This morning, Nintendo announced a partnership with Japanese company DeNA to produce games using Nintendo properties on mobile platforms. As the owner of mobile platform Mobage, DeNA is one of the most powerful names in mobile gaming, but the sort of games it's known for won't make traditional console gamers happy.
DeNA (pronounced DNA) has been a big name in Japanese eCommerce since it was founded in 1999. In December of that year it launched Bidders, an online auction site that would eventually become a more general service named DeNA Shopping.
The company entered the mobile gaming market in 2006 with the launch of Mobage Toww, these days simply known as Mobage, a social mobile gaming platform where users can play together and share new games with each other. Imagine it like Xbox Live for mobile gamers. Mobage has its own developers creating mobile games, and also allows third parties to develop freemium games using its mobile API (application programming interface).
DeNA took the Mobage network worldwide in 2011. A constant stream of Android and iOS games have been released in the US since.
Here's a sample of some of the DeNA games available on the US iTunes App Store today.
And here's some of the games published under Mobage.
We've got some pretty huge names here. Three Transformers games. Something Star Wars. Blood Brothers. Rage of Bahamut, one of the top-grossing mobile games of all time. There's Peter Molyneux's Godus up top. The Drowning, an innovative mobile FPS from former DICE Sweden creative director Ben Cousins. A few years back they released Final Fantasy Airborne Brigade in North America. They're about to release Final Fantasy: Record Keeper.
This is a company the owners of of beloved properties trust with their brands. Why? Because DeNA knows how to make free-to-play work.
Look at those two screenshots. Every one of the games there is free-to-play. Every one of them features in-app purchases. Several of them have been among the top-grossing free-to-play games in the world.
Many of DeNA and Mobage's most popular games rely on collectible card tactics to make revenue, building on rampant success of Rage of Bahamut. Players are given certain items for free — trading cards, Transformers, G.I. Joe squad members — and can play though a large portion of each game using them, but to be competitive they must purchase a chance at a rare item using real money.
It's that "chance" that sweetens the pot for mobile gamers. If players could outright purchase better equipment of rare cards, that would feel more like straight-up pay-to-win ti the player base, and it would also mean a one-and-done sale for the publisher. Randomising loot purchases makes them feel more like gambling, and it's easy to get swept up in virtual gambling as it is sitting in front of a slot machine in Vegas.
Many of DeNA's games, Ben Cousins' The Drowning included, also incorporate an energy meter mechanic on top of the random item purchases, making players wait for a timer to refill a meter or pay up in order to continue paying.
Between DeNA's pedigree as a purveyor of microtransaction-heavy free-to-play mobile titles and Nintendo's own recent experiment with the format, I feel safe in saying that we're in for a flood of friendly faces mixed with the sort of free-to-play mechanics that make console gamers cringe every time I mention the name "Mobage" in an article. There will be no premium ports, as Nintendo mentioned in its official announcement: "only new original games optimised for smart device functionality will be created, rather than porting games created specifically for the Wii U home console or the Nintendo 3DS portable system."
Should Nintendo console and handheld fans be upset about the partnership? I wouldn't worry too much about it. While games containing free-to-play features and mechanics they won't be happy about are surely on the way, they shouldn't impact development of games for the 3DS, Wii U and the upcoming NX.
They're making games traditional fans might not like, sure, but traditional fans aren't the audience they're gunning for. They have already got them. Now they want more, and with DeNA in their corner, they will likely get it.