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Understanding Nintendo's new "quality of life" initiative
by Christian Nutt on 02/04/14 02:38:00 pm   Editor Blog   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The most surprising thing about Nintendo's recent shareholders' meeting was company president Satoru Iwata's announcement of a new "quality of life" initiative at Nintendo. Not for its employees -- but as a branch of its consumer products.


"What Nintendo will try to achieve in the next 10 years is a platform business that improves people’s QOL in enjoyable ways," Iwata said.

In the Q&A session following his presentation, he went further: "When we talk about 'health,' it often involves measuring something and showing the results, but if we add an application to something, maybe this application would encourage people to continue in an enjoyable way, and we feel that we can use our strengths in this area. I mentioned that I would like to redefine the notion of entertainment as something that improves people’s QOL in enjoyable ways, and 'enjoyable ways' come from the power of applications."

That is not a trivial promise: it sounds like a new business for Nintendo. The details about it, however, are tantalizingly vague, though Iwata spoke at length about it.

Reading between the lines, it seems that "quality of life" -- which will initially encompass health and then possibly move onto learning or lifestyle products -- may become a third pillar of Nintendo's business, alongside its consoles and handhelds, complimenting them, but also standing on its own.

This is interesting, because if true, it means Nintendo is expanding its business to a "new blue ocean," which is how Iwata put it.

To understand what Nintendo might do, I think it's instructive to look at what Nintendo has done so far. Admittedly, there's a limitation to how useful that is (and Iwata himself says not to rely on the company's history in this space too much, while also playing it up). Iwata's comments were also so cryptic that prognosticating is impossible. That said, it's fun to think about this stuff.

The clues we have: What Nintendo has done so far

In the Q&A, Iwata talked about Nintendo's history of taking a basic piece of technology and adding a game to it to enhance its appeal: for example, the Pokémon Pikachu, which was just a pedometer married to a '90s virtual pet. The important fact here is that you had to walk a certain amount every day to keep Pikachu happy, rather than simply push buttons, as with the Tamagotchi.


The biggest, most obvious example of this strategy is Wii Fit, which is, essentially, a scale. It's easy to point at Wii Fit and say that it's the motivator for this move -- and it's likely true, at least in part, so no skin off anybody's nose to do so.

With Wii Fit, Nintendo gamified exercise, but it did it in very much the opposite way that term is usually applied. Using its extensive game design expertise, the company transformed exercises into minigames -- ones that are actually fun. Its achievement (pointsification) layer is much simpler than what the gamification gurus would suggest.


The result? Late last year, half a million people in Japan were still using their Wii Balance Boards on a daily basis, and the trend was similar in the West. That's encouraging news for Nintendo, and that's what I'd take into account in terms of this QOL news.  

Wii Fit U interfaces with a device called the Wii Fit Meter. Like the Pokemon Pikachu, it's a pedometer, but it also tracks your calories burned and can interface with the game to dump that info back into Wii Fit U -- so the game can track your progress while you're not actively playing it. Most surprising, the device is actually usable autonomously, and kind of useful even without transferring the data. This is a concept the company can continue to explore.


Of course, there's Brain Age. Brain Age is probably most remembered as a fad -- and it was -- but it was also taken seriously by a lot of people. It came out of (at least semi-) serious research into helping people improve or retain mental function. People in Japan and in the West used the game this way, even if it wasn't exactly scientific. Of course Nintendo would want to capitalize on this sort of trend again.



The post-Brain Age boom meant that Nintendo released a large number of other learning and productivity apps for the DS: cookbooks, sudoku, and even its ridiculous Face Training game which was apparently designed to "strengthen and stimulate your facial muscles." It sounds dumb (and it probably is) but the fact that it's billed a game to help people relax is actually instructive in the context of a "what might Nintendo do regarding quality of life?" discussion.


The cultural reasons this could work

It's tempting to say this initiative is a harebrained scheme on the part of Nintendo's management, but there is reason to suggest it might work out.


When the Wii was at the height of its popularity, it was installed in nursing homes. Caring for the elderly is a huge problem for Japan which its tech industry is working on. (This article contains the image above, which I adore.) The country is rapidly aging, and in huge numbers. It also has the highest life expectancy in the world. This is, after all, the country that brought us Roujin Z. Nintendo's moves slot right into the future that movie proposed.



Of course, aging isn't the only health issue of relevance; in the West, particularly America, there's the obesity epidemic (so there's Wii Fit again, though notably Wii Fit U has many different programs of exercise, and weight loss is just one among several. Note: "...our new business domain would be providing preventive measures which would require us to enable people to monitor their health and offer them appropriate propositions," said Iwata.) Again, Brain Age was actually on some level intended to combat a serious problem; dementia is currently a major health issue globally, and one that needs much attention.


Problems, challenges, and possibilities

Will Nintendo's top talent be working on this platform? It seems likely. What is worth remembering is that Miyamoto is the driving force behind Wii Fit. That was not a corporate-mandated left turn into serious games; it was borne out of Miyamoto's own mentality: while working to lose weight, he turned using his scale into a game -- and then, given his profession, took that to its logical extreme.

By reputation, Miyamoto can't help but turn his daily activities, such as swimming laps, into games or challenges. Such high-level creative power unleashed in a health initiative should count for something, particularly as (as I said above) "gamification" usually has things backwards to how Nintendo does things:

"There are many players in this market, but Nintendo is one of the few that make both hardware and software, offer and deliver propositions to people throughout the world, and make people enjoy and continue playing with them, so we think we have a great deal of possibilities ahead of us," Iwata said.


There's also the Wii Vitality Sensor, which never came out -- but seems to have come from the same kind of thinking (it was inspired by Miyamoto's own experiences and interests, this time in relaxation).

Speaking of Nintendo and abandoned ideas, it's worth mentioning that the company never permanently dumps good ideas, and will bring them back and deploy them when the time is right. (The Mii began development in the NES era before finally being released on the Wii.) The Vitality Sensor, and many other concepts which have never yet seen the light of day, could emerge if this is a serious new business for the company.

The potential for success does seem legitimate and enormous, but the company also has a number of challenges to overcome.

One will be detaching the QOL business from its games consoles. At least as I see it, the QOL business should be separate and self-sustaining -- so that anybody can enjoy its products whether or not they buy Nintendo consoles or handhelds.

It's also crucial to break the generational cycle issue. I think another major problem with the Wii to Wii U transition was that casual consumers don't have a reason to upgrade -- they may still use their Wiis, they may not, but they aren't like gamers who crave newness. Those hundreds of thousands of Wii Fit users -- why would they upgrade if they're still using what they have so regularly? Wii Fit U probably won't be a success, despite being very well made.

The company's move to a cross-generational Nintendo Network ID system which transcends device, as outlined in the investor talk, is belated -- but hopefully indicative of its understanding of this.

At the same time, these products must interface with games on the consoles/handhelds in a meaningful and deep way. This is not a contradiction. These products (consoles, handhelds, and QOL) should all stand alone yet also support and thus hopefully lift each other. Nintendo's integration of its handheld and console software divisions should make this easier; its lack of expertise in making multiplatform products (its handhelds and consoles always diverged widely from one another) will make it more difficult.


The biggest black box is trying to interpret what Iwata meant when he spoke about "non-wearable" technology. He noted that wearable technology (Google Glass, Oculus Rift) was big at CES, but suggested the company intends to leapfrog that trend (as it mostly skipped smartphones) and do its own thing.

Iwata: "we wish to achieve an integrated hardware-software platform business that, instead of providing mobile or wearable features, will be characterized by a new area of what we like to call 'non-wearable' technology." Here's the insane visual representation of that:


Given that "non-wearable" (seems to?) exclude something like the Wii Fit Meter, and also seems to imply smartphones won't be part of its health services products -- which seems a bad move -- this is potentially troubling. It is, at the very least, confusing.

"I am not planning to announce any specific themes today, but to give you a hint, 'non-wearable' does not necessarily mean it is something that will be used in the living room," is what Iwata said in the Q&A, which doesn't exactly help much.

The biggest and most important question, then, is left completely open. Can Nintendo produce something people will want to buy and want to use? Nintendo has often done a very good job at this. People clearly like its games and devices -- when they fit in with their lives.

Japan has earned the nickname "Galapagos" because it has a tendency to adopt nonstandard technologies that don't catch on elsewhere on the globe and evolve in isolation. This cycle has repeated again and again, for example with its PCs in the 1980s and its cell phones in the pre-smartphone era.

The Japanese are very keen to adopt technologies for business and pleasure (it's the land that brought us the Tamagotchi, it adopted QR codes widely, quickly, and early, and it has also had cell phone-based RFID payment systems for years.)

Smartphones have made massive cracks in this wall, but a long history of this mentality (and Nintendo's stubborn and idiosyncratic approach to hardware R&D) will necessarily affect any moves the company makes. Iwata seems to understand, judging from his comments, but Nintendo is as prone to being a Japanese company as any Japanese company is:

"The popularization of the Internet and smart devices shows that people’s lifestyles are changing dramatically. Just as video games once needed a TV screen and then later handheld devices with built-in screens emerged with the shift in people’s lifestyles, we must once again change our definition of video games to keep up with the times."

If Nintendo can't shake its stubbornness where it needs to, it could prove particularly troublesome when going for devices designed for very wide adoption in a broad consumer market like health.

Outside of Japan, I suspect that while the smartphone has opened many people up to adopting technology, it also means that people are less likely to buy a dedicated device and carry it around (a trend we're obviously seeing with game consoles.) Then again, there's Nike+, so never say never.



This E3 should be very interesting, but knowing Nintendo, it might not be. 2015 -- when the quality of life platform is set to launch -- will be more so. And the 2016 financial meeting, which will be when the impact of this platform is set to be made on Nintendo's results, well… That will have some very interesting comments from Iwata, no doubt.

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Michael Donovan
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I think Nintendo is a great company, but it profits off of nostalgia and gimmicks. They have some of the most well-known names and titles in gaming history, and keep producing similar, but updated titles that have held fans over for a time. But with their recent announcement of their worst fiscal year ever, is this really the answer? It seems like they're looking for a new and innovative idea and they're doing it in the wrong way. Wii Fit was successful, however it seems more gimmicky than anything. I get its practical application, but I would be interested in seeing how many people actively still use it today. Nintendo consistently creates some of the best games of all time. Why should they stray away from that? In my opinion, they should get away from the gimmicks and work with their strongest exclusives, but also develop new, and even stronger exclusives that gamers crave. We need new heros and characters to associate with Nintedo, but we'll always need our fix of Link and Mario. Less gimmicks, more games and exclusives, please!

Bob Johnson
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HOw many people are still actively using any game made in 2007? I'm not sure why WiiFit would be singled out and be declared a gimmick compared to any other piece of software in 2007 - the vast majority of which are not being actively used today.

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How are you defining "gimmicky?" And by your definition of nostalgia, you've basically described what the majority of the industry is doing right now.

Michael Donovan
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Perhaps gimmick isn't the proper word then. I was about to say that the Wii is more of a toy than a console, but then I'm reminded of wonderful games like Skyward Sword that utilized the console and what it had to offer wonderfully. When the Wii was released, I was so skeptical as to how it could possibly succeed. Has the Wii succeeded as a console? I think that it brought in a new audience of gamers, blending casual with the "hardcore" (a term I use loosely). It seems like the Wii was just more of the new thing that everyone talked about and everyone wanted, which is every gaming device at some point I suppose.

The point I was trying to make is that I feel like Nintendo is trying to win back its followers that it found with the introduction of the Wii and then the follow up of the WiiU by bringing new everyday application stuff in to the mix. I don't really know if this is the answer though, and it may result in what happened to the Wii where now most people's sit on a shelf and collect dust (at least those that I know). I think Nintendo needs to capture an audience and hold them, the same way it did a long time ago when it first established itself as a major gaming company with interesting exclusives and games. Sure, interesting real-world applications could be implemented, and would be awesome, but I don't think they should rely on them to bail them out.

Rick Reichert
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Remember the fact that Nintendo didn't always make video games (I believe they made card games?) but moved in when they saw an opening in the market. Nintendo has no fear of adapting/discovering new ways to meet people's needs. I won't disagree with you (and I don't think anyone would) when you ask for no gimmicks but Nintendo can't single-handedly support a poorly selling console with 1st party titles, even if they are of Nintendo quality. They have to change.

Katy Smith
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As someone who plays Zombies, Run regularly, wears an Up band, and tracks data in MyFitnessPal, I am all over the idea of a Nintendo created "Quantified Self" ecosystem. I'm really interested in seeing where this goes.

Bob Johnson
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Don't forget about WiiSports.

Anyway my first thought is they will make WiiFit a stand-alone product. You will interact with it through smartphones/tablets.

Christian Nutt
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Yeah, Wii Sports is only indirectly mentioned -- I believe that was what most of the nursing home Wii users were playing.

I am not sure about the smartphone/tablet thing, obviously. It sounds like a good idea for very obvious reasons, but there are complexities there:
- If you don't need a Nintendo console/handled for the richer device-enabled experience, how does it lift up the company as a whole?
- If the developers have to create smartphone/tablet and console and handheld apps that interface with the QOL non-wearable device, is that too taxing for the company?

Now, if the hardware converges (handheld/console) in the next generation, that's less of an issue.

Bob Johnson
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Well Nintendo said the QoL division is a third pillar. There was no mention it is tied to Nintendo consoles/handhelds. Only that it would leverage their strengths. Nintendo is doing non-wearables. Iwata hinted at the fact it doesn't have to be used in the living room.

If you look at their history they reuse or repackage or rewire alot of their old ideas. IF you look at how many excercise and look at the market penetration of Wii Fit you'll see that is actually fairly low even though it was a big hit for a videogame on a dedicated device.

The Iwata presentation did mention and did say they were going to spend resources on functionality where it makes the most sense. IF it makes more sense on smartphones then that's where they will go. Smartphones and tablets come to mind when I think about a gui for a non-wearable QoL device like a Balance Board that can be used anywhere in the house.

Also the Nintendo app could tie into this QoL Wii Fit piece of hardware. Nintendo specifically mentioned they want customers to check out the app on a consistent basis. Well that fits in perfectly with exercising a 3-4 times/week.

If Mom is checking out their app 3-4 times/wk for exercise then they will also see other Nintendo products advertised. That is another part of the synergy. Maybe Nintendo offers periodic free QoL games/routines through the Nintendo app to keep consumers continually interested in the Nintendo app.

There's also the possibility that mobile devices would be to a QoL device as the Gamepad is to the Wii U. The QoL device would directly stream to your mobile device. The mobile device would merely act as a dumb terminal. This would seemingly add expense to the QoL device, but it might get around offering up apps for sale on the app store and get around developing for different mobile platforms.

Mike Griffin
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I'm convinced by recent Iwata comments that Nintendo's short term smartphone/tablet initiative will be all about -companion apps- and catching up to that trend. And getting their own network visible via mobile as well.

The mobile team has the greenlight to include game-like features (or even a small game companion app) that can also interface with the "main game" played on Wii U and possibly 3DS. Handshakes via Nintendo network, with some 'lite' local elements (to enforce the Gamepad's irreplaceable features/role).

As for the non-wearables approach: Tapping into mobile devices (ubiquitous) could be one way to achieve a more cost-effective and easily adopted QoL accessory solution, without asking consumers to shell-out for additional proprietary hardware whose functions can be emulated on smartphones/tablets.

Benjamin Quintero
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I'm convinced "non-wearable" means each person can purchase a Nintendo Drone™ that follows you everywhere. =) I might consider that.

Axel Cholewa
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Ha, great idea :) I was actually thinking about a robot, but a drone is much more promising ;)

Then again, they just might develop talking houses that track your health and take care of you, a bit like Back To The Future 2 :) "Nintendo Home" would be a fitting name. Oh, and that house is coupled to your computer at work and scolds you if you didn't take a break, or didn't get up for an hour and a half :)

SD Marlow
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It's going to be called NAG (Nintendo Augmented Gear). A small device that fits in your pocket and HUD display with camera, mic, and earpiece. Order soda with lunch, and it will tell you to order tea instead. Trying to watch non-Nintendo approved TV, nope, get-up and go for a 2 mile walk (or ride your connected N-bike). Kids always "forget" to brush their teeth, but NAG will remind them to no end (just like that little brother they never wanted).

NAG - "Leading you too a better tomorrow."

Axel Cholewa
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That'd be wearable, wouldn't it?

Bob Johnson
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The other possibility that comes to mind for a non-wearable QoL device that wouldn't use mobile devices as the GUI front-end is NIntendo could build a pocket projector into the QoL device.

Michael Joseph
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real time marker less full body (including facial) motion capture controlled avatars?

non wearable to me sounds like lots of cameras, microphones and wifi. And by lots of cameras and mics how about placing them in every part of your home (except the bathrooms!) so that you can now do home automation through gestures alone from anywhere... no more remotes,controllers, physical interfaces.. or i've been watching too much Star Trek. would take a lot processing power... maybe someone can write some steam box clustering software and make it so.

Rosstin Murphy
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Kickass article, Christian.

It's an interesting direction for Nintendo. Not quite sure how I feel about it but... we all love Nintendo, and then can be surprisingly savvy when you least expect it. I hope they can rock on with this new direction.

David Serrano
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If Iwata said the goal of the initiative was to expand the business to a "new blue ocean," he wasn't using an analogy. He was literally referring to the name of the business strategy book he's based Nintendo's strategy on since he became CEO.

The goal of a Blue Ocean strategy is to avoid head to head competition in an existing market dominated by other companies by creating a new market which by design, will eventually disrupt the existing market. The Wii was a textbook example of this. Nintendo avoided head to head competition with Sony and Microsoft in the core console market with similar hardware and games. They instead created a new market and audience with lower end hardware and non-core / hardcore games. And they had partially disrupted the console games market before Wii hardware and game sales began to drop off.

So if the quality of life initiative is based on the Blue Ocean strategy, it will indirectly target companies who currently dominate an existing market, or a segment of an existing market.

Will Hendrickson
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Actually, I think this could work out quite well for Nintendo.

Of course "non-wearable" is cryptic, and I'm not sure that even Miyamoto himself fully knows how this will work. In all likelihood, he doesn't. But, that's OK because game development is an iterative process and the best stuff always comes from good iteration.

I liked Brain Age, and although it's not perfect I feel like this kind of thing, especially coming from the innovators at Nintendo, really can improve people's lives.

Judy Tyrer
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Nintendo started in the 1890s. They are very good at adapting to culture and change. This looks like a good time for them to step back, reevaluate, and then do what they do best - open a new market for themselves.