How the hit mobile game could re-energize the gaming giant
It’s typical really. Everyone expected Nintendo to change so that it could fit into the smartphone gaming industry. Instead, the smartphone gaming industry was changed so that it could fit in with Nintendo.
Of course, there are plenty of analysts questioning how much Nintendo has had to do with all this. Pokémon Go was developed by augmented reality specialist Niantic, and it is not part of Nintendo’s big smartphone game deal with Chinese firm DeNA, which led to the release of its Miitomo social app. However, since last October, Nintendo has become part of a $30 million investment in Niantic, and has always had a stake in the Pokémon Company, which manages every aspect of the Pokémon brand. Nintendo refers to the development of Pokémon Go as a “partnership” with Niantic, so is likely to have had creative input too (although it's arguable that perhaps if Nintendo had been more involved at this level, Pokémon Go would function better as a game and the servers wouldn’t keep crashing).
While the exact nature of Nintendo’s involvement remains ambiguous, the big question is: what does Pokémon Go mean for the veteran video game manufacturer? In the short term, of course, it offers a juicy revenue stream after a period of long decline thanks to the lackluster performance of the Wii U. It’s also boosting interest in the Pokémon brand just before the slated release of Pokémon Sun and Moon, the latest iterations in the handheld console series.
More subtly however, it is a confirmation of Nintendo’s slow but steady progress toward highly connected, highly spontaneous social gaming experiences. From the local multiplayer fun of Mario Kart and Smash Bros., through the ad-hoc asynchronous connectivity of StreetPass (Nintendo DS owners could detect other players locally), to the simple relationship trivia of Miitomo, the company has been researching and perfecting this stuff for years. "We believe in always innovating, always doing things that are new,” Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime explained to Glixel at this year's E3. “But we also believe in being mainstream, so we look for that moment when a particular technology is at a point where it can be mass-market available – think of gyroscope technology that was in the Wii remote – it had been around for years but it took until the mid-2000s for the pricing of that to be where it needed to be for us to be for us to build a controller that could be mass-market-ready for a hundred million game systems sold across the world. That's the approach."
What Pokémon Go tells us then, is that Nintendo is ready to explore more complex, technologically demanding social experiences, and this knowledge will surely feed into its forthcoming mobile translations of Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing. The former, a hugely successful RPG series, has had local co-op via wireless connectivity in the past – that seems a likely element of a mobile translation. Meanwhile, Nintendo has already said that Animal Crossing will have some sort of connectivity with the console versions, but will we also see connectivity between players who meet up by chance in the street? Imagine an Animal Crossing town that’s built and maintained by players within an actual community.
It’s unlikely however, that the success of Pokémon Go will tempt Nintendo toward a future as a dedicated developer. As Jeff Ryan, author of Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America argues, “Nintendo is a hardware company before it's a software company, and making full-on games for other people's hardware is not the Nintendo way. Becoming a third-party game-maker is Nintendo's break-glass-in-case-of-emergency. It's not there yet.”
Instead, what Go has done is make a vast new audience aware of Nintendo in the run up to its launch of the mysterious NX console, due next March. Little is known about the device, but many expect that it will have some sort of portable tablet-like component, much more powerful and capable than the drone-like Wii U GamePad. What if gamers can take a wi-fi capable NX pad out into the street, meet people, exchange data, then bring it back to the console unit to download the results into the main game or connect to Nintendo's own Miiverse social network? If Nintendo wasn’t thinking along those lines before, it must be now – and it has a user-base of 20 million gamers hungry for more connected experiences. “[Pokémon Go] is hitting a huge swathe of people who didn't even consider a Wii U or 3DS,” says Ryan. “Now, they might be considering an NX, without even knowing what it does.”
What does Pokémon Go mean for Nintendo? It means re-energized socio-cultural and economic relevance, it means extra cash to help see it through the last lean years of the Wii U, it means increased interest in the NX, but it also means that the company’s twin philosophies of measured progress and shared experiences have been vindicated once again.