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If one thing is certain after this week’s financial results press conference by Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, it’s this: When it comes to the Big N’s future, pretty much anything could happen. The presentation included a vast number of topics--the future of Wii U, smartphone games, licensing, upcoming hardware, account systems, and more--but was nonetheless full of noncommittal, vague, and sometimes contradictory comments. It seems like Nintendo is throwing a lot of things at the wall to see what sticks, but the big question is if any of it will reverse Nintendo’s fortunes.
Iwata made it very clear that Nintendo isn’t throwing in the towel on Wii U. His stance is that Wii U could be a contender if the gaming audience could only understand the potential of the GamePad. Honestly, I'm not sure that's the case--I think they do understand the GamePad, but they just don’t care about it. Thanks to the DS and 3DS, players are very familiar with using two screens, so if there is some groundbreaking new GamePad functionality that we haven’t seen yet, Nintendo really needs to show it (and with more than the trickle of software they’ve been releasing).
For my money, though, I’m not looking for a great use of the GamePad; I’m just looking for great games, period. Isn’t that what everybody wants? If Nintendo can build up a library of amazing Wii U games--innovative GamePad features or no--the system gets that much closer to must-have status.
While I’m not sure how this renewed emphasis on the GamePad will fare, I think Nintendo has the right idea about smartphones. Although it was hard to tell exactly what its plans are, it sounds like the publisher will use smartphone apps primarily as marketing tools--to get brands, characters, and products out in front of the massive smartphone-using audience--which can’t be a bad thing. To hear that Nintendo is working on apps is no surprise (we heard about a Miiverse app years ago), but Iwata’s conflicting statements on making actual games is certainly baffling. Chances are, any games would be small, simple, and marketing-driven, but could such things actually convey the appeal of the Nintendo brand? Whatever the case, Nintendo’s decision to promote its products to the Cut the Rope crowd seems like a smart business move, especially if that's the audience that helped sell umpteen million Wii's last generation.
Likewise, Nintendo’s new approach to licensing its products could be very beneficial in increased brand recognition. Will this mean more action figures? Animated TV shows? CG movies? Hey, if Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper are getting ‘em, why not Samus or Link? Perhaps, though, the more intriguing part of Nintendo’s plan for expanded licensing is that it could apply to “digital fields, provided that we are not in direct competition.” Could that mean more crossover opportunities, like Kirby showing up in Angry Birds, or some Zelda-themed Puzzle & Dragons action? Ice Climber's Ski Safari? Mario Teaches Typing 2? As long as we don’t end up with aberrations like Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, the possibilities could be pretty cool. Nintendo's mascots have surpassed gaming already, and if the company wants to treat them like cultural icons, more power to it.
On the other hand, I’m much less enthused about Nintendo’s plans to further expand into health-based technology with its so-called “Quality of Life” platform. Sure, Nintendo made huge splashes with Wii Fit and Brain Age, but in the long run those have felt more like passing fads than sustainable business models; is the world really ready for a Nintendo device that’s all fitness, all the time? And can Nintendo afford to split its resources when currently it can barely maintain a steady stream of software for its games business?
Moving into a new "blue ocean" with a mysterious “non-wearable” product might sound great from a theoretical business perspective, but pulling it off won’t be easy, especially because every blue ocean tends to turn red as soon as the competition thinks they can grab a bite. But here’s a sobering thought: if Nintendo does manage to create a revolution in health/lifestyle products, that could give it a convenient escape strategy if its share of the gaming business continues to dwindle.
How this all pans out in the months and years ahead is sure to prove interesting as the details all fall into place, but at least Iwata left Nintendo fans with a few concrete facts to hang their hopes on: Mario Kart 8 will arrive on Wii U in May, and we’ll learn more about Nintendo’s plans for near-field communications in the Wii U come E3 in June. Personally, I think some real-life NFC figurines for Super Smash Bros. would be pretty awesome. And who knows? Given the current crazy Nintendo environment, nothing should be ruled out.