To Take On Apple, Nintendo Will Have to Think Big
Nintendo has reportedly identified Apple as the enemy of the future, and that estimation seems to jibe with others who've watched Apple barge onto the mobile gaming scene with the iPhone and iPod touch. Nintendo has staked a deep claim in mobile gaming with its hot-selling DS, but keeping its dominance there won't be easy if it has to go up against Cupertino.
05/11/10 5:00 AM PT
I've been relatively slow to embrace gaming on my iPhone and iPod touch. For starters, I don't tend to have a lot of free time, and I'm lucky enough that I don't waste a lot of time traveling, commuting, or otherwise standing in lines. But even I have enjoyed far too many hours blasting rag dolls out of canons and slinging angry birds at bad pigs.
On the kid front, the children in my friend-and-family circles are all heading in the direction of the iPod touch vs. the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP for portable gaming. I'm personally aware of a few Nintendo DS owners who have let them gather dust in favor of an iPod touch, and these are kids whose parents have shelled out hundreds of dollars in DS games.
So when Nintendo president Satoru Iwata reportedly told senior executives that Apple is now its "enemy of the future" ... it's pretty easy for me to agree.
Still, according to the report in the UK's Times Online, Nintendo isn't going to go lay down in a corner and cry -- the company is preparing to "unleash" its development and marketing divisions to take on Apple. Of course, the previous Nintendo enemy was Sony, which produces the pretty sweet PSP series of mobile gaming (and media-playing) devices.
The Problems Nintendo Must Shake
As I see it, the problem Nintendo must overcome starts with the perception that its devices are only for games. I know a guy who loves the Nintendo Wii -- which is a console, of course, and far from the mobile DS -- because it lets him use Netflix's video on demand service. He sets up a list of videos his kids can watch, and they can pick and choose from the list. In fact, he told me, this feature has become critically important to his household because it's improving his kids' lives -- instead of being inundated with commercials on regular television, his kids don't see any. "They've stopped coming to me asking for all these cool new toys because they're not seeing the commercials for them," my buddy explains, adding in only half-jest, "and they seem happier, too, maybe because I'm not telling them they can't have a new toy all the time."
Back to the multimedia capabilities of the iPod touch. In addition to thousands of cheap games from the Apple App Store, it's a full-fledged media player for movies, videos, TV shows, and music. Plus, it's got a world-class mobile browser and easy email features built right in. Kids might start with games and movies, but it doesn't take them long to start emailing. Basically, the iPod touch has legs ... a kid can use it effectively for years without growing out of it. And for adults, playing games on an iPod touch is far more acceptable than messing around in line at the local coffee shop with a Nintendo DS.
Another hurdle for Nintendo is its old-school reliance on physical cards for games that cost US$20 to $30 apiece. Sure, these games are generally very rich compared to the games iPod touch buyers can find for $1.99, but still, there's a twofold problem: The cost of entry slows adoption, and there's little instant gratification. Unlike an iPod touch game you can download in a few minutes, for the best DS games, you've got to wait for a shipment or go to a brick-and-mortar store to get it.
Actually, there are lots of little usability and "vision" hurdles for Nintendo, but the company does have two major leads it can exploit over Apple -- and I hope it does:
- Input Controls: Apple is stuck with touchscreen controls for its games, and while that can work surprisingly well and inspire new kinds of games, the bottom line is that sometimes you need real, physical tactile controls. If Nintendo can not only bring awesome games to mobile devices that leave touchscreen users wanting, but also kick Apple's butt in marketing them, Nintendo can stake out some solid territory.
- Use the Wii: The Nintendo Wii is already in a great many homes, and if Nintendo can somehow connect the mobile experience to the big-screen experience, consumers will be more likely consider Nintendo as a gaming source for mobile action, too.
Apple on the Move
On the flip side, Apple doesn't have to do much more than simply provide an outlet for game developers to build and sell their apps for the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Game developers are already happily getting astoundingly creative, and all Apple has to do is highlight a few cool games on TV every now and then. Seriously.
However, what I'd like to see is some sort of interface for the TV that that would let consumers go big -- but I'm just not seeing it out of Apple. There's so much room for the company to grow on the mobile front that I'm just not seeing Apple make an investment in big-screen gaming -- other than the iPad -- any time soon.
But that doesn't mean Nintendo can't.
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.