A lot of the excitement surrounding Nintendo’s initial announcement that they’d make smartphone games was probably predicated on the idea that their powerhouse franchises, combined with the ever-growing mobile audience, would make a strong recipe for “Nintendo-like profits”—as well as a great treat for Nintendo fans who happen to enjoy mobile games. So when
Nintendo’s first mobile app turned out to be a social networking app that uses Miis, I guess you can’t blame people for being more than a little disappointed and confused. Even the Nintendo Week podcast crew found it to be a strange move.

When I first saw
Miitomo, my initial thoughts went something like this:

“Okay, so this isn’t a game, it’s just a communication app that uses Miis. What’s the point? Aren’t there plenty of communication apps that are already on mobile? What problem does this solve for people that the other communication apps don’t?”

Social networking apps have become pretty ubiquitous on phones in recent years. For me personally, the biggest benefit of my smartphone has easily been that it’s made communication really open and frictionless. Turns out that’s the biggest benefit of smartphones for most people around the world—that’s why the most-downloaded apps are pretty much all social networking apps.

Traditional social network apps rely on you making connections with your friends, following people and brands and ideas that you find interesting, and sharing information that you feel like sharing. This has led to a couple really useful things:

  • Users can now really easily share information with anyone and everyone they know, and discover information that their connections have shared
  • Companies can look at the information people are sharing and use that to determine their interests, which is useful for targeted marketing

What’s at the center of all this?
Interest. I share or follow or comment on things that I think are interesting, people respond in various ways depending on their level of interest in the things I post, and ad companies get a window into what people are interested in. Sharing interests is pretty much the reason why social networks are able to function more effectively than traditional messaging or image sharing services.

But social networks aren’t perfect at this. Because I could have hundreds of friends, it can be really unstructured to have to sort through posts from all of them. So in Facebook’s case, the news feed gets pared down using fancy algorithms, which means I might only see posts about things I’m interested in from a small handful of people. I’ve noticed that the people who are in my close circle or who I already interact with fairly regularly are the ones who tend to get traction in my feed when it comes to shared interests; this means there are a lot of people on my periphery who I could be interacting with more but simply don’t because Facebook focuses on reinforcing the interactions I’m already having.

Inevitably, all this means that social networks in their current form don’t make “connecting with friends over common interests” as user-friendly as it could be. Even the companies who try to exploit Twitter’s interest graph have had to figure out crafty ways to filter through it to get useful info, since Twitter is so unstructured.

Not only that, but the kinds of things we share on social networking only represent a really small slice of our interests. For me, that means most of what I share online is about video games, politics, or some really interesting study—those are the kinds of things that I think are interesting enough to share. But that leaves out a lot of the things that I enjoy but don’t necessarily post about: like camping, hiking, writing, watching really bad movies, eating delicious Vegas food, etc. It’s not so much that these are private aspects of my life that I want to keep to myself, but they’re just not the kinds of things I go around talking about on social networking.

The other problem, then, is that I miss out on opportunities to connect with people who I might be able to enjoy a good camping trip with, or who might invite me to go to a writing workshop or a poetry reading with them, and so on and so on.

Miitomo seems to be trying to solve both of these problems:

  • It makes it easier to share those interests that you don’t always go out of your way to talk about on social networking because it explicitly asks you about those interests and then does the sharing for you.
  • And that will presumably make it easier to build more meaningful connections with friends, since you’ll be able to more easily discover and share interests with friends instead of having to go out of your way to talk to everyone on your friends list, post about every single thing you like, or sort through the Facebook or Twitter fire hoses for friends who also like those things.

What’s most striking about this is that even though Nintendo’s entering a market that’s new to them—and specifically entering one that’s quite mature—they’re approaching it in the very same way they approached Wii.

With Wii, they saw key problems with the way gaming had progressed. The controller had become too complex for many players, both old and new, and the kinds of games being made were mostly limited to the kinds of games that were appealing to the more dedicated players who had gotten used to the standard analog controller, effectively locking out large segments of people from gaming. Nintendo’s solution was a targeted one: make a controller that was less complex and easier for lapsed players and non-gamers to use, and make games that differed from the current industry standard. It wasn’t
really about motion controls, although motion controls were certainly seen as an intuitive solution to performing many kinds of actions that typically required gamer-type skills and reflexes.

Miitomo uses a similar problem-solution approach. Nintendo has identified key problems that create barriers to connecting with friends using social networking (people don’t always go out of their way to share all their interests or communicate with all their friends), and they’ve proposed a very targeted solution (ask user-friendly questions and match up your responses with those given by your friends). The goal? To help people more easily grow friendships based on common interests, instead of reinforcing connections and interests that are already part of your social networking habits.

And what better way to reinforce the sharing of interests than by
connecting your social networking app to games? Miitomo is primarily a non-game app, but it’s being monetized off small in-app games, similar to the paid StreetPass Mii Plaza games or the Line Play games, a popular social gaming platform. The main difference between a mobile social networking app and a StreetPass app is that you won’t just be playing with random people you pass on the street, but instead with the people you’ve already made connections with. If Miitomo‘s focus is on reducing the friction between communication between friends, Nintendo’s also sure to focus on encouraging people to play together regularly through Miitomo‘s games, and eventually probably even the games available on 3DS, Wii U, and NX.

The goal is simple: get as many people interested in building friends lists and playing games in the Nintendo ecosystem.

It’s a surprisingly modern answer to the problems of a modern Nintendo. If they’re having difficulties building an install base on consoles, what better way to get people in the Nintendo ecosystem than by helping them play games together on the platforms they already own? By establishing these customer relationships on mobile through a social networking app, Nintendo ensures that more people have a reason to create and regularly log in to their Nintendo Account, and if they can get those people to play their games (and, crucially, if the games are perceived as top-quality and a great value), they may be able to attract many of their users to their meatier offerings: their
Marios, their Zeldas, and maybe even their dedicated platforms.

After all, if there’s anything we know about social gaming, it’s that people are most likely to want to play the games they know their friends are playing.

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