Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata said today that, moving forward, the company will be developing new consoles from scratch for emerging markets, rather than taking the cheaper alternative of repurposing existing hardware. This is a smart statement from Nintendo, given its struggle in recent years to stay relevant to a market increasingly spoiled by fellow industry giants Sony and Microsoft, but does Nintendo fully understand what its new hardware will need to do to succeed?
It’s more than just creating a cheaper version. To truly redeem itself as a gaming powerhouse for the region, Nintendo needs to go deeper and look at what gamers in Asia really need.
Using what is already there
Nintendo doesn’t want to delve further into mobile, in spite of its Mario Kart mobile and web companion apps launching later this year. Iwata doesn’t think the company’s 30-year-old console business can simply be transferred to a smartphone model. However, this is probably the best route for Nintendo if it wants to tackle emerging markets in Asia.
Simply put: everyone in Asia has a smartphone. And if they don’t, they’re getting one soon. Tech in Asia reported yesterday that 60 million Myanmar citizens are soon poised to come online “almost overnight”. It would be amiss of Nintendo not to take advantage of this boom in its own backyard simply because it doesn’t believe it can do it.
Many beloved Nintendo franchises like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda are simplistic games. They don’t need anything beyond the D-pad and four buttons archetypal of a Nintendo console. For god’s sake, Mario just needs to jump and use the fireball. It’s even easier to transplant such straightforward gameplay into a phone.
Sure, the first iterations might be bad, and some newly-innovated mobile versions may not be what Nintendo has in mind, but they aren’t going to be the first bad games Nintendo has put out. And eventually, given the company’s genius (Miyamoto is still going strong), they’re going to get much better.
However, that being said, Nintendo can still focus on its own hardware. It just has to take note of this:
Internet connectivity in emerging Asian nations is shit. I’m saying that plainly and saying it again: it’s horrendous. It’s slow and it drops a lot, and is generally disruptive especially if a console requires an always-online connection. Gamers in emerging nations aren’t going to pick up a console that needs an always-online connection because they’re barely going to get any game time out of it; in fact, they’re probably going to end up destroying it in frustration because they can’t play it.
Local co-op for games
A gamer from Surabaya in Indonesia tells us that many of his local friends picked up on Wiis when they first hit the market, because of the novelty of being able to play split-screen co-op with friends. In this age of next-gen consoles, split-screen co-op is slowly becoming a thing of the past. But let’s face it: we also know, local co-op is where the fun really is.
This is the same dilemma mobile developers face: how can players pay for DLC in developing countries where people barely use banks, let alone credit cards? Nintendo needs to secure a strong partnership with local payment providers, or even allow fans to buy DLC over the counter, in a “full” retail version of the game. This means extra work, and definitely a lot more regionally-aware manpower, but it also means happy gamers. And aren’t happy gamers practically the reason for Nintendo’s success?
I live in metropolitan Singapore, where nearly every household has an HDMI-enabled monitor or television picked up for cheap from our constant electronics fairs. The rest of Asia, however, does not have this luxury. Many households in emerging markets, such as Philippines for example, still have televisions with SCART/AV outputs. If the Nintendo console is HDMI-only like some of its next-gen sisters, it’s probably not going to sell many units because no one’s going to be able to see its output!
You know what gets sold a lot in Asia? Pirated consoles and games. What Nintendo truly needs to do to step up its game in emerging markets, and to become relevant in them, is to beat the pirates. Of course, it’s not possible to beat a store selling downloaded Nintendo DS roms for $1 a pop. But when you can’t beat them, you join them.
Nintendo needs to make sure its future consoles for emerging markets are priced low, because if the pirates can do it cheaper, you know who the consumers are going to go to. While consoles are definitely not cheap to manufacture, it is possible to cut costs by taking out all the shiny stuff. Do people really need a cutting-edge design for their console, or an ergonomically-friendly controller that does the same thing an ancient N64 controller can? Do they honestly need Wiimotes in all sorts of colors?
At the end of the day, all people want to do is play a good game, and play it effectively. Stripping a console of its glitter and presenting it as a bare-bones, functional creation will cut its manufacturing cost, and by extension, its retail price as well.
That being said, Nintendo still needs to recognize that while its fans in emerging markets need access to cheaper hardware, that hardware still can’t have its corners cut in more vital areas. These “econo-consoles” need to be able to play all the games their more expensive counterparts can. Our Philippine-based writer Xairylle feels strongly for this: “Nintendo needs to acknowledge all gamers, not just the ones who can afford it.”
Non-digital DRM, a contradiction, I know
Because digital rights management is, well, digital, and usually makes use of expensive chips or always-online connections, harkening back to the days of non-digital DRM might be the solution for fighting piracy.
As an Asian gamer, even one in the overprivileged gaming playground that is Singapore, I know we’re all extremely hard up for physical exclusives. We never get special editions or stuffed toys or even something as simple as a Pokemon pencil box unless we import it all. If Nintendo provided exclusive physical goodies with every purchase of an emerging market console, goodies tailored to the tastes of each market, I think it could do very well indeed.
It sounds like Nintendo will have a great, emerging-market-friendly console for Asia if they pick up on these issues. But it also means that the company’s infamous region-locking will, and must, remain.
Or nobody will buy the Wii U
If there was no region lock on the proposed new console, everybody, even those in established markets, would be able to buy and play with hardware built specifically for an emerging market. Nintendo would be losing out on revenue because no one would buy the Wii U when there exists an alternative that’s both cheaper and equally as functional. In fact, its entire existing business model would go down the drain, along with the premium yet family-friendly feel people have come to associate Nintendo with.
This is the price the company—and the people—need to pay for hardware tailored to the needs of gamers in developing regions such as Asia. Should Nintendo truly choose to go down this route, it’s our hope that gamers from more privileged countries will be able to see why region-locking must remain.
However, all this being said, Nintendo is still feeling the pressure of keeping up with Sony and Microsoft. The Wii U may have been released far ahead of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, but it wasn’t a next-gen creation in any conceivable way. Nintendo needs to put out something to save itself from crumbling, and while its decision to create consoles for emerging markets is probably the smart thing it has said in a while, it still remains to be seen whether or not it will do it right.
What do you think Nintendo’s emerging market consoles need to have?