Comment & Opinion

With shareholders wising up to Nintendo's small stake in Pokemon GO, pressure on its next mobile games is higher than ever

With shareholders wising up to Nintendo's small stake in Pokemon GO, pressure on its next mobile games is higher than ever

This piece was originally published on 13 July.

But now, following Nintendo's admission that Pokemon GO won't dramatically impact its financials, the author's lingering doubt over Nintendo's mobile vision going forward seems even more relevant.

Forget Miitomo (I have); Pokemon GO is the game that really marks Nintendo's arrival as a top-tier mobile games company.

Or at least, that's what many have concluded from the game's enormous success since its 6 July launch.

Whatever your perspective, it's inevitable that you will have witnessed the unstoppable rise of the location-based augmented reality game over the past week.

For those in the industry, the seemingly impossible stats - that it's on course to beat Twitter for DAUs, is making $1.6 million a day on the US App Store, and has singlehandedly boosted Nintendo's market value 40% to $28 billion (actually now $31 billion) - have all understandably turned heads.

But much more importantly, it's been featured extensively in a number of mainstream, non-gaming media outlets and has reached a level of social media virality that's rarely - if ever - been seen in mobile gaming before.

So, let's make one thing quite clear right off the bat: Pokemon GO's impact cannot be overstated, and its success is completely deserved.

Lightning in a bottle

It is, however, greatly endent on a perfect storm of factors that will be impossible for Nintendo to replicate.

Pokemon GO was dependent on a perfect storm of factors that is impossible to replicate.

It is the high watermark for Nintendo's mobile game business, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.

First off, Nintendo thrives on doing things on its own terms - see: touchscreen on the DS, motion control on the Wii, and an overwhelming focus on first-party development that's defined all its hardware.

Working in close partnership with location-based pioneering Google-spin-off Niantic Labs (following a $30 million investment), Nintendo managed to find a niche within the enormous mobile games space in which it could continue this approach.

There have been location-based mobile games in the past, of course, but the majority of people wouldn't even know of their existence.

Writing history

Indeed, when PocketGamer.biz spoke to Niantic's Anne Beuttenmüller about the firm's first location game Ingress, she was candid about describing its player base as “nerdy… male, mid-thirties, very tech-oriented.”

Contrast this with Pokemon, an IP that's appeal is truly cross-generational, widely recognisable and, for many, has nostalgic ties to childhood.

With the technology proven and in place, all Nintendo and The Pokemon Company had to do in order to own location-based gaming was to provide the IP that Niantic's technology so deserved.

Pokemon GO isn't the first location-based game, but it might as well be.

Pokemon GO is not the first location-based game, but for its millions of players who have never played one before, it might as well be.

History is written by the winners; future location-based games will now be compared not to Ingress, but to Pokemon GO.

It was so simple for Nintendo, and that's why it was such a stroke of genius.

Where now?

But that harmony between much-loved IP and a fresh, exciting way of playing isn't something that happens every day.

So how can Nintendo follow up a phenomenon like Pokemon GO?

In short, it cannot.

Nintendo's first two DeNA-developed pure mobile games have already been announced as Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing.

Latest series entry, Fire Emblem Fates on 3DS

The former is a turn-based strategy series - and one that's very much a niche concern outside of Japan - and the latter a community simulation with a host of cutesy characters.

The most obvious point is that the fanbase for these franchises is minuscule in comparison to that of Pokemon.

The fanbase for Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing is minuscule compared to that of Pokemon.

More worrying, though, is the fact that they both exist in genres extremely well represented on mobile.

We previously spoke of Nintendo's love of doing things on its own terms, but how exactly does it intend to do so in the packed mobile strategy genre?

It may have muscled its way to the top of an under-served location-based sector, but the Supercells and MZs of the world will not simply lay down their arms and let Nintendo take the crown here.

With Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem, Nintendo will be forced to do things on other people's terms - which is where the notoriously inward-looking company has historically struggled.

Will the assistance of DeNA, a company whose own catalogue is notably lacking in global hits, be enough for Nintendo to compete against companies that have several years' head-start in mobile games?

It's hard to be optimistic.

Direction unclear

It doesn't help that Nintendo's approach to mobile seems so vague, even internally.

At a recent shareholder's Q&A, it was hinted that the firm may go down the route of producing its own controller for mobile games.

"Physical controllers for smart device applications are available in the market and it is possible that we may also develop something new by ourselves," said Nintendo's General Manager of Entertainment Planning and Development Division Shinya Takahashi.

Remember these? We don't

His following sentence was slightly more encouraging, effectively saying that Nintendo would only resort to this after it had exhausted the control opportunities for action games presented by mobile hardware.

Pokemon GO is an incredible success, but that doesn't mean Nintendo's job is done.

However, it seems that Nintendo still lacks a clear strategy.

Following Nintendo's original investment in Niantic Labs, heartened by its courage, I wrote that “Nintendo is not in the business of square pegs for round holes.”

But for Nintendo to even consider the idea of controllers for mobile games - which in my view runs counter to everything mobile gaming is about - makes me wonder whether my faith was ill-founded.

Pokemon GO may be an incredible success, but that's more down to Niantic Labs' expertise in location-based games than Nintendo's new-found mobile skills. 

In that context, Pokemon GO's success implies little about the success of Nintendo's future games with DeNA.

Indeed, if anything, it just provides a terrifying benchmark for them to be compared to.

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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