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Nintendo making mobile games was inevitable, and it's good news for everyone

Andrew Hayward | March 23, 2015
For players of all stripes, the name Nintendo is synonymous with gaming. But for die-hard enthusiasts--at least, the ones not blinded by nostalgia--it's a name also associated with stubbornness, and a slowness to adapt to market changes and emerging trends.

Nintendo's prerogative in the console and handheld space over the last decade has been moonshots: taking a big risk on a new style of play and hoping it pans out. It did so spectacularly with the Wii and DS, and somewhat less so with the 3DS. But it's been a bust with the Wii U. Nintendo has weathered underperforming consoles in the past, and it likely has plenty of capital ready to keep pushing on past the Wii U's weak performance.

Perhaps Nintendo doesn't need mobile income to continue producing innovative consoles and games. But there's little reason to resist what's proven to be an incredible revenue stream for games that often have a fraction of the heart, creativity, and precision gameplay design seen in Nintendo's best. And with the company also teasing a new console codenamed "NX" to be revealed next year, that mobile cushion will help it better protect itself against another hardware misstep.

No doubt, Nintendo had to fight against its own propensity for resisting change, and I imagine the Wii U's underwhelming impact helped nudge its leaders along. But Nintendo has recently shown more of a willingness to embrace and follow trends, rather than always be the trendsetter. For example, the recent Amiibo line of NFC chip-equipped figurines has been a big moneymaker and a hit with fans, despite closely following the Skylanders mold. And its turn into downloadable content with Mario Kart 8 was very well received. 

Smart moves

By comparison, the news of Nintendo's mobile maneuver wasn't as widely accepted. Shareholders rejoiced at the news, sending Nintendo's stock soaring, but many fans grumbled at the announcement. Super Mario Bros. with an energy system and level gates, or a Pokémon game in which you pay for more powerful monsters? It's all too much to stomach for some die-hards. 

Some of that may well come to pass, but Nintendo played its revelation carefully. The company said that existing games won't simply be ported to phones or tablets, which means no classic platform games with unresponsive controls, and hopefully no beloved adventures damaged by freemium shenanigans. And secondly, Nintendo clarified that it will handle development of most of its mobile games. Fingers crossed that this means no lazy retreads with familiar licenses slapped onto them. 

Part of what frightens some fans about the move is the partnership with DeNA, and the criticism is understandable. DeNA is a master of the free-to-play model, and a quick glance at its App Store listings (split between the DeNA and Mobage brands) reveals a slew of similar-looking games. Lots of drab, menu-driven collectible card games. Several unremarkable licensed affairs. And notably, everything has a freemium design that puts nonpaying players at a disadvantage, whether it's via a restrictive energy system or charging for premium cards and other elements.

 

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