Yet the these experiments were always on the periphery, never a core part of the experience being sold to the majority of the audience. The DS represents a change, the first time that a truly unique gameplay experience is at the forefront of a systems core design.
The N64 might stand out against its rivals from its era due to its reluctance to abandon cartridges and notably its notoriously unique controller which could he held in different positions depending on the gameplay. But at its core it was still offering essentially the same type of experiences as its rivals. Again the GameCube might superficially seem different to the PS2 and Xbox, but still engaged players in the same way.
When the DS was first announced, it was not revealed as the successor to the hugely successful Game Boy series of handhelds, but what Nintendo referred to as the “third pillar” in their lineup, designed to complement the GameCube and the latest iteration of the Game Boy (the Game Boy Micro). This move has been attributed by some as potential damage limitation, as despite being happy with what they had created, Nintendo were still unsure over the commercial viability of the DS. Touch screens were still rare and were often considered to be ineffective control mechanisms, especially for video games. Furthermore there was some concern over the dual screen nature of the system.
With the DS being positioned as separate to the Game Boy Nintendo were cushioning the brand from the potential failure of the DS, so if needs be they could write off the DS as an experiment and go back to redeveloping the Game Boy. However it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the system that had those outside Nintendo concerned, as Sony had now announced their intention to enter the handheld market with the PlayStation Portable (PSP), which was to be considerably more powerful, providing PS2 level graphics on the go, something many people supposedly wanted.
Many (wrongly as it would turn out) predicted that, like they had done with home consoles, Sony would now dominate the handheld market as well. However despite Sony’s best intentions the PSP, whilst no means a failure, never came close to beating Nintendo at their own game. To the surprise of analysts, and to a certain extent Nintendo themselves, the DS became a runaway success. Despite a modest start, in part due to Nintendo’s cautious release of the system, it continued to gain momentum, and within three years had sold over 50 million units, making it the fastest selling handheld system of all time.
What led to its massive success was due to the combination of hardware, software, and clever marketing. The unique hardware and new ways for players to interact with the system meant that new types of games could be created to accommodate this. The new software that emerged were games like Brain Age and Nintendogs (also a more user friendly version of Animal Crossing). These games were subsequently marketed to those who weren’t usually catered for in the video game market, no longer were big marketing pushes just aimed at young males. These games were marketed to a cross-section of society often ignored.
Whilst the traditional market was by no means saturated, it was difficult to expand it further. Yet there were other audiences that were untapped, which Nintendo could now cater to due to accessibility that the DS provided. By being more inclusive Nintendo was able to dramatically increase its sales by selling to those who had previously not engaged in playing video games.
Having provided a system that also supported Game Boy Advance games made it more attractive to those who had already bought into the Nintendo ecosystem and also provided it with a pre-existing library. This also meant that for those new to video games now had an opportunity to try out some of the past games that they might have missed out on.
The approach taken by Nintendo regarding the DS paid off better than anyone had anticipated, and this likely had a big impact on Nintendo when it came to the later stages of development of the Wii, but also how to market it. The Wii might have represented Nintendo’s big push of motion controls, the impact of which reverberated around the industry, but it was not the first time they had released games utilising motion controls, and was something that Nintendo had been experimenting with for some time.
The difference this time was that now Nintendo knew that could sell games to masses, for they found a way to reduce the barriers of entry which have put off many from participating; the abundance of buttons. Although like with the DS the right software is needed; Wii Sports took the simplicity of interaction that began with the DS and streamlined it even further.
That is not to say that Nintendo abandoned “traditional” games, as the DS had a large and diverse range of software available for it, and despite the success of the more accessible games, Mario Kart DS was one of the best-selling games for the system with over 20 million units sold. This was a game that effectively utilised the graphical capabilities of the system, whilst also taking advantage of the second screen for the map and player positions to clear up space on the top screen. In addition was customisation using the touch screen, as well as Nintendo’s largest push into online multiplayer; something each subsequent Mario Kart entry has expanding upon but still reminiscent of that first move online.
Unfortunately for Nintendo they have to a certain extent become a victim of their own success. With the innovation provided by the DS and later the Wii, Nintendo opened the doors to non-traditional video game players, whilst at first this worked well for Nintendo, as no one else were doing so (nor were they capable), but in the years since with the growth of touch devices and fatigue of motion control that audience has moved elsewhere.
This does not mean that Nintendo is doomed, but it is the reason why many analysts are worried for they seem unable to disassociate Nintendo with the type of games that made them successful, which are now available on mobile devices. Nintendo realised the transition of the market that was taking place and has since shifted its focus back to the more “traditional” games; although that does not mean that it has abandoned the experimental nature as it has expanded upon concepts it has been experimenting with for many years.
Nintendo possibly hoped that there would be enough brand loyalty to help drive some initial success for their current handheld the 3DS, in addition to the incorporation of glasses free 3D which Nintendo had been experimenting with since development of the GameCube and Luigi’s Mansion. Unfortunately for Nintendo the 3DS name caused more confusion with those outside the core market thinking it was another iteration or an add-on rather than a brand new system. Along with the dismal sales of Sony’s latest handheld has further given claim to analyst’s negative predictions.
Thankfully Nintendo being Nintendo has since done what it does best and developed some of its best games in recent years, which have helped drive sales. Whilst it is unlikely to ever reach the lofty heights of the DS, it had just beaten the lifetime sales of the GBA in Japan and continues to dominate hardware sales in the country. The same can’t quite be said for the West, but is still making commendable sales in a market that supposedly no longer exists.
The video game market is not straightforward, and is very Darwinistic in nature, many former great companies have either left entirely or are a husk of their former self. Nintendo isn’t going anywhere yet (it managed to build a large enough war chest from the success of the DS and Wii), and can continue to do what it considers is right for them. Even though the 3DS and WiiU are both concentrating on games for the core market, they are experimenting with aspects outside of normal video games and looking at how to incorporate the concept entertainment as way to prop up its video game business. Iwata recently stated during an investor talk that relying solely on video games could damage Nintendo as a whole in the long run and by focusing on things outside of this could result in a stronger company.
Things like Amiibo (IFC enabled figures that interact with certain games) could take off in a big way and bring in extra income whilst still supporting the core business. The other major experiment is in regards to what Nintendo is calling “Quality of Life” or QOL. Nintendo are getting involved in the health business, but unlike most companies they are focusing on non-wearables. The aim is to be able to make this entertaining possibly via gamification, whether this would interact with current or future Nintendo consoles is still unknown. However the DS proved to Nintendo and the world that it is possible to do something completely different and to use what Nintendo refers to as its “blue ocean strategy” in which it does not directly compete against its competitors. Without the DS Nintendo would not be the company that it is today, it has always evolved to survive and once again is on the cusp of another transition.