What do the first 12 months in the life of a console tel us about the challenges of the modern gaming market?
How quickly the glistening technology of the future gives way to the hahum, untidy present. When 3DS made its first public appearance at E3 in 2010, it sounded like delightful science fiction. The prospect of glasses-free 3D capitalised on the allure of futuristic gadgetry that consumers hove historically relied on videogames to provide. Mario could jump out of the screen; Link could nudge aside layers of foliage arrayed with tangible depth to reveal a long-losl temple. How did Nintendo pull it off? By the lime people were actually living wilh the device, however, the question from certain quarters had changed to- why<?
“It was kind of fun to WOK in stereoscopic 3D,” says Alex Neuse of Gaijin Games, maker of GDS’s
Bit.Trip Saga collection, “but honestly, it wasn’t that different. I was just a different flavour of Nintendo.”
Does that Nintendo flavour, or ‘difference’ – which made its DS the best-selling portable console to date – still hove the same level of magnetism lodoy? One year on frcm its launch, 3DS has come to embcdy the uncertain future of the videogame business.
Signs of trouble emerged prior to 3DS’s release. At the Game Developers Conference in March, just days after 3DS launched in Japan Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata decried the quantity of cheap software an the App Store “Quolity does not matter to [Apple],” he said. He v/ould go on to insist that retail gomes and 3DS’s still-unopened,
unnamed digital games service – soon christened the eShop – would set the system apart. Rather than acknowledge thot devces such as Apple’s iPhone had changed the face of mobile gaming, Nintendo’s leader seemed to be clinging to a myopic view of how gomes ore now being made, released and played.
Quantify was more important than Iwata believed. Fi^e months after that speech, Nintendo had sold just over 700,000 3DS consoles, performing so far below the company’s – end, more crucially, shareholders’ – expectations thot it dropped the handheld’s price heavily in all territories to “creole momentum”. It was a desperate move Bloomberg Japan reported days after -he drop thct Nintendo was selling 3DS at a loss, an unheard-of manoeuvre for a company that had spent the past ten years happily selling technology such as Wii and DS at premium prices. The obvious need for quality softwaie was even more damning, since 3DSs earning potential now rested solely with games. Thirdparty publishers began to delay and cancel titles for the system, exemplified by Capcom’s killing off of Mega AAon Legends 3 The device that seemed so cutting edge just a year before now seemed to be Nintendo’s biggest misstep since its Virtual Boy.
What happened? For starters,
3DS simply wasn’t ready for release. Its digital games store, the eShop, didn’t open for business until three months after the system was in players’ hands. Worse si II, developers workhg on the system didn’t have enough time to prepare properly – those making launch games fcr 3DS weren’t even aware that stereoscopic 3D was a feature Julian Gollop, X-Com creator and lead designer of Ubisoft Sofia Studio’s 3DS launch game Ghost Rscon: Shadow V/ars, reca Is just how in the dark designers were. “The biggest shock to us was when Nintendo revealed that the upper screen would have stereoscopic 3D, even though we hod been using the devkits for a while already,’’ he says.
“We had designed the game with the touchscreen as the main display ir order to enable stylus control, and we were using the upper screen for the mop and character information. We had to swap the screen functions around and abandon the idea of controlling the game with the stylus.”
Gollop’s gome wos ignored when 33S first released, bul has gained a cull following shce for its strengths. It’s also been singled out for its use of 3D effects. “We got a lot of compliments from players for our use of 3D. It made the 3DS feel like a window on a diorama with little soldiers moving around. We didn’t try to exaggerate the effect just for the sake of it, so it fell comfortable for most users, rather than gimmicky.”
The fact that the console’s 3D effects despite the glasses-tree convenience – feel like an unsatisfying gimmick in most games is another hurdle that 3DS hcs yet ro fully clear. Super Mario 3D Land, the flagship game that Nintendo so badly needed a- launch, clearly shows that 3D can facilitate new play moving the 3D slider to reveal hidden depth in a room full of blocks is clever but it’s a rare exceptior.
Regardless, developers are nowwarming to the technology, and that greater understanding is helping the 3D effect become a more use;ul tool in designers’ arsenals. While Gaijin Games wasn’t initially impressed by 3DS, hat indifference changed as it retrofitted its ganes for the Bit. Trip Sago collection. GaijiVs Mike Roush says it just look time: “Our expectations were hat we were going to go super bonkers nutzoid with the 3D, but after working with llie system we realised that a subtler approach wos almost always better, more elegant. We often had to wrangle in our 3D desires.”
WayForward is also finding the sweet spot for the 3D screen. “I have a special place in my heart for 2D games. They can be more whimsical than polygonal games, bul are rcrefy as immersive,” says Matt Bozon director of Mighty Swi’ch Force.
“I think the stereoscopic technology that the 3DS brings does an amazing job of drawing the player into a hand drawn world. Ambient an motion and sound can go a long way, bul this gives us a new dimension to plcy with while rendering worlds that can only be described through illustration.”
Mighty Switch Force and other downloadable games released at the end of 2011, such as Pullblox, have quelled fears thot 3DS would see the same oiles of shovelware hat litter the Wii Ware and DSiWare stores. Those games aren’t what’s selling the system, though. After Christmas, Nintendo announced that sales of 33S had leapt to more than 15 million units, just edging out DS’s first-year sales of ’4.43 million systems. The impressive numbers followed the release of marquee titles, namely Nintenco’s own Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, which both sold more than a million copies after being released at the end of 201 1 Monster Hunter Tri G helped give the system a lec up in Japan when it came out in December, too, but it’s undeniable that firstparty titles were, as usual, what convinced people that they needed this new Nirtendo hardware.
So Nintendo has proven once again hat it makes solid games about Italians jjmping and driving cars. The burden remains, however, to prove that the system is fertile ground for game makers intent on reaching a wide audience. As such, the leal lest fur 3DS is yel lu come. The next few months will see big-budget ttles from major thirdparty franchises hit tie system, including Kingdom Hearts: Dream Droo Distance and Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3D (reviewed pi 22). The success of those games and others I ke them, f om a business perspective if not a creatve one, will determine if third parties have a future on 3DS.
There’s more pressure riding on tnese games, though: 3DS is a proving ground for the sustainability of all devoted portable gaming machines. As the system tjrns one, Sony is releasing its PlayStation Vita. Unlike 3DS, Vita is coming out with a stable of games backed by strong brands, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Wipeout 2048. 3DSs apparent turnaround has ftmholdenftd Sony os well, to the extent that SCEE president Jim Ryan said in a recent interview that the company is encouraged by Nintendo. Sony’s device is also built to succeed out the gate where Nintendo’s failed, particularly in having a strong digital marketpbee ready from the get-go.
What Vita doesn’t have is a Mario Kart. Unchorted is a worldwide smash, with the three main PlayStation 3 games selling in excess of 1 3 million copies, but it’s hardly in the league of Nintendo’s core franchises; Mario Karl Wii lias sold over 28 million copies since 2008.
3DS can survive as a profitable console supported by Nintendo’s games alone. Developers such as WayForwaid and Ubisoft’s Sofia Studio have shown that there’s creative soil to be tilled in developing for 3DS, too, but there’s still little proof that they can make a living off ol it. In yea* two, 3DS no longer has to prove it car sustain Nintendo, it has to offer game makers more than just screen that used to feel like the future.
While it’s still unclear whether or not 3DS will recapture the creative spirit and commercial sjccess that kept DS a happy home for game designers for nearly a decade, there are some games on the horizon that have exciting potential. What will define 3DS in 2012? “Two words: Animal Crossing,” says Julian Gollop. “The vaslly improved connectivity features of 3DS are just so well designed to support this game. I *hink we should get some more interesting developments all round wilh games that blur the distinction between online and offline play to create an almost seamless connection between these traditionally separated modes.”