In the last installment, I talked about Apple’s missed opportunities and overall apathy when it comes to gaming. In this final chapter, it’s time to talk about what Nintendo has done right since the failure of the Wii U. There are also some interesting comparisons to be made between Apple’s ambivalent attitude toward gaming, and areas where they have been more aggressive, and ultimately more successful.
Serious About Casuals
What made the Wii so popular was its success with casual gamers. Like Atari had done in the early 80s, and then Nintendo themselves did with NES later in the decade, they tapped into a market that doesn’t normally purchase gaming consoles. The hook of motion controls and the incredibly effective proof of concept pack-in game Wii Sports gave the Wii a level of appeal that Nintendo came to rely on for success.
However, like Apple with the App Store, Nintendo never quite figured out the secret formula to consistently engage casual gamers. They tried several things to take the Wii beyond typical gaming with wildly varying levels of success. Wii Fit, a health and fitness game that came with wireless a balance board, was a huge hit well into the life cycle of the console that helped to reinvigorate sales among casual buyers. On the other hand, Wii Music was an interesting concept that allowed users to conduct and simulate playing different instruments with motion control, but failed to create the interest that Wii Fit did.
This problem of engaging casual gamers seemed to be exacerbated by Nintendo’s failure to create a follow-up to the Wii that would attract former buyers, and even more importantly, new ones. The Wii U was a total failure in this regard, succeeding only in selling to their existing core fans. At the same time, you also had the erosion of the casual audience that had bolstered the Nintendo DS and 3DS. Sales of the 2DS and 3DS eventually stabilized, but not until most of the casual gaming audience that had bought up titles like Brain Training had moved over to gaming on their new smartphones.
Chasing casual gamers is a dangerous business, because by nature, they are fickle and prone to either move on to something else or just stop playing altogether. Nintendo got a little smarter about this pursuit before the announcement of the Switch and decided to start hunting them where they currently are- iOS and Android. They started modestly, but Pokemon Go, Super Mario Run, and Fire Emblem Heroes in the space of one year with more to come show that they are serious about bringing secondary experiences with their characters to the smartphone. This was a smart move that should bring in easy revenue, keep the Nintendo name fresh in the minds of casual gamers on smartphones and tablets, and maybe even bring a few who are looking for more over to the Switch.
I also give Nintendo credit for pulling the plug on the Wii U early and moving on to something completely different. The company has shown itself capable of bold moves in the past, some good and some bad. The Wii was one. So was the original Nintendo DS, which was a dual-screen oddity that seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but ended up killing off their already successful Gameboy mobile gaming line and going on to even bigger sales. Of course, the Virtual Boy was a bold move at the time too, but we know how that ended up.
The weakness of Nintendo’s 3DS, Wii, and Wii U was that they each hinged on a feature that could easily be considered a gimmick. The 3DS had 3D, which was not terribly well implemented the first time around. The New 3DS perfected the feature, but the problem was that too few people really cared about 3D enough to pay more for it. Nintendo released a less expensive 2DS that was totally focused on gaming to address this, and has just released a new version with the same larger form factor as the 3DSXL. While taking 3D on the go may have been a swing and a miss, the fact that the 3DS and 2DS have kept on selling shows that there is still a market for mobile gaming beyond the smartphone.
With the Wii, the key feature was obviously motion control. However, it largely failed to catch on beyond Wii Sports, and Wii owners largely ignored Nintendo’s improved Wii Motion Plus, even though it really was a big improvement. I bought it and Grand Slam Tennis at release, and it was really a big step up from the original Wii Mote, but the fact was, most users didn’t care enough for it to sell well. And because the added accessory didn’t sell well, developers largely ignored it.
The Wii U’s key feature was the tablet-like Game Pad controller. I’ve already discussed the many ways Nintendo went wrong here, but they did get one thing right. The ability to play console games without tying up the television is a feature that Wii U owners love, and set it apart from competing hardware. My daughter still prefers to play Minecraft on the Wii U because of this feature. However, like the previous two cases, this one feature wasn’t enough to overcome the Wii U’s issues and sell consoles.
Nintendo’s smart move with the Switch was to take all of the successful pieces of the 2DS, Wii, and Wii U and merge them into a well-designed and thought out single platform that could be used at home on the TV, or on the go. By making a device that can play HD, home console quality games both on or away from a TV, Nintendo has taken the mobility of the 2DS and merged it with the TV-free HD gaming capability of the Wii U. The Switch also has a capacitive screen and full multi-touch capability, making it far superior to what Nintendo could provide at an affordable price on the Wii U’s Game Pad.
The Switch’s Joy Con controllers deliver much more accurate motion control than even Wii Motion Plus could provide. I have the new game Nintendo game ARMS, and it plays very well with motion, even allowing you to accurately curve punches in on your opponent. However, the game isn’t dependent on motion control, and works just fine with traditional controls for those who prefer them. Along the same lines, the Joy Cons can be used as both a single traditional controller attached to the Switch, or to a separate accessory that emulates a traditional dual-stick controller. They can also be used as separate traditional controllers for two player gaming without extra hardware, its a very cool and very well though-out system that gives players a lot of options. With the Switch, Nintendo perfected the promise of the Wii, without putting all of its eggs in that one basket.
So what will sell the Switch? Nintendo’s software library will. In the end, beyond all of the gimmicks since the GameCube, that’s always been their true core business. That’s the reason tech pundits and analysts keep suggesting that they should go the way of Sega, dump hardware, and just focus on software. I disagree, and don’t think Nintendo is anywhere close to that point yet. Would it be smart for them to put some of their older titles on iOS and Android and rake in the cash? Absolutely. However, the Switch should prove that Nintendo’s hardware business is still viable when they produce the RIGHT hardware.
It see,ms that everyone else knows what Nintendo’s strength is. Despite their hubris that was fueled by the crazy success with the Wii and DS, it looks like they finally accepted what truly sells their hardware and built their new console around that idea. The Switch is the perfect delivery system for their excellent first party library, and will also be a perfect way to play a ton of their past library once the Virtual Console is released. If third party developers decide to embrace the Switch, it will be that much better. If it keeps selling at current rates, they will have to. However, even if they don’t, the Switch is the kind of device that many hard-core XBox One and PS4 players will pick up as a secondary, on-the-go system.
A lot of existing console owners skipped the Wii U, likely due to the high price and lack of games. There were some strong Nintendo titles, but there just weren’t nearly enough. However, the versatility of the Switch will be very attractive to many, and Nintendo is already providing a first party game each month featuring both new and their most popular franchises. If they keep that up, gamers will keep buying. Will casual gamers? That still remains to be seen, but the Switch is attractive and versatile enough that it should pull some in. Right now, their sales numbers are reminiscent of the Wii (almost 5 million as of July 26), as is Nintendo’s difficulty keeping them in stock. If they can keep this up, the Switch will pass total Wii U sales before its second year is out. This alone should prove that Nintendo has pulled itself back from the brink and made some very smart moves to get back on track.
Apple and Nintendo are only direct competitors for a piece of the gaming market, but the way things have shaken out, they are better as partners than as combatants now. Apple had their opportunity to make a play for gaming on the big screen and didn’t seem all that interested in cashing in on it. And on mobile, they seem satisfied to keep ringing the cash register that is freemium games such as Candy Crush, rather than trying to revive a market for higher-quality software with a larger up-front cost.
Nintendo, on the other hand, is only interested in software they can get $20-$40 dollars up front for on the DS, or $40-$60 on the Switch. However, when they bring their own freemium or reasonably priced library to the App Store, both parties benefit. The fact that Tim Cook personally introduced Miyamoto on stage at an Apple event to tout their limited exclusive of Super Mario Run was telling. They see Nintendo as a potential partner, not a threat. I think it’s more important at this point that Nintendo doesn’t see Apple as one, because there was a time when they probably should have. Now I don’t think they have to worry about that anymore.
One idea that gets floated continuously is that Apple should just buy Nintendo, but I honestly think that would be disastrous. Sure, Apple would cash in big time on that gaming library. However, they would be just as likely to kill off the value of Nintendo’s IP by hamstringing it to typical iOS constraints. Before the release of the current Apple TV, I didn’t think this was a bad idea, but now I cringe every time I hear it. These two companies should work together, but they have absolutely no business being joined together.
When Apple IS Interested
I went into a lot of detail in Part 2 about how Apple’s failure with apps on the Apple TV and with high-end gaming was more due to apathy than incompetence. I think they have aptly proven that, when they really want to own a space in the market, they will apply the manpower and resources to make a legitimate run at it. One such example would be cameras and photography. If there are any other original iPhone, 3G, or 3GS owners around, they can verify that Apple didn’t put too much effort into the photo and video capabilities of the iPhone right off the bat.
However, that changed with the iPhone 4. Not only did it have a Retina Display, but it had a much-improved 5 Megapixel Camera with flash that could shoot HD Video at 30 FPS. From this point on, every iPhone has had a progressive set of camera improvements, up to the point that the iPhone 7 Plus’s dual camera can now take legitimately professional-quality pictures without a ton of software editing and processing. Apple saw the opportunity to take a big chunk of a market, and they did it. While plenty of flagship smartphones now have as good or better camera than the iPhone, that wasn’t the case until Apple started aggressively pushing not just specs, but also software and image processing, forward. Before them, only Nokia was concerned with mobile camera quality. Ironically, a lot of the old Nokia engineers who worked on their camera no work for Apple.
There are other examples, as well. Music is certainly a timely one, as Apple and Spotify have pretty much sucked all the air out of the streaming music business. While Spotify has actually extended its subscriber lead on Apple, I think there are other ways that Apple can attack them on ground where they can’t really afford to fight. I wrote about this a couple of moths ago, saying that if Apple wants to, they can really make some deep inroads into the music business that would put many other companies, including Spotify, at a big disadvantage.
Another example of Apple entering a market and taking over is wearables. Apple has only been in this market for two years and they have only released two devices (the Apple Watch and the AirPods). However, they were able to quickly take the worldwide market lead over the category from FitBit, despite this. (Note: Xiaomi recently managed to pass Apple for the overall lead worldwide, but this is based purely on sales on inexpensive fitness bands, rather than smartwatches).
One thing that is a strong indicator of Apple’s interest in an area is faster product iteration. While they are typically known for slowly rolling out incremental improvements, they completely re-designed the Apple Watch’s interface based on user feedback in watchOS 3 (watchOS 2 was more of a patch to help apps work better), and then tweaked it further in watchOS 4. The interface improvements have made a real difference in extending the usefulness of the Apple Watch. A similar situation exists with Apple Music, where Apple took a confusing initial design and completely reworked it a year later. The app and the service are FAR easier to use now, and as with the Watch, sales numbers seem to reflect Apple’s active interest in pushing the category.
While I wish I could say that Apple is just as interested in gaming and pay-for software as photography, music, and wearables, the facts tell a different story. The facts show that Apple at one time had Nintendo almost as dead to rights as they did Kodak and the entire point-and-shoot camera market. Apple actively laid waste to the digital camera market, and other Android manufacturers, and eventually even Google themselves, decided to apply just as much effort and resources to their own photographic efforts as a result. If you go to BestBuy and look at what remains of the camera section today, you can see the results. You won’t find much beyond higher-end Sony mirrorless and Canon or Nikon DSLRs.
The same cannot be said for gaming. Apple had an opportunity that others didn’t because at one time, their App Store actually did have an expectation of paying something for quality software. If Apple had pressed the issue in a way that made sense when this was still the case, they might have had a shot to become a bigger player in gaming, both in mobile and on the big screen. However, their efforts were too little, too late, and when they came, were frankly apathetic and uninspiring. Considering all of Apple’s many successes, the fact that they care so little about gaming isn’t going to hurt them badly, and whatever the reasons, is ultimately their business. Maybe we will see some renewed effort in other gaming directions with Apple’s AR efforts come to fruition.
As for Nintendo, I do think that Apple’s fast rise in mobile gaming probably game them a healthy scare. They went from seemingly printing their own money from 2006-2009 to a complete reversal and revenue freefall for much of the ensuing six years. Losing the casual market they had honestly backed their way into with the Wii was a huge blow, and the reactionary mistakes of the Wii U just exacerbated their problems.
The disturbing thing for Nintendo fans was that the company didn’t see any of the problems coming, and didn’t seem to have any viable solutions for a solid four year period. That didn’t inspire confidence among the company’s fans, the tech press, or more importantly, investors.
However, since gaming is Nintendo’s only business, they had no choice but to go all-in on finding solutions. As a longtime fan, I’m thrilled to see that they have found their footing again. Their new leadership seems to have a much better handle on the current gaming market. Also, there is a new generation of developers at the company who are developing successful new franchises, such as Splatoon, which is very good news for a company that makes most of its money off of 30+ year old characters. As for the Switch may not sell 100 million units like the Wii, but it doesn’t have to. It’s the perfect delivery vehicle for their software, and ultimately that should make it successful enough to keep the company moving in the right financial direction.
I think I’ve said enough over the course of three parts. What do you think about Nintendo, the Switch, and Apple’s attitude toward and action in mobile gaming? Let me know in the Comments below, on Flipboard, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter @iPadInsightBlog.