In May of this year, Nintendo announced that they were moving to mobile, and iconic franchises like Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda would soon appear on smartphones and tablets. Looking at Nintendo’s explosive history, this transition is not only unsurprising, but also a natural progression for the company. Nintendo has made both games and gaming hardware since the 1970’s, and only a short five years ago did the late President Satoru Iwata declare that making systems dedicated to games was the company’s way of ‘creating engaging experiences that couldn’t be available on other devices, and represented its ‘lifeline’. At first glance this move may seem a radical departure from that statement, but technologies have matured and quality of mobile devices has caught up enough to execute this move properly. Nintendo isn’t just an early example of what games on mobile could aspire to be in terms of style, but their evolution in the gaming space is very reminiscent of the mobile gaming maturation happening today.
The Nintendo Entertainment System, the company’s first globally available console, came at a time when video games were well established but also undergoing a crisis. The gaming industry was close to collapse resulting from a glut of unimaginative releases that bored consumers and left retailers lumbered with unsold stock. Nintendo understood that recapturing the public imagination required real characters and stories in games. To achieve this goal would require big creative teams, and to support these teams would call for high volume of game and console sales. A situation that is close to home for mobile developers today.
The games that made the NES a smash hit offered a master class in the simple, addicting gameplay that will soon find a new home on smartphones and tablets. Super Mario Bros. taught us the importance of characters within the context of a video game. At the time of its release, catchy mechanics alone had been relied upon to maintain interest, but Mario combined these with characters whom players felt they could connect with and be excited about. It effectively turned games from ‘fun’ to ‘fantasy’.
For mobile games developers now, the creation of intriguing and memorable characters has become essential both to engaging new players, and sustaining their interest as games mature. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda taught gamers and future developers what it could mean to be ‘immersed’ in a video game – and how a modest array of colored dots could be made to feel like an almost limitless world. This concept of immersion in gaming is a staple of today’s gaming culture.
Then in 1989, Nintendo released the first ‘mobile device’ ever – the Game Boy. In a similar fashion to the early success of mobile, Game Boy was a device the whole family enjoyed. Just like mobile devices found break out success with the casual games market, such as Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds, the Game Boy expanded appeal through one of the most successful games of all time – Tetris. This seminal title in the ‘tile-matching’ genre may have been reinterpreted ad nauseam by today’s mobile game developers, but the success of its adoption by Nintendo showed that there could be much merit in the creation of new contexts for established ideas.
By the time the Nintendo Wii appeared in 2006, modern-day mobile games were available for the consumer, though few had notice them. The release of this console also marked one of the most important deviations in recent gaming. Nintendo chose to highlight innovative motion control, a cheaper price tag and almost exclusively first-party titles in favor of keeping up with graphics wars that both Sony and Microsoft continued to focus on. This move worked well initially because it attracted the casual gamer, allowing Nintendo to sell a total 101.56 million units worldwide, beating out both the PS3 and XBOX 360. However, Nintendo learned the hard way that fans of casual gamers alone don’t necessarily make a great long-term customer for console investment, as illustrated by the poor Wii U sales figures thus far into its lifespan. This is where their decision to make mobile games an industrious move, because those casual fans will take to the games that made the Wii so popular, without the investment of $300 for the system, $50-60 for each game and – perhaps most importantly – the need to sit in one place. In many ways Nintendo found the proper audience for mobile games before it ever existed, but originally tried to fit it into the dedicated console.
It’s no secret that Nintendo has fallen under hard times recently but it doesn’t change the fact that Nintendo will help mobile grow and become a better platform in the future. That is, when they are ready to take the risks associated to spearhead the movement. The recent announcement of their debut mobile experience coming in the form of a communications app, Miitomo, leads certain analysts to believe Nintendo is wary about undercutting their console business by not selecting their well known IPs, like Mario and Zelda, to launch with.
Regardless of the potential hesitancy, Nintendo arguably created the perfect mobile experience before mobile gaming even existed, and you can bet they will continue to innovate the platform and set the bar for what a quality and engaging mobile game will look like.
Valentin Abalmasov is the Technical Director at Plarium, one of the world’s fastest growing developers of mobile, social and web-based games with over 150 million registered users. He leads game design, product management, monetization strategy and also architecture of high-scalable server solution on select mobile titles for the company. Valentin has a Masters in Cybernetics at Taurida National University.