Editorial: The Jig Is Up, Nintendo

Nintendo’s 3DS system has had quite the rocky launch. Our very own Ethos mused on this some weeks ago. There is little need to re-visit the specifics; suffice to say, the lukewarm reception toward Nintendo’s latest handheld device has warranted quite the critical eye toward not only the 3DS itself, but Nintendo and their general approach toward selling handheld games. It is easy to point out the 3DS’s lack of software and belated Virtual Console launch as reasons behind the system’s uneventful launch, but are they the only problems? When has a weak launch lineup ever been cause to slash the price of a system so early? Today, I am here to shed light on the real issue: the age of thirty and forty dollar handheld games is officially over and done with. There is not a problem with the 3DS itself; what is flawed is Nintendo’s entire business of charging premium prices for handheld entertainment when the public is growing increasingly accustomed to cheap smartphone games.

DS Prints Money
Well, it used to.

The above sentiment, I am sure, will invoke ire from a few. Many are loathe to admit that smartphone gaming is a significant force in the industry today. And, to an extent, that is understandable. There are hundreds upon hundreds of smartphone games pushed out every day, it seems, all at bargain prices, and the vast majority of them being barely passable shovelware. Core gamers are a prideful group of people, as I am sure we can all agree. And, while I would not know from firsthand experience, I can imagine that someone who rushed out to spend $250 on the 3DS might be inclined to look down their nose at anyone enjoying Angry Birds Lite for the low price of zero dollars on their mid-range-easily-afforded Android phone.

However. If we are to put pride, shame, and gut reactions aside, perhaps we can acknowledge this fact: Average Joe Gamer who spends forty dollars on the App store will likely have a lot more fun than Average Joe Gamer who spends forty dollars on a single 3DS game.

Notice subject, “Average Joe Gamer.” This guy is exactly who he sounds like. He is not a web-surfing forum-commenting podcast-subscribing nut like the rest of us, he just likes to play some games on the go. And with him, we can lump in the even more casual gamers, such as younger children and old ladies who like to play Tetris and Brain Age.

Now answer me this: can any of the above demographics recognize the difference in value between a forty dollar 3DS game and an iPhone game that runs them $3.99?

Angry Birds
Nintendo hates this game.

Nintendo would like to think so. In the past they have refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the smartphone platform, and its acension to the handheld gaming race. Speaking at a recent investor meeting, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata claimed: “…there are consumers who acknowledge that the value of what we offer does not equal to that of those available for smartphones and that what we offer holds unique value.”

There is a distinct irony to the above quote. The consumers that Iwata seems to be speaking of are quite obviously not casual, but core gamers – the very demographic that Nintendo has so successfully alienated over the last five years. It is true, the core gamer – you, me, us – we can see the increased value in a high-quality DS game over an iPhone title. But the casual crowd that Nintendo has enjoyed for so long now, cannot. Again, irony.

But while I may be able to recognize Nintendo’s plight, I certainly do not sympathize with it. I stand by my initial statement that the days of premium-priced handheld software are through. And here is why: a few days ago, I downloaded Housemarque’s recently released action-platformer, Outland, from the PlayStation store. It is a beautifully crafted, rich, and lengthy 2D experience that is easily one of the best games I have played this year. Know how much it cost me? Ten dollars.

When Sony’s PlayStation Vita launches, I expect I will be able to play Outland on the go. As well as Super Stardust HD, Limbo, and a great many other PSN exclusives, all of which cost less than twenty dollars.

Perhaps, at this point, the picture I am painting is beginning to become clear. And do not try to tell me that Mario Kart 3D represents a value significantly greater than any of the above-mentioned titles.

Outland Screenshot 1
Ubisoft sells this game for ten dollars.

Nintendo needs to do two things: get on board with digital distribution, and start working with indy developers. Because of their patented refusal to do either of those things, they are becoming the “grumpy old men” of the game industry. They are stuck in their ways, and they will be damned before they stoop to lowering the prices of their software. Their attitude toward indy developers is similarly prideful; according to Reggie, Nintendo’s offical word to indies is “get some experience.” The up-and-coming indy development scene is one of the most exciting facets of the industry today – and yet Nintendo, like a bag of elitist pricks, like to pretend it does not exist.

As they say, it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. And Nintendo is undoubtedly the “old dog” of the industry. They have been selling handheld games for thirty and forty dollars a pop for quite some time now, and they do not want to stop. It is difficult to say if or when they will wake up and realize that their model of business is growing more obsolete by the day. Personally, I do not see it happening anytime soon; certainly not within the lifespan of the 3DS. But, for all we know, the 3DS might be up for an untimely, Virtua Boy-esque death. And if that turns out to be the case, Nintendo will need to learn some fast lessons on humility. Good luck to them, I suppose.


  1. I think the death of the 3DS has been greatly exaggerated. Angry Birds (and similar “casual” games) aren’t bad, worse, they’re boring. If a person can be amused by that for ten minutes then I suspect he could be similarly amused chasing the red dot of a laser pointer.

    The iPhone, Andriod, and even more specialized devides like the Xperia Play all offer gaming experiences many people find delightful. But touch/tilt/motion controls simply don’t work very well for a whole lot of types of games. You’ve got your fingers on the screen blocking the action, you’ve got to tilt the screen away so you can’t see it, you’ve got to waggle about like a flailing retard. None of these experiences appeal to me. A lot of games simply need a physical controller to play properly (or be noticeably dumbed downed difficultly and gameplay to make up for the lack thereof). Could somebody put out a device that’s both a good smartphone (reviews indicate the Xperia is not such a device) and has physical controls for gaming on some sleek, usable device? I don’t see why not, but at the moment that is a thing that does not exist.

    So, while I think you’re right that Nintendo (and Sony, Microsoft, Square-Enix, and others) need to realize that charging full retail prices, that go up every hardware generation, they need to accept that people aren’t going to be willing to pay for it. And as PSP and DS piracy suggest (and 3DS ROMs have already been dumped) that they aren’t. Between the terrible economy and cheap alternatives $40 games are going to have to be AAA amazing and I don’t think that’s a realistic target for the most part.

    Where I would disagree is with the idea that dedicated handhelds will be going away anytime soon. Sony has embraced the Internet (with lultastic results at times), indie development on PSN, cheap downloadable games and is going full speed ahead with the Vita. While Nintendo botched just about everything it could with the 3DS ultimately I think it’ll be a successful handheld. For the most part there’s a lot of genres you see on iOS/Android for a dollar like puzzle and card games that people wouldn’t pay $20 for. You also don’t see many $3 games with amazing graphics and in-depth narratives. Those are the games you’ll continue to see on dedicated gaming devices for the forseeable future.

    Until somebody makes a “hardcore game” friendly phone at least.

    And even then there’ll be weirdos like myself who don’t have or particularly want a phone to carry around AND do most of their portable gaming on the couch with an A/C adapter/charger running from the wall.

  2. Nintendo’s investors want them to start developing for iOS – enough said!

    Three cheers for the great leveler that is smartphone development! :D

    I have actually had far more fun with iOS games than I have had with DS games, because that’s where the innovation is happening. Hell, two of the best RPGs that I’ve played in recent years have been iOS titles.

    Have fun peddling $40 shovelware, Nintendo! :D

  3. @EP: You find Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay better narratives on iOS titles than you do on the handhelds!

    Avadon, Ash, Sword and Sworcery, Hector, to name just a few. And then there’s the megaton of Adventure game ports both old and new – with very strong support from Telltale games.

    In contrast: console developers have always acted like they were slumming it when developing for handhelds, and pen their narratives accordingly.

    There is no contest.

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