Nintendo fans anxiously awaiting the company’s first mobile app may be in for a surprise.
Seated at the head of a long, rectangular table on the 49th floor of The London NYC, a high-end midtown Manhattan hotel, I spent the better part of an early March afternoon hour looking into the future.
Nintendo's future, that is.
On that day I became one of the first people outside of Nintendo itself to try Miitomo, the company's first mobile app that's launching today in Japan for Android and iOS (it'll be released in the US later this month). It's a weird one.
Upon launching the app, you create a cutesy avatar called a Mii (mine is pictured above) that then asks you a series of probing questions like "What was your most recent purchase?" and "What were you doing right before you started playing?" Once seeded with a bunch of answers, your Mii then boops around the in-game world, bumping into your friends' Miis and exchanging these tidbits of information with each other even while the app isn't open. "Did you know that my favorite TV is the reality show Total Divas? What's yours?"
If Nintendo has its way, we'll use Miitomo as a "social go-between" to share "fun little things" about ourselves that we wouldn't normally think to share with our friends. And if Nintendo really has its way we'll also spend a few dollars via in-app purchases on cosmetic items to further customize our avatars.
There's a lot riding on Miitomo, the first of five mobile apps that Nintendo plans to release over the next year. Despite popularizing the very concept of mobile gaming nearly 30 years ago with the GameBoy, Nintendo has until now stayed on the sidelines of "mobile," the catch-all category that describes games played on smartphones and tablets.
In the meantime, Nintendo's absence has allowed companies like Rovio (Angry Birds), King (Candy Crush Saga), and Supercell (Clash of Clans) to set expectations for what it means to be a mobile game much the same way that Mario and Link set expectations for what it meant to be a home console game in the 1980s.
In short, Nintendo was in danger of being left behind in an entire category it helped start.
But the thing about Miitomo is, while many fans may have been hoping for something a little more traditional than an asynchronous chat app, Nintendo told Motherboard that it wanted its first mobile app to reach beyond its hardcore fanbase. After all, nearly 400 million smartphones were shipped in 2015 alone, according to IDC, and while you can bet many of those people wouldn't know the difference between Luigi and Link, they may not be altogether opposed to adding another app to their smartphone's "Social" folder.
"The Mii characters were hugely popular on Wii," said Bill Trinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Nintendo of America, noting that the avatars made their debut on the Nintendo Wii in 2006 before spreading to Nintendo's later platforms like the 3DS and Wii U. "You had moms, dads, and grandparents creating Mii characters. The Mii characters, coupled with the smart device app, opens the opportunity for us to reconnect with a lot of that original Wii audience."
In other words, the players Nintendo is targeting with Miitomo are people who might have played Wii Sports or Guitar Hero back in the heyday of the Nintendo Wii but who probably wouldn't wait in line for the reopening of the company's flagship store in New York City.
"Nintendo is always going after the mainstream," said Japanese video game industry analyst Dr. Serkan Toto. "[Mario creator Shigeru] Miyamoto always says, 'We are going after the biggest gaming population we can catch.' And what's the biggest market right now? Mobile platforms, of course. We've never had more people playing games than we have right now."
According to Dr. Toto, Nintendo may have taken so long to roll out its first mobile app in part because of lingering suspicion surrounding mobile gaming, where "free-to-play" is sometimes seen as a dirty word that actually means "pay-to-win." (If you look closely, Nintendo describes Miitomoas "free-to-start" instead of "free-to-play.") "Nintendo is very proud of its status as probably the most iconic game maker out there," said Dr. Toto. "It's very clear that Nintendo didn't want to bring out the big guns [meaning the likes of Mario and Link] for the first app."
But what about Nintendo's future apps? While the company hasn't officially announced the details of its second app, Bill Trinen told Motherboard that it would be "very easy for us to go and pick Mario or some other IP and bring them to mobile in a way that can appeal to a lot of different people." So while that seems to indicate we may not have to wait much longer to play some sort of Mario title with our iPhones, it's unlikely to merely be a port of Super Mario World or any of the other classic Mario games.
"We can always come back and reach [diehard fans] with Mario at some point in the future if that's what we decide to do," said Trinen, "whereas with Miitomoit's really about building a connection between Nintendo and consumers who maybe haven't played a lot of Nintendo games in the past."
Update: Miitomo will be released in the US on Thursday, March 31, Nintendo announced on March 29. Both the Android and iOS versions will be released at that time.