Ready for Launch
The 3DS lands in consumers' hands this weekend - but how does Nintendo plan to keep its handhelds relevant in the face of strong competition?
The launch of a new Nintendo console is always a big event, but the resurgent company's dominance of console sales in recent years has meant that the launch of a new piece of Nintendo hardware marks a major milestone for the games business as a whole. It's to be expected, then, that the eyes of the gaming world will turn to Japan this Saturday, when the Nintendo 3DS finally arrives in the hands of eagerly waiting consumers.
Nintendo is undoubtedly gearing up the statistics and press releases already, because for all the frenzied coverage the launch will generate, it's actually a pretty well understood and stage-managed event in many regards. Almost every console launch in recent years has been the "biggest ever" by some measurement, for example, but such statistics are largely meaningless since demand almost always exceeds supply on launch day - meaning that this is an achievement not in terms of sales but in terms of manufacturing.
As such, there's a limit to how much useful information can be gleaned from the launch of a hardware platform. There will be queues, there will be a scramble for units as supply struggles to catch up with demand in the early weeks - but as Nintendo's past successes prove, the console hardware business is a marathon rather than a sprint, and it's the 3DS' ability to sustain a long tail rather than its ability to provoke excitement at launch that will determine the system's ultimate success or failure.
On the ground in Japan, there's no doubt that the 3DS launch is generating a lot of buzz as the day approaches. Pre-orders for the system dried up some weeks ago and less scrupulous consumers are even selling pre-order tickets on auction websites for vastly inflated prices. Some major electronics stores have demo units on display, with large queues forming for a few minutes playtime with the system.
Despite the lack of availability of pre-orders, Nintendo's advertising blitz has not been deterred, with urban centres liberally pasted with ads featuring hugely popular pop group Arashi, who have been the advertising faces of the DS and Wii in Japan for a number of years. Video ads show the group's members playing with the features of the 3DS, including the 3D camera, although it's obvious that the marketing team are still struggling with how, exactly, they should convey the advantages of 3D in an advertising medium that's inherently 2D.
All the signs point to a hugely successful launch. Even if some of the wind was taken out of the 3DS' sails when it was revealed that the software line-up wouldn't include any Nintendo stalwarts such as Mario or Zelda on day one, this really only means that the console will enjoy a massive sales spike when those titles do finally make an appearance. In the meanwhile, the lack of heavy-hitting Nintendo games will probably provide a welcome sales boost for titles such as Capcom's Super Street Fighter IV 3D and Level-5's Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle.
The 3DS' short-term success is guaranteed by a combination of positive factors - strong developer support, high consumer interest thanks to the glasses-free 3D technology, and of course, massive inertia for the DS platform as a whole. In the medium term, the company will need to focus on overcoming the aforementioned difficulty of marketing 3D gaming through 2D media - a challenge which it can probably handle by means of getting the device into the hands of consumers in widespread sampling activities and encouraging word of mouth evangelism among users.
In the long term, however, there is little question but that the 3DS faces a tougher competitive environment than its predecessor, and will struggle to attain the sales figures enjoyed by the DS in its heyday. The DS and PSP were the last generation of handheld consoles to launch before smartphones caught up with dedicated gaming platforms. Mobile gaming advocates had noted for years that consumers were all carrying around perfectly capable portable gaming devices in their pockets, and that it was madness for them to carry a games console as well - but a combination of greed, short-sightedness and basic lack of understanding on the part of mobile phone manufacturers and network operators alike ensured that the DS got a clear run. It took the emergence of Apple and latterly Google as major players in the mobile space before phones became a viable gaming platform.
With that transition behind us, however, the landscape now looks very different. Consumers are spending uncounted millions of dollars on mobile content - much of it gaming or other entertainment content - and that competes directly for the budget which would previously have been spent on handheld gaming hardware and software. Loyal Nintendo consumers - by no means a small band - will of course prefer the 3DS experience, but the rapid evolution of mobile games is quickly making a mockery of the idea that mobile gaming experiences can't have the depth or longevity of a "real" handheld console game.
One major factor remains that distinguishes the 3DS from mobile platforms - 3D display aside, of course - is pricing. 3DS games will be significantly more expensive than mobile games, and it's common to hear developers describing the low price points of mobile games as a limiting factor in the evolution of that medium. If you can't charge $40 or $50 for a game, the argument goes, then it's impossible to create a massive, deep game with all of the development costs that are involved with that.
This is obviously true on some levels, and for the time being it's almost certain that developers working on large-scale projects will prefer the more traditional console platforms and business models. However, in the long term, there's no reason to assume that this status quo will remain. Developers are finding new ways of working on all platforms, and nowhere more so than mobile, which is perfectly suited to a business model focused on freemium or on charging for pieces of content individually rather than in a single massive transaction. Indeed, many developers are mulling over dusting off the old dream of episodic gaming, now that the industry has a platform so well suited to it.
None of this rules out a successful future for the 3DS - it would be a foolish commentator indeed who placed a bet against Nintendo after the experience of the past decade. However, it's hard to see how the console will manage to replicate the success of the original DS - whose appeal, lest we forget, was largely founded in its ability to reach exactly the kind of mainstream audience that is most likely to find that an iPhone or Android device is perfectly suited to their gaming needs.
This weekend is Nintendo's, and the company's staff can happily raise a cup of sake to the inevitable success of their latest product launch - but when Nintendo goes back to work on Monday, it will have to start thinking very hard about the new challenges it faces and how it plans to keep the 3DS relevant and appealing in the years to come.