Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Editorial: Moving On From The NDS

In 2008, when the Nintendo DS was at its peak, nobody really expected a slump in sales to be heading its way. Although in hindsight, all the signs were there, albeit subtly rising to the surface with Nintendo providing the obvious reactionary response by releasing new hardware in the form of another restyled Nintendo DS console.

You could argue that after nearly five years on the market, that it was time for the company to be thinking about new hardware - about replacing the existing NDS with something considerably more powerful whilst also adding in another standout feature, a talking point which could convince existing owners to move over to the new machine; the recently unveiled 3DS.

That feature, and the talking point of the latest machine, is 3D - a format brought back to the attention of the mainstream by movie studios in an attempt to re-invigorate cinema screen ticket sales, whilst also fending off digital downloads and the increasingly popular digital rental market. The very nature of the format makes it far more suitable for gaming than film however, with depth perception being far more important in trying to gauge your next jump, or in making that critical headshot. Interactive content demands high precision and definitively accurate reactions, all of which can be increased via the added depth afforded by 3D.

It’s a natural fit, and one that has the potential to immerse the user into the experience beyond what was possible with current tech, while at the same time giving Nintendo that difference for a second time running. Nobody else has 3D gaming hardware like this. No one else has a portable 3D solution outside of the cell phone.

So, given the large drop in sales and rampant piracy that has plagued the DS in recent years a change in hardware is really for the best, and in that respect not really all that unexpected. 2008 marked the highest point for NDS sales. Riding high after the constantly repeating success of Brain Training and its sequel, New Super Mario Bros, Nintendogs, and various third-party hits like Professor Layton, cracks began to appear in the machine’s previously unblemished record.

Software sales for first and third party titles were down across the board, and despite an initially strong uptake of the new DSi console, sales started to tale off a few months later. Third party publishers for the first time began cutting back on all DS operations, sighting both piracy and a saturation of games being produced for the casual market as the cause of this change. Nintendo themselves had barely released any notable titles for the system outside of the new Layton game, and another instalment in the Mario & Luigi series of RPG’s, instead relying on more sales of existing products and me-too third party clones of its own titles.

But why the sudden drop off in sales, and how come after four straight years of success is the platform slowing down so rapidly?

A number of factors have to be considered. Firstly, the casual market has seen a massive explosion ever since Nintendo struck gold with the likes of Brain Training and Nintendogs, with competing titles covering practically every avenue of potential interest, from pets, to playing doctor, and string of brain teasing games and puzzle-based adventure titles.

A crowded market is rarely a healthy market, especially when consumers are so bogged down with choice that they simply decide to vote using their wallets, by not buying anything, or simply to look elsewhere for entertainment otherwise provided by the DS. This over abundance in choice it seems is equally restrictive in the sense that the choices available are limited to certain genres and titles that casual gamers have grown accustom to appearing on the format. Outside of these genres there is little innovation, and titles aimed at the ‘core’ gaming market are mostly ignored due to a lack of familiarity even if some of those are perfectly suitable.

It appears that the bubble has broken, and that a string of similar experiences simply won’t be enough to sway a vast number of new owners to the platform, especially when there are over a hundred million of them already. Combined with the fact that the world market has just hit a sudden downturn due to the recession, and that leaves consumers vary of splashing out, something that the gaming market, despite early signs pointing otherwise, is not immune to.

The other reason why so many publishers and developers have recently been turning away from the DS, and in turn why consumers find themselves with a lack of imaginative new software is piracy. That old dog is once again up to its old tricks in a re-run of what has happen countless times before with the old gaming platforms of the 1980’s, the original PlayStation, and continuously to this day with the PC market. Like with any popular platform the NDS is far from immune from the problem, instead further feeding the pirates with its gigantic userbase.

Simple piracy in it self isn’t a huge problem for the DS, it’s the widespread scale of the issue, and the fact that it has become a fairly commonplace thing amongst casual gamers, and not just the technologically literate hardcore. Everyone from the little girl next door to parents simply out to save a few quid have turned to illegal downloading and game sharing for the DS. The popularity of many micro SD card readers for the system, such as the infamous R4, has made this phenomenon possible, and the ease of obtaining both the hardware required and the games themselves, so widespread across so many demographics.

Although Nintendo have in recent months begun to heavily crack down on large illegal game distribution operations, and hardware manufacture, they may have inadvertently left it too late. The R4 and other similar devices have too much market share now in order to be effectively combated to a point of no longer being a problem. Plus with the DS platform itself aging rapidly (it’s five years old already) there is little financial sense it trying to salvage and rebuild the success that it has seen over those five years with the same hardware. Instead it makes far more sense to concentrate on a new console altogether, one which will feature much greater protection from the pirates, and that can also instil fresh imagination into the gaming public.

Enter the 3DS.

With the selection of original NDS games quickly depleting, and the machine largely falling out of favour with the hardcore crowd to the less successful PSP, Nintendo have a chance to re-build bridges with that audience as well as provide a platform that doesn’t alienate the current casual consumer. In fact the use of 3D however gimmicky it may at first seem, may just convince those very people to jump aboard and experience a more traditional form of gaming. After all, what is there to loose, you have complete backwards compatibility with the existing DS, making the 3DS more of an upgrade than a complete replacement, along with a whole host of visualy alluring titles. Granny or little Suzie may not see the appeal, but many others will.

Importantly, the 3DS more than anything else will provide a safer development environment for developers away from the piracy ridden confines of the current NDS platform. This new sense of security will also be backed up with a fresh way of looking at handheld titles. Maybe not fresh, in the sense of new gameplay experiences, but fresh in the sense of experiencing PS2-like blockbusters in full 3D anywhere you go, in addition to fan favourites such as Mario, Zelda, Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid.

The NDS has definitely run its course, and now you can so easily see why and where most publishers development resources have gone. The shrinking selves of DS games will surely be replaced with a greater amount of 3DS titles come next year. Some may just be enhanced DS games aimed at the mainstream, whilst most look likely to be titles bread and nurtured for the ‘core’ gamer. It’s no surprise to learn that most Nintendo-based handheld software projects are being lined-up for the 3DS, both from first and third parties, and this in turn represents why DS software has dried up of late.

In the end, while it may seem like the DS is somewhat dying, and in a way it is, the future of the brand remains intact and ready for its second phase. Backwards compatibility ensures that the 3DS won’t alienate the current audience, or destroy the existing DS software chain overnight. But it will ensure the healthy continuation of the platform as a whole.

That is, of course if it becomes successful, although all signs point to it having an initially bright future. The rest, as always is up to the software and marketing, being able to convince the right people that this IS the right product for them. And with Nintendo’s recent track record that shouldn’t be a problem.

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