All Guns Blazing
Nintendo's drive to make a success of the 3DS builds momentum - and finds important allies
The fortunes of Nintendo's 3DS are likely to provide a focus of fascination for the games business for months if not years to come. We all know the backstory - it's the first time in years that Nintendo has faced the prospect of a genuine market failure, forcing a somewhat humiliating U-turn on pricing mere months after the device hit the market. At the new, lower price point, the 3DS has sold steadily - but many still openly question whether there is a real future for the platform.
What makes this fascinating is that Nintendo is clearly unwilling to accept defeat lying down. Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata told me in an interview just after the unveiling of the Wii that the company views its console launches more like the launch of toys - if a toy fails in the market, you don't throw up your arms in defeat and get out of the business (a clear reference to those who consistently argue that Nintendo should follow in Sega's footsteps and become a third-party publisher). Instead, you go back to the drawing board and launch another toy. Nintendo's huge warchest of financial assets would allow them to pursue such a strategy, Iwata explained.
Yet even if that strategy remains firmly in place at Nintendo - and given that the warchest is bigger than ever, there's no reason that it shouldn't - it's clear that it doesn't translate into abandoning hardware that's under-performing. Instead, Nintendo has focused its sights on the 3DS, determined to support the platform with an immense push in terms of aggressive pricing and promotion, extensive internal software development, and the calling in of favours from third-party publishers around the globe.
This is likely to be Nintendo's fastest and most aggressive schedule of first-party software in many, many years.
Next week, it seems, will bring many more details of Nintendo's attempts to establish the platform as a success after its early disappointment. Ahead of the Tokyo Game Show, a host of fairly credible rumours and leaks on Japanese games blogs have been joined by confirmed information in magazines such as Famitsu, pointing at a major 3DS offensive by Nintendo.
The company already placed a heavy focus on the 3DS at E3, announcing versions of several core Nintendo franchises for the device. After TGS (or rather, Nintendo's own events around TGS itself), it's likely that we'll have dates for several franchises, and confirmation of work in progress for others, with names like Yoshi and WarioWare being bandied about. For all that the 3DS is still frequently met with claims that "there are no games", this is likely to be Nintendo's fastest and most aggressive schedule of first-party software in many, many years.
What's even more interesting, though, is the work the company is putting into third-party relationships. If even half of the rumours are true, TGS will see almost every major Japanese software publisher lining up to announce major games for the 3DS platform - some of them continuations of long-standing DS franchises, such as Ace Attorney and Etrian Oddyssey, but others being moved over from home consoles, such as an alleged sequel to cult GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos from developers Monolith Soft.
Towering over everything else on offer, though, is Nintendo's success in securing a new Monster Hunter title - an update to the much-loved Monster Hunter Tri version of the series - for the 3DS. Much attention - and ridicule - this week has focused on the peripheral being produced for the game, a chunky and slightly unwieldy-looking device which clips onto the lower half of the 3DS to provide an extra analogue stick on the right-hand-side, along with extra shoulder buttons.
It's easy to poke fun at such an unloveable slab of plastic, but while Twitter sought to come up with disparaging names for the peripheral ("Frankenstick" is a personal favourite), it's quite possible that there were some pretty worried faces at Sony's headquarters in Tokyo. Monster Hunter, after all, is the series which breathed new life into the beleaguered PSP in Japan. It's still by far the most popular game on the platform, and any time you see a PSP being used in the wild there, there's a better than even chance that Monster Hunter will be the game in the UMD slot. Indeed, it's almost certain that the failure to provide a Monster Hunter title for the PSP Go did almost incalculable damage to that ill-fated console's chances.
So does Monster Hunter on the 3DS matter a lot, then? The short answer is "yes", but there are other factors to consider. It's worth watching TGS closely to see whether Capcom hints at another Monster Hunter update for the PSP, or if - as is likely - they're going to jump to the PS Vita for their next Sony platform version. If it's the latter, Nintendo may have earned themselves an extremely important sales window, as it's highly unlikely that a polished Monster Hunter can be ready in time for the Vita's launch window.
Nintendo's ambition here is clear. Right now, if you walk into an area where young people gather in Japan - the food court of a shopping mall is a good example - you'll see tables full of junior and middle school children all playing DS, and tables of high school and university students playing Monster Hunter on their PSPs. Nintendo wants to end that transition; it wants kids to graduate from Pokemon (one title which does remain curiously absent from the 3DS' release schedule for the moment) to Monster Hunter without ever leaving Nintendo platforms behind.
If it can achieve that - and bear in mind here that it's probably got quite a few months of lead time on any potential Vita version, as well as a price point that's significantly lower than Sony's upcoming hardware - then the 3DS' market position will start to look a lot more solid. Much, of course, depends on Capcom; Sony will no doubt be exerting pressure to keep Monster Hunter fans within the PlayStation brand family, but equally it's hard to imagine that Nintendo would go to the lengths indicated by the "Frankenstick" without some kind of assurance that it's going to be worthwhile.
It's also worth bearing in mind that many publishers have a strong vested interest in seeing the 3DS succeed.
Between Monster Hunter's arrival and the various pledges of major titles from other third-party publishers, it's tempting to wonder if Nintendo has started splashing the cash around its third-party partners, just as rivals in the console business have done over the past decade. There may well be some element of that at work - the warchest being propped open a little to support the 3DS' market position.
However, it's also worth bearing in mind that many publishers have a strong vested interest in seeing the 3DS succeed. For publishers and developers faced with an uncertain future at the mercy of the extremely low price points and unfamiliar business models represented by the rapidly growing iOS model of handheld gaming, the 3DS is a potential lifeline - while for those companies whose focus on RPGs and other niche titles that are too expensive to develop on HD consoles, the 3DS (like the DS before it) represents the potential to reach a broad, modern audience without spending more money that it cost to develop on the PS2.
The 3DS, in other words, might not just be good for Nintendo - it could be good for a whole swathe of the traditional games industry, which presently fears being crushed between the twin giants of low-risk, low-revenue iOS, and high-risk, prohibitively expensive AAA console development. It's no wonder, then, that Nintendo doesn't lack for allies when it seeks to bolster the position of the 3DS - and it simply makes it all the more fascinating that this is no longer a battle to make a console successful, but rather a battle to secure a future for an entire business model.