On Nintendo’s New Smartphone App Miitomo

Games Features Nintendo
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During his inaugural investor’s meeting as the newly-minted President of Nintendo, Tatsumi Kimishima held the distinct burden of unveiling Nintendo’s very first smartphone game. Only it’s not a game. It was already announced over a year ago. And it shows the Kyoto-based entertainment company is still comfortable forging its own path, especially when counter to the ever-present din of popular opinion.

Miitomo will launch on mobile devices in March 2016. How the app works exactly is still unclear. As described by Kimishima to investors, it is a “free-to-start communication application.” This is not quite the goliath predicted by analysts or enthusiasts when pondering how Nintendo would launch their first foray into the mobile space. Odds-on favorites were Mario or Donkey Kong. Less mainstream hopes hinged on Advance Wars or WarioWare. Some wanted an older IP to be dusted off and re-introduced to the public, perhaps a StarTropics or Mach Rider. Game business analyst Dr. Serkan Toto teased his followers with inside knowledge of the unknown app: “Expect the unexpected,” he tweeted out on October 2nd. But the answer had already been given.

On October 30th, 2014, Satoru Iwata, then-President of Nintendo before his untimely death this past July, explained in a Q+A session following his investor’s briefing presentation the company’s early smartphone plans. “The application under development,” Iwata said, “is one that utilizes Mii on smart devices.” At this time, Nintendo had yet to announce their collaboration with DeNA and their full commitment to delivering games using their famous characters onto mobile. But as early as January 2014, Iwata announced plans that Nintendo was working on a way to leverage smartphones as a way to connect with their customers. The seeds of that thought, Miitomo, will finally poke through the soil over two years later.

And the people were underwhelmed. Since the official announcement, Nintendo’s stock has dropped nearly 10% as of this writing. The Wall Street Journal asserts the lowering confidence is due to the app’s release being delayed; Nintendo had previously stated their first mobile offering would be available by the end of the calendar year. But others are flummoxed by the lack of recognizable faces: Tech in Asia’s headline states “With no sign of Mario, Nintendo’s first mobile game looks ‘disappointing’.”

The prevailing notion was that Nintendo on mobile would look like Nintendo on their own consoles; that is, a company that delivers accessible, polished, easy-to-learn but difficult-to-master games. But for all the chatter about how they should release Super Mario Bros. on iPhone and rake in the mega-bucks, these armchair analysts forget the reason Nintendo has succeeded for so long: A careful, deliberate, and integrated approach to building hardware and software.

The Nintendo 64 had an analog stick to accommodate Super Mario 64’s freedom of movement. Wii Sports was built around the Wii’s remote. Even the GameCube’s c-stick, that small yellow nub that was kind of a right joystick but not really, was basically an accommodation for Luigi’s Mansion and its sweeping flashlights. With Nintendo’s late move into mobile, the hardware is not their own. But their central design philosophy hasn’t changed: The software will match the hardware. And Miitomo looks to fit the way people use their phones.

Notice that verb: “use.” People play on their game consoles. But more often, they use their phones. Your iPhone 6 or Galaxy 5 is a supplement to what you’re really doing: Grocery shopping or waiting in line or sitting at a restaurant, shamefully ignoring your tablemates. Statistics show that ‘Games’ are the most popular category on Apple’s App Store, yes. But these are different to the Nintendo style of game found on their home or portable consoles. Successful smartphone games require an extended engagement over many months. Most popular console games can be defeated over a weekend. It’s folly to assume the mere sight of Mario would equate to a lasting engagement; more likely, players would expect one kind of game and get something very different, causing disappointment and an immediate, lasting negative association with Nintendo on mobile.

Instead, Nintendo has chosen—in my novice opinion, very wisely—to go with a character even more popular than the mustachioed plumber.

“The main character of Miitomo is you.” That’s President Kimishima explaining the basic concept of their new app to investors earlier this week.

“We are positive that we can make a stronger bond with our consumers using Mii.” That’s President Iwata, one year ago, expressing their hope for what Nintendo aspires to accomplish on mobile.

Nintendo’s goal in entering the smartphone market is not to create the next great flash-in-the-pan success like Flappy Bird or Doodle Jump. Instead, with Miitomo, they aim to connect people with Nintendo again and, at first, to each other. In the final slide describing the app and its end result, where more traditional games might tout the chance to save the world or gain incredible power, the chosen phrase is emblematic of this pursuit: “Unexpected relationships created by friendly conversation starters.”

Again, few details have been revealed. But so far, Miitomo looks like a kind of experiment in passive social interaction. You make your Mii, who then comes alive and asks you questions about yourself. Then your Mii shares these details with your friends within the Miitomo community. Another slide explains: “You might see a side of your friends you didn’t know about!” Underneath the text is a Mii character dressed as a giant carton of French fries.

Nintendo have played with such concepts before: The StreetPass function for 3DS allows you to see details of strangers’ habits as you cross paths with them in real life, and Tomodachi Life is a virtual dollhouse-sim / fever dream, where you watch as Mii-versions of you and your friends inhabit an island, romance one another, and perform magic shows. Miitomo appears to be the extension of such attempts, on the one platform that (nearly) everyone already owns.

How this will be monetized or supported in the future is up in the air. But the point remains: If you were expecting Nintendo to build a Zelda-styled Clash of Clans, you thought wrong. That may well be coming. But for now, their initial jump into the red, red waters of mobile gaming is not as surprising as you might expect. In fact, it continues a streak of playful experimentation with a power rarely realized in gaming: the chance to empathize with others. Their social network called Miiverse was intended as a way for players to not only share their triumphs but help others in need; if you’re stuck on Level 6, drop a comment asking for a hint and a player might answer, pushing you onward.

On mobile, Nintendo can extend that philosophy of building up others far beyond their own, walled-off garden. Trouble is, people love to tear others down. Miitomo will live or die depending on whether enough of us out there care if we live or die. Videogames have fetishized killing for decades. High scores have always been numerical statements of worth, like cash deposits stuck in a bank. But there are other ways to quantify value.

Where fellow games offer leaderboards, Miitomo hopes to expand friendships. Instead of another reason to look down at your phone and escape, Nintendo hopes to give you a reason to look up and see that person across the table in a whole new way.

Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.