Are Mobile Games Too Disposable?

Are Mobile Games Too Disposable?

To the surprise of nobody, the 2011 Game Developers Conference (GDC) had a special focus on portable gaming. Nintendo President Iwata delivered Nintendo’s keynote in his own charmingly halting way. He did, however, raise a few eyebrows when he criticized smartphone manufacturers for “[Lacking the] motivation to maintain the high value of video game software.”

“For them, content is something created by someone else… Their goal is to gather as much software as possible: quantity is what drives their profit. Quality does not matter to them,” Iwata said.

For developers of iOS and Facebook games, them’s fightin’ words.

“I expected better from Nintendo,” said Brian Reynolds, Zynga’s Chief Game Designer. “They are missing the point of what we are doing… We are making games that everyone can play and socialize on while playing.”

Iwata says he’s concerned about the deluge of low-cost apps and games because setting a low, low price point on a video game means people will be more hesitant about paying $30 to $60 for a retail title–and that, in turn, will hurt developers’ earnings (it might be worse than that; how many people are actually playing free games on jailbroken phones?). It’s also unsettling to look your competitors directly in their glowing eyes, which is not something Iwata said directly, but it’s not hard to understand the gist of his fears.

But does Iwata really have anything to worry about? Smartphones do offer full-sized games like Dead Space and NBA Jam, but the most popular titles by far are the likes of Angry Birds and Doodle Jump–simple, fun distractions that might not have garnered critical acclaim so readily if they were priced at retail. Meanwhile, the iPhone has yet to host anything with the depth of Pokemon, which will see its fifth major release this month and is destined to sell a zillion copies.

As for developers, these are indeed tumultuous times for any studio. But it’s also a time of opportunity, thanks to the expanding digital market. Downloadable games allow for smaller teams, which means less employees to pay, less overhead, etc. Making a profit on a 99 cent game is easier for a five-person team than for a company the size of Nintendo. Moreover, some argue that it’s not Nintendo’s business to classify what counts as a video game, and what doesn’t. Reynolds has a point: Zynga’s offerings count as games, even if they’re attached to a social platform. Just because that’s not popular opinion amongst core gamers doesn’t make it less true.

On the other hand, only Nintendo is capable of doing justice to its legendary properties, and people aren’t going to forget that just because they also happen to like a ballistics game featuring birds that make funny gurgling war cries.

Some industry folk and community members have chosen to nod alongside Iwata and grumble about how studios only care about profits nowadays (as if developers used to conjure games out of thin air for the children of the world to enjoy), while others have dismissed his warning as the rumblings of a dinosaur from a fading era. Frankly, the situation isn’t that black and white. Iwata may indeed be acting a little over-fearful–but that’s preferable to smug overconfidence. Nintendo knows it has competition, and has chosen to be honest about how that makes it feel.

Iwata’s statement has jolted a lot of conversation out of us because we’re all a little uneasy about the state of the market today. Everything is changing, and it’s changing fast. Nintendo has several barriers between it and financial ruin, and each of those barriers is as thick as Bowser’s castle walls. However, nothing is infallible. We know it, and Iwata knows it. At least he’s chosen to acknowledge the threat and address it (admitting that DSiWare and WiiWare have not been utilized to their full potential is a good start) instead of blustering some fantasy about how Nintendo will grab the wheel of the ship and stabilize the market while we all clap and swoon.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

1 Comments

  1. The truth is the iPhone is a WIDE OPEN MERITOCRACY. Nintendo and Sony aren’t.

    The classic console model, born out of the disaster that was the Atari Video Game Crash of 1983, is one of the benevolent Console Manufacturer tightly controlling and limiting the number of titles. And from 1986 to 2010 it has worked remarkably well.

    The iPhone App Store upsets the entire “Apple Cart.” Now you have developers in mass coming up with incredible games … and more importantly … the game success is determined by the consumer in the most direct game marketplace in the history of the business.

    Look at “Tiny Wings” … basically a one-button Sonic with top level production values, roared into 1st place on the iPhone in a matter of days … no “special favors” by Apple, driven by a well produced YouTube video.

    The times, they have changed.

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