Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo has published an interview with Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo. I’ve written quite a bit about Nintendo on this blog, and prior to the iPhone’s appearance, most of my gaming was on Nintendo handhelds. I particularly loved the DS, but I also own various Game Boys, and they all sit sadly unloved in a chest of drawers in my office.

Despite this, I’m not of the opinion Nintendo should throw in its lot with Apple and other third parties, effectively becoming another Sega—yet. This is because Nintendo still has the potential to out-Apple Apple in the gaming space, through making games and hardware. This, note, is what Apple proponents rightly say sets Apple apart from much of the competition—it makes devices and operating systems, and so can mesh those things together far better than other companies. But Apple doesn’t do this in gaming.

What Apple does do in gaming, however, is provide a number of lessons that I still believe Nintendo must learn from:

  • More of an emphasis on digital downloads, with the immediacy and better value  those things can provide.
  • A better way of dealing with indies—perhaps not quite a iOS-style free-for-all, but there must be a happy medium where bedroom coders are encouraged to bring further innovation to the platform.
  • More linkage with the wider world, through the use of non-gaming apps. Again, Nintendo shouldn’t follow Apple in this regard—a Nintendo device doesn’t need a half-million apps. But it does need to keep the device in someone’s hands, so they don’t stray. So: stronger social, browsing and video apps are a must, for a start.

The main focus of a Nintendo device must remain games, but that shouldn’t be the only focus, otherwise Nintendo runs the risk of its devices becoming increasingly niche, which in itself is a danger in that such things will appeal to people with very specific demands. The success of Nintendo handhelds has often hinged on their accessible and widespread nature, not them only finding favour with the select few.

The Kotaku interview is interesting in that instead of being bullish—Nintendo’s tactic of the past—Iwata is seemingly very aware of the changes in the market and yet has a belief Nintendo can continue to succeed. Again, there’s evidence here from Apple’s history—when the products are good enough, the company has been massively profitable with a minority share. Nintendo therefore must ensure its products are good enough—’magical’, to use Apple’s rather naff terminology—and not merely OK.

One way of doing this is in creating unique experiences, argues Iwata:

I think that if we are able to provide experiences on handheld devices that consumers cannot get on another device, then we will continue creating software and hardware going forward…

Strong first-party games married with intuitive and preferably innovative control mechanisms are the way to do this. But Nintendo has of late too often wavered and retreated to its default position of “release the same hardware in different colours and at different sizes”, which leads to Iwata’s flip-side of the coin:

… and if it comes to a point when we’re not able to do that, I think, yeah, you will see portable handheld gaming devices go the way of the Dodo

Curiously, though, Iwata also isn’t blind to its rivals, nor seemingly scared by them, as the Kotaku piece notes:

The entirety of what you might need to know about how Satoru Iwata feels about the supposed threat of Apple and iOS gaming is that, during our interview last week, Iwata read 3DS sales figures to me off of a MacBook Air, which was plugged into a white iPhone, presumably his. When a gaming reporter goes to a showcase for, say, a Wii game or an Xbox game, Nintendo and Microsoft show their games on non-Sony TVs. They don’t let you see hardware from supposed rivals. But there was Iwata, sitting around the corner of a table from me, laptop flipped open, Apple icon presented toward me.

This to my mind shows a confidence in Nintendo’s products, and also an admission that other companies exist, and that their products are also worth using. Additionally, Totilo also got an interesting response from Iwata about the thorny issue of convergence:

[In] the day of the GBA our challenge was to provide experiences you could not have on a cellphone at that time. In the same way, we have to look at the Nintendo 3DS and other platforms in our future as being able to do the same thing in terms of what smartphones can provide as well.

However, Totilo makes a statement that’s almost a counterpoint and that rings very true:

[The interview] was eye-opening, because it did not conform with the critique from some quarters that Nintendo’s head is in the sand and that it does not appreciate the threat of cheap, downloadable iOS and Android games. But it was also short on specifics of how Nintendo would set itself apart in a world that seems more gaga over the next iPhone than over, say, the 3DS’ glass-free 3D.

This appears to be the challenge for Nintendo now: not in realising the market has changed, but responding to that. I’m going to be very interested to see what’s next from the company. Another DS with a gimmick is clearly not going to be enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Game Boy brand back, but as a much stronger device in terms of being multifunctional, but also with innovations for gaming that no-one else had thought of. If not and we just get the 3DSMax-o-tron II, I think Nintendo could find itself in a much worse situation.

Still, even if the worst comes to the worst and Nintendo did have to do a Sega, imagine if its games ended up officially on iOS: Angry Birds would be ousted from the top of the charts by Mario and chums, probably forever. As a worse-case scenario, that’s not too bad a prospect, and you could bet even a gaming-ambivalent Apple would sit up and take notice if it got an email from Iwata mentioning that Nintendo’s games were soon coming to the iPhone and iPad.