Nintendo Wants to Be Much More Than a Video Game Company

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Nintendo logo is seen in a GameStop in Manhattan, New York, U.S., December 7, 2021.

For decades, Nintendo was synonymous with video games. Now in its second century, the Japanese company wants to be much more.

In the first half of the year, Nintendo released a mega-hit Hollywood film starring its marquee character Mario and opened Super Nintendo World, a themed area at Universal Studios Hollywood. On Sept. 1, the company hosted its first U.S. live event for families and fans in Seattle. This is all on top of selling more than 18 million copies of a new Zelda game.

“We’re actually evolving into being an entertainment company with gaming as a nucleus of the overall business model,” said Doug Bowser, president of Nintendo of America, who oversees the Kyoto-based company’s efforts in the United States.

Nintendo Live events started in 2018 in Japan, and featured concerts and esports competitions. Bowser said the company used those events to test and learn what kinds of activities would engage people of all ages, particularly families. Where Japan hosted concerts with holographic characters from its Splatoon and Animal Crossing series, for example, the Seattle event offered live performances of big-band and orchestral arrangements of Mario and Zelda music.

“There’s certain games that may be a bit more popular based on various consumer preferences,” Bowser said. “Here we just felt there would be a stronger affinity to all things Mario, and obviously ‘The Legend of Zelda,’ since we just launched ‘Tears of the Kingdom.’ And then we chose Seattle because it’s our backyard.”

The event, part of Nintendo’s strategy to fuel its intellectual property across multiple formats, was scheduled alongside the popular PAX West gaming convention in Seattle to draw an international crowd. It’s unclear whether Nintendo will take the event series on the road.

The company’s gaming “nucleus,” for the moment, is the Switch console, a hybrid home and mobile gaming platform that has sold more than 129 million units since its 2017 release. The Switch is now the third-most-successful gaming console of all time, behind only Nintendo’s DS and Sony’s PlayStation 2.

In a 2021 interview with The Washington Post, Bowser said the Switch was “redefining what a console life cycle can look like.” The platform holds a unique place in the games console market: Compared with PlayStation 5 or Xbox, the Switch uses very old mobile technology outclassed even by smartphones released half a decade ago.

Bowser attributes the console’s long-tail sales to a carefully curated and planned release schedule of first-party published titles. “Tears of the Kingdom” is the second-best-selling game of the year so far. “Pikmin 4,” the latest game by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, launched this summer, and “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” and a remake of “Super Mario RPG” will close out the year. Contrast to market leader PlayStation 5, with “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” as the single first-party title in its schedule.

“A big part of this is how you continue to not only bring new players in, but how you keep existing players engaged by having content in a steady drumbeat, that makes the difference,” Bowser said.

The company’s fans are starving for a new console with updated technology, so much so that the phrases “Switch 2” and “Switch Pro” constantly trend on social media sites fueled on nothing but pure speculation. But this week alone, Nintendo announced still more versions of the 2017 console: two versions of the Lite edition with Animal Crossing branding, as well as a return of the “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” bundle. Nintendo just announced a special Mario edition of its OLED model coming only months after the release of a special Zelda edition.

The Switch release strategy is part of Nintendo’s goal of staying as a multigenerational media company, Bowser said. The Animal Crossing bundle, for example, includes the franchise’s 2020 “New Horizons” game, which sold more than 42 million copies across various age and gender demographics.

“It’s for the family, quite honestly, that’s looking to get one more Switch, if the kids are fighting over the existing Switch,” Bowser said. “Every year, there are millions of households that have kids turning 6, 7 or 8, which is typically when people introduce their children to video games, and we think we’re a very logical and obvious choice for those families.”

Film has become another pillar for Nintendo after the success of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” with its $1.36 billion global revenue, surpassed only recently by “Barbie.” Hollywood’s first attempt at a Mario movie, in 1993, bombed at the box office, which in turn led to Nintendo closely guarding its intellectual property for years. But the company has been loosening its tie, forming official partnerships with Lego with tie-in toys, as well as the Universal Studios theme parks.

“We found there were lots of parents and grandparents that took their kids to the movie,” Bowser said. “I met a grandmother the other day who took her grandchild four times, and she can now talk to me all about Mario and the various characters of the game. That experience goes back to the point of creating multiple touchpoints and building that affinity over time.”

Nintendo’s strategy is unusual enough that there were arguments in federal court this year about whether the company competes with Xbox or PlayStation. In July, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission against Microsoft over its $69 billion acquisition of game publishing giant Activision Blizzard. As part of its argument, the FTC did not include Nintendo in its definition of market competitors, an observation that confused the industry.

When asked about the hearings, Bowser laughed and said he’ll avoid passing judgment on any remarks from court proceedings. He doesn’t want to single out any company as a competitor.

“If there is competition, it’s asking ourselves, ‘How do we compete for people’s entertainment time?'” Bowser said. “We all have limited time. How do we create devices or platforms that are differentiated and unique and people want to play, or create devices or platforms that are differentiated and unique that people want to engage in? Because, in the end, that’s what’s important to us: Keep people engaged, bring them into our platforms or just our IP through various means like the movie or the theme park.”

Nintendo remains secretive about its next big platform moves, and Bowser has become an expert at dodging questions about a Switch successor console. The Post asked what people can expect in 2024.

Bowser laughed and only said, “You can continue to look forward to that great beat of content to keep people engaged.”