Monday, August 1, 2011

3DS price drop: How Nintendo messed up, and can they fix the damage?

Man, sometimes it feels like Nintendo's existing on an entirely different planet from the rest of us. I haven't seen the industry's #1 company making so many bad decisions since, well, Sony with their $600 PS3. What amazes me though is that even with there being so much talk and speculation about smartphones and their impact on the handheld market, even with the "DS" systems mainly appealing to families and kids, and even with Nintendo constantly stressing affordability, they were still willing to take the wind right out from the sails of their impressive 3DS reveal by later announcing a launch price of $249.99....for a handheld system. A handheld system in the DS family, which saw not 1, but 3 new "improved" versions of itself (DS Lite, DSi, DSi XL) in an extremely short period of time; how did Nintendo think parents would react to having to purchase yet anther DS, one for the ridiculous price of $250?

But let's step back for a second. When the Nintendo 3DS was first fully revealed at E3 2010, Nintendo blew everyone away. They showed off an impressive roster of 1st and 3rd party titles (many in name only) that looked to be catering to the hardcore gamer, rather than the families and kids who now make up much of the DS userbase. In fact, Iwata has recently blamed the 3DS' poor performance on the fact that the system has been catering to the hardcore gamer more than the casual, a statement that's almost laughable when one looks at the 3DS' software lineup. Sure, the high price point seems to be targeting the hardcore gamer, but what games on this thing are hardcore gamers supposed to be interested in? Nintendo delivered for launch a shallow Pilotwings spinoff game, a (pointless) Nintendogs sequel that nobody asked for, and Steel Diver, a game universally criticized for being, well, boring. How is this appealing to the hardcore market, exactly? What games on the 3DS to date would inspire non-Nintendo fanboys to rush out and buy a handheld system for $250? Street Fighter IV was a great title and portable experience but then again, it was a port...and looking back at that E3 reveal, the vast majority of those big-name games have no release date. $250? Are you kidding, Nintendo? Who did they expect to buy this thing?

The timing of this sudden $80 price drop looks to me like Nintendo was waiting on Ocarina of Time (another port) to save their system, yet another decision that doesn't take into account the fact that most people have played this often-ported (and rom'd) game to death by now. To those who haven't, well, it's an old game. My first Zelda was Wind Waker, and from there I played Twilight Princess. Ocarina of Time is a game that many people have recommended to me countless times, and after finally buying it on the Virtual Console recently, I'm discovering that while I can appreciate how impressive it was for its time and while I can marvel at what it did for the industry, it's hard to get past the fact that this is simply an old game, there's no way around it. Even with the 3DS version's improvements, I don't think it will win many new fans.

So essentially, Nintendo's stuck with a handheld that was intended to target older gamers, yet, like with the Wii, Nintendo seems totally out of touch with how to appeal to these older games from a software perspective. It takes more than retro franchises and nostalgia to win this group over, something Nintendo never seems to learn. And from the looks of things, they're already giving up. E3 2011 saw a different face to the 3DS, one bringing out (yet again) more Mario titles like Mario Kart and Luigi's Mansion 2, another sequel that I don't think anybody was clamoring for. Nintendo will now try to win over the same casual audiences who made the DS such a smash hit; the same casual audiences who abandoned the Wii once the Kinect hit shelves, and the same casual audience who will abandon the 3DS once they buy their first smartphones. This is the audience who will be worried about their kids exposing their eyes to the 3D images of the system thanks to the warnings that Nintendo continually advertises. Iwata says he will step up the promotion of the feature that allows you to adjust the 3D viewing, which means that basically, Nintendo will be telling people "well, you can turn the 3D off," which seems like yet another mixed message to send. Isn't the 3D the 3DS' main feature? Why would people want to turn it off unless it sucks?

Not a great message to put out there.

As far as the hardcore gamer, Nintendo's E3 lineup has shown that they won't be doing anything they haven't done before; the 3DS is a more powerful DS, end of story. Hardcore gamers will buy the Playstation Vita (well, maybe,) and Nintendo will once again be relying on casual audiences for their success rather than the loyal fans necessary to build up a fanbase. How Nintendo sees this as a good strategy is beyond me.

I really don't see much of a hope of this getting fixed, I hate to say it. Nintendo's price drop will definitely spur 3DS sales in a big way, as it's the price the system should have been to start with. But as far as a long-term strategy, I don't think this handheld has what it takes to keep the casuals away from smartphones or the hardcore away from the Playstation Vita, which sports far better graphics and more features. The best way going forward for Nintendo to fix this mess is to aggressively promote 3rd party titles such as Metal Gear Solid 3 and Resident Evil Revelations, games that have a shot at appealing to the core gamer. They need to make games like these themselves in addition to stuff like Nintendogs and Mario. And they need to make up their minds on whether they want to sell the 3DS as a system for 3D gaming or as a system where 3D gaming "can be turned off."

It's sad because I want handhelds to succeed; I much prefer playing complex and deeper games on a handheld than the often simplistic crap we get on smartphones (sorry Angry Birds fans). Nintendo though doesn't seem to have any idea what they're doing. I haven't even addressed the 3DS' notoriously short battery life, online features that didn't even make launch, the fact that the 3DS released when the much cheaper DS was still the world's #1 selling system, the games being priced at least $10 too expensively, the world's rapidly dwindling interest in has really been one mistake after another for them. This price cut will help; I might even buy one. But I just don't see how Nintendo can effectively take this system to the heights of the DS in a rapidly changing marketplace and with such a boring list of 1st party titles on the horizon.

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