Tomodachi Life, the hit game that could help revive Nintendo's (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) business, gets released in the United States on June 6. Despite the lobbying efforts of a 23-year-old from Mesa, Ariz., the life-simulation game won't allow gay marriage.
Tye Marini, a self-professed Nintendo fan, launched the #Miiquality campaign last month to attempt to pressure the game company to allow same sex marriage in the North American version of the game. Marini's campaign has received an enormous amount of media coverage, but the Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) page supporting his cause had only 668 likes as of May 8, 2014. His Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) page had only 495 followers.
Though Marini's efforts have not resulted in a groundswell of public support, he has gotten Nintendo's attention. He has stirred up controversy around the game, which could negatively impact its impending North American launch. Tomodachi Life has sold 1.83 million copies in Japan as of December, according to Nintendo, and was one of the bright spots for the embattled game company when it reported its 2013 full-year results.
What exactly is the controversy?
The Japanese version of Tomodachi Life does not allow gay marriage as the practice is illegal in Japan. Since the North American version of the game will be localized, it would have been possible for Nintendo to make the change.
The game stars a group of Mii characters -- personalized avatars of real players -- living on a virtual island. Gamers can essentially mimic real life, and characters can form relationships and get married (to avatars of the opposite sex), which unlocks certain content.
"It's more of an issue for this game because the characters are supposed to be a representation of your real life," Marini told the Associated Press. "You import your personalized characters into the game. You name them. You give them a personality. You give them a voice. They just can't fall in love if they're gay."
Nintendo had initially addressed the potential controversy by releasing a statement showing how the company wants to sidestep the issue and avoid having to either change the game to allow gay marriage (which angers one set of potential customers) or appear to be anti-same sex marriage (which angers a whole different group.) The statement was:
Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life. The relationship options in the game represent a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation. We hope that all of our fans will see that Tomodachi Life was intended to be a whimsical and quirky game, and that we were absolutely not trying to provide social commentary.
Since that initial statement was met with a round of media stories and a growing controversy, the company responded Friday with a more conciliatory statement that could be taken as an apology.
We apologize for disappointing many people by failing to include same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life. Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to change this game's design, and such a significant development change can't be accomplished with a post-ship patch.
The company pledged to build virtual equality into future versions of the game if they're produced.
What is at stake for Nintendo?
Nintendo badly needs another hit.
On the 2DS/3DS platforms, Nintendo has had some success stories with Pokémon X/Pokémon Y, which were simultaneously released globally in October 2013 and have sold 12.3 million copies. Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which was released in Japan in the previous fiscal year and in June last year in the United States and Europe, sold 3.8 million units in fiscal 2013. Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and Mario & Luigi: Dream Team all sold more than 2 million copies globally. Overall, 68 million individual copies of game were sold for the 2DS/3DS (including third-party titles).
Top titles matter as the five listed above combined for sales of over 22 million -- roughly a third of all games sold. Hit games that become franchises are essentially snowballs rolling downhill when it comes to earning potential. Sequels can be sold to an already-engaged userbase, titles can be rolled onto other platforms (and maybe even spur some WiiU sales), and blockbuster games can be merchandised or turned into movies or TV shows. A hit game can become an annuity that earns for a company perpetually, and Tomodachi Life sales in Japan suggest the title has that potential.
What is Nintendo's future?
One possibility for Nintendo is that is drops out of the hardware game altogether and releases its titles for other platforms -- everything from phones to gaming consoles. That strategy removes some of the volatility that comes from competing with Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) for console customers, along with the expense of making hardware. It also takes Nintendo's well-known titles and offers them to the entire gaming universe rather than the very small segment of it that owns a 3DS.
That larger universe includes everyone who owns a smartphone. To put the numbers into some context, Nintendo sold 12.2 million 3DS consoles in 2013 while Apple sold around 150 million iPhones (and Apple represents less than 50% of smartphone sales). The overall video game market for 2014 will top $100 billion (including hardware sales), and opening up that entire market to Nintendo's very well-established properties seems logical.
If Tomodachi Life becomes an established hit on the 3DS across the world, its value to Nintendo grows exponentially should the company decide to bring its biggest titles to other platforms as the potential customer base jumps.
Will this hurt the game?
The original attempt to sidestep this controversy, which is more media-made than a public outcry, could have been disastrous. Addressing it head on, apologizing, and vowing to be more inclusive going forward should correct much of the damage.
Nintendo could have avoided this attention if it had quietly addressed Marini and his fledgling movement and apologized earlier. Had the company been a little less tone deaf to the American market (and our ability to make everything political), it could have simply avoided the word marriage and made player unions something more fanciful. After all, we are talking about a made up video game world, so it's not like Nintendo was tied to real-life conventions.
The days when any publicity is good publicity have passed, and this negative attention could scare some customers away. These could include members of the LGBTQ population who are offended, straight people who believe the game should be inclusive, and parents who simply brand the game as controversial in their minds. Drawing a game that's supposed to be whimsical fun into one of the most debated political issues of our time may not be fair -- especially if game designers weren't trying to make any sort of political statement -- but the controversy could hinder sales of the game ... at a time Nintendo can least afford it.
Daniel Kline is long Microsoft. He has been married in real life to his wife Celine for 13 years and does not have an avatar, but if he did he hopes it would be allowed to marry whoever it wants. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.