Nintendo hosted another one of their Nintendo Direct webcasts this week. In general, I really like the direction they’ve taken by moving to doing these; it’s like a mini-E3 every month or two and we don’t have to wait for a huge event for news on upcoming games. The previous Nintendo Direct actually had me really optimistic about what’s coming out of Nintendo this year. This week’s made me legitimately worried about the health of the company going forward. The reason why is simple: They’re sacrificing the experience in favor of short term cost cutting measures, and that’s the one sure way to hurt Nintendo long term, more than Sega or Sony or iOS ever could.
Before we go in to the current news, it’s important to understand Nintendo’s philosophy over the past couple of years, amid the increasingly loud cries for them to stop being stubborn and port their games over to smartphones. In May, among yet another one of these pleas from investors and the tech press, Iwata said, “Our games such as Mario and Zelda are designed for our game machines so if we transfer them into smartphones as they are, customers won’t be satisfied. If customers aren’t satisfied with the experience, it will decrease the value of our content.” For the record, I don’t disagree with him; I’ve been pretty vocal about saying that porting games to iOS would be the end of Nintendo as we know it. But that particular quote makes the news to come out of this week’s Nintendo Direct extremely perplexing, and frankly worrying.
First of all, Nintendo announced Mario Party 10, with support for Amiibo, as one would expect. I usually wouldn’t pay attention to a Mario Party announcement (good lord, there are ten of these games already?), except that it exposed one giant flaw with the Amiibo implementation. Those figures which are supposed to travel from game to game with you? Apparently, to do so, you need to delete all your data from the first game to make room for the second. Or you could just buy another one, if you want to take the cynical view. This is frustrating, but given that Nintendo has never really been able to articulate what Amiibo are supposed to do in the first place, it just provided one more reason to ignore their existence.
Then there came the announcement of the New 3DS itself, finally slated for release next month. The announcement itself wasn’t all that surprising (the release date and price had already been leaked, after all), but there were two major omissions that were various degrees of concerning.
The first is that the smaller (non-XL) New 3DS wouldn’t be coming to the US at all, despite being released in Europe and Asia. It wouldn’t have been surprising if they’d only made the XL size of the New 3DS; the XL is clearly the more popular model based on the fact that the original 3DS has been discontinued and the 2DS exists. That said, once they did announce it for Japan, it was a reasonable assumption that Nintendo would be selling it everywhere. It should be said that there are legitimate use cases for a non-XL 3DS; plenty of people have small hands, including the kids who are often the primary users of the 3DS. That model is also the only one with interchangeable faceplates, which was a big selling feature of the new model. So by announcing this for Japan months ago, Nintendo left some US consumers with the expectation that they’d be able to buy the smaller model; they were then disappointed to find out that was not the case, especially given that every other region can purchase them.
It goes without saying that there are a lot of factors that go into any business decision. I don’t doubt that Nintendo’s starting to run into a shelf space crunch, especially after their huge Amiibo push, and regions do differ in their sales. The XL is also the predominant seller between the two models in regions where they both launched together. But given that Nintendo is producing the smaller model at all, there were still better ways to handle this than punting on releasing the device entirely in the US. Even if they’d released the smaller model as a limited edition exclusively through their own web store, they at least could have hedged their bets and fulfilled that niche customer base who wanted it. Instead, they left those customers frustrated and confused, which is not ideal when asking them to spend $200 on a slightly updated version of a console they probably already have.
The real kicker, though, is the fact that the New 3DS’s charger is not included with the system. If you already own a 3DS, you can just use the one you already own, of course. If you don’t already own a 3DS (or don’t want to have to choose which of your 3DS units to charge at any given time), you can pay an extra $10 to Nintendo for one. (Oh, and don’t even think about buying a third party one, because that could void your warranty. Because of course it will.) If the chargers were standard micro USB plugs, maybe you could make the argument that everyone has plenty lying around and this is a prudent move. The 3DS charger, however, is proprietary. Even notwithstanding Nintendo’s fear mongering over the warranty, one still needs to buy a specific charger to get power into the 3DS.
It’s hard to put into words how much this offends me as a long time customer of Nintendo’s. This is a cost-cutting measure, pure and simple; there’s no other explanation for it. It’s true that Nintendo’s always cut corners on the hardware to make sure it at least breaks even on cost. This is why both the 3DS (including the new one) and the GamePad on the Wii U still feature resistive touch screens, even though capacitive touch screens have been the standard for years. The original iPhone made clear that capacitive screens were vastly better than resistive when it was released seven years ago, before the 3DS was even a twinkle in Nintendo’s eye. For crying out loud, even LeapFrog’s latest LeapPad has a capacitive screen, and LeapFrog is known for using components that are several years out of date to keep costs down.
This is different, though. As frustrating as the resistive screens are, or the lack of HD was in the Wii, or the last-gen processing power of the Wii U was at launch, you could understand those decisions in the context of when they were made. You get get by fine with a resistive screen, it was still a question of how quickly HD would be adopted in 2006, and developers still haven’t learned how to harness the power of the Xbox One or PS4 to make anything truly next-gen that would makes the Wii U feel old as of yet. A charger, though, is essential to the operation of a handheld gaming platform. You literally cannot operate the system without one. Even though there are undoubtedly plenty of 3DS chargers out in the wild, it’s still unreasonable for Nintendo to not include one in the box.
What this does is cheapen the experience for their customers, and for no good reason other than saving a couple of dollars per unit. Consider the parent who’s buying his daughter her first 3DS; they bring it home, set it up, and then go to look for the charger once the daughter runs the battery dow, only to find there isn’t one, and they have to go back to the store to spend more money. This isn’t a hypothetical situation; as much as plenty of parents grew up playing video games, there are still a good number who don’t, and they generally don’t research a product like this very much. After all, it’s a reasonable assumption that the system would come with everything it needs out of the box. A more common scenario will be people who are trading in their old 3DS to get a new one; most trade ins require the charger, so those people just got $10 less from their trade than they thought they would because now they have to buy a new charger to replace the one they just traded in.
Are either of these scenarios disastrous? No, of course not. $10 isn’t a lot of money when you’re in the position to buy a $200 handheld. It’s not really about the money, per se, but these scenarios are harmful to Nintendo’s reputation because they leave a bad first impression with the customer. It sends the message that Nintendo cares less about providing a great experience than with cutting costs as much as possible, and that’s not the sign of a healthy company. Remember Iwata’s quote above; customer satisfaction should be the most important thing to Nintendo right now. Satisfied customers will stay with them and come on board with their next ridiculous sounding idea because they trust that Nintendo knows what they’re doing in the long run. Making a choice that jeopardizes that for what can’t be more than $2 or $3 per console sold defies explanation.
It’s worth saying that none of these choices is a huge deal on their own, but all of them together are starting to paint a disturbing pattern of how Nintendo intends to act in its post-Wii reality. This is not a company that is intent on delighting their customers, or even really cares about their satisfaction. This is a short sighted company that may be more in survival mode than we realized. None of this changes that Nintendo still makes great games that are worth buying their hardware to play. What the last Nintendo Direct proved, however, is that they’re willing to make sacrifices to the product and to the Nintendo experience in favor of cutting costs here and there. The problem is that Nintendo is heavily dependent on the good will of its customers to stick with them during the bad times; that’s what kept them afloat during the slow start of the Wii U. It’s people with nostalgia for Nintendo and faith in the value that their systems provide that buy them before they ought to, and buy more for their kids to share with them.
So I’m finally worried about Nintendo, because it seems like they’ve lost sight of what’s really important, and their need to appease their investors has eclipsed their instincts to make the best product they can make. This is how Nintendo finally fails, not by taking a chance on a wild new idea, but by showing their customers that the respect that they have for Nintendo isn’t mutual. At the end of the day, the feelings that a lot of Nintendo’s customers have toward the company are often more emotional than rational. When Nintendo becomes just another game company to those customers, that’s the day that Nintendo is in serious jeopardy of turning into the next Sega.