“Why don’t you like baseball?”
If Bill Trinen, Nintendo Co. Ltd.’s senior product marketing manager, was surprised by my question, he didn’t show it, rolling right into his answer.
“Baseball just goes on for ever and ever and ever,” he started. “With a soccer, I know for a fact that a game is going to end in 90 minutes, whereas a baseball game can go on and on.”
The fact that I asked this question to a major executive for the most famous Japanese video-game company in a phone interview right off the bat might seem surprising. However, the ice had already been broken on the topic of baseball when we interacted earlier in Miitomo, Nintendo’s first app for smartphones — and its first major step beyond its own bespoke hardware.
The first thing you might notice about Miitomo, released Thursday in Japan and later this month in North America, is that it isn’t a game. Nintendo likes the term “social communication tool.” Most people will likely just call it a social network.
That’s a big surprise from Nintendo — a company that’s known as more conservative compared to its major gaming console rivals Sony Corp. and Microsoft Corp., and has resisted repeated calls from shareholders to move its games from their own devices to smartphones.
But a social network is the smallest of Nintendo’s aims. This is Nintendo moving beyond its own hardware, and beyond being simply a video-game maker. The company wants its characters, its brand and its presence absolutely everywhere. Nintendo as we know it is over.
And that starts with Miitomo.
When you boot up the smartphone app for the first time, you create a “Mii” avatar to represent yourself (you can also import one if you’ve already created it on a Wii U or 3DS). Miitomo then starts searching for friends — either through Facebook or through sharable QR codes — and populates a feed with your acquaintances’ Miis.
After you build your Mii and add some friends, Miitomo starts asking questions. They range from simple to complex and this is where the heart of the app is. After you answer a few questions, such as “what were you doing a few minutes ago?” or “what’s your most recent purchase?” your answers are then shared with your friends.
This is the key difference between Miitomo and other social networks such as Facebook or Twitter: Miitomo is spurring you on to share small details about yourself that you wouldn’t think to share otherwise, and then giving you game-like rewards for doing so. It’s like a virtual version of an icebreaker game you might play at a party.
You can comment on what your friends answers are and learn more about them. Completing the loop of answering and commenting on questions earns you in-game coins that can be used on a minigame (think Plinko from the Price-is-Right) or to buy clothing items for your Mii avatar.
“It facilitates communication between friends and it facilitates you learning things between your friends that might not come up in general conversation or that people might not normally post on a typical social network,” Trinen explained. And this certainly fits with our interaction over baseball. “So the Miitomo itself elicits these types of responses, but then it’s the conversations that get spurred by this digital interaction that I think become the true fun of Miitomo.”
Essentially it’s taking the types of social communication that takes place over a network such as Facebook or Twitter and fills that space with a video-game-like loop of carrots to get you to actually talk with the other people in your feed.
It works surprisingly well. Not only was I able to discover Trinen’s (wrong) opinions about baseball, I was able to have a conversation about Deadpool with Nintendo President and CEO Reggie Fils-Aimé and I was able to let them know about how much I was looking forward to Wrestlemania.
In the first ten minutes with an application, we all learned quite a bit about each other.
For Nintendo observers, Miitomo will likely come as a surprise. The company has long resisted moving away from its own hardware and has also resisted “free to play” business models for mobile games where the revenue is based around giving away the app for free and then charging “micro transactions” for benefits or content inside the game.
Fans of the company have long been worried that the “F2P” model — which can be designed in an exploitative way similar to a slot machine — would overwhelm the strong core design that’s the heart of Nintendo’s brand.
And Miitomo likely won’t answer that question. The transactions in the app mostly revolve around the clothes you can put on your avatar, and it isn’t really a game to begin with. The answers to those questions will likely come with Nintendo’s later apps, which the company promises will be completely different from Miitomo and some of which will hew closer to more traditional Nintendo games with Nintendo’s recognizable characters.
“Miitomo is the first of about five smart device apps that we’re hoping to launch over the next year or so,” Trinen said. “And really our goal with these isn’t to have the five apps appeal to the same type of audience, but really we’re looking at having multiple types of apps that really appeal to different audiences and different groups of players.”
Miitomo’s launch underscores how Nintendo is moving away from being just a gaming company, and shifting toward an aim to become a global brand that makes not only games but many other things.
“[A] key thing is that for us, [is that] the mobile initiative is itself a part of a larger plan that we have, which is really to expand the reach of Nintendo characters, Nintendo franchises and Nintendo IP,” Trinen said.
“So we’re really looking at this as finding ways to bring our characters and IP and some of our most popular franchises to life, not only on our dedicated gaming machines like the [Nintendo produced] 3DS and Wii U, but also on your smartphone. And eventually even in real world theme parks. And, also, of course on the branded shirts that you wear and the shoes on your feet.”
Last year, the Financial Post wrote about the launch (and subsequence craze) over Nintendo’s Amiibo figurines. The small toys featuring Nintendo brand characters are lightly connected to games (you can’t touch them to your Wii U or 3DS to get certain in game benefits), but most collectors that Post Arcade writer Chad Sapieha talked to were buying them because they identified with the Nintendo brand and wanted to buy things that reminded them of it.
It seems that Nintendo took the message of the Amiibo and wrapped it into its entire business model. The difference was that before consumers primarily interacted with Nintendo brand items through games. Now, as the Miitomo social network shows, it can come through anything.
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