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What does Nintendo’s first mobile app say about Mario’s future?

Digi-Capital believes the next Nintendo console could focus on VR and AR gaming.Digi-Capital believes the next Nintendo console could focus on VR and AR gaming.
Digi-Capital believes the next Nintendo console could focus on VR and AR gaming.Courtesy of Nintendo

Are you surprised that Nintendo has disappointed the world with its mobile plans? Don’t be, experts say.

On Thursday, Nintendo (NTDOY) revealed the long-awaited details of its first mobile app. The app, dubbed Miitomo, will launch in March 2016. Nintendo calls the app a “free-to-start communication application that helps friends share fun personal facts and interests.” Those users will create Mii characters and play around in a “welcoming social environment.” In other words, the game company isn’t even launching a game.

Soon after its announcement, Nintendo shares plummeted due to the company’s decisions to delay their first mobile release until next year, and to not include popular franchises like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda in the effort. For all of the hype surrounding Nintendo’s plans for mobile earlier this year, this announcement fizzled.

When the company said that it would develop mobile applications this past March, fans and pundits lit up with dreams of seeing one of the company’s popular games running on an iPhone or iPad. Nintendo even stoked the flames a bit, saying that any of its franchises were in the running to go mobile.

So what happened? Several analysts believe this is just Nintendo being Nintendo.

“I think they are saying that they are firmly committed to their long-term strategy of making proprietary hardware and supporting it with proprietary software, and this foray into mobile will not involve any of Nintendo’s iconic [franchises],” says Webdush Securities analyst Michael Pachter, who thinks the company’s future strategy is firmly hinged on its next, top-secret console.

Earlier this year, Nintendo announced that it has been developing a new hardware platform called NX. While Nintendo has remained tight-lipped on its plans, rumors suggest the device will be a high-end console more capable of competing against Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox One and Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4. The company’s current Wii U is a distant third in the console market, and as competitors continue to sell millions of units each quarter, it’s falling further behind. To date, Nintendo has sold 10.7 million Wii U consoles since its Nov. 2012 launch. Meanwhile, Sony has sold 29.3 million PlayStation 4 units since it was released in Nov. 2013. Also launched in Nov. 2013, Microsoft’s Xbox One sales are believed to be around 15 million units, though the company hasn’t shared sales data in the last several months.

“Nintendo’s next piece of hardware is central to the future of the company, so we expect it to be very focused on executing on the Nintendo NX,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, an analyst at IHS.

David Cole, an analyst at DFC Intelligence, agrees that the NX is important, saying that that device (and not mobile) is “critical for Nintendo’s success.”

“The ability to make serious money in the broad smartphone and tablet business is very limited,” Cole says of Nintendo’s prospects in mobile. “They need a hardware platform with a solid installed base and that needs to be the NX.”

Cole, like Pachter, sees Nintendo’s Miitomo as indicative of Nintendo’s stubbornness against change. Miitomo, he says, illustrates that Nintendo isn’t “changing their core strategy,” adding that he believes Nintendo is doing little more than trying to use smartphones and tablets to get people more interested in its company.

“We see that mainly as a branding play in an effort to introduce consumers to Nintendo [products],” Cole says. “The hope is those consumers will step up and buy premium Nintendo hardware and software.”

Meanwhile, there appears to be waning interest in Nintendo products. On Wednesday, Nintendo announced its performance for the six-month period ending Sept. 30. While it was able to post a small profit, it was down nearly 20% year-over-year. More concerning, the company sold just 1.2 million Wii U units during the period—a pittance compared to the millions of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 units sold each quarter.

So, what’s next for Nintendo? It depends on who you ask. Industry experts, like Harding-Rolls, say that nothing will change at Nintendo. He argues that the company’s ultimate goal is to get consumers to “invest in Nintendo hardware.”

Nintendo itself, however, is warning people not to make the snap judgement that the company is still the same old Nintendo. A company spokesperson says Miitomo is just the first step towards a broader mobile initiative. “Nintendo reaffirmed that it plans to release a total of five smart device applications by the end of March 2017, and will consider any and all Nintendo IP as candidates for future apps, as previously announced,” she says.

While that leaves the door open to a future Super Mario game on your iPhone, for right now, all signs seem to point towards the same old Nintendo doing the same old things—while tossing in a disappointing first run at mobile devices for good measure.

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