Nintendo's Mobile Games

Nintendo is collaborating with/licensing its IP to DeNA, a mobile game developer. Some people are reading this as «Nintendo games on iPhones», but I think that’s making some tenuous assumptions. These are Nintendo games in the same way that this is the Apple watch:

Apple-branded quartz watch1

There’s a huge difference between «a watch with an Apple logo», and «the Apple watch».

All of DeNA’s currently available games are free to play. This isn’t entirely new territory for Nintendo, who has been flirting with free to play gaming for a while now. So far, they’ve released a bunch of free-to-play games on the 3DS, including the terrible Pokémon Shuffle2 — which, like these new games, was developed by a third party developer.

Pokémon Shuffle is not the first time Nintendo has licensed its IP to other developers, either. If you don’t remember the Zelda and Mario games for the Philips CDi, please try to keep it that way, because they were horrid.3

That’s not to say that Nintendo’s IP licensing always fails; Capcom made some truly fantastic Zelda games, and Sega’s F-Zero4 was one of the best games on the Gamecube.

Still, if you were one of the people asking for Nintendo to bring their games to iOS back in 2013, this is very likely not what you had in mind. John Gruber writes:

Not sure what to make of this yet, but it sounds like they’re doing what I suggested back in 2013.

Maybe I misread the essays back then, but my impression was that people were hoping that Nintendo would go the Square-Enix route, and release higher-priced premium games on iOS, not that they would license their IP to a third-party and allow them to make Mario-themed free-to-play Skinner boxes.5

In fact, Nintendo explicitly acknowledges that they won’t bring what most people think of as «Nintendo games» to mobile platforms:

We have no intention at all to port existing game titles for dedicated game platforms to smart devices because if we cannot provide our consumers with the best possible play experiences, it would just ruin the value of Nintendo’s IP.

It’s not clear to me what exactly Nintendo’s strategy is. They do point out that their console games sell well:

Last year, an unprecedented thing in the history of the Japanese video game market happened: Five titles for Nintendo 3DS sold more than two million copies each in the latter six-month period of 2014. As this record-breaking incident attests, video game software sales have been progressing smoothly on dedicated video game hardware even after smart devices have become widespread in this country.

Of course, the challenge of asking our consumers to purchase dedicated video game hardware has become harder now that smart devices have widely spread. However, we recognize that our business model of producing both video game hardware and software is effective even today, and we do not share this pessimistic view of the future for dedicated video game systems.

And Iwata acknowledges that Nintendo’s IP is its biggest asset:

When we further analyze the situation, Nintendo’s strength lies in, or our consumers see the most value in and are willing to pay money for, Nintendo IP, such as our software and characters, and we have been creating and nurturing them together with the history of home video game entertainment.

I don’t see how licensing Mario for usage in free-to-play games will «nurture» that character. Iwata suggests that the idea is to use these mobile games as «advertisements» for the real games:

Nintendo has made this decision because we have concluded that the approach of making use of smart devices is a rational way for us to encourage even more people around the world to recognize the great value of the wonderful game software available on our dedicated game systems.


We aim to construct a bridge between smart devices and dedicated video game hardware that connects consumers to our dedicated video game systems.

For the consumers who are connected with Nintendo through smart devices and interested in Nintendo’s IP, we would like to provide even more premium gameplay experiences on Nintendo’s dedicated game platforms. By taking this approach, we firmly believe that doing business on smart devices will not shrink our dedicated video game system business and will instead create new demand as this broader reach will enable us to provide consumers around the world with more opportunities to experience the appeal of Nintendo IP, and instead of trying to seize the other’s demand, dedicated video game systems and smart devices will benefit from the synergies created between them.

But I’m not sure that free-to-play games can work as ads for console games. You know, the ones where the developer’s incentive is to create a good game and get people to buy it, not the ones where the developer’s incentive is to trick people into constantly coming back to something that’s actually not very enjoyable. I’m buying Nintendo consoles exactly because I want to avoid these kinds of games.

I have no doubt that Nintendo will make a lot of money from this, at least in the short run. I’m just not convinced that this isn’t going to do more damage than good in the long run. Nintendo’s place in the market should be as an alternative to the terrible free to play games, not as yet another purveyor of them. That’s their value; if you buy a Nintendo game, you know it’s going to be good.

DeNA has published some good6 games, so there’s at least a chance that these will not be too terrible, particularly if Nintendo is involved in the development process. Still, this could easily end up being a case of «be careful what you wish for».

In the end, though, I’m pretty sure the next real Zelda game is still going to come out on Wii U, and not on the iPhone.


Nintendo is now saying that at least some games might not be free to play:

Considering the issue further, Iwata said he doesn’t want to «choose payment methods that may hurt Nintendo’s brand image or our IP,» and that it is important to have a business model «parents feel comfortable letting their children play with. Also, it’s even more important for us to consider how we can get as many people around the world as possible to play Nintendo smart device apps, rather than to consider which payment system will earn the most money.»

Also relevant:

Elsewhere in the interview, Iwata clarified that the actual development of games as part of the mobile partnership will «be mainly done by Nintendo,» though legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto will place priority on continued development of Wii U titles. Iwata also reiterated that Nintendo wouldn’t just port existing console games to the mobile marketplace wholesale, owing to differences in the platforms. «My understanding is that, on smart devices, the main demand is for very accessible games which smart device users can easily start and easily finish,» he said. «These are not necessarily the characteristics that people demand from games for dedicated video game systems.»

Sounds promising. I guess we’ll see.

  1. Image source↩︎

  2. The Verge: «Nintendo has started making bad free-to-play games like everybody else - Pokemon Shuffle brings the worst of mobile gaming to your 3DS.» ↩︎

  3. Remember when Sega still made good games? Getting out of the hardware business sure did wonders for them. ↩︎

  4. Hence my argument that Nintendo could make more money selling 60$ games with an attach rate of 50% on the Wii U, than premium-priced games on the iPhone. ↩︎

  5. Good for a free to play game, that is. ↩︎

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