LOS ANGELES — It’s been a good year for Nintendo. After spending nearly a decade in the wilderness, the gaming giant has found itself on the successful end of a turnaround. Its Switch, an experimental portable home console, has outperformed expectations since its March 2017 launch. Now fans are wondering how the company will keep up the momentum.
Nintendo offered some clues at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the game industry’s biggest trade show, which runs this week. Fortnite, the hottest game of the year, is coming to the Switch, Nintendo announced Tuesday morning in a live-streamed news conference. The megahit is one of several new games coming to Nintendo’s handheld console — including several that will please its core fans, such as a new version of its classic Super Smash Bros. series.
For Fortnite players, having another way to play the game is nice. But for Nintendo, delivering the title is a strategic win in its pursuit to use Switch's success to attract more developers, broaden its audience and get even more people to scoop up its new hardware experiments.
And, somewhat breaking with tradition, Nintendo's success doesn't land only on Mario's shoulders.
Switch sales have been strong, with more than 15 million units sold to date. It was the fastest-selling U.S. console of all time. The novelty of the Switch’s “play anywhere” design got a boost from big-name games made by Nintendo that revisited beloved franchises, including a return to the world of Princess Zelda and a new adventure for the world’s most famous plumber.
Yet Nintendo still has a 22 percent share of the gaming market in an industry that essentially has only three console makers. For the past couple of years, Nintendo has been more willing to rethink its strategies to raise its profile, most notably by agreeing to make some mobile games.
While the Switch has driven Nintendo to new heights, its work is far from over. If Nintendo’s past decade has shown anything, it’s that relying solely on your beloved characters can take you only so far.
Mario and the gang aren't going anywhere, of course. But building up relationships with third-party developers is also key to the company's success, said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America's president, as workers put the finishing touches on the show's floor booth at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Such partnerships broaden the appeal to players, who may like the Switch's mobility but are disappointed with its game selection.
"[Developers] want a platform itself that's vibrant, growing and has a highly engaged player base,” Fils-Aime said.
Nintendo's ambitions don't stop there. Gamers are a bigger market than ever, about 2.6 billion people worldwide, according to the Entertainment Software Association. But the market can grow even larger, said Nintendo’s general manager of entertainment planning and development, Shinya Takahashi. He wants to reach that nongaming audience with Nintendo devices, too.
That can be a risk. In a world where consumers expect one gadget to do everything, finding broad appeal for gaming hardware is a challenge. Nintendo’s Wii was a mainstream hit, thanks to its novel motion gaming controls. But the next Wii U console, launched in 2012 and widely considered a flop, may have strayed too far from its gaming core.
True to its roots, Nintendo's effort to draw a broader crowd may mean more wacky experiments. Takahashi spoke glowingly of Nintendo’s Labo — build-it-yourself cardboard kits that teach coding and interact with games — as a way to bring Nintendo to new people. There have been instances in which people see or hear about Labo from friends, he said, and it becomes their first Nintendo product.
It's a little odd to consider such products as Labo as gaming hardware. The same can be said for the Pokéball controller that Nintendo is launching in November for a new Pokémon game, a mobile controller that's part game accessory and part digital pet. During product development Nintendo had schoolchildren come in to test how to get the throwing motion just right.
When it comes to hardware, Nintendo is taking the “if you build it, they will come” approach. Takahashi said even the Switch's success took time because developers had to see whether it would be a hit first.
While that's arguably putting the cart before the horse, he said Nintendo will continue to think about ways to offer new playing experiences that everyone can appreciate.
“There is still so much possibility to create dedicated gaming devices that can reach a lot of people and resonate with them,” he said through a translator. “The job for us is to make the hardware that can reach that level.”
Correction: This post originally had the wrong numbers for first-year Switch sales. It has been corrected.