Should Nintendo Develop for iOS Devices?

Will the Portly Plumber Ever Jump to Another Castle?

Nintendo has featured prominently in the press of late and not for all the right reasons. The 3DS is stuck in a rut, having sold well below expectation, despite a successful launch and a record-breaking number of pre-orders. In addition to this, the Wii software line-up for the next year or so is looking pretty barren – not the most ideal situation for the company when its next home system, the Wii U, isn’t releasing until at least April 2012.

As a result, stocks have been driven to a six-year low, and Nintendo netted a whopping $325 million (£201 million) loss for its first quarter. While this may not be the end of the world when you take into account that Nintendo has around $13.5 billion (£8.4 billion) in the coffers (thanks to the golden years of the Wii and DS), investors are getting increasingly frustrated with the Big N’s approach.

Nintendo looked a lot different a few years back. It was the company that, for better or worse, revolutionised the videogame industry. With its Wii console, it took a considerable gamble, opting for cheap, low-end components and a focus on motion-controlled gaming in favour of HD graphics and online entertainment services. It bucked the trend and not only did it succeed, it blew the competition out of the water. Families around the world went mad for Wii Sports, and everyone from typical gamers to elderly women were getting stuck into titles such as Wii Fit and New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Combined with the success of its DS system, which changed portable gaming for the better with its touchscreen input, Nintendo looked to be at the forefront of innovation.

Is quality really that hard to come by on the App Store?

But where Nintendo was once likened to intuitive technology companies like Apple and Google, it is now finding itself faced with a great deal of criticism from investors. The Japanese giant’s fortunes have changed dramatically, but this isn’t down to bad luck or any event outside of its control. The issue here is Nintendo’s strategy, which over the past year has become increasingly out of touch. Adamant to develop solely for its own portable devices, investors believe that Nintendo is missing out by not capitalising on the surge of newer handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers. Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello recently speculated that “the handheld market as a whole may soon disappear as the smartphone and tablet market grows”.

This article hasn’t been written with the goal of determining the impact of the smartphone and tablet market on dedicated handheld gaming systems. I have no idea if and how this particular market will grow and wipe out handhelds, but there is no denying how massive the iOS digital market has become. With over 425,000 apps available on Apple’s App Store service alone, the digital market can no longer be dismissed as being unimportant compared to physical sales. In fact, just the other week, Apple briefly overtook Exxom as the world’s most valuable company. If it continues to grow at the rate that it does, Apple will have the economic might to mix up a market or two. What’s to say that it won’t one day turn its attention to the videogame industry?

With this and Nintendo’s current financial woes in mind, should CEO Satoru Iwata give in and let the company develop for iPhones and iPads? Surely making a few million off of Super Mario Bros. iPhone Edition can’t hurt? And Nintendogs would be perfectly suited for such devices, would it not?

Nintendo and Apple Sitting in a Tree…

If Nintendo were to spread its wings, its success on iOS devices would be dependent on a few key things. For the sake of simplifying an already complex notion, let’s say that Nintendo got its pricing right (£0.59/$0.99 for a title, not the ridiculous £5.40 it charges for Game Boy titles on the 3DS eShop) and had its entire list of IPs at its disposal. What would happen?

Nintendo would probably want to leave its first-party teams (and even subsidiary teams, such as Retro Studios) to focus on development for Wii U and 3DS. So what’s the company to do? It leases the franchises out to other developers, companies such as Gameloft that have experience in delivering premium iOS content.

Could Gameloft deliver a quality Nintendo experience on iPhone?

In essence, Nintendo wouldn’t be at much risk here – its own costs would be fairly minimal, not to mention that it would make its money through royalties – a nice and easy money maker. Given that technologically speaking the 3DS is not identical to the iPhone or iPad, the games for iOS wouldn’t have too much in common with their 3D cousins (especially if they’re being made by different developers). Nintendo could actually use its iOS titles to promote other games and products that offer a more immersive experience than smartphones and tablets typically do. In other words, iOS Nintendo titles are merely a taste of what the company really has to offer. However, Nintendo would have to use clever advertising in its iOS games, and perhaps rely more on episodic content, so as to create a clear distinction between the two.

One problem emerges here that Satoru Iwata brought up at a recent investors’ meeting in Tokyo. It may come as a surprise to many people but Nintendo is actually quite interested in using smartphones and social networks to their advantage. While it may not currently like the idea of bringing games to them, it realises the potential of a connection between the two, be it sharing a new high score on Facebook or sending cross-device game invites.

This may sound promising, but it isn’t quite the same as playing Zelda on our phones. Nintendo’s main concern, however, is that allowing other developers to use their intellectual assets could result in quality issues beyond their control. No one wants to be reminded of the horrors of the Zelda and Mario games for the Phillips CDi. The solution here is quite simple though: only choose trusted developers and implement quality control checks throughout the development process. Heck, it only has a few billion in the bank, why doesn’t it just send out some key people to assist studios directly? There’s the whole issue of logistics that has been neatly excluded here, but if Nintendo has the cash, it can and should be using it as resourcefully as it can.

There Is Another Way

If Nintendo is worried about ruining its reputation for quality (which in itself is disputed by many gamers out there), then it could handle all the development itself. After all, it is no stranger to portable gaming – it did popularise the use of touchscreens in gaming with the original DS system. The company would, as stated above, have to focus on creating smaller, low-cost titles that possess a distinctive mobile gaming feel to them or else it stands to make something like the 3DS obsolete.

One of the key advantages of developing for iOS is that it would act as the ideal platform for Nintendo to test out new IPs. Nintendo fans (many of whom more than likely own some sort of iOS device and even pay ridiculous amounts of money for retro titles on the Virtual Console service) would probably be playing these games, as well as casual consumers, thus allowing the company to determine the popularity of a new franchise without throwing the millions of dollars at it that core software usually requires.

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a game that could be ported across quite easily.

Moreover, Nintendo is a pioneer when it comes to getting the most out of technology, even if it has been a bit stagnant lately. It will no doubt claim that this is because it understands its own technology better than anyone else but with its expertise it could also master iOS. Also, let’s not forget that Nintendo has a variety of previous games it could re-release or update for iOS devices. For example, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is a perfect match.

But even internal development could cause problems for the company. Nintendo’s own systems have had a poor historical relationship with third-party software since the days of the Nintendo 64, and one of the key reasons (if not the main reason) that the 3DS and Wii are flagging lately is because there are just no new, decent games available for either system. The Big N would have to pump a lot of money and focus into expanding its development teams, which ironically, is something it should have been a lot more proactive about during the hot streak of the Wii and DS. Then there’s the army of hardcore Nintendo fans that could essentially become disillusioned with the company if it turns its attention away too much from them. Unless it could pump out quality titles at a consistent and regular rate, this would probably be a difficult endeavour for Nintendo to follow through with.

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

If one key thing has been identified in this discourse, it’s that if Nintendo were to ever develop for iOS, be it internally or externally, it would have to make considerable changes to how it conducts its business. Many investors want to see this anyway, but doing so could cause the Nintendo we’ve come to love (or hate) to undergo quite a bit of change. That doesn’t mean that Nintendo would have to disown or change its core business; there’s definitely room for the Big N to adopt two different strategies that, despite what it thinks, can work in harmony.

Nintendo’s stubbornness prevents it embracing other systems, not because it fears ruining its reputation and brand quality, but because it doesn’t want others to benefit from its products. Do you know why your Wii doesn’t play DVDs? It’s because Nintendo doesn’t want to pay royalties for including it. If Nintendo makes games for iOS, it may well experience a boom in profits, but Apple gets a slice of the pie as well, and can anybody really see Iwata and Co. being happy with that?

If Nintendo never embraces iOS gaming (and it more than likely won’t), then the one thing it absolutely must do is keep its options open. We all remember when Nintendo banked far too much on its reputation and brand image because its President couldn’t keep up with the times; choosing cartridges over CD-based storage media for the Nintendo 64, predominantly because of piracy fears (and the loss of money that comes with it), not only limited the system’s software library and ticked off third-party developers, but it also handed Sony the number 1 position in the market for the next 10 years or so.

Overpriced? Compared to the App Store, Nintendo's eShop is very expensive.

Therefore, with regards to the dilemma of smartphones and tablets encroaching on the handheld market, Nintendo will have to react. This means that it can’t keep charging the absurd price of £5.40 for a digital copy of Xevious 3D or Link’s Awakening DX. Nintendo’s back catalogue is its strength – if it were to charge the now-standard price of £0.59/$0.99 for its retro titles, it would make a killing. There’s little extra development cost (it’s simply a case of ironing out the bugs and getting it uploaded to the service) and, therefore, these titles are guaranteed to make a profit, whereas new iOS titles from indie developers have all the start-up costs that comes with them.

So, in short, it’s hard to say what Nintendo should do. The pros and cons on either side of the argument are all valid. Of all the companies in the videogame industry, Nintendo, much like a chameleon, is the master of adaption. It changed when it needed to back in 2005 and went on to nearly dominate the world, and it will hopefully make the right choice again should it need to. Of course, the 3DS price cut isn’t in effect just yet, and we’re still a way off from the holiday season. By early 2012, the notion of Nintendo developing for iOS could sound absolutely ridiculous, if it plays its cards right with the 3DS. Either way, doomsayers better watch out; you bet against Nintendo at your peril.

Share Your Thoughts: In your opinion, should Nintendo develop for iOS? Do you think the 3DS will regain momentum and send Nintendo back to the top? Add your views in the comments section below.

3 Responses to “Should Nintendo Develop for iOS Devices?”
  1. Weiss says:

    Good work martin, regards Weiss

  2. Tom Rippon says:

    I don’t think Nintendo will ever forge an alliance with Apple or any other company, simply for the sake of making their lives easier. Whilst a partnership between the two would probably benefit the consumer, it wouldn’t really be of much interest to either company, and the consumer could live without it.

    Nintendo will continue to build up their Virtual Store (something I know nothing about, but assume it’s similar to the standard Xbox Marketplace or PSN Store) and hopefully find their way back into our good books by doing something unexpected and dangerous. People love that kind of stuff. The question is, will the Wii U be too gimicky to survive? I don’t think so – we thought that about the Wii, and it did very well. I guess the Big N just need to learn from their 3DS mistakes.

  3. Mitchell says:

    With the Wii U they need to show a HD version of Call of Duty being played on the tablet controller and also utilising the gyroscope etc and show that you can play on the tv and also on the tablet and aim with moving the controller round or with a gun prephial that works with the wii remote and the tablet centred in the middle and you can walk around and show more interactivy than people well flock to it. Also release HD versions of Pandoras Tower, Xenoblade, and The Last Story also HD version later on of Super Mario Galaxy, and Monster Hunter Tri or a new version, Red Steel 1 and 2, and other good Wii games and bring out new IPs and as well as better games etc

    Also with the 3DS focus on good 3d games where you can run around etc and dont limit game play or ize of levels etc on it

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