[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra news editor Kyle Orland argues that tweaks like the recently revealed "expansion slide pad" for the 3DS may do more harm than good for the struggling system.]
I'm beginning to think Nintendo has swung like a pendulum from extreme over-confidence in the 3DS prior to its launch to extreme under-confidence in the system's quality now that it's actually available.
Think back to last summer, when the 3DS was the surprise hit of the 2010 E3 show. Press and analysts couldn't stop marveling at the quality and simple wow-factor of the glasses-free stereoscopic 3D technology.
The impressive gimmick, combined with Nintendo's unblemished track record in dominating the portable gaming market for decades, led many inside and outside Nintendo to think the 3DS would be as big or bigger than the insanely successful DS.
Fast forward to March, when initial sales for the 3DS came in much lower than expected worldwide. Nintendo's first reaction, after acknowledging the problem
, was cutting the price by nearly a third
much sooner than anyone expected, and offering a parcel of free, downloadable games by way of apology to early adopters.
The move may have been prudent, but coming from a company that was very recently arguing that consumers should be willing to spend extra money for "high-value" games
, it's a move that didn't reflect confidence in the hardware.
Then came today's revelation, via a Famitsu article, that Nintendo is planning to release an optional "expansion slide pad" attachment
that adds a second slide pad along the right side of the system. It's as if Nintendo is telling consumers, "Not only was the hardware we released a few months ago too expensive, but it's also not well-suited to control today's games as is. BUY IT TODAY!"
Not much is known about Nintendo's plans for this add-on as of yet -- all we seem to know for sure is that it's a first-party product and that it may be packaged with the sure-to-be-popular Monster Hunter 3G
in Japan. Some reports suggest the add-on also includes a secondary battery pack and additional shoulder buttons, which would seemingly acknowledge the problems with the hardware go deeper than just the lack of a second slide pad.
Regardless, the mere fact that Nintendo feels something like this needs to exist, even for a single game, is a sign that the company has little confidence the 3DS can stand on its own in the marketplace. Now that the novelty of the glasses-free 3D effect has proven not to be enough to carry the system to a successful launch, Nintendo seems to be scrambling to find the right mix of pricing and hardware tweaking that can redeem its massive investment in the system.
But the 3DS' problem has never been with the hardware itself, or even the price. The 3DS has failed to catch on so far because of a lack of quality original software. Instead of a killer app that can act as a system seller, the 3DS line-up so far has been dominated with 3D retreads of classic Nintendo titles and quick, perfunctory ports of tired third-party franchises.
This situation seems on the verge of being fixed, at least partially, with planned holiday releases
like Super Mario 3D Land
and Mario Kart 7
, both titles that seem perfectly targeted to get millions of kids to stop playing Angry Birds
for long enough to beg their parents to shell out the cash for yet another system this Christmas.
But Nintendo isn't giving this software the room to do its job. Instead, it's busy employing half-measures that might be helpful at the margins, but do more harm than good to the system's already tarnished image. It seems that Nintendo is belatedly trying to counter the low-end iOS juggernaut on one side and the high-end PlayStation Vita threat on the other, and has ended up creating an system in the confused, squishy, and overwhelmingly unappealing middle.
Without more details about Nintendo's strategy for the launch of this add-on, it's hard to gauge the impact it will have on the 3DS market, but I can envision three likely scenarios, none of which seems ideal for Nintendo:
- The add-on reaches a signficant audience in Japan, but only does so-so numbers in the rest of the world. Developers, who might be eager to unlock the additional control options offered by the second slide pad, hesitate because of market concerns.
A few brave developers release games that require the second touchpad, but none of them sell well. Many more developers add a secondary control option that utilizes the second slide pad, but the results are inconsistent. Most such games seemingly designed with neither control option as a central focus, and both sets of controls end up feeling a little unpolished. I call this the "Wii MotionPlus" scenario, and feel it's the most likely one.
- The addition is a huge success, reaching a vast majority of 3DS owners thanks to the success of Monster Hunter
(in Japan) and a bundle deal with Super Mario 3D Land
(in the rest of the world). Nintendo quickly announces a new "3DS Lite" that incorporates the second slide pad without the need for a bulky expansion.
Early 3DS adopters are angrier than ever about their overpriced, underpowered purchase, but Nintendo, eager to please its core audience, offers these consumers a deep discount on upgrades, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars out of pocket. I call this the "Wii Wrist strap" scenario (yes the analogy is imperfect, but successful first-party accessory launches of this type are hard to find).
- Consumers find the add-on isn't worth the bulk and hassle it adds to the system, even when playing the games it was designed for. Nintendo eventually abandons the idea after spending lots of time and resources trying to promote it. I call this the "Wii Speak" scenario.
Overall, I can't help but feel Nintendo's position is reminiscent of that of mid-'90s Sega, which couldn't seem to decide how it wanted to transition from the largely successful 16-bit Genesis to a new generation of hardware.
At the time, Sega rushed to store shelves with half-measure add-ons like the Sega CD and 32X, and hardware redesigns like the CDX and Nomad, confusing the market and taking both internal and external focus away from the more promising Saturn. The door was open for Sony, unencumbered by the past and focused on the future, to break into the market with the original PlayStation, and the rest is history.
If Nintendo continues down this road -- trying to "fix" the 3DS with half-measure fixes, rather than letting it succeed with quality software -- it risks alienating its fans and simply making the problem worse. Rather than scrambling, Nintendo should have a little faith that, like the Nintendo DS before it, the 3DS could survive a slow start and grow into its own without too much burdensome meddling from above.