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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?

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

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.

Tags:Gaming