Much like the crisis afflicting Hollywood mega-studios, it’s becoming exponentially harder to develop video games that make millions upon release. As production costs skyrocket but the odds of market success dwindle, even longtime pillars of the industry like Nintendo have started to branch out into areas that might not strike its traditional gamer base as entirely copacetic.
But if mobile commerce is the future in retail, it’s already the fast-arriving future in video games, and Nintendo is ready to jump into that world.
“Miitomo,” Nintendo’s first foray into the world of mobile gaming, was released in Japan on Thursday (March 17), and while it doesn’t let users play time-waster games that have made mobile an eminently profitable platform for low-budget publishers, Nintendo is already claiming that it’s managed to spur 1 million users to download the app in just three days’ time.
What is “Miitomo?”
“It’s a new kind of social network, and it’s quite strange,” Alex Olney, video games journalist at Nintendo Life, told BBC. “You are questioned by the app about what you did at the weekend and what food you like, and the answers are relayed to your friends. It’s strangely engrossing.”
The visuals of “Miitomo” revolve around Miis (pronounced me-ees), personalized avatars that serve as analogs for users and their friends. There are a few minigames of minimal substance, but the true appeal of “Miitomo” — at least from those in Japan who’ve been able to play around with it — is the social aspect. Reggie Fils-Aimé, president of Nintendo of America, explained to TIME that the more info about themselves they provide and the more interest they show in finding out about their friends, the more Silver and Gold reward points they’ll save up. Users can also link products from Nintendo’s 3DS handheld and Wii U at-home console to earn the highest group of Platinum points — all of which will be redeemable through tie-ins with tentpole properties, like the Mario series, The Legend of Zelda games and much more.
“We expect people’s experience with ‘Miitomo’ to be a rewarding one in its own right,” Fils-Aimé told TIME. “But, at the same time, it’s also a way to have them engage — or reengage — with Nintendo. The way they get involved with My Nintendo will reward them both figuratively and literally, down the road. So, ‘Miitomo’ gets people involved with their friends. And one of those friends is Nintendo.”
The two-tiered, dual-incentive rewards structure could pay big dividends for a company like Nintendo that attracts an eclectic mix of hardcore and casual gamers. While some users will be content to tap away at friends’ quizzes, racking up points without the intention of using them to buy content later on, more intense ones could be spurred by the initial rush of collecting Silver and Gold points to purchase more Nintendo products and earn Platinum points in return.
Even though “Miitomo” can boast impressive subscription numbers, its monetization strategy won’t likely stuff Nintendo’s coffers with new revenue immediately. Instead, what Nintendo’s new mobile rewards strategy appears to be, at the moment, is a solid foundation to teach its users about the incentives it offers — a gameplan that Fils-Aimé is confident can succeed when “Miitomo” launches in America at the end of March.
“We’re not trying to do everything at once,” Fils-Aimé said. “‘Miitomo’ is the first of five apps that we will release before the end of March 2017, as previously announced. Once we get through those five introductions, you’ll have a better idea of Nintendo’s overall plan.”
“Miitomo” is still in the honeymoon phase of app likability, but if Nintendo can replicate 1 million new users five times over, its first mobile app won’t be its last.