Why The 3DS Won't Die
Why Nintendo never Bowser under pressure.
Matt le Blanc is a funny guy. Being a long-time fan of Friends, I can forgive the actor many things. Maybe even Lost in Space. So when his spin-off series Joey first aired, I felt the need to give it a try.
Like the 3DS' launch, the show wasn't great. It had all the right ingredients: familiar branding, many of the same experienced people behind the scenes. It even launched with a decent amount of marketing. But Joey was never as successful as Friends, and it was all over within two years.
I'm sorry, Matt le Blanc, that TV gave up on you. Because last night as I lay in bed thinking of Nintendo's future, I decided this was wrong.
Success stories can take a while to catch on, to refine. Ever the innovator, Nintendo knows this. So although the 3DS has had a rocky start to its life, Nintendo won't be writing off the 3DS any time soon. And neither should we.
I remembered reading something a television exec had said, shortly after Joey was cancelled. They had argued that the new show had suffered at the hands of critics who, week after week, would compare it to its predecessor. That against many years of its forerunner finding its way and improving season upon season, it couldn't compete straight out of the gate. And how unfair this was, that a new concept never had the chance to find its own success story, in time. Sound familiar?
It's easy to forget, but the DS also suffered launch jitters. Pre-launch, it was billed very much as a "third pillar" for Nintendo alongside its existing home console and handheld brands, the appeal of its second screen an unknown. During its first Christmas, it sold a modest 2.84 million units. After four months on sale the DS had sold 5.27 million units. In comparison, after the same amount of time on sale, the 3DS has sold 4.32 million units.
Comparing early DS and 3DS figures is not an exact science. The former's European launch came a couple of months later than the U.S. and Japanese launches, which benefited from the golden Christmas release window. But even bearing this in mind, the figures are not actually markedly different. If you add to this August's dramatic price cut, it is not unreasonable to assume that the 3DS has actually sold more units than the DS in a similar time period.
It was not until the DS' second Christmas that Nintendo reported that hardware sales had broken the eight figures barrier, with a decent 14.43 million sold by the end of 2005. But still, this is far short of the DS' most recent tally, some 147.86 million by the end of July this year, an almost unimaginable increase on the system's initial sales figures.
How did it get to such a staggering total? DS sales failed to accelerate until 2006, the year Nintendo redesigned the console with the launch of the DS Lite. From 16 million sales after the Lite launched in Japan in March to 26 million the following September, the console began to gain momentum. It had sold nearly 36 million by the year's end.
Clearly Nintendo hardware cannot be written off so quickly, and although the 3DS may be struggling now, Nintendo is no stranger to slow-burning hardware launches. As gaming hardware companies go, Nintendo is one of the most experienced in the business. We've already seen Nintendo preparing the 3DS' first redesign with the much derided Slider Pad. But while it may not be aesthetically pleasing (and it's worth remembering the hulking original silver DS was never going to be invited to many parties either) it is certainly a sign that Nintendo has an eye on the figures, and is pushing for change as soon as possible.
And of course, it's working towards a 3DS Lite with this all built in. When the Slider Pad launches for European gamers, likely in January alongside the first compatible title Resident Evil: Revelations, it'll be eleven months since the 3DS launched here. Not long at all, analysts have pointed out; Nintendo must surely be panicking. Yet the DS Lite launched in Europe just fifteen months after the DS did, and that was rather more radical than a simple piece of plastic to be clipped on.
But why now? Why couldn't Nintendo get it right before launch? Hindsight is a useful thing, but it is worth remembering how the 3DS was announced, to a roaring press reaction at E3 2010. Lines snaked across the show floor for enthusiastic journalists to lay hands on the new hardware. The 3DS encompassed the million-selling pedigree of the DS and the contemporary coolness of 3D, a technology that had piqued public interest with the likes of Avatar, the roll out of 3D TVs and major broadcasters apparently on the brink of making 3D programming mainstream. The most successful company in handheld gaming had seemingly done it again.
But, a year later, it turns out no one wants Avatar 2. We're still not used to watching 3D sport wearing ridiculous glasses in the pub. No one cares about 3D anymore.
Yes, it would be a mistake to launch the 3DS with such a strong emphasis on 3D now, but twelve months ago press and public alike were still apparently enamored. Few would have predicted the device's troubled launch or the tabloid fear mongering over the system's 3D capabilities.
Nintendo should be praised for reacting to the current climate. Company boss Satoru Iwata effectively putting his own job on the line should the 3DS not fare better shows how seriously the handheld's fate is being taken. Likewise, the device's recent price cut is unprecedented for Nintendo in both speed and scope.
Nintendo's main marketing hook may have gone out of fashion, but the company has already clearly adapted. By labeling the device as a next-generation successor to the DS, Nintendo is pushing some of the same notions that won the public over with the DS. While the gimmick of a second screen was often underused by DS games (how many actually used it for anything more than a map or inventory?) its ability to be used for touch screen input marked it out from the GBA.
With its 3D functions pushed to the back burner, the 3DS lacks another similarly game-changing feature, but if the public is shown just how much better games can look on the device, Nintendo still has a chance to convince gamers the device is worth the upgrade.
Then of course, it has its games. Of the twelve best-selling DS titles, four star Mario and four feature Pokemon (seven if you count Diamond/Pearl, HeartGold/Soul Silver and Black/White individually). This year sees Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 3D notch up the plumber's first and second 3DS appearances, while Pokemon spin-off Rumble Blast also arrives before the year is out.
Nintendo gambled a weaker launch line-up against a healthy head start on PlayStation Vita, presumably hoping the allure of 3D gaming would paper over an undeniably weak initial roster. But while Nintendo's core franchises were unforgivably absent from the system's launch, the launch of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D showed the percentage of 3DS players hungry for quality 3DS games and not put off by non-iOS pricing: over 20 per cent of the system's UK user base bought the re-released classic within its first two days.
Nintendo will sell hardware when its big-hitting games arrive, and it'll sell even more as it hones its marketing machine and product designs. So it was with the DS, so it will be with the 3DS.
Should the company give up its hardware aspirations and wave a Sega-white flag as if it was 2001? Should the 3DS be scared into an early cancellation like poor Joey Tribbiani? Of course not. Yes, the house of Mario has a fight on its hands. But it's seen it all before. And whatever its track record on Italian-American stereotypes, I like to think that if Nintendo had produced Joey, Matt le Blanc would have gotten another chance.
Used under license from Eurogamer.