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Updated: Mario perfect for mobile, but developers question whether now is the right time for Nintendo's smartphone assault

Investors out on a limb?

Updated: Mario perfect for mobile, but developers question whether now is the right time for Nintendo's smartphone assault
It's unlikely to result in any real change, but claims Nintendo's investors are urging the company to move into smartphone development owing to slow 3DS sales has inevitably been a talking point.

However, most chatter has focused on what the firm's current predicament means for those at Nintendo, completely overlooking the other party impacted by any such change to the giant's business: smartphone developers.

We called on a collection of PocketGamer.biz favourites for their take on the current hubbub around Nintendo, with a specific focus on how they would react to the appearance of a particularly major new player in the mobile scene:

Anthony Gowland, founder, Mainly About Games

"I think the investors are sort of thinking along the right lines, but still too short term and reactionary," said Gowland

"Like the old saying that 'the best camera is the one you have with you at the time', smart phones are great but they are still just another platform to limit yourself to, and they aren't always the best hardware I have with me.

"I would like to see Nintendo really start to look at a platform independent future, so that their players can continue to play no matter where they are and what hardware they have to hand.

"I'm sure there would be a lot of interest from players if they could log in to pokemon.com and continue the game they were playing on their iPhone on the bus in to work, which is the same save they were playing on Wii U last night.

"Realistically I can't see them ever fully going this route - I think they like having their own platforms to sell and own - but I could see them using cross-platform opportunities for marketing.

"If the clients on other platforms had their functionalities limited in some ways that would naturally encourage getting the Nintendo platform version to get the most out of the game, without annoying players or feeling too limited if you don't."

Simon Barratt, MD, Four Door Lemon

"I think that Nintendo would do really well with their IPs on iOS, even if they started by only bringing across older titles to avoid competing with the new content on their own platforms initially," added Barratt.

"Obviously we've seen Sony starting to work with Android devices through PlayStation Suite, and perhaps that is a path that Nintendo would choose to take instead of delivering content through Apple's marketplace.

"In the console space, Nintendo have made a lot of their money out of hardware sales so the questions is whether this is the strategy across handheld also, though perhaps the perceived lack of software for the 3DS launch has taught them that quality content is what drives people to new platforms."

Will Luton, creative director, Mobile Pie

"It wouldn't be the first time that Ninty have done third party - lest we forget the awful Phillip's CDi Mario and Zelda games - so maybe it's not as unlikely as many would believe," claimed Luton.

"Yet, I don't think 'doing a Sega' would be a good corporate strategy for them right now.

"It would be a huge culture shift internally, Nintendo don't 'get' digital, and on a practical level the restructuring required to make it happen would be disruptive, painful and lead to talent drain. All in the search of short-term profits which could harm brands.

"I'm going to be cautious making predictions about Nintendo as I've pronounced them dead on number of occasions - DS, GameCube and Wii launch - and the market has always proven me wrong.

"Nintendo have their ups and downs, but they know their guns and stick by them with some fantastic marketing. I think what they're looking at now is they launched so many DS refreshes - there's three in current production - and that the 3DS looks so similar in terms of hardware and branding that the public don't realise it's completely new hardware generation.

"In the short term they'll need to address that, but in the long term what they really need to do is start thinking about multi-purpose devices, digital delivery and free-to-play - all things they've notoriously looked down on.

"As for them coming in as a competitor in the market, I'm not concerned. If they do start publishing on iOS they'll be producing premium priced products and that's something we don't compete with anyway.

"However, if they started linking Pikimin up as a free-to-play game, then I'd suggest Nintendo get in contact with a Bristol-based studio with strong F2P experience, some proprietary tech and a vision for the brand - I've always been a big fan, Miyamoto-san."

Andrew John Smith, MD, Spilt Milk Studio

"I don't buy the current thinking regarding Nintendo's 'failure' to sell the 3DS and the investors pressuring to put their IP out on third party systems

"Nintendo's entire business, from the ground up - and from decades ago - is built around their own hardware and exclusive software, so to expect, or at least pressure, them to change to purely software in a matter of a year or two is patently stupid.

"There would be no surer way for them to waste money and squander opportunity than to refocus like that, as quickly as investors and some commentators want them to.

"They absolutely must catch up with the rest of the industry in terms of digital content, but you don’t see anyone expecting Microsoft to put Halo on the iPhone simply because they don’t have a digital store to match Apple's. Admittedly the focus for Nintendo has been on the handheld market, but again I think people are missing some factors.

"For a start, I have yet to see any convincing research showing the iPhone actually eroding the marketplace from Nintendo and Sony’s point of view.

"Until I do, I'm happy believing that there is room for most of these machines on the marketplace, and that the slow start to the 3DS's life is down to lack of a killer Nintendo property at launch, high price for a 'single-function' gadget during an economic downturn, and the difficulty in selling the 3D effect to an audience that seems to be tiring of it in cinema – their nearest point of reference.

"I'd be warier if I was Sony. They're gunning right for the iPhone/iPad market with the Vita – it's only distinguishing features are those shared - and some would say done better - on their competitor’s iMachines. Either be unique, or be the best. Never be in the middle.

"Nintendo's uniqueness comes from the 3D and from their stable of reliably excellent IP. Sony have the IP, but nothing else in the Vita is really offering an interesting prospect."

Ben Murch, co-founder, Rodeo Games

"Seeing something like New Mario Bros. on iPhone would be weird. I mean super weird," claimed Murch.

"Traditionally, we've only ever seen Mario on Nintendo consoles, so seeing the Nintendo mascot team on anything else would be a stumbling block right away. Maybe that's just me being a dinosaur though - perhaps it wouldn't be such an issue in a marketplace that's recently greeted such an influx of completely-new-to-gaming customers.

"I guess a larger problem would be the control shift. Even though the DS has a touch-screen, most of Nintendo's core IP works best with a physical d-pad and buttons under your thumbs. Imagine trying to play Zelda or – gulp - Super Smash Bros. with touch-screen controls.

"When it comes down to it, Nintendo are still a massive player in the handheld market. Just because they've hit a little speed bump with the 3DS, whether it's down to high buy in price or a poor starting line-up, it doesn't mean they're suddenly going to disappear.

"If they started supporting another company's hardware, it would almost be like admitting defeat...which is something I think we can all agree they'll never do. I mean, we all remember the Virtual Boy! They seemed to do ok after that."

Tak Fung, founder, Supermono

"I personally think that the investors are panicking - because that's what investors do when anything happens against their predictions, which are often unjustified optimism," said Fung.

"The example here would be the 3DS not reaching Nintendo DS levels of world dominance immediately after launch.

"However, as to the question of whether I'd like to see Nintendo IP on smartphones, well I think it would be a good thing. It would certainly be interesting to see what they can do with touch screens as they have proved many times in the past to really be innovative with control systems. 

"That doesn't necessarily mean Nintendo itself should go with iOS - and indeed I don't think they should in this respect, as it will seem they are deserting their own handheld platform. 3DS sales are slow, but its still too short term to start moving away from their mainline plan.

"They 'just' need to make more compelling games for it - everything follows a great game."

Paul Virapen, MD, Big Pixel Studios

"We're big Nintendo fans at Big Pixel Studios, and personally I'd love to see Nintendo titles published on smartphone platforms," added Virapen.

“I think they could do really well by re-releasing some of their old NES and SNES classics onto iOS. There must a huge number of iOS gamers who are in their late 20's and 30's who grew up playing on these platforms, and would love to be able to play through classics like Super Mario World, Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past, Super Metroid etc again on their smartphones. Look at how well Sega are doing with some of their Megadrive classics on iOS.

"In terms of how Nintendo publishing on smartphone platforms would affect our business - I don't think it would. We develop smaller games more suited to a wider casual audience, whereas I'd see Nintendo's products being priced slightly higher, similar to what Sega are doing currently.

"Will we see it in the near future though? Unfortunately I think it's unlikely, but we can always dream."

Nick Kostelnik, founder, Scramble

"Nintendo proudly announced at GDC 2011 that they see hardware as an inconvenience that the gamer must incur," contested Kostelnik.

"If this holds true then I would hope that they have no issue with embracing platform independence. The industry is in such a state of flux at the moment that those who are agile and embrace change have the highest chances of success.

"Of course, developing for iOS firmly places Nintendo in Apple's hands and when Nintendo no longer controls the platform or the distribution pipeline, they will have to abide by the same rules as the rest of us. I'm very interested in how that will pan out."

Ste Pickford, co-founder, Zee-3

"I think instead of questioning what Nintendo should be doing, it would be much more valuable to question if these these investor analyst types have any clue what they're talking about," offered Pickford.

"They're asking for a quick, panicky switch to whatever the current flavour of the month is - iOS - which is all these games industry analysts ever seem to call for. Do they have no imagination at all? Is the sort of jumpy, panicky short-term thinking these investors are looking for really a good idea?

"One of the reasons why companies like Nintendo, and Apple, have been so successful is that they've followed brave, long term visions, and both companies have built their success around integrated software and hardware solutions.

"I think Nintendo have got some things wrong recently: crappy empty online stores, overpriced games, stupid region locking, and a rude rejection of indie developers, and they're paying the price to a certain extent, but I actually think the business of high quality dedicated gaming hardware combined with the best games in the world is still viable, so no, I don't think they should switch making games for Apple.

"They just need to tweak what they're doing a bit, and open up to indie devs. They're still sat on more cash than anyone in the business other than Apple.  No need for them to panic just yet."

Sarat Pediredla, partner and co-founder, hedgehog lab

"I am not surprised investors and investment analysts are calling for Nintendo to jump ship onto Apple's iOS. They are motivated by short-term gains and nothing will generate more hype and buzz right now than some of Nintendo's IP coming to the iOS platform," added Pediredla.

“I think there are two sides to the coin here. From a software perspective, it is a no-brainer that introducing classic Nintendo games like Mario to iOS would end up with Nintendo pretty much dominating the top ten lists for a while to come. iOS and smart phones in general are here to say - no one is disputing that - and it makes sense for them to dominate a platform that is still in it's infancy.

"The big problem I see here is that kids of today have no attachment to Nintendo compared to adults. I grew up playing classic Nintendo games with Mario and Zelda nearing revered status in my book. Will the kids of today feel the same love and affection for classic Nintendo characters when it is their time to spend big on games? I am not so sure.

"Secondly, I believe that Nintendo has always excelled at a tightly integrated hardware and software experience that made the games experience so much better. I can understand why people are panicking given the waning interest in the Wii and the disastrous performance of the 3DS but only a fool would write off Nintendo. 

"Perhaps the best way forward for them is to diversify into smartphone platforms like iOS, while still investing heavily in innovating in the console and platform race."

Andrew Rollings, co-creator, Hiive

"I think it would be a mistake for Nintendo to attempt to break into the smartphone market - it's not their area," contested Rollings.

"You'd end up with some half-thought out abomination reminiscent of the awful Nokia N-Gage. With the advent of cheap smartphone games, Nintendo will really struggle to make their devices worthwhile to the average punter.

"I think that the 3D of the current 3DS was a mistake of the same magnitude as the original Virtual Boy - honestly, they'd have been better off using 3D polarised glasses - like the cinema - rather than split parallax 3D. Not to mention the lack of battery life and the general lack of innovation in the controls.

"I'm actually surprised that for the first time Sony appear to be out-innovating Nintendo with controls. I think the touch sensitive back of the PS Vita will be a boon to the device. Nintendo should have thought of that. They also should have had a Mario game at launch, but that's another matter entirely.

"So instead of trying to out-Apple Apple, they should focus on their core strengths; kid-friendly entertainment. Not everyone wants their child to have a smartphone, or even to have the unfettered internet access that comes out of the box on smart phones.

"I recently looked into locking down my son's iPod Touch to prevent him browsing inappropriate content on the internet. It turns out that there's only so much you can do before you have to spend additional money purchasing software.

"So that's one approach Nintendo could take; to add in fully curated internet access for minors, with all access going through Nintendo-controlled servers. I'll conceded that some developers and more independent-minded individuals may not like this, but parents will lap it up.

"Another approach would be for Nintendo to beg an MMO developer such as Blizzard to develop an exclusive client for World of Warcraft capable of interoperating - or at least sharing data - with the PC version. Although I did just see the news today about Nintendo's Massively Single Player approach. That may well work for them. They do have an incredible amount of quality IP, and they could probably do a fantastic job with that, but there would be no harm in tying in to a major outside franchise and may well appeal to the older demographic.

"This approach alone probably wouldn't be enough. Nintendo need to take a leaf out of Apple's book and open up the platform to anyone - at least as far as downloadable apps go. A solid development kit and a more indie-friendly approach from Nintendo, as well as a decent level of quality control - more so than Apple, but less onerous than Microsoft's Xbox certification process.

"If they did this, I'd certainly be interested in developing for them. Of course, the Nintendo store is a clunky piece of crap, but hopefully they'd redo that while they were at it."

John Steels, freelance art guru and long time Woojijuice collaborator

"Like any decision in a creative industry made on purely financial grounds, the likelihood of it being the right decision is a matter of luck, but that's not to say it isn't the right decision for Nintendo," added Steels.

"Their IP are well known and their understanding of casual and massmarket is a perfect fit.

"I think they could dominate the market if they decided to take the plunge, but therein lies the issue. It's a selfish concern, but as someone trying to make a living in the market all I see is market share dwindling.

"It makes me feel like a little corner shop with a major supermarket planning a huge store down the road. They would be another major competitor to indie developers with huge marketing budgets at their disposal and, if anything, potentially be a bigger threat than any of the current major publishers that have produced games on the mobile platforms.

"Having worked with them, I know that they understand games and understand that refining and polishing pays dividends. They excel at creating and finding innovation and failing that the games industry thrives on plagiarism, and if Nintendo were to copy successful concepts they would rapidly become the definitive versions with major IP attached.

"They could get Ant and Dec to advertise it on prime time Saturday night telly and we indies would all be under a lot more pressure.

"I think it would be a mistake to assume Nintendo would follow established publisher models and go for premium price games too - they have a wealth of IP that could easily become small low price point titles, so I think they could probably be very successful on handheld, but potentially at the expense of indies. Unless, of course, we all end up working for them.

"It's all speculation though. Nintendo are notoriously stubborn when it comes to change, have never really grasped digital and have a history of dropping the ball when they jump too far too fast, but still, for me they are a Sword of Damocles hanging over the mobile market."

Russell Clarke, head, Secret Sauce

"Personally, I think dedicated handheld gaming devices have had their day, and no amount of dubious hardware gimmicks will turn that tide," said Clarke.

"The 3DS and Vita are good devices, but I'm not going to buy one because I know I'd never use it - I have an iPhone in my pocket now, with an endless stream of new content and a steadily raising quality bar.

"I don't see a second handheld gaming platform fitting into my life, and an expensive and bulky one at that.

"Nintendo are renowned for quality and creativity of game design. Nintendo-built smartphone games would be hugely successful, so it's not surprising that investors would get excited at the prospect.

"I'll be astonished if they go through with it, given the position that Iwata has taken on this, but I think their handheld expertise would translate perfectly, and this would only be good for the platform and for consumers - and ultimately what's good for the platform is good for developers."

Ben Ward, co-founder, Hogrocket

"I think this story summarises the transition of our industry perfectly," added Ward.

"Nintendo, who just a couple of years ago were on top of the world with the success of the Wii, are suddenly finding themselves struggling to meet expectations with their new flagship product. It's the same story with many of the traditional developers, and now it seems that even the platform holders are having to look at their own businesses a lot more closely.

"However, calling for Nintendo to suddenly switch their business from console to mobile is lunacy. They have decades of experience doing their own thing, and their Wii strategy proves that they can be agile enough when they need to be.

"Despite Apple's successes, there is still a traditional video games market and there is still a lot of money to be made from it.

"However, rather than switch entirely perhaps there is merit in licensing some of their properties to these platforms? In this new world of social marketing and consumer empowerment, having a smash hit on iOS is likely to raise the sales of Nintendo platforms rather than cut them.

"If Nintendo balanced their offerings between their own consoles and upstarts like iOS I could see them achieving even greater mindshare than they have right now...

"Oh and as for Nintendo competing with existing developers - we always need to be striving to be the best. If Nintendo enters the mobile market and sets a new quality bar then we should bust our asses to best them. It's better for consumers, and it's ultimately better for us too."
Check back later for further additions.

If you're a mobile developer and you'd like to give your take on Nintendo's current situation, drop an email to keith.andrew [at] pocketgamer.co.uk.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.

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