With Miitomo, Nintendo escapes into the real world

Last month, Nintendo revealed their first smartphone application to be released this coming March. The announcement was highly anticipated and with good reason; some see this as a new direction for the company, one that will either cement their return to prosperity or cause their century-plus old empire to crumble. When Nintendo showed not the next Mario Bros. or Zelda but an app based around their Mii avatars called Miitomo, most of the words used in the immediate aftermath skewed negative: “disappoints,” “baffles,” “disaster.” But those that expressed such confusion were pinning their hopes on Nintendo doing the expected. As per usual, Nintendo surprised them, and us, with what at first blush seems closer to a Messenger app than a “game.” But Miitomo is not a venture into unknown waters as much as it is a continuation of what Nintendo does best: Building worlds filled with secrets for players to discover.

Miitomo is not a venture into unknown waters

You first make a Mii of yourself. The Mii (now separate from you, its own independent actor) asks you questions. Since you’re answering a cartoon doppelganger, you likely speak more freely, more honestly, or even provocatively: It’s all just a game. Then your Mii goes out among your other Miitomo contacts and engages in conversation, using your answers as fodder. How it all will be presented is not exactly clear. And though the whole enterprise appears to be too simple by half, once you imagine the possibilities, Miitomo starts to look an awful lot like Nintendo’s most famous game: Super Mario Bros.

Remember the first time you visited World 1-1. You saw some bricks. You saw a pipe. There was a block with a question mark on it. Compared to its contemporaries, filled with flying spaceships or chasing ghosts, the Mushroom Kingdom appeared somewhat barren. Ah, but then you jump to hit that ?-block and—surprise—a power-up slides your way and grants you strength. You climb atop that strange pipe and, a-ha!, you sink below, discovering an unseen subterrania. A Mario game has always been as much about unearthing hidden wonders as it has been about reaching the end-goal. Nintendo’s first app takes this notion and applies it elsewhere, beyond their imaginary worlds and into our own.

The big idea here is that the communication is all indirect. If I know your phone number I can text you a message right now. I can post what I want to say on Facebook and, lo, the world can see. But the inverse is also true; I rarely share what I don’t want to say.  What Miitomo does is divorce your thoughts from your active desire to share them. In the west, this makes little sense. “I do what I want!” says American Stereotype #1. But that’s not always the case. We often do what we think others want us to do. Miitomo, though developed with the more internal personalities of Japan in mind, may prove to be a welcome salve to our constant bombardment of digital Perfect Moments and virtual HumbleBrags.

During an investor Q&A that followed the presentation, one investor asked if “placing importance on communication… [was] deviating from the core essence of Nintendo’s way of making video games?” Shinya Takahashi, a General Manager at Nintendo, explained how those who have used the app, and not just seen a few slides, have enjoyed it and “experienced the joy of discovering unknown aspects about their long-time colleagues whom they thought they knew very well.” Miitomo is not an attempt to ape Facebook or other social networks, as analysts have surmised. It appears to be a simple, non-intrusive way to interact with friends and family.

This is Nintendo at its most savvy and bold.

President Tatsumi Kimishima expressed how Miitomo differs from more active messaging platforms. “Because Miitomo may pick up the topics that you usually do not discuss but would be willing to answer if asked,” Kimishima said during the reveal, “you may be able to find out unknown aspects about your friends or unexpected commonalities you share.” Instead of getting stronger in a virtual world, Nintendo’s new power-up system yields a different result: “you will be able to deepen friendly relationships and have more people with whom you can play games.”

That last clause is important. For decades, Nintendo games were enough to bring us to them, wherever they may be. When our phones were tethered to the wall and our television ran in one direction, we felt comfortable being enclosed within someone else’s limits. Now, in our age of distraction and instant gratification, we expect a device to do more than just Be Fun. We’ve grown complacent to stay put, yet anxious to never miss out.

Now our phone lives next to us. Our television is mutable, controlled to our whim. This power has made us hungry for an insatiable urge to get what we want now, and never a moment later. Nintendo has resisted acquiescing to the demands of a customer-base, and investors, who merely wanted Nintendo to follow them where they lived. Last March, in announcing a long-term collaboration with mobile developer DeNA, and again this past month, when they revealed their first smartphone app, the Kyoto-based company is finally breaking loose of their self-made shackles and putting Nintendo somewhere it’s never been before: beyond the confines of The Nintendo Box itself.

Miitomo is their first shot fired. Don’t listen to those who say the chamber was empty, or the bullet a dud. This is Nintendo at its most savvy and bold. It’s also a sign of their humble acceptance that we won’t go out of our way to follow them anymore. So they’re coming for us where we live. In 1981, we lived in the arcades. In 1985, we lived in front of our TV. Today, we live on our phones and tablets. This move into the mobile space is not the first time Nintendo has branched out into unknown territory. As the late Satoru Iwata explained in March when first announcing their plans to make smartphone games:

Nintendo was never the first player in town.

“It is structurally the same as when Nintendo, which was founded 125 years ago when there were no TVs, started to aggressively take advantage of TV as a communication channel.” The result of that aggression was the Famicom in Japan, the NES in America, and arguably the dawn of the modern videogame era. “Now that smart devices have grown to become the window for so many people to personally connect with society,” Iwata continued, “it would be a waste not to use these devices.”

Nintendo was never the first player in town. Magnavox and Atari beat them to the dedicated home console space by over a decade. We don’t talk about either one of them much anymore. The App Store opened in 2008. By March 2017, Nintendo plans to have five mobile games available. A mysterious device code-named NX also looms, which, if reports by the Wall Street Journal are accurate, would include both a home console and a mobile unit. There are more questions than answers at this point.

Thirty years ago, when Super Mario first pranced into our homes, there were no smartphones. Nintendo is about to aggressively take advantage of them as a communication channel. Their first app, Miitomo, is no Super Mario Bros. But it doesn’t need to be. It already takes place in a world filled with secrets, and stars your favorite character: You.