Nintendo, Like Apple, Needs to Control the Experience from Nuts to Bolts to Keep Being Nintendo

Assuming Nintendo's future lies with mobile devices like smartphones or tablets is wrongheaded thinking.

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I’d been planning to hatch a longish screed about the echo chamber’s (pundits, analysts, mobile evangelists) zombie-consensus that Nintendo needs to be on smartphones and tablets for awhile now, but then I ran across Chris Kohler’s smart piece in Wired this morning, “Everything You’re Thinking About Nintendo Is Totally Wrong,” and realized he’d already said most of what I’d been planning to. So instead of rehashing his points, let’s see if I can add a little to the conversation he’s started.

The essence of Kohler’s position, and a point I’ve also argued for years, is that Nintendo currently controls the gaming experience from top to bottom — it’s as obsessed with the art of interface design as it is the physics of butt-stomps, wall-jumps or animal-inspired power suits. This nuts to bolts approach to game design is what makes the Nintendo we know and love — at least when it’s firing on all cylinders — Nintendo, and until recently, unique among its competition.

And yet pundits and analysts have been obsessed with Nintendo’s intellectual property of late, disregarding the company’s formative interface-related contributions to how we’ve played games on virtually every gaming-devoted platform from the 1980s forward. Without Gunpei Yokoi’s Game & Watch, for instance, there’d be no cross-directional control pad. And without that cross-directional control scheme — or d-pad — sparking with an arcade game like Super Mario Bros., there’d be no modern gamepad (as we know it).

We take that for granted in 2014, but just look at the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One gamepads: essentially souped-up NES controllers (d-pad at left, face buttons at right) with supplemental inputs like thumbsticks, triggers, touchpads and motion sensors. Even the latter features are rooted in Nintendo innovations, from the Nintendo 64’s pioneering 3D thumbstick paired with Super Mario 64 (one of those rare leaps forward worthy of the label “revolutionary”) to the Nintendo DS’s secondary screen — which advanced touch-based gaming en masse long before Apple backed into the concept (Apple doesn’t design games) via the iPhone and iPad — to motion control itself, which the Wii popularized years before Microsoft, Sony or Apple latched onto the idea in earnest.

This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: hardware is as vital to the design process as software. In fact, the distinction conventionally made between those spheres is arbitrary — a pragmatic delineation that obfuscates a deeply symbiotic relationship. Input and output are continuous aspects of a single design process, like a Venn diagram that’s all but consubstantial. If the slightest aspect of either sphere feels off, the whole experience falls apart.

So when people argue by rote that Nintendo needs to hop on the smartphone/tablet bandwagon and unleash iconic characters like Mario and Link and Samus, they might as well instruct Beck to sound more like Miley Cyrus, or Cormac McCarthy to ape Danielle Steele. It’s a confused way of thinking about any art form that reduces what Nintendo’s up to, to shallow metrics like “P/E ratio” or “shareholder value.” I’m not saying those aren’t important weighing factors, but if that’s your definition of art (or prefatory concession to making art), I’m not sure we’re really having a conversation about art.

Which raises the other point glossed over in too many of these armchair directives: If Nintendo can figure out how to subsist in second or third (or whatever) place and still be sufficiently profitable, where’s the fire? You’re not either winning or losing in this business. Yes, you need an install base to lure developers, and yes, you need those developers to make your platform attractive to the relevant demographics, but platforms can coexist at very different adoption levels, and initially unsuccessful ones (see Nintendo’s own 3DS) can come roaring back if a company presents compelling enough reasons to consumers.

The problem with Nintendo’s Wii U is that Nintendo doesn’t have enough of those reasons yet (yes, Reggie Fils-Aime, even after the Wii U’s holiday lineup). That, and Nintendo’s in something of a third-party pickle, support-wise. You want to play Super Mario 3D World or The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, sure, but you probably want to play stuff like Grand Theft Auto VDiablo IIIBioShock InfiniteTomb Raider and Saints Row IV, too. Hardware capability issues aside — and that’s clearly a related (if not exclusive) reason some developers are backing away from the platform — the Wii U has none of those games. And at $300, the system’s still not cheap enough to survive by playing console adjunct, as the Wii did. What’s more, the Wii U doesn’t seem to be selling to the new-ish family/casual demographic that snatched up the Wii in droves.

But it’s just knee-jerking to reactively pronounce Nintendo’s future subordinate to a nascent gaming paradigm that’s still in large measures a giant question mark. Forget creating touchscreen versions of Mario and Zelda — even, let’s say, if the company designed its own control interface for smartphones or tablets. Whether physically attached or wireless, I’m not sure that’s what the potential audience for such devices wants, and here it becomes important to distinguish between what people say they want (like, say, serious, hard-hitting news coverage) and what they’ll actually open their wallets to support.

The notion of attaching a deterministic, fine motor movement controllable interface — that is, something with depressible buttons or movable thumbsticks — to a platform designed for multitouch interaction seems increasingly gimmicky to me. It’s an adjunct device craze that’s in danger of becoming a bubble as companies flood the market with accessories in search of a problem that may or may not exist, absent a Nintendo-like company driving both the hardware and software angles (say Apple, if it ever got serious about gaming). In any case, I can’t see Nintendo tying itself to someone else’s mast as such. It’s a philosophical problem for the company as much as an economic one.

You could argue that Nintendo’s already experimenting with the latter notion by making Wii games playable on the Wii U GamePad. I’m no fan of the experience: You have to prop the GamePad’s 6.2-inch screen on a table, but since the screen is so small and too low (sitting on your average table) for comfortable viewing, you wind up having to stack books or other objects beneath it to get it to eye level. And then you’re trying to waggle a Wiimote (and occasionally the Nunchuk) somewhere below that tiny screen. Inelegant would be a euphemism for what it feels like.

In short, what Nintendo needs to keep being Nintendo is that nuts to bolts control of the experience. And why give it up? Sony and Microsoft seem to be doing fine with their respective set-tops and creative property without dragging Master Chief or Nathan Drake off to smartphone- or tablet-dom. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V isn’t on tablets and smartphones because it probably shouldn’t be on tablets or smartphones. Hosted by a powerful tablet controlled with a gamepad and streaming to a giant TV screen? Perhaps. But now we’re talking about tablets or smartphones as consoles, not as tablets or smartphones.

My colleague Harry McCracken recently wrote a piece canvassing the history of people telling Apple what it needs to do. Consider the history of that storied company: all of its ups and downs, its missteps and victories, and where it is now. Would Apple be the Apple we know if, say, it had surrendered control of its hardware to third parties back when pundits were clamoring for it to hop on the Dell-Compaq-IBM-Gateway-HP-etc. bandwagon? We’re talking about a company that’s as holistic in its product approach as Nintendo, apps to operating systems to glass- or aluminum-ensconced gear.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Wii U turns out to be one of Nintendo’s less successful ideas. The question is how many “less successful ideas” Nintendo can afford to have before it throws in the towel as a holistic platform company and perhaps becomes the software adjunct to someone else’s, as all the pundits seem to think it ought to be today. No one has that answer, but one thing seems certain: It’s far too soon, Wii U or no, to demand that Nintendo stop being Nintendo.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full