I’m ranting, I know, but hear me out; a lot of people who are predicting Nintendo’s imminent downfall are wrong. Damn wrong. Let’s go through some stuff.
Firstly, many of these people genuinely have no idea what they’re talking about. Listen to the latest episode of The Talk Show, where John Gruber and John Siracusa talk about the 2DS and Nintendo as a whole. Gruber fails to show any evidence of knowing what he’s talking about; he has to ask Siracusa if “console” is the correct term for something like a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii U. Gruber doesn’t know that you can buy full, retail-level Nintendo 3DS games on the system’s digital storefront and take an entire collection wherever you go, like an iPhone—this is something Nintendo’s been doing since August 2012, and isn’t something they’ve been silent about.
Gruber also believes that all console game players—yes, including those who are die-hard fans of the likes of the PlayStation and Xbox—are a more casual crowd, with the PC crowd being more hardcore. Clearly, Gruber doesn’t know many gamers.
Siracusa doesn’t get off lightly here either; on the Accidental Tech Podcast, he mentions that he hasn’t played a handheld console in about ten years. Ask a fair few of those who believe that Nintendo should make games for iOS, and you’ll likely find that they haven’t picked up a Nintendo handheld since either the DS days or the Game Boy Advance days.
Next, very few types of game are suited to iOS devices. iOS staples like Angry Birds, Cut The Rope, and Real Racing shine through on iOS with their simple controls and use of sensors; Nintendo staples like Mario, Zelda, and Pokémon would be considerably worse with virtual buttons getting in the way. Beautiful visuals would be obscured by your thumbs, and finnicky knee-jerk reactions wouldn’t work with software controls.
While I’m not against all forms of virtual input on smartphones—I love my iPhone’s virtual keyboard, for example—I’m against virtual game controls. They’re never, ever a bonus.
Gruber and Siracusa argue that the App Store method of distribution is great for small developers, and small developers are starting to disagree with this idea. The fact that anyone with a Mac, an iOS device, and $99 can make an iOS app or game is a great thing, don’t get me wrong, but in the iOS game space a few big companies—many of whom are already established names in gaming as a whole—are starting to dominate in places where it matters, such as the App Store’s Top Grossing charts, and getting promotion for a small, niche game is genuinely a high-risk proposition; if Apple doesn’t feature you, you have to rely on word of mouth, or a positive mention on a website that gets a lot of traffic.
Contrast this with recent moves on game-only or game-mostly devices. SteamWorld Dig, an indie game quite like Minecraft, Terraria, and Spelunky, has overtaken the likes of Animal Crossing: New Leaf to hit the top of the Nintendo eShop charts, thanks to a mention in Nintendo’s regular, popular Nintendo Direct webcast. More and more, indie developers who have embraced iOS in recent years are starting to analogise the App Store as a kind of lottery, and Sony even had respected indie developers evangelising their handheld, the PlayStation Vita, over other platforms at Gamescom a couple of weeks ago.
The App Store isn’t the only welcoming ship on the dock; Nintendo is relaxing a lot of previously strict third-party development policies and is cutting the prices of its dev kits, while Sony is actually throwing money at indies to bring developers to its two platforms, and both Sony and Microsoft will allow indies to self-publish their games on their new systems.
A key point: Nintendo isn’t circling the drain. It has billions of dollars in reserve cash; it’ll take a couple of generations of successive failures in both the home and handheld markets for Nintendo to fail. When the Nintendo 64 and GameCube weren’t generating masses of cash, the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance propped Nintendo up, leaving it to innovate and create the Wii.
The 3DS is 10m units behind the DS, 130 weeks in. That seems like a failure until you realise a few things: the DS was cheaper at launch, Nintendo didn’t screw up the DS’ launch, and most importantly, the DS went on to become the second-best selling console of all time.
Most importantly, the handheld business isn’t failing right now; it’s the home console business that isn’t showing signs of life. Telling Nintendo to not make handheld systems and make iOS games when Nintendo would actually be perfectly in the red if it solely made handhelds is more than a little ridiculous.
(A sidenote to this is that Nintendo innovates when it fears for its life. Miyamoto-san is working on new IP as the Wii U appears to be floundering, just as Pikmin and Luigi’s Mansion came to life on the GameCube.)
Another thing: These people seem to have a solution to Nintendo’s handheld woes - an issue only apparent to them - but don’t have a solution to Nintendo’s actual home console woes. Given that Nintendo’s currently trying to breathe life into the Wii U, I’m actually of the belief that it should stay the course with its handhelds, but simultaneously completely rethink its home console business, building what is, in essence, a GameCube 2.0 - an x86 box, with power slightly under the bar of next-gen systems, with low power consumption and an incredibly comfy controller.
Another thing to ponder: If Nintendo’s only other fix outside of making iOS games is to make high-end hardware (as suggested by Gruber), why is Sony Computer Entertainment floundering by following this exact same ethos? The PlayStation Vita is a high-end, well-constructed device with a high-resolution, large, capacitive touch screen, far superior graphical prowess, and DualShock 3-level controls. The kindest estimates put Vita sales at 6 million, far behind Nintendo’s numbers. Sure, Sony Computer Entertainment is a mere fragment of the Sony empire, but everyone knows that Sony is about as relevant as BlackBerry in 2013. Why is nobody going after that? Why is nobody saying Sony should give up on the console business and make iOS and PC games?
I’m going to finish this by saying that I continue to find it utterly baffling for those who have a public preference for Apple products—products which are better for the combination of their software and hardware—to push for Nintendo, a company with an equal amount of vertical integration, to move away from this notion.
Nintendo’s games are wonderful, charming experiences because they’re made by a company which makes every game take advantage of hardware it has designed from the ground up. Luigi’s Mansion 2—one of my favourite 3DS games of this year—could exist on an iOS device, but it’d lose so much of what makes it a great game. The leverage of the 3DS’ unique 3D effect, which gives depth and character to the five individual mansions, could not happen on an iPhone. You think Professor E. Gadd’s Dual Scream calls were annoying? Try having your iOS version of that game interrupted by an iMessage notification or a call. And most importantly, the tactile feel of pulling back on a Circle Pad to capture a ghost could never, ever be recreated with a virtual analog stick.
Alan Kay once said that people who are serious about software should make their own hardware. Steve Jobs, one of the great businessmen of our time, reminded us of this when he revealed the iPhone in 2007.
Like Apple, Nintendo would not be the company it is today without keeping this in mind. It worries me that so many Apple lovers just don’t get this.