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Stateside: Nevermind smartphone games, Nintendo's next move should be a Mario Mobile

Stateside: Nevermind smartphone games, Nintendo's next move should be a Mario Mobile

Nintendo finds itself in quite the mess.

The Wii U is an abject disaster, with sales projections for the fiscal year ending 31 March having been cut from 9 million to 2.8 million.

Even 3DS, which has been at least a modest success, has also seen similar cuts, with projections down from 18 million to 13.5 million.

The firm's investors meeting, due on 30 January, could well prove to be a bloodbath – Miyamoto having already signed up to take a 30 percent pay cut – especially if more investors continue the cries for Nintendo to make its mark on mobile.

Granted, any bad news for Nintendo serves as a red rag to a bull for anyone looking to play Pokemon on their iPhone. Nevertheless, now might just be the time to take them seriously.

Well, sort of. Personally, I don't believe such calls go far enough. Nintendo shouldn't just be making mobile games. It should be making mobiles, too.

That sounds familiar

Despite its failings, there are some especially mobile-esque ideas behind what Nintendo has been trying to do in recent years.

Wii U's gamepad acts as a second screen in a manner that exceeds what Sony and Microsoft have planned. Microsoft has SmartGlass, Sony has PS Vita, but both are secondary gaming devices – they don't come in the 'out of the box' package.

That's part of the reason mobile gaming has soared in recent years. Mobiles are devices of convenience, serving as the perfect five-minute-fix. Likewise, Nintendo's StreetPass for 3DS also serves as a spare moment filler, rewarding players for taking their device with them.

It's a perfect match for smartphones. And, much like much of the rest of Nintendo's current approach, it's no great leap to suggest Nintendo shouldn't just be making games for smartphones, it should be making the devices that run them.

I don't mean sticking an LTE radio in a 3DS. I mean, make the next DS model - and Nintendo needs to get far away from the branding nightmares that are the Wii U and 2DS/3DS - a gaming-focused phone with a tablet option.

Why not find a way to fit physical controls on there in a comfortable way? As an actual gaming-focused mobile device, it could serve to appeal to segments of the gaming population that have perhaps avoided mobile due to its casual gamer reputation.

Historically speaking

With actual phones and tablets, Nintendo could make the move on casual gamers, not just with the firm's ever-famous IP, but also in terms of linking up with developers curious about exporting their own franchises to a 'Nintendo' phone.

There are plenty of independent developers who would be willing to take the undoubted risk that releasing titles on Nintendo's mobile platform would present, especially if it could support free-to-play as well as paid content.

Crucially, launching Nintendo-branded hardware would transform the Japanese giant not into a competitor, but rather a route to a whole new band of consumers.

Of course, any such strategy would require a complete overhaul of how Nintendo has operating its business to date.

The firm would need to partner with carriers, particularly for data services, but there's no reason to suggest Nintendo couldn't at least explore selling an unlocked device, similar to how Google sells its Nexus devices online. Why not launch a phone that's a game system first and a communication device second?

The other downside is, such a strategy has been attempted before. With N-Gage, the then untouchable Nokia attempted to launch a gaming phone and, despite repeated tries, failed miserably. Nevertheless, there's one key difference between Nokia and Nintendo – the former isn't a gaming company.

Likewise, Xperia Play – Sony's similarly lacklustre gaming handset – arguably didn't make enough of a play for the game market, instead serving as an Android phone with (an especially ugly) gamepad strapped onto the bottom of it.

Neither Sony or Nokia has the wealth of IP Nintendo could throw into the battle, however. If anyone could cross the divide between smartphones and handhelds, Nintendo is that company.

Taking a punt

What's more, despite recent glum figures, Nintendo also has healthy cash reserves that could, if green-lit by Miyamoto and co., give the firm more than a fighting chance.

Nintendo isn't saddled by any debt and has ¥?900 billion in cash reserves as of the end of FY 2013. Losses, both recent and future, aren't welcomed, but they're hardly doomsday either.

Crucially, such a strategy helps navigate around the one move Nintendo refuses to make – launching its games on non-Nintendo branded hardware. I'm of the view that, if Mario, Zelda and the rest of the firm's IP hit iPhone and Android, initial success would could come flooding – consumers would be curious, if nothing else.

Soon enough, however, Nintendo would be forced to adapt to the world of free-to-play, and that would trigger the kind of massive philosophy shift in game design that's alien to Nintendo. Indeed, few established players have managed to pull it off.

The most successful mobile games are from companies where mobile and free-to-play have been part of their DNA since day one. Companies that have made the leap later in the day have been forced to suffer a long hard journey along the way – EA, which has 8 games in the 100 top grossing games on iOS in the US, enjoyed anything but a smooth ride getting there.

Now, ask yourself, can the company that thought Wii U was a sound business proposition be trusted to make the kind of shift that's required to make money from free-to-play? Really?

One thing's for sure: Expecting to play Pokemon on your iPhone any time soon is unrealistic. You've got more chance of playing games on your MarioMobile.

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.


Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!

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