By Dennis Scimeca
When I first saw the Nintendo 3DS at E3 2010, I was overcome by the “wow” factor. I don’t know if anyone truly believed that Nintendo had mastered glasses-free 3D technology. But as the girls with the 3DS units tied to their belts lined up at the back of the theater, and the audience moved through the queue to view the demo units, we were made believers.
Now that we’ve rubbed the stars out of our eyes, astonishment has been replaced by the observation that 3D visuals are neat, but not necessarily impressive. The novelty has worn off a bit, and it’s also becoming clear that the 3D visuals don’t actually factor into the gameplay mechanics of any launch title for the 3DS. Nor shall they factor into the gameplay mechanics of any 3DS title on the immediate horizon. In fact, we may never see a title where they do. Not from Nintendo, anyway.
On March 21st, Chris Kohler reported on a conversation at GDC 2011 with Hideki Konno, the producer of the Nintendo 3DS:
At last year’s E3 Expo, Nintendo showed off a massive array of software demos for 3DS. While most of them will be available soon, one of the most interesting ones seems to have been shelved entirely.
The demo showed a Mario-style jumping game with transparent platforms. In the system’s 2-D mode, it was virtually impossible to tell where the overlapping platforms were in relationship to each other. With 3-D on, the depth effect lets you see where to jump.
“We want to get software out to as many people as possible, and there are some people who just can’t see 3-D,” said Konno when asked about this demo. “We’re moving away from any stance that says if you don’t use the 3-D functionality you can’t play this game.”
I wondered whether Konno had been speaking off-the-cuff, or giving us a snapshot of the internal dialogue at Nintendo regarding future first-party titles. I contacted Nintendo for comment, and was given the following statement from Charlie Scibetta, Nintendo of America’s Senior Director of Corporate Communications:
“Every [3DS] game will be different, but our aim is to provide a fun experience regardless of the 3D settings.”
Nintendo has no vested interest in backing down from their philosophy of serving a wide audience. If the 3DS isn’t going to utilize its primary advantage as an integral game mechanic, however, is this new handheld enough to keep Nintendo in the lead in the handheld market?
I wrote four 3DS previews for GamePro at PAX East. In every case, the 3D was completely unnecessary to gameplay, so I turned it off for the faster framerates of 2D graphics. The hardware reviews of the 3DS are backing up the fact that the 3D visuals are interesting, but ultimately extraneous.
3D can actually make some games less tenable to play. The cone of 3D projection in front of the 3DS screen is narrow. If you move your head too far to either side you lose the 3D effect and instead get double vision. Consider that Augmented Reality games, one of the selling points of the 3DS, generally require moving around.
Nintendo was able to make an impact with the Wii because they took an innovation and made it a central design mechanic. Even with non-HD graphics, the accessibility of the system won audiences over. Now motion control is old hat, has been adopted by Sony and Microsoft, and Wii sales are flagging.
Glasses-free 3D is solely the province of Nintendo, like motion controls used to be. One would think it would therefore make sense for Nintendo to capitalize on this advantage by producing some titles that depend on 3D game mechanics. Otherwise, they’re offering a handheld which feels decidedly last-gen compared to the other options currently available or coming soon.
In terms of graphics, the 3DS can’t hold a candle to iOS devices providing HD resolution. The 3DS has one up on Apple devices with physical rather than virtual controls, but Sony’s NGP is going to feature dual analog sticks which will finally open the doors to real shooters and other hardcore offerings on a handheld, presented in HD graphics being touted as up to par with the PlayStation 3. In terms of gameplay, the 3DS currently brings nothing new to the table other than a single analog stick and the increased precision it affords.
Satoru Iwata turned his GDC 2011 keynote into a press conference, and then into a blatant sales pitch when Reggie Fils-Aime replaced him on stage for a short time to pimp the 3DS. I wasn’t surprised when it happened, but now I understand better why they did it, and why Iwata felt the need to bash “garage developers” and stress the production of “high value” games.
If we’ve learned anything about gaming in the last few years, it’s that there are all different sorts of gamers, and the better any platform can serve them all, the better it is going to perform in the marketplace. The iPhone and iPad aren’t just about Angry Birds anymore. Infinity Blade and Dead Space proved that the core gamer can be just as well served by iOS devices.
If the hardcore audience is as well or better served with iOS devices, and potentially soon with the NGP, and the casual audience is quite happy with their low-cost smartphone and tablet game apps, why is either audience going to drop $250 on a 3DS? While we can’t really predict how Sony’s NGP is going to effect the marketplace, in his monthly column over on Industry Gamers, Michael Pachter of Wedbush Securities specifically addresses the Apple threat:
“I'm not sure that Nintendo can do much to stave off competition from mobile and social games; I view Mr. Iwata's presentation to game developers at GDC last month as analogous to a record company president speaking to recording artists 10 years ago and lamenting that Apple's iTunes store would lead to their demise, as it cheapened the value proposition of music CDs by offering $1 downloads. This would have been a true statement at the time (to my knowledge, it didn't actually happen), but such a plea wouldn't have had any impact on Apple at all. Like the music analogy, Mr. Iwata's plea to developers won't stop Apple, and the success stories of developers like Rovio and Zeptolab will encourage further development by people hoping to launch the next Angry Birds or Cut the Rope.”
What’s significant about Iwata at GDC is that for the most part, Nintendo has not adequately acknowledged the threat Apple represents to their handheld platform ambitions. Iwata finally broke the silence, which suggests that Nintendo recognizes the danger; and consider that Apple doesn’t even care about their devices as game platforms. They have managed to threaten Nintendo’s handheld market share without even trying.
The 3DS may have been effectively outflanked before it was even released, unless we begin to see titles that depend on 3D graphics as a central game mechanic, like the scrapped E3 demo that Kohler wrote about. And this is where I think Nintendo has to change up their game in regards to third party development.
Nintendo may feel they cannot back down from their accessible persona, but third party developers don’t have that issue. They can make games for the core audience that utilize 3D game mechanics without stepping unduly on Nintendo’s image, and I therefore hope that Nintendo finds a better way to deal with third party development for the 3DS rather than allow it to degenerate into the shovelware that plagued the Wii.
The 3DS is a system filled with promise. Just like motion control introduced a whole new way to make games, glasses-free 3D also adds an entirely new potential lexicon to the game developer’s toolset. I hope Nintendo realizes that not every title needs to be accessible to the whole audience. It’s okay to make core games that have to be played in 3D. If they’re good, people will buy them. If they’re great, the excitement of a new paradigm will give Nintendo a decided edge in the handheld space, and will certainly move both hardware and software.
If Nintendo fails to innovate in a meaningful fashion beyond interesting-but-irrelevant technologies as far as game mechanics are concerned, they run the risk of losing their dominant position in the handheld market. I’m looking forward to a true 3D title that gives me something fresh and new. Until then, the 3DS is just another DS to me, and I don’t play the one I currently own. I’m not going to part with $250 for a gimmick, and I’m not the only one.