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Getting it Wrong

The Nintendo DS is the UK's most successful console. How did we all get it so wrong?

If there's one commodity which the games industry isn't lacking in, it's pundits. The launch of every new product brings with it a flurry of comment, from the well-considered to the flatly biased, spouting from the mouths and keyboards of everyone from highly paid analysts through established journalists to prolific forum posters and bloggers. There's an ocean of opinion out there, although to be honest, you probably wouldn't want to swim in most of it.

For professional commentators - be they financial analysts or writers, and including yours truly - this week marks one of our more egregious and shameful failures. It's a week when we should all, by rights, be standing up at our Pundits Anonymous meeting and admitting that we all, almost without exception, got the most important console launch of the past decade wrong. Some got it more wrong than others, certainly - but in the cold light of day, I struggle to think of a single well-known industry commentator who called the Nintendo DS correctly.

The reason this week is important, of course, is because this is the week when the figures confirmed what we'd all expected for several months. The DS' installed base in the UK has bypassed the PlayStation 2. On this sceptered isle, at least, it's the most popular console in history. One in six people owns them - an extraordinary figure, even allowing for the fact that some people own more than one model.

If you can cast your mind back to the time period when the Nintendo DS was announced, it's probably with a mild sense of embarrassment - because in the pundits' defence, almost everyone else was lining up to heap scorn on the DS when it was announced. The heir to the Game Boy it may have been, but quite frankly, it looked mental. It was ugly and plastic-looking, with a bizarre two screen configuration and, most peculiar of all, a stylus - something more familiar to users of PDAs like the Palm Pilot than to gamers. Worst of all, it was underpowered, we thought - on a par with the ancient N64 rather than with more modern home consoles.

The contrast with Sony's all-singing, all-dancing PlayStation Portable couldn't have been more obvious. Touted as a PlayStation 2 magically shrunk down into a sleek, glossy package, with a gorgeous widescreen display and convention console-style controls, the PSP felt like the device of the future. The markets agreed - Nintendo's stock plummeted as shareholders abandoned ship, convinced that the company had just made a fatal mis-step. In bars across Los Angeles that week, journalists and industry execs alike slurped mojitos and quietly questioned whether new Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata had lost his marbles.

In retrospect, this all seems quite funny - and it's also mostly forgivable, given the information which we had to work with. Everyone knew that gaming was slowly becoming more mainstream, but few people within the bubble of the industry quite understood the critical mass which had been reached in the preceding years. The Nintendo DS, in retrospect, wasn't just a great product with extraordinary potential - which most of us failed to see - it was also exactly the right product at the right time. There was a mass of people ready to try out gaming - they just needed the right hardware and software to tip them over the edge.

Which, of course, leads on to that other factor in the DS' success - the factor which was genuinely invisible to us in Los Angeles that week. Equipped with Nintendo's usual line-up, the DS would have been a moderate success, since even upstream gamers quickly started to appreciate the console's unique attributes, leading to a variety of hugely successful core games on the diminutive device. However, Nintendo's true masterstroke wasn't the hardware alone - it was the leveraging of that hardware to deliver experiences which stretch the definition of games (leaving us toying with that unwieldy mouthful, "interactive entertainment") but which tapped in perfectly to the mindset of new consumers for whom the definition of "game" was less important than simply doing something fun and rewarding.

Nintendogs and Brain Training - almost pathetically simple compared to the complex concepts which are routinely employed by more traditional games, yet these are the games which created a genuine revolution in the industry. It doesn't matter that they're simple; you can say that "an idiot could have thought of that" until you're blue in the face, but the fact is, no idiot actually did. Nintendo did, and for a while, those simple concepts were enough to make company into Japan's second most valuable corporation, its market capital outstripping banks, property firms, heavy industry and giant media companies.

They were followed by an avalanche of software, some of which simply aped the success of Nintendo's market leaders (take a bow, every unimaginative and unscrupulous executive who pushed a Brain Training style game out onto the market, hoping to capitalise on unwary consumers picking up rival titles by accident), but some of which helped to expand the DS out into new territories. From fitness assistants to interactive recipe books to language learning aids, the console sprouted a wealth of innovative software which capitalised on the lessons of interactive entertainment to improve a host of "non-gaming" activities.

Bitter core gamers, annoyed at the invasion of their sacred domain by a host of newcomers, occasionally dismiss the DS in the same terms as they do the Wii - it's your mother's console, designed for the "casuals" and with nothing to appeal to real gamers. They miss the point. The DS has something for everyone, successfully filling almost every niche in the market - and it's only by filling an enormous range of niches that a platform can ever truly become mass-market. Yes, the DS has fitness and brain training applications for the older generation, but it also has core games for the traditional market - and so much more besides. It has software for small children, for teenage girls, for language learners, for music fans, for tourists, for aspiring chefs and for everyone else in between.

What have we learned, then, from the unexpected and meteoric success of the Nintendo DS? In broad terms, of course, we've learned that the games market is bigger than any of us imagined, and that the definition of a game (or of a control mechanism) is broader than many of us had allowed for. We have learned that disruptive hardware can turn this industry on its head just as effectively as it has done in other industries. We have learned that you underestimate the ingenuity of Nintendo's engineers and designers at your peril.

As we tuck into our humble pie this week, however, perhaps the most important lesson which industry pundits and execs alike have learned is this - that any forecast or prediction based entirely on factors within the existing boundaries of the industry is bound to be wrong. As the industry expands, it's vitally important to consider outside factors at all times - looking out at other sectors within technology and media, at consumer trends in other markets, at social factors, at the macroeconomic climate and at every other factor imaginable before making a judgement.

The true failure in every prediction of doom for the DS was that they mostly consisted of gamers looking at the device and saying, "I don't like it, and nor do my mates" - without ever wondering what people who weren't raised on a diet of Quake and Tekken might make of it. This week's figures are a final, resounding demonstration of just how out of touch we, and our mates, actually were.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.

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