Friday, July 29, 2011

Tough Love: I'd Feel Sorry For Nintendo If They Were Smarter...

Call me crazy, but it looks as if history is repeating itself, this time a bit louder. The last time Nintendo tried to capitalize on the 3D "trend", we ended up with the Virtual Boy, an interesting yet flawed device that tanked because it was too unwieldy, initially too expensive and only had a handful of monochrome titles released with few others cancelled or shipped out in small quantities. It landed in the discount bins at rental shops like Blockbuster and retail stores and is now a rather cool collectible that showed Nintendo does indeed make the occasional mistake. Flash forward to this week's news that the 3DS is getting a 32% price chop (which resulted in Nintendo's stock dropping by 21% as of this writing) and yes, thanks to a number of high profile game delays and cancellations, it's a case of here we go again... almost.

In my opinion (although this seems to more of an actual fact lately) I always thought Nintendo launched the 3DS too soon, period. As in BEFORE it was ready for prime time and AFTER releasing a DS upgrade that had a larger screen and a few enhanced features. In a way, this made the new system a bit of an expensive downgrade with a high-end gimmick KNOWN to be a huge fad that's come and gone since 1953. While cool, at the end of the day, 3D adds NOTHING to the overall game experience save an new way to ogle graphics (and eventually play less if you keep the effect on for too long).

Sony has at least made 3D optional in the PS3 games that use it, although they have a bigger stake in the trend, as they MAKE, market and sell 3D TV's and glasses. However, the upcoming PS Vita has ZERO 3D capabilities (although I'm sure an update could be added at some point and/or games could be made for the unit that used some form of 3D). The 3DS was and is a great IDEA, but Nintendo rushed it to market before a top-quality title could be shipped at launch or even within the launch window. With a a new Mario, Zelda, Metroid or other familiar AAA release to greet core Nintendo fans, only the uber-maniac fans were left to snap up the system at launch, but I'm sure not all of them are 100 percent happy with buying into the "potential" of a new piece of hardware.

A Nintendo system without a signature Nintendo franchise character (no, Pilotwings doesn't count) or a clue as to when an ORIGINAL game with one was coming out was bluntly put, a bonehead move. And it shows in the sales figures and Iwata giving himself a 50% pay cut as a penalty. Sure, there's a recession on and yes, people can't afford EVERYTHING they want. However, had Nintendo waited a bit longer until some of those key games (and a bunch of promised online functionality) were READY to go on day one or within the first few months of the system's lifespan, I say those numbers would have been better than the around 710,000 3DS units sold to date.

On the other hand the greed factor has also led to some very bad decision making all across the industry recently. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are all very guilty of spending too much time peeking over the fences of Apple and other device makers and over-obsessing over how to grab that rather massive casual+core share of the mobile market while still making mostly dedicated handhelds or home consoles. Microsoft doesn't have a handheld game system (well, you can play XBLA games and mess with your Avatar on some Windows-enabled phones, but that's more of a concession mixed with a cop out. There's zero chance of Microsoft coming out with a Xbox branded gaming handheld anytime soon. Besides, until they screw things up with indie developers some more, they have a REALLY solid thing going with many popular titles on XBLA. But I digress...

The thing is, NONE of these three companies need to do all that crazed wondering about how to grab that massive mobile base that so much. As long as they FOCUS on and take care of their core users and not try to be the be-all, end all device (which is never going to happen with fickle consumers and an ever-shifting marketplace), things will go fine. Hell, isn't great marketing all about trying to sell consumers on the idea that YOUR product is great even if it's not as expensive or curvy or even exciting as the next guy's? AS I've said elsewhere, each company needs to play to its strengths while fighting to enhance their weaknesses and following their own beats. Neither 3D, motion control, flashier visuals or high budgets and long development cycles mean a thing if the game experiences (and the systems they're played on) coming out afterward aren't memorable for more than being expensive failures.

Now that the 3DS is hitting $170 on August 12, it's up to Nintendo to still justify the system's existence by getting some QUALITY games out for it before even those who bought in cheaper abandon the system because there's nothing truly innovative to play on the darn thing. Of course, third parties canceling or delaying games isn't helping matters any. Still, one can only hope we see some of the titles still in development finally drop in to save the 3DS from an untimely demise. Granted, I can see Nintendo's PR department spinning that rush of sales of the lower-priced 3DS as supremely positive, particularly if it helps drive sales well past the million sold mark in a week or so. Then again, wasn't Nintendo targeting at least four times that many 3DS users within the first year? Meh, I'm too tired to look all that up - as long as the games are good, guys, I'm there for you.

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