key issue.

The 3DS isn’t as successful as the DS was, and isn’t quite making its projections - which is understandable, as the mobile gaming market has been pretty comprehensively altered by smartphones and tablets - but it’s still a success. It’s just not as successful as it could be, and it’s certainly not compensating for the flat-lining Wii U.

The big third-party games aren’t on Wii U, it’s underpowered compared to the XBox One and the PS4, and its key gimmick - that controller - isn’t particularly impressive. As for the Wii’s innovative motion controls, well, Microsoft and Sony have pretty comprehensively copied them. Kinect’s a lot better at it too, arguably. Grandma and grandpa don’t really see why they need a new console, either, when the one they bought just a few years ago still works fine.

Nintendo’s been adept at pulling radical, industry-changing escapes from irrelevancy before. So, in that spirit, here’s a proposal - Nintendo needs to expand its product categories to include tablets and smartphones, running Android.

Not stock Android, of course - it would be rejigged (or “forked”, in developer lingo) to conform to Nintendo’s aesthetic and anti-piracy demands, no doubt. The success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire range, which uses a custom Android build, shows there are viable niches for devices that excel in one area - the Kindle positions itself as the tablet for readers, but imagine a Nintendo smartphone and/or tablet that offered access both to the massive range of normal Android apps and exclusive Nintendo games, both classic and new.

Nintendo could be the company that produces the definitive gaming tablet. Hell, it’s already halfway there with its eShop - it just needs to work on getting a larger range of licenses from older publishers for some classics, and it’ll be golden. There's also a good argument (as made by Wired's Chris Kohler) that Nintendo's charing too much for older games, considering how much they may have dated. 

There’s no doubt that the industry trend is for device convergence. People are less and less tolerant of having to carry around more than one device for gaming. The key for Nintendo is to offer a device that could conceivably be that single device, while also offering the things Nintendo needs to make its games work - like, say, physical buttons. Have you tried playing some of the old Sonic ports on normal tablets? They’re horrid and sluggish to play with a virtual, on-screen touchpad.

It’s a boring cliche for writers to call for Nintendo to make games for Android or iOS - or even to port older GameBoy games, like the first Pokemon games, over - but the company has always resisted because its entire design aesthetic has been that it can’t guarantee software quality without also being in control of the hardware.

It’s not dissimilar to Apple’s approach, frankly, and since it’s served them pretty well so far, it’s not something that would conceivably be sacrificed so easily. Staying out of the general marketplace by sticking to their own device would also prevent an absolutely critical mistake on Nintendo’s part, which is to sacrifice game quality in favour of the quick, small, freemium model that is favoured on smartphones. Nobody wants to see a Nintendo reduced to that.

Go the other way, instead, and create a device that offers access to the library the rest of the world wants, plus quality on top. Have the NinTablet or NintenPhone link up to the Wii U’s successor too, if Shigeru Miyamoto insists upon the dual-screen thing - but accept that the era of single-purpose devices for the living room is over, too, and take that into account when working on the Wii U 2. History has shown that as long as Nintendo’s mobile health has been assured, the company thrives.

Playing a Wii U at E3 in 2012. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge