Comment & Opinion

Rewind Wednesday: Nintendo's $30m Niantic Labs investment shows it's not taking the conventional mobile approach

Rewind Wednesday: Nintendo's $30m Niantic Labs investment shows it's not taking the conventional mobile approach

Note: With Pokémon Go launching today, we've republished this opinion piece from 2015 lauding the boldness of Nintendo's investment in location-based developer Niantic Labs.

For the author, it was a move that indicated the vital creative spirit at Nintendo's heart remained intact as it moved into mobile - something that could only be positive for Nintendo's longterm future.

Now the first Nintendo-affiliated Niantic game is out there for the public to scrutinise, we're closer than ever to seeing whether that optimism was well-founded.

Say what you will about Nintendo, but it has always grasped that different hardware calls for fundamentally different experiences.

Take Wii Sports, for example, a game so expertly married to its host console that it expanded the games market in a pre-iPhone world.

Or the understated genius of the Nintendo DS and Dr. Kawashima's Brain Training, a game the whole family could enjoy on a system that abolished the confusion of button-based controls.

And even prior to its seventh-generation boom years, games like Tetris and WarioWare carried with them an understanding of handheld gaming that Sony - no matter how much power and polygons it chucked at its devices - simply couldn't match.

Horses for courses

With this in mind, it's hard to see why its approach to mobile should be any less considered.

Nintendo is not in the business of square pegs for round holes.

But with mobile's image being so toxic among certain groups, the supposed scourge of the industry, the reaction of Nintendo's change-averse fans has been cautious at best.

After the strategic alliance between Nintendo and DeNA was confirmed in March, along with Nintendo touting its “free to start” model, Nintendo fans have been concerned that their favourite company may be heading down the same path as the F2P studios they despise.

Some were getting nightmare visions of 'paying 99 cents just to get Mario to jump a little higher' - a remarkably ill-advised suggestion made to Nintendo's late CEO Satoru Iwata by a shareholder - actually coming true.

The crucial issue with all this was that people were assuming Nintendo's output on mobile would be just the same, but worse...

  • The same Mario, but with microtransactions and fiddly controls.
  • The same Animal Crossing, but with wait timers.

And while they can be forgiven for lacking Nintendo's creativity - most of us do, after all - it doesn't take much examination of the company's history to find that it's not in the business of square pegs for round holes.

Money talks

Nintendo's investment (technically also involving The Pokemon Company and Google) of up to $30 million in Niantic Labs, the company currently best known for its original location-based game Ingress and also working with Nintendo on Pokémon Go, shows that it's picking its targets wisely.

The Japanese firm's legacy and brand recognition means that it could have targeted anyone to work with on its IP.

Yet it chose Niantic Labs - decidedly not one of the App Store's (or Google Play's) biggest hitters, a firm strong on community and tech but given its longterm bankrolling by Google's dollars, weak on monetisation.

It's Niantic's mastery of location-based gaming - its CEO John Hanke developed Google Earth - that makes it of use to Nintendo, and there's something refreshing about that.

It is directing its focus towards the unusual and the risky, rather than something solid and bankable.

It is directing its focus towards the unusual and the risky, rather than something solid and bankable.

As always, Nintendo has sniffed out what makes the platform unique - in this case, the ever-presence of the smartphone in our day-to-day lives - and has quickly identified how it can use this to create bespoke and transformative experiences.

A good fit

It's been shrewd in leading with Pokémon, too, which of all its franchises is the one that fans have been most keen to see come to mobile.

Unlike the likes of Mario and The Legend of Zelda, which would require significant reworking, the idea of Pokémon on mobile is one that immediately makes sense - even more so when you add in location-based tech.

And while it may be a crude measure, Google Trends suggests that demand for Pokémon on mobile has far outstripped that of both Mario and Zelda in the past four years, with 2013 and 2014 seeing a particular surge in interest.

Indeed, GungHo's smash hit Puzzle & Dragons has certainly been done no harm by being likened repeatedly to Pokémon, becoming one of the most popular mobile games of all time.

Nintendo, Niantic Labs, and Pokémon Go seems like an ideal match-up, then, and it's encouraging to see that Nintendo's approaching mobile with the same respect it has granted all its own platforms.


Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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Mathieu Castelli C4M Productions
And yet, with Niantic's map knowledge, Ingress is a clone of Grey Area's Shadow Cities. Not the most creative first game you can make in a genre which had a tiny number of games produced.
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