You may have missed it this year amid all the arguing about whether Nintendo should bail out of making gaming hardware and just stick to making games.
You may have missed it if the only Nintendo headlines that made an impression on you in 2013 were the ones about Wii U struggles or the company's latest line-up of sequels, sequels and, for the most part, more sequels.
You may have missed the fact that, this past summer, Nintendo quietly began perfecting a whole new genre of video games that doesn't exist—and may not be able to exist—on any Sony, Microsoft, Android or Apple machine.
Nintendo released four games that play differently than any other games anywhere. These games require the exact kind of marriage between hardware and software that Nintendo stalwarts regularly say mandates Nintendo to continue to making gaming hardware—and not just games—in order to do what Nintendo does best: make groundbreaking games.
This past summer, Nintendo began perfecting a new genre of video games that doesn't exist—and may not be able to exist—on any Sony, Microsoft, Android or Apple machine.
The four games are like nothing else out there from any of Nintendo's competitors. They're also unlike any game, with one exception, that Nintendo has ever made before. They run differently than most games. And they're one of the most innovative things Nintendo has created in a while.
The quartet of games have simple, unassuming titles: Flower Town, Warrior's Way, Mii Force and Monster Manor. They cost $5 each and they've never been featured in a TV commercial or been part of any big stage show. About the extent of any promotion Nintendo has given them is this trailer:
Collectively, you can call the quartet StreetPass games. But to know the names or know the branding doesn't really tell you much about what makes these games special. To know how they play, in the most general sense, hopefully will. At the bottom of this article, you can find videos I've shot of all four games. I talk you through each one. Watch those now or wait and read this appreciation for what Nintendo has done. I think you'll be intrigued, and possibly impressed, either way.
The four Nintendo games I'm highlighting represent nothing less than a radically different way to build and play video games, one that defies traditional singleplayer and multiplayer categorizations and which depends on an odd combination of fuels to make the games playable. They are powered by one of two things: the nearby physical presence of other gamers and/or hours of physical activity by the person who owns the game.
These games are powered by one of two things: the nearby physical presence of other gamers and/or hours of physical activity by the person who owns the game.
Let me explain how one of these games works. Consider Mii Force, a traditional sci-fi shoot-em-up that's been given a StreetPass twist. Track its lineage back to Space Invaders, Galaga, Defender and Gradius. You control a space ship that you use to shoot both airborne and ground-based enemies. The thing is that, by default, you have no guns...
Before I get too far into the weeds of Mii Force, I should mention that the StreetPass games are all on the portable Nintendo 3DS. They're handheld games and, in a literal sense, they're mobile games. They literally would not work if you didn't carry them around with you.
To play the StreetPass games and to use the 3DS' StreetPass technology in general, you must bring the system around with you. If you're playing StreetPass games, you're hoping that others are carrying their 3DS systems with them as well. As soon as a person starts using a 3DS, the system invites the user to make a little Mii avatar of themselves and to adorn that avatar in a simple outfit that includes a shirt of their favorite color. They're also encouraged to let their 3DS share StreetPass data as long as its power is on and its wireless switch is activated. Any 3DS that's activated like this will swap Mii data with other 3DS systems if the two machines are within 75 feet or so of each other. The systems can make this data exchange while they are open and running games. They can be closed and resting in people's pockets or bags. They'll still exchange data. They'll send players' Miis into each other's systems and they'll also exchange data for any games that support StreetPass.
Notably, other portable devices, including Apple and Android phones and Sony's PlayStation Vita, either don't have or simply don't utilize this kind of non-Internet, passive short-range exchanging of data. That might be changing soon. Just this past month, for example, with the introduction of iOS7, iPhone users could begin to manually "AirDrop" photos, notes and other clumps of data to nearby devices that are eligible to receive such data, but that short-range transfer of data is not quite as automatic and effortless as Nintendo StreetPassing—not yet.
Most games that support StreetPass on the 3DS do it as a bonus feature. Super Mario 3D Land, for example, lets people unlock challenge levels in each other's games; Fire Emblem Awakening sends a copy of one player's army into the war map of the other player, letting the receiving player see if they've got a squad that can beat them. In Mii Force and the three other summer 2013 StreetPass games, this data-swapping is the core of the game.
Other portable devices, including Apple and Android phones and Sony's PlayStation Vita either don't have or simply don't utilize the kind of non-Internet, passive short-range exchanging of data that powers the StreetPass games.
Back to Mii Force, the shoot-em-up that gives you no guns. The game doesn't arm your ship. You don't arm your ship either. The people with whom you StreetPass do. Those people, in fact, are your guns. See, your ship is an orb and in the fiction of Mii Force, up to 10 people with whom you StreetPass will appear in your game as little orbs, too. Your orb can fly. Theirs can shoot. You attach their orbs to yours to make a little multi-gun spacecraft. The kind of weapon each Mii shoots depends on which favorite-color shirt they're wearing. A person who wears a white shirt will shoot buzzsaws. A person in a navy blue shirt fires homing missiles. Someone wearing lime green fires a sort of laser whip.
On a day when you know you've collected some Miis via StreetPass, you can crack open the 3DS, load Mii Force, collect the weaponized orbs of the Miis you snagged and shoot through a level of the game. If you StreetPassed with fewer than 10 people, then you'll have fewer than 10 weapon orbs to affix to your ship (you can actually only equip and fire four weapons at a time; the other Mii orbs can be used to amplify the effects of those guns).
To be clear, Mii Force isn't a traditional multiplayer game. The people who serve as your guns aren't playing the game with you. They're more than likely long gone. It's just their Mii avatars that you're using in the game. The same is true in Monster Manor, where you use StreetPassed Miis to help you explore a mansion and fight ghosts. The same is true in Flower Town, in which you use fellow Miis to mix plant seeds and grow new species of flora. The same is true in Warrior's Way, a variation on Risk that doesn't just import the Miis of passersby but assembles armies for them that are, at minimum, as large as the number of people they've ever StreetPassed with.
Mii Force isn't a traditional multiplayer game. The people who serve as your guns aren't playing the game with you. They're more than likely long gone.
StreetPass games aren't exactly games you play with other people, you see. They're games you play because of other people. That makes StreetPass games radically different than just about any other games you can play. Think about it.
In the past we've been able to play single-player games, games that we spent a quarter or maybe $60 to access. We played them at the arcade or on a PC or console. We played solo and it didn't really matter if we were the only gamer in the world other than for the fact that, if we were, no industry to make games would exist.
We could also play multiplayer games. In the old days, we did this by gathering siblings or friends to share a couch. Later, we went online to play games, often with strangers. In all of these cases, gamers got together with the intent to play games. They did so at the same time, and they had fun together.
In recent years we've seen the rise of a weird and divisive kind of game on Facebook that involves a passive kind of multiplayer. This version of gaming was popularized by the FarmVille studio Zynga. If you played FarmVille, you did so on your own. But if you wanted to get further ahead in FarmVille more quickly, you needed to ask other people on Facebook to help you. These people didn't even have to be FarmVille players. They just needed to be connected to you on Facebook and needed to be willing to click a virtual button to send some materials your way. They might even load a copy of your game and water your crops for you. They were never quite with you, but they helped you along.
The "social" Facebook version of video games was different and, for a time, popular, but it didn't really cultivate an interaction between the FarmVille player and their helper friends that many people would describe as "fun." Worse, the FarmVille style of game seemed to nakedly tie this system of "social gaming" to a business model that necessitated that the FarmVille player make as many other Facebook users aware of FarmVille as possible, in the hopes that they too would play FarmVille. Notably, FarmVille players could skip out on relying on friends and just pay money to get ahead, clearly something the company behind the game hoped and needed players to do to stay in business. Players would also see their playing time metered in terms of units of energy and would be unable to make more moves once that store of energy was depleted unless they: 1) waited, 2) asked friends to click things to give them more energy or 3) paid.
Nintendo's StreetPass games, like Zynga's games, feel like they were created out of a need to support a new, modern business model. But, bluntly, the Zynga-style FarmVille approach is worse.
The FarmVille model is oddly close to the StreetPass model of game design. Both involve a dependency on the limited interaction of other people to keep a player's game going. But, bluntly, the Zynga-style FarmVille approach is worse. This might not surprise those who already consider Nintendo to be better at making games than Zynga, but it's worth considering how close the two styles of games are and yet how sharply they differ. It's a useful comparison because Nintendo's StreetPass games, like Zynga's games, feel like they were created out of a need to support a new, modern business model. In the case of the StreetPass quartet, those games serve the needs of the Nintendo of 2013 perfectly.
Think about how Nintendo's StreetPass games work and what conditions they depend on to make them the most fun for the person playing them. The games are nearly worthless if you have them and live on an island where no one else has a 3DS. No other 3DS owners around = no StreetPassing. Therefore, if you have a StreetPass game like Mii Force it is in your interest for there to be other people out there who own 3DS systems. Shades of Zynga wanting FarmVille players to burn with a need for other people to know about FarmVille. In Nintendo's case, we're talking about players finding value in other people owning $200 hardware. And bear in mind that owning the hardware isn't enough.
While a Mii Force player doesn't need other 3DS owners to own a copy of Mii Force—they only need those 3DS owners to have their Miis in a shareable state—they do need other 3DS owners to be out in public with their 3DS systems. They also need to be out in public with their machines, too.
Playing StreetPass games, you see, is buying into a worldview that the more people who own a 3DS and carry a 3DS the better. That just so happens to be Nintendo executives' worldview, too. What a coincidence!
Here's the added brilliance on Nintendo's part: in the worldview that has everyone carrying a 3DS for StreetPass gaming, it doesn't even matter if any of the 3DS owners, the player included, are using their system. StreetPassing 3DS owners get the benefits of data exchanges even if their systems are in sleep mode in their bags. Players get a benefit basically for just bothering to pack their 3DS with them and carry it around. Very clever, Nintendo. Very clever indeed.
People might simply be too preoccupied with their phone calls and their phone games to see much merit in also packing a 3DS. The StreetPass system is essentially a counterargument to that. It's Nintendo saying: no, that's ok, keep using your phone, but bring our machine along, because we promise you'll get a benefit from it even if you don't take it out of your bag.
The challenge Nintendo faces from the prevalence of smartphones is that people who have a finite amount of pocket or bag space will leave other devices home before they leave their phone home. If they have their phone with them and have taken to playing games on it, they have very little reason to also carry a gaming handheld. They might simply be too preoccupied with their phone calls and their phone games to see much merit in also packing a 3DS. The StreetPass system is essentially a counterargument to that. It's Nintendo saying: no, that's ok, keep using your phone, but bring our machine along because we promise you'll get a benefit from it. The StreetPass games prove this out. In fact, they encourage a new dynamic for portable gaming: bring your system with you, don't play it, check it at the end of the day when you get home, and then play the StreetPass games at home with the benefits of all the data you sucked up from the 3DS systems you walked past during the day.
As a resident of New York City, I can attest to how well this works. I've picked up StreetPass data on subway platforms from people in passing trains. I've picked up StreetPass data while walking down the street. For this reason, I take my 3DS with me all the time, even when I know I won't have a chance to play it. (Nintendo also rather cleverly caps StreetPass data collection at fairly low numbers—10 data swaps for any of the summer's four StreetPass games—requiring players to open up their systems and use the Miis or other data they've received before "cleaning out" their StreetPass queue so that they can catch more data. In other words, Nintendo wants to make sure you still use your system at least some of the time.)
Nintendo's StreetPass games aren't just for big cities, though. You can play this summer's StreetPass games without StreetPassing with people. See, instead of using Mii data from other systems, 3DS owners can cash in "Play Coins" to generate virtual Mii characters—generally virtual dogs or cats, depending on which animal the system owner prefers. You earn Play Coins by walking around with the 3DS. The system's motion sensor counts your steps and turns that into virtual currency. See the pattern here? Nintendo is incentivizing players to carry their 3DS systems. They don't want you leaving your handheld at home.
See the pattern here? Nintendo is incentivizing players to carry their 3DS systems. They don't want you leaving your handheld at home.
If you look at Zynga's Facebook strategy as a transparent way to make money off of social gaming, you can look at StreetPass as Nintendo's rather similar play. Nintendo has made games that very much depend on the 3DS itself being popular and frequently-used by its owners. Zynga gives the games away for free and then depends on its players to spread the word and market its games for them. Nintendo expects its customers to pay up front for the 3DS and the StreetPass games. You can't pay later to progress further, but these games sure make their players invested in a world where Nintendo sells more 3DS systems to more people who use the systems for more hours of the day.
Are Nintendo's StreetPass games a Machiavellian masterstroke?
A push against smartphone gaming?
A wonderful, if rare case of Nintendo making games that depend on hardware capabilities—in this case short-range passive wireless data transfer—that other machines lack or fail to exploit?
Yes to all of that, but it's not really that simple.
Even if Nintendo's StreetPass games are the result of some sort of business plan for selling more 3DS systems... Even if they are cravenly commercial and not borne out of artistic inspiration...The StreetPass games have a lovely magic to them. I refer you back to Mii Force and the idea that players' Miis fire different weapons depending on their shirt color. Perhaps you, the player, decide you like playing with orange-shirted Miis, because you like the orange weapon. You can either scheme with fellow 3DS owners to have them put their Miis in orange shirts before StreetPassing with you. Or, if you're like me, you'll simply ride the waves of surprise each day as you discover which shirt colors are being worn by the Miis you sucked up in a day of StreetPassing. There's a serendipity to this and a delightful bit of surprise.
If you're playing Warrior's Way, which I mentioned imports not just a person's Mii but an army that is at least as big as the number of people with whom they've StreetPassed, you get to experience the surprise of encountering a social butterfly who has a mass of 500 troops for you to recruit or fight. In fact, for that game, if they also have Warrior's Way, they're likely to send you armies that are in the thousands. You never know until you cross paths with them.
All four of these games take advantage of the surprises of social gaming, of the quirks of who you pass by on a given day. In time, you'll find that you pass certain people more often and pick up certain shirt colors or armies of a certain common size. You get entertained by a limited randomness that feels different than what you'd feel if you were playing games against a computer or with people who were consciously playing a game with you.
These games taps into a desire I think that many gamers have: to connect with each other and to recognize that there are other people among the crowds outside who are also in the gaming tribe.
Playing these StreetPass games doesn't just make you happy that there are other 3DS owners out there; it makes you happy that there are other gamers out there. This taps into a desire I think that many gamers have: to connect with each other and to recognize that there are other people among the crowds outside who are also in the gaming tribe.
As popular as gaming is, it's still a fairly private affair. Many people who would happily talk about movies or music over dinner won't talk much about games. It's a more low-profile pastime. It's a somewhat more secret indulgence. StreetPassing plays with that by silently connecting gamers together. I might be standing on a subway platform playing a 3DS game. When the StreetPass light on my system starts blinking, I know that a fellow gamer is nearby. Was it the kid getting dragged along by their mom? Was it the business lady who just got off the express? Was it a guy riding the local on the opposite track? I don't know. I just know there was a gamer nearby. Nintendo's StreetPass games are a celebration of that. Fueled by the Miis you import from nearby systems, these are games that thrive among a more or less secret society of gamers.
At some point later this year or maybe next year, people will again call for Nintendo to stop making gaming hardware. And Nintendo fans or even Nintendo themselves will say that no, Nintendo needs to make hardware, that their games and their hardware depend on each other to create unique experiences. Much of the time, it'll be easy to dismiss that. But do remember the StreetPass games. Do remember how unusual they are, how bold they are and, more than anything else, how they are so very much Nintendo—so very much the Nintendo of 2013.
I've shot videos of all four StreetPass games so that you can see how they work and how they draw on the unusual connections that you can make in this kind of unusual quasi-multiplayer game. I encourage you to watch them all and to discover this very new type of game that Nintendo has created.
A couple of notes as well: 1) Since 2011 Nintendo's 3DS systems have included a primitive role-playing game called Find Mii, which is the original StreetPass-centric game. A sequel, Find Mii II is also baked into each system. Those games are simpler than Nintendo's summer quartet but they essentially started the genre that the diverse summer games explored. 2) The four games from this summer are produced and published by Nintendo but were actually developed by a handful of Japanese studios—Chunsoft, Prope, Good Feel and Grezzo—most of which have worked with Nintendo on franchise games before. They deserve credit, too.
So take a look at how these games work. We shot these videos earlier this summer when the games were newer to me. I've played each of these games regularly since then. And I must confess that they've caused me to proselytize about 3DS StreetPassing to co-workers who own the system. Nintendo's plan is working!