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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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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