On the eve of 3DS’s launch, we’re stood outside one of Japan’s top electronic stores at 5am, braving the freezing temperatures to get in line with around 250 other intrepid gamers. A few other lines are tentatively forming in front of retailers in the area, but no one is waiting outside the large electronics chain next door. We wonder whether Nintendo has misjudged the demand for its innovative hardware.
Later on, however, that queue had grown to 700 while Akihabara’s Yodobashi Camera centre saw lines 1000 strong. The 3DS was originally scheduled for release at the end of last year, but Nintendo postponed its launch until today, February 26. The move gave Monster Hunter Portable room to breathe and reinforced suspicions that the Kyoto giant is courting Capcom’s series for its own system. But Nintendo used the additional time to continue communicating the distinctive nature of the new hardware, and attempting to differentiate it from previous DS iterations. The company’s efforts certainly weren’t helped by the hardware’s form factor, design and chosen name, however.
While 3D is the headline feature, Nintendo’s handheld is very much built around the current game industry zeitgeist: social networking, a much harder concept to get across to potential consumers. As such, Nintendo hasn’t been expecting rapid adoption of the hardware as it needs time to be experienced and understood.
This hurdle could explain the distinctly un-Nintendo launch line-up, which features little in the way of the classic Nintendo properties – there’s no sign of Mario. Moreover, some of the launch games appear to be based on DS code with a lick of 3D paint added for effect, giving the impression of a rushed switch. When the novelty of the hardware’s visual trickery wears off, having its biggest franchises in reserve may serve Nintendo well.
Similarly careful management looked to be in play with the delivery of hardware to stores, too; not necessarily to create a false sense of shortage, but rather to avoid flooding the market and risk losing momentum. The constant flux of units delivered to stores on a daily basis seems to confirm that suspicion.
Ahead of the launch, many stores were talking of small stock deliveries, with only the larger, traditionally Nintendo-supporting, chains expecting larger numbers. But most of the initial shipment of units was sold weeks before the launch in pre-orders.
Furthermore, the management of units’ delivery, and better control over pre-orders, had a limiting effect on the so called ‘Chinese Syndrome’ which has become symptomatic of every new hardware launch in Japan. Watching frenetic organized groups of Chinese buyers running around on their phones, desperately trying to find more stock to buy, was a clear sign it had worked to a degree.
Nintendo shipped 400,000 units nationwide on day one, with the first shipment selling out within 24 hours. Nintendo has set itself the ambitious target of having a million installed by the end of the month.
Professor Layton And The Mask Of Miracle was the game of choice for the launch, a third of 3DS buyers picking up a copy, while Nintendogs + Cats proved almost as popular. Meanwhile, Killzone 3, released just a day before on PS3, underperformed in the wake of 3DS’s launch.
3DS’s Japanese debut was certainly a success, then, but it felt muted compared to previous hardware launches. But in terms of sales, it has already exceeded the original DS launch. The release of new games over the coming weeks will be crucial to the success of a platform that has so far traded on its technical innovations alone. But that success might equally come from the less explicit potential of the handheld’s networking abilities: as we watch a group of people gathering around one 3DS to admire some recently snapped 3D pictures, a friend calls to tell us of his purchase: “Man, it’s fun to live in Shinjuku! You get tons of data from people around you – I never thought it would be this fun!”