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3D Shaken, Not Stirred

Neil Schneider, Executive Director of The S-3D Gaming Alliance, talks about the Nintendo 3DS, Electronic Arts, NPD Group sales results, and more.

Neil Schneider, Blogger

July 29, 2011

9 Min Read

It seems that 3D has been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons again!  On one hand, 3D is giving people headaches.  On the other, products are getting pulled from store shelves due to customer complaints.  Watching the stock prices, you’d think that Chicken Little in 3D had come to life, and the sky was falling!  I’d like to take this opportunity to put things in perspective, because 3D isn’t to blame for the world’s ills.

Nintendo 3DSLet me begin by talking about the Nintendo 3DS.  According to Nintendo, the 3DS has sold 4.32 million units since its launch earlier this year along with 13.96 million software units.  The aging DS (2D Nintendo) has sold 1.44 million units during the quarter, and is expected to sell 9 million units this fiscal year.  The 3DS is up against the DS' lifetime total of 147.86 million units worldwide (released in November, 2004).

I’m not going to sugarcoat this.  Out of 4.3 million 3DS units sold, only 710,000 were purchased in the last three months.  This is a cruel reminder of Nintendo Virtual Boy’s pathetic 770,000 units sold in the five months of its existence.  There is no doubt that Nintendo over-estimated the expected sales for the 3DS.  Whether they were in love with the product or in love with themselves, it wasn’t going to happen.  Was 3D to blame?

At first, the press were in love with the 3DS because it was glasses free 3D.  Now the press hates the 3DS for the same reason, and regularly blames the 3D for its mediocre sales.  The leading issue as far as I can tell is that consumers are complaining that the 3D is uncomfortable and headache inducing.

I’ve been in the game too long and know better than to take a blogger at his word, so I took some time to browse through the different Nintendo 3DS forums on the Internet.  I was hard pressed to find a legion of customers complaining about its head-splitting 3D functionality.  Instead, I found gamer to gamer instructions on how to use the 3D slider to find the most comfortable setting.

Amazon recently pulled the cosmo-black colored Nintendo 3DS from its store because customers were complaining about the device.  Were customers going blind?  No.  Were customers complaining that they were getting headaches and were concerned about their safety?  No.  The issue was that the clamping mechanism was leaving scratch marks on the chassis, and this was an inventory issue.  The 3DS is back on sale, by the way.

Speaking of sale, the Nintendo 3DS had its price reduced from $249 US to $169 US.  Was this a welcome sight from bargain hungry press?  Heck no!  This was a “desperate” move by Nintendo to sell more units!  Could you imagine what the gaming world would go through every time there was a $10 Steam sale on the weekend?

The 3DS’ problem has nothing to do with 3D, it has nothing to do with price, and it definitely has nothing to do with getting pulled from store shelves.  The issue is that its content offering is extremely weak.  The existing games are lackluster in 2D AND 3D.  I’m all for criticizing a product, but the Nintendo 3DS is not being slammed for the right reasons!

Believe it or not, Nintendo has been around for over a hundred years, and whether or not their stock goes up or down, they have no debt.  Something like half their company value is cash sitting in the bank.  Clearly the 3DS had a false start, and while a lot of PR damage has been done, Nintendo has every opportunity to recover and rebuild the 3DS through better content and bundling opportunities.

Speaking of content, it’s unfortunate that Electronic Arts made headlines for their remarks about 3D gaming during their earnings report.  When EA CEO John Riccitiello was asked about the prospects of 3D, I don’t think it was a question he was directly prepared for.  However, if EA wishes to blame 3D, we need to take a closer look at what they are complaining about.

On the Nintendo 3DS, their top offerings (e.g. MADDEN, Sims 3) received a flurry of bad reviews.  However, the leading criticisms were that the games themselves seemed unfinished and understated.  Perusing their 3DS game reviews, the complaint about 3D in their games wasn’t that it detracted from the experience, but it was under-used or not used effectively.

The most public effort that Electronic Arts made in 3D was publishing Crytek’s Crysis 2 which promoted itself as being a 3D Ready game.  Unfortunately, Crysis 2 is based on a 2D+Depth technology.  2D+depth is a pseudo 3D experience that is based on a single camera view that is extrapolated into a left and right image based on depth buffer information.  Without two actual camera views, the 3D experience is lackluster at best, and 3D gamers were very disappointed with the results.

However, Electronic Arts has a lot to be proud of in the 3D space.  For example, they are a partner company in a government research initiative that is determining best practices in effective S-3D game design via university research.  They have also done some excellent work getting their games optimized to work with certain S-3D driver developers on PC on a case by case basis.

Next up is NPD Group’s findings about 3D HDTV sales.  Their core finding is that the intent to buy 3D HDTVs has declined in May of this year, compared to October of 2010.  Yes, I scratched my head too, because I’d imagine the big tech purchases would be happening in the lead-up months to Christmas, and not the sweaty outdoor months of summer!  I mean, who does that?

To their credit, NPD Group acknowledged the cyclical purchasing habits when it comes to HDTVs, but they made one point that deserved more attention:

For the majority of consumers who weren't interested in purchasing any 3D devices, glasses were the major barrier to purchasing, surpassing price as the most frequently cited objection. Even so price is also still a growing concern: 42 percent of consumers in May reported that prices were a barrier to purchasing a 3D TV, which is up from 38 percent last September.

I don’t know if NPD Group made the effort to determine the cause for rejecting the glasses this time around, but according to their June, 2010 findings:

Only 10 percent of consumers surveyed in The NPD Group’s Analyst Poll of NPD Panelists cited “looking silly” as a main concern of the glasses, whereas 41 percent cited not having enough glasses on hand for everyone watching the set.

So if NPD Group is standing by their own work, and if the metrics haven’t changed from one study to the next…customers are complaining that there won’t be enough glasses to go around.  Suddenly, this criticism doesn’t sound like such a bad thing!

Regardless of what these studies say, the fact is 3D is being installed as a standardized feature in most HDTVs, and the premiums for this extra functionality has been greatly reduced.  The lines will definitely blur between what it means to sell an HDTV versus a 3D HDTV, and the big question that needs to be asked is whether or not people will buy HDTVs at all?

DisplaySearch expects 100 million 3D HDTVs to be sold by 2014 based on the expectation that 3D will be a standardized feature, and that this represents 50% of all HDTV sales revenue.  So unless you believe that HDTVs will cease to be sold in stores, 3D is very much here to stay, and it’s up to the content makers to determine whether or not the 3D functionality will be used.  I think it will.

Last but not least is the 3D movie world.  I know this is a gaming website, but it’s an unfortunate truth that the negative opinions around 3D cinema somehow manage to spill into 3D gaming opinion.  It's unfortunate, but I think 3D cinema needs to find itself again and get back to its roots.

When 3D movies started to grow popular, they were based on native dual camera setups or true stereoscopic 3D animation.  Unfortunately, as a reaction to the press, movies have grown modest with their depth settings to the point that the image doesn’t look doubled with the naked eye – it just looks blurred.  More than that, what used to be carefully crafted 3D movies based on true stereoscopic 3D rendering have become modest 2D/3D conversions that are truly lackluster compared to what made this industry popular in the first place.  It really is a troubling situation because customers have been trained to expect these boring experiences - and that's not what 3D is about.

Even Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the celebrated pioneers of modern stereoscopic 3D movies, has been critical of the industry for these reasons, and is justifiably upset.  I know on MTBS, we have cut back on our 3D movie watching because…let’s face it…Smurfs 3D is a real embarrassment.  There is no other way to put it.

However, is 3D to blame in this case?  I have to again say no.  There were a whole slew of 3D movies that were successful, and few complained about discomfort.  Avatar was a great example of people willing to see the film over and over again in 3D.  Nothing has really changed except the serious decline in content quality.

If you read this far, I congratulate you, because I could go on forever!  Let me end this piece with the biggest problem of all…the 3D industry itself.  With all the sarcasm, sucker punches, misinformation, and terrible press working against 3D – I’m just amazed that there are so few industry members that take the time to represent and credibly defend the technology.  While I serve as Executive Director for The S-3D Gaming Alliance, there are other organizations that feature scores of members in 3D cinema, broadcasting, and electronics.  Given all the passion and investment that launched modern 3D entertainment, I think the industry really needs to stand up for itself.

Thankfully, there is a silver lining to all this.  No doubt, everybody now realizes there are some serious content problems to be solved, and I’m certain the 3D industry is rethinking how to effectively move ahead.  I expect there will be a very strong focus on content quality, and hopefully…hopefully…we will start seeing more direct interaction with gamers and customers.  I hope to have more to report on this in about a month or so.  I’ll keep you posted!

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