Why the Nintendo 3DS will be a failure, and how it is fundamentally flawed

Is the 3DS Nintendo's last stand? Is this the beginning of the end for Nintendo? Preview event shows just how desperate Nintendo is to make people like their product

The recent Nintendo 3DS event held in both Manchester and London over the weekend said a lot about Nintendo’s latest iteration in its line of handheld gaming devices. Nintendo’s event should be a clear representation of how Nintendo would like to portray their company, their brand and the new product they are launching – and it did this well. In fact a closer look at the product reveals how this could indeed be Nintendo’s last stand, and possibly the end of Nintendo as we have come to know it.

Nintendo 3DS Event Manchester

With a forty strong army of ‘promo girls’ outnumbering attendees and twenty minute ‘immersive experience’ involving live performances didn’t do much to complement the anti climax which was the revelation and hands on demonstration of what can only be described as a disappointingly predictable shabby product which compared to what we have come to expect in the last few years has the appearance of a late 90s vTech children’s computer.

“Smacked across the head with a toy gun”

So after being smacked across the head with a toy gun and having an actor dressed as a zombie clinging to your ankles, and only watching a poorly presented and uninspiring promotional video, we were led to a darkened room filled with different ‘pods’, each containing a 3DS games console which was in its own individually lit shrine each one accompanied by two ‘promo girls’, ‘booth babes’ or whatever one might refer to them as either side.

Nintendo 3DS Lego Starwars

The first thing that can be gleaned from this? If Nintendo have to tells us multiple times that this is a groundbreaking, immersive product, whether through dull promotional videos, ‘live action’ performances, and the constant drone from seemingly unenthusiastic and uninspired promotional girls struggling to read from a script on a clipboard – then surely that’s exactly what it isn’t. Surely we would get the right impression anyway if it was actually ‘immersive’. Perhaps we’re being cynical here, but you don’t see Apple employing the same tactics, or any other big innovator for that matter. Frankly they’d be laughed at if they did the same. The ‘Street Fighter’ and ‘Resident Evil live ‘entertainment’ really did nothing to complement the experience, in fact got a fairly negative reception looking around the room – a few awkward reactions from other journalists and bloggers stood. Maybe in was a slight oversight in that Nintendo appeared to forget that gamers by their very nature aren’t always the most nimble of people – the whole thing just didn’t go down well. Even the promotional staff there looked uncomfortable – almost embarrassed at what was going on – an irate woman unconvincingly screaming ‘get down; this is a contamination zone’ at a crowd of gamers who were essentially ‘taking the piss’.

Are the promotional models necessary, and what do they say about Nintendo?

One thing that should perhaps be raised quite early on is the use of ‘promotional girls’ – yes it is commonplace in the industry, but was it necessary here? Not at all. It was all cringe worthy to say the least – from the presentation techniques used, to the fact that as soon as you approached a 3DS unit they would start reeling off marketing fluff about the device which clearly meant nothing to them and ended up meaning nothing to those they were forcing it upon. One thing was very apparent – from speaking to one of the girls there we established that they were all working from 6am to 9pm at night both Saturday and Sunday – and they were forced to wear high heels all day; when we arrived at 3pm we overheard several complaining about this and going to change their footwear to something more comfortable during the ten minutes we were there. This might seem trivial, and I’m not sure what the message Nintendo are trying to convey is, but if they need an army of promotional girls to distract you from the product then surely they realise it isn’t that good. This might seem trivial, but these girls had no expertise in the product, and one girl outside admitted to us that most didn’t even care about what they did – they were there for the money, in their capacity as models. The thing is – promotional models are used to make a product more appealing to customers – to sell products – it’s why you seem them at trade shows, everyone was there for the 3DS anyway so this should have been an easy sale for Nintendo, without the need for the girls. It should be reiterated that this kind of thing isn’t uncommon in the industry – but surely this shouldn’t be expected from a company who is supposed to be at the forefront of innovation. Would this be expected from Apple? Never. Unlike those who might represent Apple none of the staff there cared about the product, none had any passion for it, and they all reeled off their rehearsed promotional speeches that literally made you laugh, they would stand awkwardly for a moment and then resume chatting to their colleagues. They simply didn’t care about the product itself – it gave off a negative vibe and went further to prove that the product alone just wasn’t enough to impress if it needed so much justification.

Nintendo Live Event

So we’ve established that Nintendo realise that this isn’t quite the immersive experience they wanted it to be – otherwise they wouldn’t have had to bulk out this pre-launch event with so much build up and marketing fluff. We had to be told it was something we hadn’t seen before.

The 3DS Itself

Now to the product itself. It was a little more bulky than the current DSi, and it still felt very tacky, no changes with the form factor as I’m sure most reading this are aware, and the materials and buttons actually felt cheaper – especially this new home button similar to that on the ‘Wiimote’. It felt slightly heavier, but these are really all just trivial technicalities. The fact is, the product was nothing new, and it certainly will not be able to stand up to where their real competition is coming from – the mobile market, namely Apple and perhaps Sony.

Nintendo 3DS

But what about 3D? This isn’t new to Nintendo. The failed Virtual Boy lasted just a year back in 1995, and Saturo Iwata of Nintendo recently revealed that the company experimented with both a 3D-ready version of GameCube and GBA SP.

3D Technology in the handheld gaming market

3D technology simply still isn’t ready for the handheld gaming market – it isn’t cheap enough to deliver what Nintendo are promising with this product. This is a half way house solution roughly emulating what it claims to deliver. GamesRadar puts it well, referring to how the irony that a company which proclaimed that there would be “…no new platform until innovation requires it” is creating a device which specialises in something which is “…nothing more than an aesthetic garnish”.
Getting to the point, 3D is the unique selling point (USP) of the product, this is their ‘innovation’, and this is their selling point. Unfortunately though it is perhaps the worst implementation of 3D in a consumer product available today; if the lack of innovation as far in the rest of the device wasn’t disappointing enough, the actual 3D element is something else altogether, much more disappointing.

Feedback from those who tried the device, was mixed with many commenting even in the short time we were there that it caused eyestrain – not to sound sceptical, but maybe that’s why we didn’t actually get a demo of the product for longer than ten minutes – probably less. The appearance was blurry with some titles, and most certainly distorted when one viewed the image slightly off centre – a problem integral to handhelds and which is a fundamental flaw of this product. The 3D is far from the experience you’ve come to expect at a cinema or even in a home cinema or gaming 3D environment. In fact, Nintendo has warned those children under six should not use its 3DS handheld gaming console, saying “…prolonged exposure to 3D images could negatively impact on the development of children’s eyes…”, but as TechEye reports, it doesn’t stop there. Nintendo warns that “older children and adults” should take breaks after 30 minutes of exposure to 3D and should stop immediately if they feel unwell. Let’s not also forget that some people can’t experience 3D at all – out of the attendees we spoke to, two people said they were unable to experience the 3D because of common eyesight issues – namely having a ‘lazy eye’ – making this product in to nothing for them making this nothing more than a DSi with some more Wi-Fi features and a blurry screen.

Implications of 3D

The long-term physical implications of 3D are also not well documented, and TechEye again spoke to a number of researchers earlier this year about the effect 3D can have on the human body; eye strain and headaches are likely short-term repercussions of exposure to 3D – long term effects are as of yet unknown. This same professional suggests that the cut off age shouldn’t be six but eight as eye muscles are still developing, but Nintendo wouldn’t want to miss out on two sweet years of heavy sales and demand amongst a good part of their target audience, would they?

Nintendo 3DS Technology

The point here isn’t that Nintendo have a flawed, frankly undesirable device. It’s more that Nintendo have missed the trick. They haven’t innovated in the way that they should have, and are quickly falling behind. With the advent of the iPod touch being used primarily as a gaming device, and the prevalence of accessories like iControlPad they are up against a powerful force, a force much more powerful now than Nintendo. The online experience on iPod Touch is already rivalling that of Nintendo, and is arguably better, and the catalogue of games is fast becoming more polished, and comprehensive.

Is the 3DS today what the original DS was in 2004?

The original Nintendo DS was a device which had more than just games – chat and calendar features made the device feel like a PDA – but Nintendo seem to have failed to develop this or capitalise on the fact that children want to be like their parents and have those same capabilities – which was a point raised when the Nintendo DS was first released back in 2004. At this time, PDA’s and smart phones were around – and the DS reflected their features well. Interestingly, Shigeru Miyamoto stated his belief that the Virtual Boy was a success when viewed as a “toy”, and apparently is only considered a failure as fans and industry partners expected it to be a “games console”. Will the 3DS suffer the same fate – and does Nintendo want it to be seen as a “toy” and not a “mobile device”?

The Nintendo’s 640×480 pixels (0.3 megapixel) for instance is hardly useful, compared to the 960 x 720 camera on the iPod Touch which can record HD video. This is just one example about how the iPod Touch isn’t just marginally better technically, it’s significantly better. Should the DS offer something better for the price? The price point for that matter is quite an issue. You can pick an iPod Touch up on Amazon UK for £173, whilst the 3DS is £220 at preorder price. (The Nintendo DSi currently costs £119 on Amazon UK). This £50 difference might not be significant to some, but the gap between the two devices and their features and capabilities certainly is.

Pricing of the 3DS

Apparently Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata stated one of the big factors leading to the $300 price point was fan reaction to the 3DS at E3. Could this philosophy, that of feeling they can price their latest games console as high as they like, ‘just because they can’ – rather like Sony did five years ago, be yet another downfall of Nintendo? Sony was “riding high on the success” as Substance TV puts it, of the PS2 after it reached 100 million units shipped – the PS3 came with a hefty price tag, which perhaps they thought they could get away with at the time being top dog in videogames. Essentially this price tag has scared many consumers away, and it’s taken a while for Sony to recover – though as mentioned already – this is still a different market, a market where people will not justify spending over £300 on a handheld gaming device which looks like a toy, and does little more than play a limited catalogue of comparatively expensive games.

iOS vs Nintendo DS

So what of the practical difference between the iPod Touch and the Nintendo DS? The new previously untapped casual gamers market – which introduced many to gaming for the first time are likely to turn to the iOS devices now. These people are not ‘hard core’ Nintendo fans – they are casual gamers, and their brand loyalty is nothing compared to that of the core Nintendo fan base. Firstly though, we should turn to the other significant part of their target market – children, who for similar reasons will now turn to iOS devices like the iPod Touch. To answer this question properly, a parent’s perspective could be considered.

The cost of buying a new game for the DS is still much higher than an iPod touch game. You can argue that some Nintendo DS games offer a richer game play experience, but as an impulse buy, it’s easier for a child to convince their parents to spend £1-£5 than to spend £30-£40. Furthermore, according to Peter Cohen of loopinsight.com, in the DS’s case, “…the easiest way to maintain some sort of household peace is to buy a second (and in my case, third) copy”. This runs up price to play dramatically – and here the iPod touch, iTunes and Home Sharing fixes this problem – buy the game once, share it around the house. The Nintendo DS also stores saved game files on the individual game cartridges, and there’s a finite amount of storage space associated with saved games. The iPod Touch on the other hand doesn’t have this issue – and there is also no risk of breaking or losing game cartridges, or even losing the stylus, as the iPod Touch doesn’t require one. Peter then touches on the notion that the only reason the DS is still popular with some over the iPod Touch is because “specific [Nintendo] titles they want still aren’t there” – here the issue of brand loyalty arises again.

Why Nintendo should partner with Apple

It’s becoming apparent that the only thread Nintendo can hold on to is their brand identity in terms of characters and video game titles – nothing else – arguably why they’ve held on to their market share for so long through several less successful pieces of hardware – but can Nintendo continue its reliance on loyalty? Games for the iPod touch continue to improve – they’ve already built up an identity, Angry Birds and its associated merchandise is developing fast for instance, and big-name developers such as EA and are swiftly building up rapport on the App Store. Things are getting serious – and Apple has only been in the market for a few years, compared to Nintendo’s two decades. Will Nintendo become marginalised if it doesn’t come up with any new titles, or refresh them in a big way? Perhaps they would be better partnering with Apple? Peter concludes, that from his perspective and his children’s perspective that “…the iPod touch is the go-to portable game system that works the best for our lifestyle” – despite the lack of Nintendo games on the iOS.

It seems Nintendo can no longer solely rely on Brand loyalty – it’s already low amongst Smartphone users, and it’s increasingly low across the whole technology sector. As mobile gaming converges more with the mobile phone market and moves away from the original ‘gaming’ market, brand loyalty will only further decrease, when they don’t even enjoy the highest levels of loyalty in the gaming industry. Can Nintendo continue to rely on game characters that are now over twenty years old, and are arguably already declining in popularity?

Nintendo has had little competition in the market where as Now Gamer puts it, Nintendo used to ‘stride like a colossus’ , but since the emergence of mobile gaming in the form of the Smartphone, and the iOS devices, Nintendo simply doesn’t command the same authority or audience it once did – and perhaps it should be doing more to offer what consumers now come to expect from mobile devices.

Apple has been in the market for just a few years and is taking a market share which can’t be ignored. Even in March last year it was reported that the Apple had taken 19% of the market share for handheld gaming from Nintendo and Sony. Nintendo have been in the handheld market for 20 years and they are not innovating at the pace they should be. Apple’s devices are increasingly much more desirable. Not just the difference in price of games, the ease of use, no physical game cartridges, but also the fact that the iPod Touch serves as an internet device, entertainment and communication device too – much more than the 3DS will ever offer.

It’s also something which is small enough and chic enough to be played increasingly more in public than its rival the Nintendo DS, on the commute, amongst young people, the more fashion conscious, and also amongst women – the precise market which Nintendo have been trying so hard to attract to their brand in recent years – also the precise marked that will happily buy an iPhone – not just an iPod Touch or even iPad.

Although traditionally their primary market rival is Sony’s PlayStation Portable – Nintendo and Apple are now genuine competitors, and Nintendo should be watching their back. Apple is serious about the gaming industry, not just demonstrated through their partnering with developers such as EA, but also through inviting several media sources related to gaming, including IGN and Kotaku, to their events in the past. Gaming has played an important role in the success of the iPhone and iPod touch, and demonstrations from game developers have figured prominently in many of Apple’s iOS keynotes – and Apple will only continue to capitalise on this.

iPod Touch sales are constantly rising, whilst Nintendo DS sales haven’t seen such a marked increase. In March last year, the Nintendo DS accounted for 71 percent of the drop in hardware sales since the same time a year ago. Although the DS has passed the venerable PlayStation 2 as the most popular console in terms of units sold, whilst it should have a larger installed base than the PS2, will people go out and buy the 3DS given iPod Touch’s new found position in the market?

Coupled with the fact this iteration of the Nintendo DS is a lot more expensive, the 3DS also looks very similar to those DS iterations it succeeds – the DSi and DS Lite. This could well be a deterrent especially to those who have already spent on money on a relatively new DS system. Some might argue that iOS games don’t have the ‘calibre’ of those on the DS, though there are many points to make here. Firstly this new emerging market of ‘casual gamers’ are unlikely to care about this, they lack brand loyalty. Secondly, the vast number of games on DS really do lack calibre in their own way – we’re talking here about the movie spin off games that retail at £40, or games like ‘Brain Age’ or ‘Nintendo’s’ which the iPhone or iPod Touch even in its current generation would easily be able to run. It’s just a matter of time before iOS developers catch up and start innovating in such a way – iOS developers do seem more dynamic and willing than developers we’ve seen in the past on Nintendo DS, perhaps because it’s so easy to develop on iOS. Nintendo chief Reggie Fils-Amie has hit out at the low price of games on mobile app stores saying that it has created a “…mentality that portable games should be available on the cheap” and that it is creating a culture of “disposable gaming”. This shows that Nintendo know that they are under threat from Apple – 59p would barely cover the cost of the game cartridge and box if Nintendo were to try and compete with some iPhone games. Interestingly, despite Nintendo saying that iOS isn’t a “viable” gaming platform, some of the more successful games, such as Assassin’s Creed or Civilization Revolution, are actually ports of Nintendo DS games, undermining Nintendo’s argument that the existing titles aren’t as substantial.

Join the Nintendo 3DS Fanpage?

Before we had a chance to have a look at two or three demonstration units, we had a ‘Join the Nintendo Facebook Fan Page’ flyer shoved in our faces and were swiftly escorted out of the building by the army of unenthusiastic and tired looking promo girls. Nintendo’s understanding of ‘social media’ is admirable – but the 3DS isn’t really much to talk about. These events haven’t really worked – there is no buzz being generated because so far, because there really isn’t anything special about the 3DS. Nintendo came across desperate – instructing us to ‘Tweet’ and ‘Share’ our experiences with the device. Surely we don’t need to be told to do this so explicitly if the product is good enough anyway – surely it should speak for itself? In the same way that promotional models were pulling people off the street to come in to this ‘exclusive’ event which we were all told was ‘invite only’ – Nintendo came across desperate to say the least.

Nintendo Facebook Fan Page

What should Nintendo do? Should they partner with Apple, admit defeat in the handheld market before it’s too late and release the entire catalogue of Nintendo games on the app store? It’s likely that handheld games consoles will be no more, Nintendo will never make a desirable mobile phone, but now you see 10 year old children with a BlackBerry smart phones, their entire target audience desire phones, or at least an ‘internet device’ too – maybe that’s an extreme, but it’s by all means a sign of things to come in the near future – the end of single function gaming handhelds.

Competition from Sony, and the Xperia Play

Whilst the PSP has its own niche following, they have the right idea about how to progress and they have an advantage. They’re already an established mobile phone manufacturer. Sony has come up with the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play – the PSP Phone, which does look promising – Android and Sony PSP could well be a winning combination. So maybe Apple and Nintendo should just merge and become a super power? It would certainly stand both companies in good stead – and further immerse Apple in to the gaming industry as a big player, whilst giving Nintendo a platform to share their innovations whilst developing games – to give Nintendo some credit, their ‘Spot Pass’, ‘Street Pass’ and ‘Augmented Reality’ features are interesting, fairly innovative but are probably wasted in this product and as with many Nintendo products this technology probably won’t have its full potential realised and won’t be widely adopted. Essentially though, it’s too little, too late.

Ultimately iOS devices will come down in price further as Apple relies more on its unrivalled distribution platform as opposed to hardware sales. James McQuivey, a consumer electronics analyst at Forrester Research recently told the NYTimes that “Apple started making money with devices. Maybe the new thing that everyone recognizes is the unit of economic value is the platform, not the device.” At the very least, should be Nintendo be looking to partner with Apple sooner rather than later? Can Nintendo hold on to its fragmented fan base and will it’s brand loyalty just further diminish? Is the 3DS Nintendo’s last stand? This could be make or break for Nintendo – if it doesn’t work, Apple and other competitors are going to gain some more serious ground in the hand held gaming market, which Nintendo are not going to get back in the foreseeable future.

The fate of Nintendo could even be reflected in the console gaming market – the recent drop in Wii sales – could be due to this lack of innovation and materialisation on the game titles front meaning that more people turn to competitors Microsoft and Sony who like Apple are now innovating at a faster and more impressive pace with the Kinect and Move respectively. Does the new wave of Nintendo users who they have attracted carry with them as much brand loyalty as those who have come before? Can Nintendo rely on brand loyalty to stay even a third place runner in the gaming market?

GamesRadar recently put it well. “For every N64 pad, there’s a ROB. For every rumble pack, there’s a Satellaview. For every DS, there’s a Power Glove. And for every Game Boy, there’s a Virtual Boy.”. We can see here that Nintendo hasn’t always got it right in the past, and when they haven’t, it’s usually been due to a lack of real innovation. Namely jumping on the bandwagon and launching under-developed ideas. Nintendo are certainly jumping on the 3D bandwagon – and it probably won’t give 3D a very good name either. (As Gizmodo has proclaimed – Bad 3D is death of 3D); 3D just isn’t necessary, and the technology just isn’t there yet.

The issue here might not be that this is a poor product, a low point in Nintendo’s history of releases – but can the big players in gaming and tech afford to make such mistakes now? Will this new generation of “casual gamers” be as forgiving as those Nintendo fans five, ten or even fifteen years ago? This casual market lacks brand loyalty, it lacks those hard-core fans. This is the generation with a shorter attention span than ever, and one which is willing to move on to bigger, better things in the blink of an eye. So this might be a misfire for Nintendo, but what could the implications be? Nintendo has been on a roll over the last five years, with the Wii, and the DS Lite appealing to a market previously untapped by the gaming industry, but could this be in its twilight?

Will Nintendo survive a failure of the 3DS to materialise?

How much longer can Nintendo really keep recycling these brands, this time adding the suffix 3D to the titles of games re-hashed from those released over a decade ago on consoles like the N64? Will consumers tolerate the mere ‘3D’ suffix on the inevitable influx of decade-old re-released Nintendo titles which are to come, only to find they are unable to enjoy it because of their strained eyes? Can Nintendo rely on its brand loyalty to push a product which lacks innovation, which isn’t polished, which is overpriced, relies on overpriced games and which will never match up to the real emerging competition – and producer of a superior device, and superior platform, Apple? If the 3DS is a failure, then will Nintendo ever be able to recover?

As for 3D – it’s not to say 3D technology doesn’t have a place in handheld devices – after all, Apple filed a patent for no-glasses 3D, which tracks the position of the user to auto-adjust the display to maintain the 3D effect. It looks like 3D might coming to an iPod Touch near you soon – the difference here being that Apple will only release 3D, or something similar when they know it matters – when it probably won’t be called ‘3D’, when it won’t just be a novelty, or a ”toy”, and when it won’t destroy their reputation and place in the market.