How Nintendo Can Do Mobile Without Giving Up on Hardware

It's all about the controller, and playing to Nintendo's strengths.

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Nintendo, Apple, TIME Tech Illustration

Let me first say that I don’t think Nintendo needs to start shoveling its back catalog onto the iPhone, as so many pundits and analysts seem to believe. At best, quick-and-dirty ports would be a short-term fix, and the experience of controlling Mario on a touchscreen would be so poor that it might just scare people away.

That doesn’t mean Nintendo has to ignore mobile devices completely. But one possibility that isn’t getting much discussion — though it’s been mentioned before — is that of a Nintendo-designed game controller for smartphones and tablets. I’m not talking about Nintendo supporting the controllers that already exist, such as those from Moga and Logitech, but building its own controller — and therefore, its own mini-platform — for playing Nintendo games on mobile devices.

Imagine this: Nintendo designs an iPhone controller specifically for games like Super Mario 3D Land, Pokemon X and Y and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. It could have the same hinged design as a Nintendo 3DS, with the iPhone clipping onto the top half. Nintendo could sell the controller at a profit — let’s assume it’d still be cheaper than a Nintendo 3DS — and pack in one of those games, plus a couple NES classics. Players would launch their games and purchase new ones through an official Nintendo app, which links to Apple’s App Store for any transactions.

It’s a fantasy, sure, but not a crazy one given the rise of physical products that make use of the iPhone and iPad. Consumers are becoming resistant to paying for virtual goods — a big reason why pumping out touchscreen NES ports is a bad idea — but they’ll pay for tangible, physical goods. Any money Nintendo makes from selling iOS games is icing on top of the profits from the controller hardware itself. As Ben Thompson, one of the sharper tech bloggers around, wrote last week, there’s a market cropping up around this business model, with products like Anki Drive and Paper’s Pencil:

This is one of the primary ways that software will be monetized going forward: hardware sold at a significant margin that is justified by the differentiation provided by software. In fact, I just described the business model of Apple itself. The physical components of a MacBook Pro or iPad have a marginal cost that is significantly lower than their retail prices; the margin is provided by software.

Plenty of mobile game controllers exist already, but they’re a tough sell because too many existing mobile games have low production values, so you don’t get a console-like experience. With Nintendo, people would be willing to buy, and at a premium, because they know the games will be excellent. Hardware differentiated by software.

By going this route, Nintendo would still be integrating software and hardware, as it has always done. Some elements on a smartphone are out of Nintendo’s control, including screen size, processor speed and camera quality , but the controller is much more important, and it’s where Nintendo has always been the most innovative. Meanwhile, the things that Nintendo is historically not good at, such as music and video services, online transactions and extensive third-party support, are already baked into iOS. Nintendo can focus on making great games and selling the hardware to support them.

Although the separate controller creates a smaller potential market compared to simple touchscreen ports, at least Nintendo would appeal to smartphone users who are willing to pay for quality games. One person who buys a controller exclusively for Nintendo content is worth more than hundreds of smartphone users who refuse to pay for anything. Those same paying customers might purchase a Nintendo 3DS instead, but that assumes they’re willing to purchase and carry two separate devices, one of which doesn’t cover all their entertainment needs. I have to believe that market is slowing down.

I’ll admit that this plan isn’t perfect. The obvious issue is that it puts Nintendo at the whim of Apple, whose App Store guidelines can change at any time. Nintendo and its customers are simply out of luck if Apple has a problem and kicks Nintendo out. And Apple taking a 30% cut of games purchased via Nintendo’s app wouldn’t be ideal, either. Targeting smartphones also doesn’t directly solve Nintendo’s struggles with the Wii U. Nintendo’s portable gaming business isn’t in such bad shape.

So I won’t say Nintendo “needs” to target mobile devices. The company has been through bad times before, and shouldn’t turn to smartphones just to scrounge up some cash (of which Nintendo still has plenty).┬áBut it’s wrong to say that smartphones are nothing but a short-term opportunity, or that Nintendo has to destroy its own identity to reach a larger gaming audience. If any company can pull it off, and change what it means to play games on a smartphone, it’s Nintendo.

(Be sure to read the opposing view from my colleague Matt Peckham.)

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