Remember back before this generation of consoles launched, when Nintendo said that they weren't going to include a DVD player in their new console because "their focus was games"? It was a neat way for Nintendo to downplay the importance of the Blu-Ray player in the PS3, but when the Wii was finally released it was packed full of features that were not focussed on games at all - a globe that shows weather and news, photo management tools and so forth. The Wii was not wholly focused on games after all - Nintendo had made a mass-market friendly internet platform, that also happened to play games.
Looking at the current Nintendo releases, this shift in focus is even more apparent. Wii Fit may just about qualify as a game, but Cooking Guide: Can't Decide What to Eat? is about as far from the world of games as could possibly be imagined. Now I'm not saying that Nintendo shouldn't be experimenting with new ways to sell software to the mass market, nor that their recent experiments aren't extremely interesting developments in a normally predictable industry, but Nintendo can scarcely claim that their focus is solely on games any more.
There's a deep irony to the way that the Sony and Microsoft CEOs try to downplay Nintendo's enormous success in the last few years by saying how great it is that Nintendo are bringing "new people into the market", because it's clear that the kind of person who is being brought into the console market by BrainAge or Cooking Guide isn't going to be shelling out on a PS3 or Xbox 360 any time soon, or indeed, ever. What this makes me wonder is: does targeting the mass market consumer inherently mean moving away from games? Looking at Nintendo at the moment, it seems very much the case.
I've suggested before that for the videogames industry, the mass market is our long tail. The centre of cashflow in videogames are the hobbyists, the players who buy and play many games over the course of each year. Even with the outrageous sales figures that a mass market game can rack up (tens of millions, versus the old familiar game styles that top out at a few million units at best), the mass market doesn't look like an attractive option for most game developers: they don't know how to develop for it, they don't have a marketing spend big enough to skip over the hobbyists, and even if they made the perfect mass market product there's every chance it would sink without a trace.
The change at Nintendo is apparent: games are only part of Nintendo's focus now. What is less clear is what this change means for the rest of us. Because if this new wider market can only be hit by Nintendo first party software, which may be substantially the case, most developers would do better to continue to compete for a tiny share of a successful hobbyist marketplace, such as the first person shooter market, or the RPG market, even if most of the titles in these over-competed markets do fail miserably. And in that respect, the change in Nintendo is really 'business as usual' - because Nintendo's problem has always been that it can make and sell its own 'first party' software in large numbers, but third party developers struggle to make a profit on a Nintendo platform.
The ability to sell software out into the deep corners of the mass market is good news for Nintendo - it has made them a lot of money, and will continue to do so. I'm rather less sure it's good news for anyone else.