How Nintendo could release iOS games

So there have been a few exchanges lately in the Apple pundit sphere about whether Nintendo is in trouble with the 3DS and whether it had better start releasing games for the iPhone and iPad. I feel I would be out of my depth analyzing Nintendo’s woes (or lack thereof), but on specific points I feel like I can contribute.

First of all, my personal experience, for what it’s worth, mostly matches Lukas’: when my little sister got a Game Boy Color in 1998 or so, we all used it at home (including her), with only a few exceptions like road trips (where we would take a lot of things with us anyway). On the other hand, these days I use my Nintendo DS Lite during my daily commute, and it seems from various online and offline interactions that I am not alone; it is hard for me to tell whether Nintendo portable consoles are being displaced in that market: I do see a lot of people playing on their iPhones and Android devices in the commuter train, but would have (even part of) these people been playing on portable consoles instead were it not for smartphones? I have no idea. I would carry my briefcase during my commute anyway, but it is possible that others did take advantage of their smartphone to forego the portable console, and the briefcase/backpack/attaché-case along with it, for their commute, and therefore that for some the smartphone did in effect displace the portable console.

Now, on the matter of what Nintendo could do, I think that if they followed John’s recommendation and started releasing games for the iOS platform, success of such a strategy would have the odds stacked against it, at least if what they do is just release iOS games for the sake of releasing iOS games. Others went into some of the reasons why, but one factor I would like to add it that it would not sit well internally at Nintendo. Nintendo is a proud company. For starters, they have buried all of their predecessors and 80’s contemporaries, and by bury I mean that Nintendo (at least) drove them off the hardware business: Atari, Amstrad, Commodore, SNK (Neo Geo), and of course Sega, and this is but an incomplete list. And for those which did manage to keep releasing games, the results have been… I think I’ll go with “sub-par”. Now I think Nintendo would do better than these guys as a pure game developer, but it is easy to see why Nintendo employees would internally consider releasing games for iOS, even “a couple of $9.99 iPhone/iPad games to test the water”, to be losing face. Even if they were to present it to the outside as “giving a glass of ice water to someone in hell”.

As a result, if Nintendo were to work on releasing games for iOS, it would not have its best employees working on them, and it could even cause some of these to leave the company. Teams working on games for iOS would be considered turncoats by other parts of the company, with the possibility of turf wars and withheld cooperation from these other parts. What’s more, both technical and non-technical Nintendo employees working on these games would have to deal with Apple’s technical and policy rules of the iOS App Store, which are already frustrating to most iOS developers, so I let you imagine how much more they would be to people used to making the rules. Apple certainly is not going to bend the rules for Nintendo, regardless (or possibly because) of the “ice water” Nintendo would bring. In the end, that would cause some of these employees to question why they should be dealing with this stuff, and drive them to quit.

The comparison with iTunes for Windows is not apt at all. For one, by that point Windows was an incumbent; but more importantly, in general-purpose computing other network effects exist besides “more users attract more applications, and more applications attract more users”, so it was possible for Apple to convince its own people that it was worth it to stomach Windows development because it would help the iPod and even indirectly the Mac as well, and in the end it did. By contrast, with video gaming platforms there is very little of such secondary network effects, so for Nintendo employees to be working on games for iOS would be seen as playing for the other team. So I think it is too early for Nintendo to be seen releasing iOS games.

However, if Nintendo were to try releasing iOS games at this time anyway, one way they could do it which would dampen this factor (and maybe others) is by taking advantage of the iPhone to do things they could not do anyway with the 3DS. In particular, back in the day of the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance, Nintendo would sometimes release games featuring additional hardware in the cart, like Kirby Tilt’n’Tumble or Pokemon Pinball. But nowadays it is no longer possible, as the cartridge slot in the Nintendo DS and 3DS just does not reasonably allow anything to stick out like that. Lately I have been playing WarioWare Twisted, which packs a gyroscope and rumble (I mean, just look at that cart) and only ever uses the A button besides that, and thought it would be ideal for the iPhone, which features both. Now it turns out that the 3DS does have an internal gyroscope among other things, but as far as I can tell it does not have any rumble feature. So Nintendo could get a start on the iOS platform by releasing back catalog portable games that for one reason or another relied on a feature not present in the 3DS.

But releasing back catalog games does not a strategy make. So Nintendo could use this as a starting point to make new original games for iOS which they could not do on the 3DS. But probably not by relying on things like rumble or multitouch for these new games, as Nintendo might want to put them in their next handheld, and reserve games relying on these features to that console; instead, these games for iOS would rely on features less usual for games to use like the magnetometer and location services (to make augmented reality games for instance), as these features are not traditional gaming hardware features, and Nintendo could use them while keeping face and with less fear of squandering an opportunity of keeping such mechanisms exclusively for its next handheld.

And the (fictional) banner under which the team at Nintendo would do so, kind of like the Macintosh’s team pirate flag, could be WarioWare, Inc., the fictional company founded by the greedy character Wario and supposed to be behind the microgames in the WarioWare series of games. For a start because Nintendo has already played with Wario giving out a mock press conference or mock press release and fundraiser, then because the first back catalog game they would release this way would be WarioWare Twisted. But also because WarioWare games have always been quite… experimental, and this would merely be one more way to experiment, the new frontier for Nintendo. I am not even the first one to suggest the association.

And, well, okay, let’s admit it, it is also because I love the WarioWare microgames that remix old Nintendo games, and would love even more to see old Mac and Apple II games get the same treatment in a WarioWare for iOS: Oregon Trail (“cross!”), Zork (“get lamp!”), Ultima (“find the exit!”), Mystery House (“type!”), Alice (“capture!”), Lode Runner (“dig!”), Shufflepuck Café (“block!”), Beyond Dark Castle (“throw!”), Realmz (“cast!”), Ambrosia games and Escape Velocity in particular (“land!”), Glider (“escape!”), Marathon (“shoot!”), Factory (“dispatch!”), Jetpack (“dodge!”), or, heck, Visicalc (“calculate!”) or Hypercard (“flip!”)…