Opinion: All wardrobe and no Narnia

Opinion: All wardrobe and no Narnia

Last week was big for 3DS. On Tuesday, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot suggested that, despite a recent emphasis on price, the fate of the handheld would ultimately depend on the quality of software they can bring to market. "I think it's a question of coming with enough games [more] than the price. For sure the price was too high and it was a big boost when they changed it, it really was a good idea… For sure there are competitors – iPhone and all the other machines – but it will depend eventually on software. If the software is good, it should do well."

Guillemot's remarks coincided with similar sentiments from Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime who, speaking to Brazilian website UOL Jogos on Thursday, argued similarly that the device's lacklustre performance thus far came down to a lack of quality titles: "Looking back, maybe we did not have the best lineup of games on 3DS. It is also important that the digital resources are available right away. With 3DS, these came after.

"And that's why sales were not so good, which forced us to make some drastic decisions and reduce the price. Since we did it … our sales have been very good. And we have high expectations for the 3DS this Christmas."

Finally, and in spite of all these sobering lessons, the launch of Mario 3D Land in Japan saw sales of the console jump over 100 per cent in the first week of November.

The sharks have been circling Nintendo's 3D handheld ever since the price cut first put the taste of blood into the water. But it seems, thanks to the price cut along with encouraging numbers from Japan, that the supertanker is indeed turning and hopefully in time for the holidays.

Experiences, not technology

It all points in one direction – to the immutable law that software sells hardware. Or, to re-frame with a touch more empathy, that people buy experiences rather than technology.

This is a lesson that the traditional hardware players seem to keep learning the hard way. It was Sony and Microsoft's inability to obey this law that saw Wii shoot to success on the basis of intuitive elegance while 360 and PS3 obsessed over the number of horizontal lines they could squeeze on to a screen.

Even Sony and Microsoft's motion control offerings have struggled to find a unique place in the hearts and minds of gamers, forced to imitate the conventions Nintendo invented with with me-too software line-ups and unambitious family-fun advertising.

Particularly telling was Microsoft's choice of advertising tagline, "You are the controller". The reality is that no one cares about controllers of any kind. And though a focus group respondent may say that the controller is a barrier, what they are really telling you is that they don't understand the arbitration between themselves and the experience, which is what they ultimately care about. Telling people they are now the controller doesn't necessarily solve this problem – particularly if they aren't consciously aware of it in the first place.

The irony is that it took Kinect's users to show Microsoft their error in emphasis. The hacking community demonstrated that this was in fact a remarkable piece of technology with the power to do remarkable things. It is now those remarkable things that forms the basis of Microsoft's current Kinect brand advertising.

The new ad dramatises (often fancifully, I admit) many of the unintended but inspiring uses of the device and just about none of which pertains to gaming.

In retrospect, the under-utilised line "Xbox, play" and very simple use of gestures form a much more exciting proposition that "You are the controller" because they let you see and imagine an entirely new, better relationship between yourself and the things you already care about.

Why care about 3D?

And now, despite once being the bastion of user-centric design, Nintendo appears to have very nearly fallen on its own sword.

3DS' initial advertising, at least in the UK, was interesting. Showing very genuine, human reactions to the 3D rather than relying on lazy metaphors of stuff jumping from the screen was inspired and in keeping with the idea that it is never the technology but what it does to people that is compelling. But what it didn't address, critically, was what it was in 3D that they should care about.

Even if you sell 3D in principle, there still needs to be something else at the other end that people actually want and would perhaps want irrespective of the presence of 3D. Nintendo will have been hoping that existing DS owners would upgrade, but 3DS offers few strong reasons to fork out additional £250 for the privilege. And, when they can buy decent casual games for under £2 on increasingly ubiquitous smartphones, those reasons need to be pretty potent.

3D could have clinched the deal if Nintendo had nailed its software and online elements. Unfortunately, it was all wardrobe and no Narnia.

This kind of myopia happens to plenty of companies that have engineering of some kind at their cores. It often requires management or marketing to pull things back to the customer and to remind the organisation that technology is only ever a means to an end. Fils-Amie's words along with Xbox's new advertising – even Sony's cantina ad, coming at it from a different angle – demonstrate that the focus is slowly shifting towards showing people things they might actually care about and that technology is only ever the gateway to those things.