What the Game Boy Predicted About the Gaming Industry in 2019

Like the rest of my generation, the 30th anniversary of the Game Boy has been making me feel nostalgic. I had a Game Boy, and like my peers in school I was obsessed with Pokemon and duly proud of my two legendary pokemon. (Perhaps I still am.) What’s interesting about the 30th anniversary is the opportunity to look back at how Nintendo consoles evolved. The Game Boy was a game-changing handheld device, and today the Nintendo Switch is the darling console of the indie game revolution.

That’s a remarkable accomplishment when you consider that a few years ago, Nintendo’s WiiU and 3DS were known as difficult platforms to develop for, largely due to hardware incompatibility and a lack of real developer support from Nintendo. The Switch has completely changed that, and embracing developer support was part of the Switch’s core marketing strategy. As The Verge put it in March of 2018:

“Last year, just ahead of the launch of the Switch, Nintendo unveiled some ambitious plans to support independently developed games on the platform, including launching a new game every single week. It was a big shift for a company that wasn’t known for being indie-friendly in the past. One year later, the initiative seems to have worked: the Switch might be the most vibrant indie platform of the moment.”

In terms of sales, Kotaku compared Switch sales data to Nintendo Wii sales data after their respective launch dates. The Switch outsold the extremely popular Wii after 41 weeks, which is remarkable given the fact that the Wii was timed with the holiday season and released November 19th 2006. The Switch was realsed on March 3rd 2017 during a non-holiday period. Yet it’s still on pace to out sell the Playstation 4 (to say nothing of the struggling Xbox One X which has given up on hardware sales profits in exchange for peripheral revenue around the console).

The Switch’s success is owed to two main factors: its inventive hardware that we’ve come to expect from Nintendo (and which sets it apart from the nearly identical consoles of the PS4 and Xbox One), and its enormous catalog of games. To create that catalog, Nintendo nurtures third-party developers and encourages indie game shops to bring their vision to its wide audience. We rarely think of game consoles as developer platforms, but that’s the business model that has made them so successful.

What’s interesting is that in hindsight can we see that history unfold in a natural evolution that stretches back to the early days of the Game Boy.

Soon after the Game Boy launched, third-parties built accessories around the Game Boy and some accessories even came with their own mini games. Some were properly licensed, such as The Game Boy Pocket Sonar made by Bandai. The Sonar could locate fish up to 20m away under water and came with a fishing mini game.

Non-licensed accessories were largely cheat-accessories like the Game Genie and GameShark. What’s interesting about the GameShark in particular is that because the devices were not connected, the GameShark’s pre-loaded codes could not be updated as new games and cheats were created. However, that wasn’t a problem for GameShark’s brightest customers. The GameShark’s Game Trainer feature was a way for users to create/enter new codes in a separate piece of software. By the way, that feature was an entry point into game development and coding for a lot of young people in the 1990s.

Even before the IoT, people had a drive to make these devices their own through hardware and software innovation, whether licensed or not. Modern day consoles have embraced that truth to great fortune by providing developer portals, tools, support, and game development kits.

However, for a long time Nintendo’s game offering lagged behind Playstation and Xbox.  Its hardware was simply too different, which made it difficult to port games across devices. For a long time, Nintendo relied on its first-party marquee games (anything Mario, Super Smash, Zelda, Animal Crossing, Pokemon to name a few). The Nintendo Switch changed that. Again from The Verge:

“It’s a change that’s been a long time coming. Nintendo’s ‘Nindies” program dates back to the Wii U, and Baker says that the company has been slowly adjusting it to better serve developers.’”

The change has paid off handsomely for Nintendo, and it’s a lesson for any company looking to embrace a developer platform in any industry. Don’t just own the software, own the means of connection between brilliant software developers and the customers who love their work.

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