Pokémon GO

John Gruber:

I’ve been advocating for Nintendo to fully commit to making games for mobile since 2013 (parts one and two). I just re-read both pieces and they both hold up really well. I hate to say it (OK, I love to say it), but it looks like I was right.

That kind of remains to be seen.

Pokémon GO isn't really a Nintendo game.1 It's not even made by Game Freak, the people who usually do Pokémon games.2 It's made by Niantic, and it's closely based on their previous game, Ingress.

In fact, it's possible that Apple makes more money on Pokémon GO than Nintendo does.3

The real Nintendo mobile games - Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing - should come out later this year.

But there are three other points to be made here.

Nintendo is profitable without mobile games

Much of the argument for Nintendo to create mobile games was based on the idea that Nintendo could not survive just selling its own consoles. I think it's fair to say that the last few years have shown this to be false. Even with the Wii U being an abysmal failure, Nintendo is consistently profitable.4

Mobile might not be a clear win for Nintendo

Pokémon GO is doing very well right now, apparently making $1.6 million a day. But this shows the problem with the App Store: Pokémon GO is a lottery win. It's the game everybody5 is playing right now.

There's a good chance that Animal Crossing will do similarly well. But will other Nintendo franchises? Will Fire Emblem?

And I think it's worth comparing Pokémon GO's success to Nintendo's current console games. As of right now, the Wii U game Splatoon has sold 4.5 million copies. Nintendo usually doesn't discount games much, so it's still listed at 50$ on Amazon. Let's say the average selling price of a copy was 50$. That's 225 million in sales, a large part of which is pure profit for Nintendo - if it's sold in Nintendo's own online store, it's 100% profit.

For Pokémon GO to achieve the same kinds of numbers, it will have to continue doing this well for quite a while, particularly given that Nintendo will see very little of the money Pokémon GO is currently raking in.

That's not to say that Pokémon GO can't achieve those numbers - but how many of Nintendo's other games will be lottery wins the size of Pokémon GO? Granted, not every Nintendo game is as successful as Splatoon, either, but the fact that Nintendo made this much money on a game released for a console that is universally (and rightly) seen as a complete failure is telling.

Nintendo on mobile is not a clear win for us

One final point: it feels a little bit disheartening to see the adulation Nintendo is currently getting for moving towards the same kind of manipulative, free-to-play, IAP-monetized games we get from tons of other rather questionable mobile gaming companies. It really took a very short amount of time for us to accept these games as the new normal.

Sure, Pokémon GO is not the worst offender.6 But if we eventually end up with a Nintendo that's producing the same kinds of games that everybody else is doing on mobile platforms, what have we really gained? Is there a reason to celebrate Nintendo games on iOS at all?7

If Pokémon GO is the Nintendo of the future, why do we need Nintendo at all?

When people originally started talking about Nintendo games on iOS, it was because many were hoping that Nintendo would change the economics of mobile game development for the better. Surely, if only Nintendo released a Mario game for the iPhone, people would see that it was possible to make money on iOS with real games that didn't rely on gambling mechanics to get whales to spend disproportionate amounts of money?8

It's still possible that Nintendo will do exactly that when they release games like Fire Emblem.

But Pokémon GO is not that game.

  1. Aaaand... a week later, looks like investors have now caught on↩︎

  2. Game Freak, Nintendo, and Creatures jointly own The Pokémon Company, who actually owns the Pokémon IP. ↩︎

  3. Most cross-platform mobile games make the majority of their sales on iOS. Apple makes 30%. Nintendo owns 33% of The Pokémon Company. Do the math.
    This probably explains why Apple bloggers are so happy about mobile games from Nintendo: they benefit Apple way more than they do Nintendo. ↩︎

  4. They did post a net loss for the current quarter after I published this post (possibly due to a lack of relevant game releases this quarter, since most game development seems to be focused on the planned NX console), but at the same time, Nintendo forecast yearly operating profit to climb 37 percent compared to last year. ↩︎

  5. Yeah, even though it's not officially released over here yet, people are playing it. ↩︎

  6. "Congratulations! You're not the worst!" ↩︎

  7. Well, I guess there is if you own Apple stock. ↩︎

  8. By the way, I'm not saying that non-manipulative games that make money on mobile don't exist, just that, looking at the top selling apps, they're the rare exception. ↩︎

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