‘Miitomo’ Might Not Be the Mobile Debut Nintendo Needed

Nintendo's first foray into the mobile market is a social networking app that isn't all that social at all. But is that such a bad thing?

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02 April 2016, 4:31pm

All pictures are courtesy of Mike, and he's not the slightest bit embarrassed about sharing them here.

Miitomo may be the least social social-networking app, ever.

The "game" – Nintendo's first foray into the mobile space and the first title released as part of their partnership with Japanese mobile giant DeNA – came out in Japan on March 16th, and hit both the US and Europe on March 31st.

After spending the past few weeks with the Japanese version – which can be fully used in English, so the gap between territories is a bit odd – it seems pretty clear that Miitomo is not the killer app that fans of Nintendo, not to mention the company itself, was hoping for.

Miitomo, more than anything else, is lacking. Sure, it raced to the top of the charts in Japan and the States, helped by Nintendo's reputation and visibility, and the hype around the veteran gaming company finally bringing something to mobile platforms. It's also free to play (or "free to start", as Nintendo says), which is helping people try it out, even if it is sitting low on the charts in terms of actual revenue generated. (In the UK, on April 2nd, Miitomo was sixth on the Top Apps Android chart, but not yet inside the top 500 Top Grossing apps.)

But instead of delivering classic Nintendo innovation to the mobile space, Miitomo represents inside-the-box thinking – and the bare minimum at that – that's just as small as the sad and mostly empty room that your Mii occupies in-game. Its weird and quirky pre-scripted (and forced) conservation has its moments, but doesn't have the staying power or impact Nintendo needed from their first mobile app.

This is backwards thinking applied to social networking. Do you want to be able to directly message your friends? Well, you can't. Want to be able to pick which friends come to visit your Mii, and when they do that? Nope, you can't do that either. Want to talk about things other than what the Big N is giving you as topics? Sorry, no dice.

So, what exactly can you do? Miitomo starts with letting you customise your Mii character – the same customisation we've seen for years now, originally on the Wii and later brought to the 3DS and Wii U. There seem to be no new options, and while it's fair that the Miis have a very basic style, it's weird to be seeing the same creation tool still in use a couple of hardware generation cycles later, without at least some new options somewhere.

At the core of Miitomo is questions, answers, and conversations. The game will ask you questions, and you respond to them. Stimulating, golden pieces of topic-building, such as:

What did you do last weekend?
If someone packed you lunch, what would you hope to find inside?
What's your favourite cartoon?
How much time do you spend getting ready in the morning?

Yeah, hard-hitting shit.

Your friends can then see these responses, and "heart" or comment on them, and their Miis will present you with other (again, pre-scripted) questions, which you can answer. Where would you like us to take a vacation together? Whoa there, I just met you.

The whole approach is anti-social. Sure, you might learn something new, like how your best friend is secretly a vampire and hates garlic; but is that something you really wanted to waste time to talk about anyway? It's the worst types of conservation, forced, and the guts of Miitomo is simply responding to canned conservation prompts. It's the least social way to go about communicating with your friends, and presents more barriers than it does actual avenues for being social with other people.

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Predetermined topics can, and sometimes do, lead to interesting discoveries about your friends, and that's what Nintendo is banking on. But Miitomo limits the scale of the interaction available. Nintendo is trying to prompt interactions and stipulate their limits, but that runs against the open nature that lies at the core of social media platforms to begin with.

Nobody would be using Facebook if, instead of open-slate status updates, they could only post in prompts that Mark Zuckerberg had created. That feeling of being able to post anything, any time, is crucial to fostering discussion and makes social apps, well, feel social.

It's like your mother sitting you and your brother down to talk about why you're fighting all the time, but you can only respond with your favourite colour and what activities you've been doing recently. Or one of those weird friendship-building activities where you pick random cue cards and talk about whatever is written on it. That's Miitomo, in a nutshell. It doesn't foster a feeling of spontaneous social interaction, and its meagre benefits can't outweigh its dominant constrictions.

Friends – found via linking the app to Twitter or Facebook, mostly – arrive at random, leading to a vapid Q&A session that, if you stick them out long enough, rewards you with coins to spend in the app's shop, on new scarves and hats and the like. The Miis act like social intermediaries, messengers that send your secrets back and forth to your friends at a whim. You can tap the speech bubble above your Mii's head to see a random bunch of answers from your friends if nobody is visiting, but it's just not a streamlined or intuitive way of communication. The Big Nintendo Man Behind the Curtain is pulling the strings, severely limiting your control.

That is, unless you want to bypass all this and just check what questions your friends have answered "directly", but that costs candy. You can visit and check in anyone in your friends list, for a few questions. But after a couple of freebies, you have to cough up to learn anything more. Candy can be earned in-app, or as a reward for playing the pachinko-like Miitomo Drop, turns on which use either coins or game tokens. Of course, you can also spend Real Money to buy either coins or game tokens. Congratulations, Nintendo, you've figured out the worst aspect of mobile gaming: the incorporation of microtransactions.

On top of the problems explained so far, even basic navigation in Miitomo, and trying to work through your feed (which ends up being a random mix of things, because they are sorted when people comment on them, not when they're posted) is a messy experience with hard-to-get-through piles of information.

The only area that Miitomo shows some promise is dressing up your Miis in silly little costumes. I'm a sucker for stuff like that, but even that has its limits, and it isn't enough on its own to keep people coming back to check the app day in and day out – something that's crucial for a mobile app, especially a free-to-use one. But I do think that aspect of the game could really hit it off with the silly-decorating-pictures-of-yourself crowd.

But that's not enough to have a hit app. There are a lot of questions, still. Will I ever be able to decorate the sad, empty walls of my room? Will other games aside from Miitomo Drop make it into the app? Will I ever find a costume that's cooler than the pirate outfit I already own? (Probably not.) Right now, Miitomo is a missed and mismanaged opportunity.

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The technical problems alone are enough to probably turn most casual mobile users off. There's a decent amount of loading needed to start the app – not just the first time, but each and every time. It makes multitasking with the app almost impossible, even using iOS's built-in support. Notifications have never worked correctly for me, and there have been been plenty of complaints about the massive battery drain Miitomo puts on devices, too. (Though it does have a power saver mode, but that should tell you something in itself.)

Nintendo needed Miitomo to be different from everything else out there, but for me it fails as an attractive social app that's going to keep people using it for long periods of time. A social networking app can't be successful if it isn't social at its core, and Miitomo just isn't. I'll dip in and out of in the coming weeks, but I simply don't see it being something people are going to be using, and talking about, months from now. Willie Clark / @_willieclark

A Second Opinion

I'll keep this really brief, as I wasn't intending on following Willie's words with my own thoughts on Miitomo. But having been totally sucked into the app I feel it's necessary to say that, perhaps obviously, one man's passion can easily be another's week-old fish supper.

I'm getting along (mostly) splendidly with the app, laughing at ridiculous comments from friends and sharing plenty of my own, while almost wetting myself at some of the inspired Miifotos being shared (check out this Kotaku piece to see what I'm on about). I've dressed my idiot Mii up in a pink bow tie, a kittie skirt and monster feet and revealed to the world (well, my currently small circle of Miitomo friends) that this is how my wife makes me dress in the bedroom. It's not, obviously – like I'd really tell you – but the fact that there's such silliness at play already, at least within my social circle, shows to me that people are embracing Miitomo, and enjoying it.

It does have a slight feeling of flash-in-the-pan right now, though – the longevity of Miitomo will depend on what other features Nintendo bring to it, as playing dress-up and making your little Mii (or those of your pals) say "fuck" and "cunt" is only funny for so long (on a Nintendo product, though; who'd have ever thought it) and the Miitomo Drop mini-game gets tiresome, fast. The battery drain is massive – dropping in and out of the app on a fully charged Sony Xperia killed 80 percent of its power inside five or six hours. And the slowdown of coin acquisition outside of spending actual money on them is a small frustration. You'll start off rolling in it, but a few stupid hats later and you're skint.

And yet, none of this is stopping me coming back, for the moment at least. I'm having fun with it, like I have most Nintendo products in my lifetime. Just because it's not as socially flexible as Twitter or Facebook doesn't bother me, just as I'm not concerned that the Wii U isn't as powerful as the Xbox One or PlayStation 4. Nintendo doesn't have to "compete" with its so-called peers in the console sector, and has long since gone its own way in both hardware and games development terms. Miitomo shows that same singular thinking in the mobile space, and perhaps it's not a case of waiting for it to catch up to the accessibility of Twitter et al, but accepting the app on its terms and coming around to its way of thinking.

Or, maybe, I'm just blinded by having a new plaything on my otherwise-pretty-barren Android phone. Could be that, could be. Come ask me for my thoughts again, in a week or so. Mike Diver / @MikeDiver

Miitomo is available now on iOS and Android.

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