Nintendo’s iPad answer: The Power Tablet
Apple and Nintendo have a lot in common. This is true now more than ever. Because not only do they share similar business models, manufacturing standards, and innovation strategies - but today they are in the same market.
Indeed, the iPad's massive success has spilled over directly into Nintendo's pot. Apple has become a serious threat to Nintendo's mobile gaming business. A business Nintendo has enjoyed dominating since the advent of the Game Boy.
Yet lackluster 3DS sales (compounded by the lack of games) are an indication of weakness. Weakness in Nintendo's overall strategy. And a sign to all that Apple has the upper hand.
Let's face it. Nintendo has been out-innovated. Out-designed. Out-branded. And out-smarted. Sure, the 3D technology is cool - but the iPad is superior to the 3DS in every other way. Apple has one-upped Nintendo.
The numbers speak for themselves. During it's lifespan of over 6 years the Nintendo DS sold 147 million units. Outpacing the rival Sony PSP by about 300%. With it's impressive sales the DS, like the Wii (87 million units sold; 40% better than XBOX or PS3 ), re-established Nintendo as the gaming king.
Yet the landscape has changed overnight. Profits for Nintendo are set to hit a 26 year low. With no answer to Apple, they risk losing a billion dollar market for casual gamers. By the time the iPad reaches it's second year it will have already sold an estimated 65 million units. By year 3 it will break sales totals for the Wii. And may very well surpass the DS + the new 3DS combined. And never-mind App Store sales (for which Apple takes a 30% cut).
What is Nintendo to do?
The answer is a two-prong solution. First and most obviously is this: they need to launch a Nintendo tablet. Not a clunky Wii U tablet that is tied to a console. But rather, a lean independent mobile gaming tablet; a successor to the 3DS; positioned head-to-head with the iPad (but with the inherent gaming advantage that a Nintendo device can offer).
Secondly, Nintendo needs to streamline their brand, design, and user experience. Not just for the hardware, but more importantly: for the software. Nintendo's mess of an interface and online market experience needs to be scrapped and completely rethought.
Apple's App Store business model is a page directly from the Nintendo playbook. The walled garden was actually deployed as far back as the NES. Anyone remember Nintendo's "Seal of Approval" ? It is today's equivalent of the App Store approval process.
Effectively, Apple adopted the heavily centralized console gaming distribution model and applied it to apps. Tweaked it for scale by lowering the walls down enough for garage developers to participate. And supercharged it with digital distribution - for massive sales potential.
Now it's time that Nintendo takes a page from Apple's book. To tweak their model in similar fashion.
Yet that's only one piece of the puzzle. The real key area of improvement is specifically on brand + hardware + software synergy. And a relentless commitment to presenting this wholistic package to the user. This is a formula that, companies like HP are finding out, is vital to the success of a macro consumer hardware platform such as a phone, tablet, computer or gaming device. Without that formula, there is no hope of competing and winning against the biggest player; the one who excels in each of these three areas. Today, less is more. People choose the simplest, most focused brands that can offer them everything. Apple is a company that has extreme focus on delivering products with this formula.
Brand has always been a strong point for Nintendo. And this is the single biggest reason why Nintendo still has a chance at reviving and re-establishing dominance in mobile gaming.
Hardware has always been the epitome of Nintendo. Innovative design. Unmatched durability. Now they just need to make a real tablet.
Software? Anybody who's ever played a Nintendo franchise game knows that their games are friendly, detailed, and thoughtful.
But that's only the half of it. In the old days you just inserted the game and pressed ON. Today there is a whole new element to a game system experience. And this is precisely the area where Nintendo is dropping the ball. The 'Triforce formula' is not complete until the company has perfect synergy with brand + hardware + software. Specifically the OS software. It is the OS that unifies the user experience. It's job is to merge the brand with the hardware in perfect harmony. To present the user with a consistent, intuitive, enjoyable experience. This is something that Apple gets, Nintendo doesn't.
So, being a Nintendo fanboy - as well as a professional UX designer, I decided to whip up a first draft for Nintendo's next tablet. Complete with an implementation for brand, the hardware, and the software (albeit borrowing heavily from the iPad and the upcoming Wii U).
Introducing The Nintendo Power Tablet
Flash animation: click to simulate a cheap 'sliding effect' ala modern tablet homescreens.
Apple readers can click here for a static screenshot.
The Nintendo Power Tablet system represents a bold new step for the Japanese company. For the first time, Nintendo Power magazine will be published digitally. The digitization of Nintendo Power mag is not only practical, but symbolic - and serves as the foundation of the devices' own theme. A theme that encompasses not only the Power mags, but game distribution as well...
When the Power Tablet is launched, Nintendo will have the best of both worlds to sell games. While every game created for the system will be available for digital download, Nintendo will continue to leverage it's Wal-Mart shelf space to showcase and distribute games locally. Customers can buy a physical game box from the store and and perform a one-time install to their device by simply inserting a micro-SD card, the new game cartridge format. Remove the card and the game will remain on the device, alongside all of your other game titles installed; either loaded the same-way or downloaded from the newly re-designed eShop.
Organizing your game collection is a breeze with the all-new NintendOS. I haven't gone into a lot of detail in the above concept (click the screen to animate it) but the overall idea is to provide a handful of homescreens that clearly separate content. In the final version, you would slide horizontally to change your main content category - or slide vertically to explore more of the games or apps you have in a given category. Tap the eShop button from any screen and it will open a similarly organized interface of games or apps you can purchase and download.
The new digital version of Nintendo Power magazine will serve as an effective way to promote interesting content, without cluttering up the store. The digital magazine can play videos and enlarge screenshots from any page or article. With interactivity and functional links to a game or app within the store.
Three Tiers of Games
In addition to Virtual Console titles, there are now three tiers of games. Each with it's own price range and dedicated homescreen (Indie screen not enabled by default).
Tier 1 "Games" are the main attraction of the system; including Nintendo's own franchise titles and offerings from all other major game publishers. These games have the most polish, depth, longevity, and the best graphics you can get. The prices range from $30 to $60.
Tier 2 "Micro Games" are smaller scope, simple games that might not have the most compelling graphics or immersive gameplay - but still are fun and addicting in their own right. From $10 to $25.
Tier 3 "Indie Games" are submitted from garage developers and hobbyists from all over. Indie developers can try out some of Nintendo's advanced tools for game development and publish their games for up to $5. Or casual game makers can do it the easy way; using Nintendo's new Game Builder app to create and publish their free games all from the device.
In addition to games, by lowering its garden walls Nintendo is encouraging worldwide participation in their app market. Because the Power Tablet is not just a gaming device, it's an iPad alternative - and as such, has the same potential for application variety.
The developer community ecosystem
The same people who were playing the original Mario Bros for NES are now 20 to 30 something geeks. Many of whom are proficient in programming or graphics. Do you think they would be excited at the opportunity to develop an app for Nintendo's system? Something that would get universal placement in Nintendo's App store? Of course! Nintendo can attract a whole new wave of app developers by leveraging their brand alone. And I guarantee you they can win over thousands of iPad developers too.
But they have to leverage it to the max, and they have to be smart in their approach. There cannot be any uncertainties about the process. If Nintendo is opening their platform to allow geeky fanboys like me to submit apps - it is huge news! There are millions of us who have owned Nintendo products. Who have patronage to Nintendo. Who basically would just love to help the company. Nintendo can capture this excitement and funnel the best talent into their developer community ecosystem. But to do it effectively they have to make a serious commitment. By investing into large developer events; showcasing and telegraphing to the world that now YOU can be a Nintendo developer.
In addition to opening up their platform to a larger universe of app and game developers, the relationships with established game companies must be stronger than ever. And it will: because now Nintendo has a tremendous product and proposition. Nintendo can say, "Look, we've got countless people participating in making apps and little games for this platform. This is our biggest product release yet. We are going head to head with the iPad and expect sales to be on par. So start making some quality games! Because we are giving you front & center placement. We're not just relegating you to back. As Tier 1 game developers, you are getting special privileges". And rightfully so. This will be something that the iPad doesn't have. Big, established studios investing serious money into developing in-depth game experiences. It's finally a tablet, specifically for gaming, that big studios can justify investing their triple AAA development talent on. And it's quite possibly Nintendo's one and only chance to persuade the big game studios to dock their ships with Nintendo long term, away from Apple.
Marketing, the Launch, and the Features
Apple has already proven the market for tablets. No need to hedge a bet - it's time to put everything on the table. If anybody can compete with Apple's numbers, it is Nintendo. While Google and Microsoft will battle over the geeks and business users' - Nintendo is the one company that can manifest a device that will go head-to-head with the iPad in a big way.
Obviously, the biggest product launch in Nintendo's history is required. Which will be preceded by the launch of a campaign to recruit the world's best developers to the platform - for both apps and games.
One of the big challenges in releasing a new platform is the chicken and the egg dilemma. Before big developers and publishers commit to a platform, they want to predict a minimum estimate on game sales. This estimate is derived from hardware sales. Yet hardware sales is largely based on game selection! This dynamic is now more apparent than ever with the 3DS as developers such as Capcom (Megaman) and Natsume (Harvest Moon) cancel projects and abandon ship.
To alleviate this problem, in addition to the developer community campaign, Nintendo will be offering their most compelling launch game selection yet. It's their oldest trick: include Mario Bros with the new system. But this time, no need for an all-new Mario. Instead, Nintendo will include nearly EVERY Mario previously created. Super Mario Bros 1, 2, 3 for NES, Super Mario World 1 and 2 for SNES, and Super and Paper Mario 64 will all come free with the system available for immediate play from the Virtual Console screen as soon as you open the device. In addition to 8 other classic titles, 10 Micro Games that utilize the new touch screen, and a new Game Builder app - the system will come jam packed with gaming potential right out of the box.
Plus, it's called the Nintendo Power Tablet for a reason! Included is a lifetime subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. Which is now an app with it's own homescreen - featuring flippable page animation, interactivity, and engaging content that will serve to amplify game sales.
Nintendo Power Tablet summary:
- Super thin, lightweight independent touch screen tablet
- Completely new interface dubbed 'NintedOS' is friendly, intuitive, and streamlined; providing users with a polished, consistent Nintendo experience.
- All new App market supports countless variety of apps
- Game Builder app allows everyday gamers to become game makers and release them to the Indie Games section
- 15 Virtual Console titles preloaded for immediate play including:
- Super Mario Bros 1, 2 and 3 for NES
- Super Mario World 1 and Yoshi's Island for SNES
- Super Mario 64 and Paper Mario 64 for N64
- Castlevania, Megaman, Tetris, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Harvest Moon, and Wave Race
- 10 Micro games available for free download including:
- Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Bejewelled 2, Air Hockey, Let's Golf and more
- Multiplayer support, for up to 8 players locally or online
- Classic controls for traditional gaming in addition to new generation controls like touch, voice, and gyro
- Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and Data Plan (optional) enabled
- A battery that doesn't suck
- Free subscription to Nintendo Power magazine
3D or not 3D
Nintendo will intentionally leave out the 3D screen technology, to keep the 3DS relevant and for the benefit of including later, on the second generation Nintendo tablet. The Nintendo Power Tablet 3D will be an excellent opportunity to bring the technology back for maximum sales leverage.
So there you have it. A proposed design & strategy for Nintendo's tablet solution. Since I'm not actually on Nintendo's payroll, I should probably end the story about here and get back to real work (ahem, although if Nintendo is interested I am available for further consulting ;)
The Wii U looks neat. But there is reasonable concern that it could be a flop. Perhaps not a Virtual Boy flop, but something more like the mediocre results we are seeing with the 3DS. I suspect the Wii U may be largely perceived as a half-ass tablet attempt. One with severe limitations.
Nintendo already has the upper hand in the console market. Perhaps it's not too late for them to rethink the Wii U altogether. In favor of developing this kind of independent tablet device. And instead shifting focus on making their next home console integrate with it; rather than shipping with one of it's own.
Either way, this is a critical time for Nintendo. The time to answer Apple is now.