Nintendo and the Failing Quest for the Gaming Ecosystem

After decades of innovating how we play, Nintendo must innovate its approach to remain relevant

The Switch is the successful console that Nintendo desperately needed to save itself. After the colossal flop of the Wii U, the veteran video game company couldn’t afford to falter again. But how could a company that has been successful for so long have let such a flop out into the wild? The answer lies in Nintendo’s long standing strategy. A strategy similar to how an older Italian plumber might make his spaghetti: throw it against the wall, if it sticks its good. More to that point, Nintendo has focused predominantly on innovating the peripherals used to control their games. Peripherals that can’t be updated or changed easily, and are often proprietary to one game. There is no in between for this strategy when it comes to success. Win big or fail big are the only options.

Both the Wii and the Wii U represent what can happen on either side of a hardware gamble. The Wii was a blockbuster success thanks to its motion controllers and intuitive gameplay. Then, with the next generation of consoles, Nintendo bet on the Wii U. A bet so poorly placed that many critics were calling for Nintendo to go the way of Sega. Leave the hardware development up to Sony and Microsoft and only exist as a licensor of software.

Haphazard success and failure for a legacy company like Nintendo is fairly commonplace today. Many companies are struggling to adapt to world that leverages lean and design methods to reevaluate how they do business. Nintendo is in a slightly different situation, as they create both digital and physical products. There is a decision to be made that directly affects Nintendo’s ability to succeed in a world where nothing digital remains static anymore. Is it necessary for Nintendo to create all of the hardware on which their digital IP is available?

One goal in particular is continually defeated by this spaghetti approach to hardware creation. Nintendo has failed through generations of consoles to create a bridge between mobile and console experiences. These previous failures should help guide us to the answer to the question posed above.

A brief history of Nintendo’s hardware ecosystem failures

An initial attempt was to bridge the divide between the hugely successful N64 and Gameboy consoles. Many Nintendo titles at this time saw home and mobile console editions and the Transferpak was born of the idea that the two experiences need not be separate.

Owners of two games in a participating franchise that spanned both consoles could connect their Gameboy games to their N64 via the controller loaded Transferpak. Players ultimately achieved small rewards for going through the process in the form of new playable characters or in-game equipment. Hardly worth the investment in two consoles, two games, and an additional peripheral. Very few developers adopted the idea leaving the Transferpak with only 16 total use cases (not all of which were available in North America).

Even after the poor adoption of the Transferpak, Nintendo pushed onward in their quest to unit their consoles as if it was the only way for Mario to save the princess. With the next generation of consoles, the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance, came two different ploys.

The Gameboy Player let players enjoy their mobile games intended for a 2.9 inch screen on their stationary home televisions. This ultimately failed, as it can be assumed that Gamecube owners asked themselves “why play a mobile game when I have access to my non-mobile console”.

The second attempt to tie the Gamecube and GBA together came in the form of controller adapters that allowed the GBA to act as a controller with an additional screen. Again, very few games ultimately adopted this method of play as it suffered many of the same shortcomings of the Transferpak. (Nintendo must have forgotten or misunderstood why using a console as a controller failed, as the idea was later touted as the selling point for the Wii U.)

GBA link used as a controller for Legend of Zelda: The Four Swords

It is also worth noting that not all of Nintendo’s products are video games, so not all of their ecosystem attempts were video game to video game. One such attempt at connecting two Nintendo IP delivery mechanisms came in the form of the E-Reader.

This device was meant to bridge the gap between trading cards and the Gameboy Advance. Read as unorthodox at first, it suddenly becomes more (although not entirely) understandable when you learn that Nintendo started out printing playing cards. Nintendo printed their own trading card decks as delivery mechanisms for additional content for properly equipped games. They also leveraged their partnership with their Pokemon Trading Card Game publisher, Wizards of the Coast, to print Pokemon cards that were E-Reader compatible. Similar to the Transferpak, a lack of developers and expensive peripherals resulted in limited adoption. Many of the compatibles games required being linked to a GBA running the E-Reader, meaning two consoles were required to utilize the cards. It also put a burden on publishers to design and publish compatible cards.

After all of these early attempted ecosystems, Nintendo’s resolve wained during the Wii/DS and Wii U/3DS eras. Yes, some games offered Wifi connectivity to unlock specials levels or items and DS games could be demo’d through the Wii. But gone was the risk-taking attitude that drove the fevered creation of one use peripherals. Nintendo hopefully learned that asking consumers to purchases multiple consoles, additional accessories, and multiple versions of similar games for unlockable content was an unrealistic expectation.

One would hope that Nintendo would take this learning, and reevaluate their approach. Rather than building one-off devices with limited use cases, Nintendo should double down on the development of experiences that extend the console game play to more mobile moments. One fairly recent development points to a change in Nintendo’s approach. Nintendo has begun to publish games from its most popular franchises on third party devices, namely, smartphones.

By doing this, Nintendo fixes a key issue it had on its journey to ecosystem creation. Most consumers today have an internet-enabled smartphone and Nintendo no longer needs its players to purchase additional hardware to get the entire intended experience. This frees its developers to focus on novel mobile moments and creative gameplay and opens new potential profit models.

At least, that’s what the move to smartphone game creation could have done for Nintendo. The first game to leverage this new bridge points to a continuation of the same hardware flops described above.

Pokemon Let’s Go was released in November 2017 and was intended to build on the Pokemon Go success. The full console companion to the mobile AR game, it utilizes much of the same gameplay mechanics and general feel. While this plays well, it fails to inspire the cross pollination gameplay intended.

the Pokeball Plus in front of a Switch running Pokemon Let’s Go Eevee

Rather than focus on a more thoughtful experience and a business model to support it, Nintendo did what it always has, used the game as a gateway to sell another limited use peripheral. The Pokeball Plus is a $50 controller intended to enable slightly more game functionality. Players can transfer their favorite (singular) pokemon to the controller and earn in-game bonuses for walking/playing with said pokemon.

When Nintendo’s competitors are effectively drawing in more casual gamers with modern approaches to game development and delivery, it’s a disappointment to see such a lack of innovation. If Nintendo hopes to be the player it once was in an industry that it helped create, it must change its approach.

Design Smartphone games as extensions to Main Console titles instead of ham-fisted tie-ins

Nintendo shouldn’t focus on creating titles that stand entirely on their own for smartphones if the intent is for the games to sync with titles for the Switch. Smartphone titles should be developed alongside Switch titles, with same day or slightly delayed release dates. These should be extensions to the main title that leverage the unique attributes of smartphones: always-on internet connectivity, geolocation, etc. This will expand the digital world of the main title while it removes the potential failure of game specific hardware. From here, Nintendo can seek to grow this smartphone title with additional features and fresh functionality in a much more lean approach. There is a potential two-fold effect here. It will unlock new profit models and extend the life of formerly static titles.

Whether this is actually Nintendo’s sleeping strategy has yet to be determined. But if its first foray into this world is any indication, Nintendo will continue down its spaghetti approach and will sink or swim with its next hardware gamble.

Designer, Strategist, Researcher

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