Welcome to the post-iPhone world, Nintendo. We were wondering when you'd take those blinders off.
Thursday's announcement that the game giant would be slicing
the price of the 3DS by nearly one-third after just four months was significant on a number of levels. But as the mobile gaming world continues to evolve at a breathtaking pace, it may not be enough to secure the system's long-term future.
Let's not mince words: The decision to launch the 3DS at $250 was one motivated by ego and greed. Rather than looking at its audience base as a whole, the company made the decision based on the enthusiastic feedback the device received at E3.
The problem is: E3 is the amen chorus of the video game industry. And show-goers habitually line up to see any sort of playable new hardware, since everyone wants to be able to say "I played it first".
The decision ignored the budget-conscious consumer that had become the company's lifeblood – the gamer who rewarded Nintendo for charging $250 for the Wii, rather than $350 or $400.
That said, making such a drastic pivot after such a short time is an embarrassing thing for a company to do, so Satoru Iwata earns a tip of the cap for making the decision, despite the inevitable second-guessing and backlash it will attract from investors (though, let's be honest, given the dismal first quarter earnings and significantly reduced earnings forecast
the company reported Thursday, that backlash was going to come no matter what).
At the same time, the company smartly devised a way to keep the system's early adopters from revolting with its offer of 20 free downloadable games from the Nintendo eShop – including 10 GBA ports that anyone who picks up the reduce-priced 3DS won't be able to buy.
Along with this, it issued a sincere apology to those early buyers, basically saying "We know you feel screwed – and we don't blame you. And we're really, really sorry about that." (The tone of the note made it quite apparent that Nintendo had learned from Sony's PR disaster after the April hacking incident.)
Lowering the price of the hardware is a good first step, but it may not be enough to salvage the 3DS. The weak software lineup is being patched and by Christmas there will be a number of "must have" games for the system – but they'll still cost a hell of a lot more than any app.
That's a problem that won't go away soon. While things like Super Mario 3D Land
and Mario Kart 7
might be able to command $40, that's simply not the case with most 3DS titles – something Nintendo has yet to acknowledge. Without a more concrete plan to sell non-premium 3DS games at a lower price (the $15-$20 range would be ideal), the problems won't be over soon for the 3DS.
Sure, it might turn around its minuscule sales numbers on the hardware side, but without software royalties, it won't be a cash cow – and certainly won't fill the gap that's being left by the DS.
That could affect the interest of third-party publishers, who are still upset about the rapid decline of DS game sales – and the 3DS could eventually become a system supported chiefly by shovelware and two to three high-quality Nintendo games per year. That would only open the doors wider for mobile competitors to march in and steal more audience.
Meanwhile, you can imagine the high-level meetings taking place at Sony today. The Vita might be a glossy high-tech system, but it's going to run into many of the same challenges the 3DS did.
It's not 3D, of course, but it's a dedicated system that will compete for pocket space with mobile phones. And it's a system that will have game prices well north of what people pay for apps.
Will the games be higher quality – not to mention deeper, richer and better looking than the majority of smartphone games? Absolutely. Will they appeal to core gamers? You bet! But will the mass audience who STILL thinks Angry Birds
is novel be willing to pay $30 to $40 for a portable game today – even one as epic as Uncharted
? I'm not convinced.
Of course, Sony has at least acknowledged the mobile competition with the PlayStation Suite for Android devices. So far, the company has made sure to distance the Vita from its Android devices, but the lifeline's out there if Sony needs it. The problem is: If it gets to the point where it needs to bring those older games in for low, low prices, it may already be too late.
In talking with friends and other gamers, I'm hearing a lot of the same chatter about the Vita that I did about the 3DS. "I want to try it," say people, "but I'm not planning to buy one."
Game systems that are curiosities sometimes catch on with the mass audience – like the Wii. But too often then remain just that.
Nintendo has made some smart moves to resuscitate the 3DS. I'm just not convinced they've made all the necessary ones yet.