Apple vs. Nintendo

A game-developer friend of mine asked me about my thoughts regarding this Wired piece by Chris Kohler on Apple’s aggressive move to present its iPad 2 event at the exact same time as, and just across the street from, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s Game Developer’s Conference keynote. Having once been a videogame journalist, I can somewhat relate to the “which event do I go to?” conundrum portrayed in Kohler’s piece, but given the state of things I would go to the iPad 2 event today if I had the choice.

I think this move is not at all unusual for Apple. Apple knows they’ll get all the media coverage they want, even with GDC happening at the same time, but by doing this they’ll clearly steal some attention away from Nintendo. And some of the attention Nintendo will keep will now include a play-by-play comparison to Apple’s new iPad offerings from a gaming perspective, which, no matter the outcome, is less ideal for Nintendo than simply having all coverage focused on its own new products.

Additionally, there are a lot of game developers (very) curious to learn more about what Apple will offer the gaming industry with the new iPad, whereas Nintendo’s presentation is expected to be focused on the Nintendo 3DS and reiterating some of its online/social features they already discussed at their dual-events held in Amsterdam and New York, last month. In other words, (somewhat) old news.

Developers already making games for Nintendo’s platform are likely to continue doing so. They may add an iOS version, but I don’t think all that many will switch from Nintendo to iOS. The reverse, however, seems even far more unlikely to me.

But what about new game developers, i.e. people who aren’t really tied to any platform yet? They’ll go where the money is, and right now, iOS is where the money is in mobile gaming.

While the sales on that platform are spread among a much greater number of people than they are for Nintendo’s platforms (Wii and DS), the barrier to entry is inversely lower, offsetting that to a fairly large degree. While developing a great iPhone game can easily run you into six figures of costs, that’s nothing compared to the average of seven figures for console games today. And these days the high end of console games surpasses most Hollywood movie budgets. Game developers are currently succeeding well enough on both platforms, but there are some significant benefits to iOS.

First, something that matters a lot to developers: the tools (SDK). Nintendo’s Wii was seen as really easy to work with (compared to the PS3), but iOS has come in and made it look painful. The starting costs alone give you an idea: $99 for iOS (free to start, $99 to publish your game on the AppStore), $1700~ for the Wii.

Distribution is a similar deal: Apple takes care of that for you (as part of its 30% cut), whereas with Nintendo you have to do all your own licensing & distribution deals with publishers, creating a lot of overhead for you. Customer payments also fall under that, with Apple’s offerings being simpler and easier to work with.

I could go on but the point is, when starting out with game development without a huge venture capital investment backing you and a large team under your command, iOS is a much more appealing proposition for developers. Those who are shunned away by Apple’s strict policies and rules will not find anything better at Nintendo, nor at Sony or Microsoft. Those developers will go to Android (and perhaps later this year the Playbook and WebOS).

What this means is that Nintendo will have to start offering a lot more than just “3D without the glasses”. That may be a nice feature but, much like movies in 3D, it could also be as little as a gimmick. Either way it’s not the kind of proposition that will sway a lot of developers to choose its platform over Apple’s. And when it comes to online play and social aspects, neither Apple nor Nintendo are doing particularly great (Facebook is), but my gut says Apple’s got a slightly better hand at this, right now. Case in point, using Wii Numbers as a means to connect with your friends is like addressing your friends by their telephone number instead of their name; no one does that. Game Center on iOS uses your own specified nickname, easily shared among your friends.

Lastly, Kohler writes:

Earlier this month, Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime said the iPhone’s massive library of inexpensive games constitutes “one of the biggest risks today in our gaming industry.” The glut of “disposable” games on iPhone that don’t provide very much fun or entertainment to users, Nintendo asserts, could end up turning players off of games.

That’s a historically realistic fear to have; Nintendo, after all, has over 120 years of experience selling games, but in the past 5 years things have changed like never before. I don’t think any large amount of comparatively crappy games in the iOS App Stores will turn people off of games altogether, for two reasons:

  1. The cost of games is so low that expectations are also set real low. The games for which people have high expectations are the games they hear their friends and family yammer on and on about, and which will, almost certainly, live up to those expectations just fine. Peer review is a huge component of how games spread, nowadays, and peer review protects people quite well from crappy games (and apps, for that matter).
  2. People buy games a lot more from the Top 25 (or 50, or 100) lists than they do casually browsing the categories or ignoring a game’s ratings.

It’s been a long time coming, but it seems that Apple has now openly declared its war with Nintendo for mobile gaming. I think this is a great thing, because in the end consumers win. How it’ll work out for either company remains to be seen, but where Nintendo has the loyal customer base and its vast experience with making and selling games, Apple has its other businesses that help drive success to its mobile platform (and secure it against any possible failure in the mobile gaming space).

Today, however, will tell us a lot about what Nintendo plans to do in order to deal with this new competitor.

If you liked this, you should follow me on Twitter!