Nintendo / Mario Kart 8
Late Wednesday night, Nintendo announced its plans to turn its roster of original characters into interactive toys that talk to its consoles — basically, the same trick that makes the Skylanders games and Disney Infinity tick.
At first blush, this is an unusual move for the Japanese gaming company, which likes to make risky bets in order to hit a product category first. It rowed hard against the tide with the first Wii, and won big thanks to the casual-friendly novelty of motion controls. The Wii U and its bundled GamePad may have flopped hard, but it represented a bet on another living room reinvention around the second screen.
However, not being the first to tackle interactive toys may give Nintendo crucial information that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
For starters, a look at the charts validates that interactive toys may be a good fit for Nintendo’s audience. According to the NPD Group, the original Wii was the leading platform of choice for Skylanders: Swap Force when it was a top-10 selling game on U.S. retail shelves in October and November. It was also the No. 1 or No. 2 platform for Disney Infinity in all four of the months when the Disney game charted last year: August, September, November and December.
Unlike Activision and Disney, though, Nintendo currently makes games for only two types of devices: The Wii home consoles and the 3DS handhelds. And the bad news is that the newer Wii U and the 3DS were consistently the least-popular platforms for Disney Infinity in those four months; the same was true of Skylanders: Swap Force in October, but not in November, when the Wii U and 3DS were at least able to beat the just-out Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Since the company has only announced plans to release an external Near Field Communication reader for the 3DS family, that means the success of the new toys may be weighed down — unless consumer interest in the newer hardware picks up.
By playing catch-up, Nintendo also gets a decent runway to figure out its interactive toy game plan. Disney reportedly invested more than $100 million in Infinity, which delivered the company’s long-struggling Interactive division its third consecutive quarter of profitability in Q2. Over the months, it has released more and more characters that will work in the game, which comprise a secondary product stream as parents hurry out to nab the protagonists of “Frozen” or (soon) “The Avengers” for their kids.
Nintendo has a lot of characters to work with, across series like Mario, Zelda and Pokémon, but figuring out how to focus its efforts on the right characters — a fanboy-scrutinized feat in the virtual world with its franchise-bending fighting game Super Smash Bros. — will be tough. Plus, President Satoru Iwata told investors that the toys “are going to work with multiple software titles to be released in the future,” so make of that what you will.
The company will share more details about the interactive toys at E3 next month, Iwata said.