Why Nintendo shouldn’t make iOS games

Apple pundits keep clamoring for Nintendo to make iOS games. The argument goes like this: Nintendo’s hardware business is circling the drain. To save itself from disaster, the Japanese gamemaker must adapt its many valuable franchises into kick-ass iPhone versions. After all, what developer wouldn’t want to leverage Apple’s thriving App Store to bolster its sagging quarterly results?

Let’s assume, for a moment, that Nintendo did release its most popular games on iOS. Imagine an iPhone version of Super Mario Brothers, or Zelda on the iPad. And let’s assume that the games prove hugely successful and send the gamemaker’s profits soaring.[1] Why wouldn’t Nintendo be thrilled?

What if this isn’t (just) a profit deal? What if Nintendo has higher priorities than sheer earning potential? What if Nintendo has evaluated iOS as a gaming platform—and found it wanting?

For example, maybe Nintendo balks at the prospect of developing touchscreen-only control schemes. “Finger-paint” gaming works great for Angry Birds and Scrabble. But it fails miserably for intricate platformers like Mario and Metroid. It’s hard to envision Nintendo’s developers—so committed to quality gameplay—plastering a D-pad over their careful level design. Would the button-mashing battles of Super Smash Bros. work with no buttons? Until Apple (or some third-party partner) bundles a credible hardware controller with every iOS device, you’re asking Nintendo to compromise on user experience—to risk alienating their biggest fans.

Even if Nintendo were satisfied with the hardware, the iOS gaming ecosystem itself might turn them off. What if the microtransaction economy repulses them (as it should)? Nearly every top-grossing iOS game these days is “free to play”, demanding frequent in-app purchases to unlock the full game experience. What if Nintendo refuses to pervert its classic franchises in this way? What if they’d rather bow out gracefully than prey upon their users’ base, lizard-brain impulses? What if they’d rather go bankrupt than treat Mario as a glorified Skinner box?

No true geek wants Nintendo to operate in the red. Its loyal fans, grateful for decades of incredible games, are rooting for the gamemaker to stave off fiscal catastrophe. But the best companies—companies like Nintendo and like Apple—refuse to prioritize short-term profit margins over user experience. That’s bad for business, in the long run.

An exclusive iOS version of Mario would undoubtedly help Apple (it would permanently establish iOS as the definitive mobile gaming platform). But it’s a riskier bet for Nintendo, whose treasured franchises could quickly lose their cultural cachet.

  1. This might not be a safe assumption. Check out Lukas Mathis’ blog post, just published today.  ↩