The Carter Crater: ‘Pokemon GO’ Shows Why Nintendo Needs to Go Mobile-First Now

carter_craterNintendo should cancel the NX and go exclusively mobile as soon as possible. I admit that is a hot take after a few days of Pokemon GO (Free), but why shouldn’t they be making a major mobile push right now? The Pokemon Company releases an app that has server issues, eats your battery, has loads of concerns as to its long-term depth being a more shallow experience than Ingress (Free), whose database it capitalizes on. That’s not to mention that the game has had tons of server issues, is only available in a few countries, is a privacy nightmare that’s probably sending all your embarrassing photos to your exes, oh and it has gotten absolutely zero acknowledgement of its existence by Apple nor Google. If literally anyone else released a game in this state, it would be a massive failure. None of that mattered: the app shot up to number one in downloads and grossing in the US, and it became a massive cultural phenomenon literally overnight. Nintendo is so popular it doesn’t play by any of the rules that everyone else in the market has to play by. Why is Nintendo wasting time trying to sell hardware when they can print money on mobile without even trying that hard?

The thing is, no company is as perfectly suited to the mobile, free-to-play future as Nintendo is. Mario is a cultural institution, as is Pokemon (as you’ve seen), The Legend of Zelda is much beloved, as is Super Smash Bros., which is literally “let’s put all our characters in one game fighting each other." Even Nintendo’s secondary and tertiary franchises have a love for them that is tough for other companies to replicate. But that love doesn’t always manifest in sales direct to Nintendo. It’s often emulating the classic games, or buying merchandise, watching Smash tournaments, things that don’t necessarily put money direct in Nintendo’s pockets, but reinforce the power of their brands. Heck, I’d wager part of Flappy Bird‘s appeal was that the pipes were obviously inspired by Mario’s pipes. They were a clever little subconscious aspect to appeal to people. But for the longest time, Nintendo has used this ubiquitous love to try and sell their own hardware, but that’s been a bit of a declining proposition as of late. The Wii did well, but that was an anomaly thanks to Wii Sports and the excitement over the motion control gimmick more than anything else. Nintendo’s other mass-market systems since the SNES have all been runner-up to someone else.

Yet, when Nintendo gives the people who love their stuff a taste of it on a platform that everyone has access to, people eat it up. Nintendo doesn’t have to have a coherent launch plan or a well-made app. Miitomo (Free) had a confusing premise, was a bit disappointing for Nintendo’s first mobile release, and had a clunky and slow interface…but it still drew a ton of attention. Sony can’t do the same with their properties on mobile, or at least haven’t yet. Their mobile tie-ins, including that recent Uncharted: Fortune Hunter (Free) game haven’t exactly set the mobile world on fire the way that Pokemon GO drove pepole into a frenzy. And the Halo dual-stick shooters on mobile haven’t really been massive performers either. This isn’t to say that Uncharted and Halo don’t have mass appeal, because they do. It’s just that Nintendo has a special appeal to people who don’t care about video games that they can uniquely capitalize on.

So, here’s the question: when will Nintendo realize that it’s worth capitalizing on their position in the cultural zeitgeist. That making console hardware is a risk, and handheld hardware is a declining propostiion? Especially when Nintendo has now shown that they don’t have to do a launch well to draw massive attention to themselves? That it’s not worth making hardware when they can release stuff to their audience directly, and they will eat it up? I know Nintendo has been called to go third-party before, but now is the perfect time. Sony and Microsoft rule the console roost – and it seems like they’re transitioning to a more evolving platform with upgrades to the PS4 and Xbox One (though I’m skeptical about their viability). Nintendo’s working on the NX, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps if it combines portability with console gaming in a meaningful way, it might be worth pursuing. But it’s still a massive risk, and we have proof that Nintendo can put something out to mobile gamers, and create phenomena in a snap! Their stock price skyrocketed after Pokemon GO released! They can cut to the top of the grossing list without the months-long campaigns that something like Mobile Strike (Free) has to go through to succeed in a similar way.

Why not capitalize on that? Why spend the investment of money and R&D into manufacturing gaming hardware when a platform full of your fans ready to devour your content, not to mention a new generation that could fall in love with it, is ready for you? We have evidence that Nintendo fans don’t love Nintendo enough to go and buy a Wii U or a 3DS. But they love Nintendo enough that if a cool-looking Pokemon game comes out, they’ll download it right away. Now imagine if Nintendo shifted their development efforts to focus on mobile. Do you think people wouldn’t go crazy over Mario games on mobile? A more traditional Pokemon game on their phone? Animal Crossing?? Even Zelda games, Metroid games, Smash Bros. games…people would play them. And with the right approach, Nintendo could make mobile work for them.

So here’s what I say: Nintendo should cancel the NX. Make the bold move now, write it off a sunk cost. Maybe it’s even too early to do so – like when Netflix tried to spin their DVD business off into Qwikster – but it’s the right move long-term and something that needs to be done someday. It’s clear where the future is, and investing into the hardware space feels like wasted efforts. Nintendo doesn’t have to kill off the Wii U or 3DS right away – let them run their course, I say, though unless Nintendo is really confident about the NX providing something that nothing else in the gaming world can provide, it feels like a high potential for failure and/or sunk costs. And while perhaps the mobile-powered console box space is flawed right now, I imagine giving Apple a call about putting Nintendo games on the Apple TV might get them to make a few deals – and convince some people to pick up controllers and TV boxes that they otherwise were on the fence about buying. Nintendo does not have to go full free-to-play, nor should they: a Square-Enix-esque strategy where they try to both tackle high-priced premium games along with free-to-play games as appropriate would be perfect to appeal to both the mass market and dedicated market that wants to pay for premium experiences. Maybe a new Zelda game wouldn’t work as free-to-play, but I think Nintendo could get away with selling expensive games when you have a market that often would buy the games, but had zero desire to own a console with them.

No matter what Nintendo does – and admittedly, The Pokemon Company’s quasi-independent status has perhaps allowed them more latitude to tackle mobile – the ideal strategy has to include mobile as a core platform of their future. It’s quite clear that there is a desire for Nintendo products that other companies can’t replicate. And there’s no reason why Nintendo shouldn’t start trying to capitalize on that demand as soon as possible.