Nintendo mobile games and NX console: 9 Big Questions

What does Nintendo's move to mobile mean for its current systems? What's the NX? We try to answer some of the deal's burning questions...

Nintendo DeNA

In the space of a single announcement, Nintendo has defined what is likely to be the next chapter in its long history.

At a Tokyo press conference, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata revealed that his company is forging an alliance with Japanese mobile giant DeNA – a deal that will see a range of Nintendo games appear on mobile devices for the first time. Further, the two companies are working on rolling out a new cross-platform replacement for Club Nintendo, which will be available on PC as well as phones, tablets and Nintendo’s own systems.

As if to allay fears that Nintendo’s turning its back on making its own hardware, Iwata also announced the Nintendo NX – a “dedicated game platform” which will be formally unveiled next year.

This, clearly, is an awful lot of news to take in. So what does it all mean, and what can we expect from Nintendo as a result? Here are our nine burning questions, and our best attempts to answer them…

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Who the heck is DeNA?

Founded in 1999, DeNA is one of the biggest mobile companies in Japan. Its mobile platform, Mobage (recently renamed DeNA in the west) has a reported 30 million users, though most of those are in Japan. While it’s tried to make inroads to the western market – Transformers Battle Tactics, Marvel Mighty Heroes, and Star Wars Galactic Defense are among its biggest titles – it’s failed to repeat its eastern success. So far, that is. With its new Nintendo alliance, which sees Nintendo own 10 percent of DeNA’s shares and DeNA own around one percent of Nintendo’s, the venture could see both companies capture a fair chunk of the mobile market.

What’s this replacement for Club Nintendo all about?

Earlier this year, Nintendo announced that it’s to discontinue its Club Nintendo loyalty scheme, which originally began in 2002. Under that old system, you could exchange points given away in packaged games for items from Club Nintendo’s catalogue, with the stuff on offer ranging from soundtrack CDs to games. In practice, it was a bit of an ungainly system, with the process of logging the points from your purchases slowed up by Nintendo’s insistence on making you fill out a customer survey form each and every time.

As of the 20th April, Club Nintendo will be a thing of the past. We now know it’ll be replaced by an entirely new, currently unnamed service developed in conjunction with DeNA. The membership service will be cross-platform, which means it’ll be accessible on PC and smart devices as well as Nintendo’s own systems.

Looking at DeNA’s prior experience, we’d wager that the Club Nintendo replacement will provide something more than a loyalty scheme and a catalogue full of merchandise. In Japan, DeNA provide mobile users with shopping facilities, a media browser called E*Everystar as well as a platform for hundreds of free-to-play games. We’d be extremely surprised if the Nintendo-DeNA alliance didn’t offer a similar range of services.

What games are we likely to see? Mario Kart on the iPhone?

The deal means that “all Nintendo IP will be eligible for development and exploration by the alliance.” While this at least allows the possibility of Mario Kart on your iPad or a Zelda sequel on Android, Nintendo has made it clear that the games developed for other devices will be entirely different from those on its own systems like the 3DS or Wii U.

“Only new original games optimised for smart device functionality will be created,” a release says, “rather than porting games created specifically for the Wii U home console or the Nintendo 3DS portable system.”

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In other words, we’re likely to see touchscreen-friendly titles featuring characters like Mario and Link. This fits with Iwata’s previous suggestion that Nintendo has been looking at ways of using games on mobile devices to help promote the core games it makes for its own systems.

The games won’t be free-to-play, will they?

DeNA’s current portfolio of games are free-to-play, whether they’re lightweight things like Cupcake Carnival or slightly weightier fare like Peter Molyneux’s Godus. Nintendo’s recently been toying with the microtransaction-based market with Pokemon Shuffle, which is perhaps a good example of the kind of mobile game we’ll see from the joint venture in future.

Nintendo’s collaboration with GungHo, Puzzles & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition, has also been a huge success in Japan, and is likely to be popular in the west, too. At the moment, it seems likely that Nintendo will experiment with both free-to-play titles. While free-to-play isn’t exactly popular with all gamers, the success of games like Puzzles & Dragons proves that there’s a ready market for them.

What about the NX? What’s that, exactly?

At the moment, it’s too early to say. Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata describes it as a “dedicated game platform” featuring “new hardware and a brand new concept.” Given that the New 3DS has only just appeared, it seems safe to say that the NX is a home console rather than a next-gen handheld.

The “brand new concept” part of the announcement seems to suggest that Nintendo will finally be taking a step away from the Wii. One of the problems the Wii U faced at launch was a widespread misunderstanding that it was some sort of peripheral or minor upgrade from its predecessor rather than a new system in its own right – a problem the 3DS also faced when it came out. Nintendo will surely be at pains to avoid making the same mistake a third time.

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What we do know about the NX is that it will be compatible with Nintendo and DeNA’s cross-platform replacement for Club Nintendo:

“Unlike the Club Nintendo membership service that Nintendo has been operating, the new membership service will include multiple devices and create a connection between Nintendo and each individual consumer regardless of the device the consumer uses,” Iwata said. “This membership will form one of the core elements of the new Nintendo platform that I just mentioned.”

A clue to the nature of Nintendo’s new console could lie in its codename. NX. Could it be short for Nintendo Cross-Platform? Is Nintendo planning to create a system that will be somehow compatible with other, non-Nintendo devices, or a cloud-based console akin to the Ouya? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Isn’t it a bit soon to announce a new console?

Given that sales of the Wii U have only just started to pick up to a certain extent, Nintendo may not have done itself any favours by announcing another new system. Then again, many analysts argued that Nintendo waited far too long before it finally announced a successor to the ageing Wii. By the time the NX comes out, the Wii U is likely to be at least four or five years old itself. Announcing the NX now also heads off any conjecture that Nintendo’s about to give up on making hardware altogether.

What does this mean for the Wii U and 3DS?

For now, not a lot. As we’ve seen, Nintendo and DeNA’s forthcoming multi-platform service will be compatible with the Wii U, and Nintendo has some major games on the horizon for the console – the next Zelda entry’s due out this year, for example. In the long term, we do wonder whether the Wii U might be the last Nintendo home console to accept physical media (its forthcoming service could serve as Nintendo’s answer to Steam), though this is purely speculation on our part.

When will all of this happen?

The NX is likely to be at least 18 months away, with Iwata saying that he hopes “to share more information with you next year.”

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That puts the release of the NX at Christmas 2016 at the earliest, with a 2017 launch probably more likely. That time scale certainly fits with Nintendo’s previous form. The Wii (back when it was still codenamed the Revolution) was shown off in 2005, and gradually rolled out globally in the winter of 2006.

Nintendo and DeNA’s membership service, meanwhile, is coming much sooner. According to Nintendo, the as-yet unnamed service will launch in the autumn of this year (that’s 2015, fact fans).

So is this good news or bad news?

For the legion industry analysts who’ve been saying for years that Nintendo should join the wider mobile market, the announcement is likely to have provoked a loud “Hallelujah.” Even Nintendo’s staunchest defenders would probably argue that it’s so far struggled to create the kind of smooth, fully-integrated online experience developed by its rivals, so DeNA’s experience in this area could prove to be a Good Thing.

As for characters like Mario, Luigi and Bowser appearing on other platforms, well, that’s sure to garner a mixed response from Nintendo’s core following of fans who’d prefer to see them remain exclusively on the 3DS and Wii U. Nintendo has itself admitted that its foray into mobile is something of a risk. The market is a ferociously competitive one, and the popularity of one game by no means guarantees the success of the next, as Angry Birds creators Rovio would probably tell you.

But Nintendo’s alliance could have a positive outcome for everybody: Nintendo’s sitting on a range of characters that puts most other publishers to shame, and their appearance in mobile games could prove to be the proverbial licence to print money. And with its coffers boosted by the sales from games on phones and tablets, Nintendo could then funnel a portion of those profits into maintaining its core properties – like Mario Kart, Zelda, and Smash Bros. – on its forthcoming NX console.

More than just about any other company, Nintendo has managed to jealously guard its IP, with each entry in its best-known franchises being immaculately polished and critically well received. If Nintendo can maintain that level of quality as it moves into new areas of the gaming market, then its future could be brighter than ever.

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