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How 3DS became a massive (and unlikely) success story

"Wii U is dying." "Wii U is dead." "Wii U blah blah woof woof." Yes, the machine is in trouble, but everyone is so quick to criticise and put the boot in while Nintendo is apparently down, they’re forgetting one thing: 3DS is a massive success. And it’s just quietly getting the job done in exemplary fashion.

And really it is against all the supposed odds. I mean, what happened to the handheld-killing mobile phone game scene? Yes, everybody still plays their mobiles when they have a few minutes spare, but the 'no need to buy a dedicated handheld' thinking that was supposed to end Nintendo's reign has totally failed to materialise. Gotta love the analysts.

In fact, iOS and Android weren’t even the main obstacles for early sales of the system. There were two far bigger reasons for consumers staying well away: namely the price and a lack of games. Two clear problems that Nintendo identified... and deftly fixed. Highly controversially in the case of the former, as the early price drop looked like a massive middle finger to the early adopters. But it was a masterstroke.

Dropping the price by almost £100/$100 (depending on where you bought it) brought the console down in to the ‘affordable’ bracket for parents looking for gifts for their children. And even the early adopters were rewarded with a decent selection of GBA and NES games, thanks to the ‘Ambassador Program’ that went some way toward compensating them for the apparent insult.

What Nintendo did next was extremely clever. Having dropped the price of the handheld so low, profits were likely tiny or non-existent. Just look at the gamz jarnalsim-heavy story I wrote about the wholesale price of the initial units for proof of that. But having taken that hit in getting the console into more gamers’ hands, word of mouth began to spread. This machine is special.

So your product is selling well but you’re not making any money. What do you do? Cut your variable costs. Best way to do that is with a new SKU. And so we were very quickly introduced to Nintendo 3DS XL. Sure, it looked different and had that old angle of ‘great for older people because the screen’s bigger', but it immediately became the main unit that Nintendo promoted. Why? Because it’s undoubtedly cheaper to make than the old model.

Just compare the feel of the buttons and the quality of the finish to the initial pearlescent 3DS. Cheap, flat-toned plastic case, slightly clunky buttons… it’s the polar opposite of the deluxe-feeling upgrade that DS Lite introduced over the original DS ‘Phat’. It doesn’t even have a significantly better battery.

Instead of using the model to iron out the original unit’s few shortcomings, Nintendo used it as a replacement unit so they could continue their original plan at the reduced price while still making money. For 3DS XL was more expensive than the original model’s revised RRP. Very clever.

Around this time, the console’s problem of a lack of games was also solved with around 6 high-quality releases. The likes of Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7, and--to a lesser extent--Luigi's Mansion 2 and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D all have that traditional Nintendo first-party gloss and appeal. There was a free game if you bought three of an amazing selection, then Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Pokemon X/Y arrived and the 3DS simply wasn’t in trouble any more. The turnaround was complete.

Since then, with the exception of 2DS (again cutting costs with its single screen under the lid and cheap plastic feel), which made it easier to sell the machine to parents concerned for the health of their children’s eyes, the machine has gone rather quiet. We’ve seen some mis-steps in terms of games like Yoshi's New Island, but the library is sufficiently large now that most newcomers can buy the system and play for years before running out of great games.

The 3DS release schedule is undoubtedly quiet because Nintendo’s internal teams are frantically preparing quality new software for Wii U, but the job’s basically been done now. 3DS game sales in 2013 were 45% higher than in 2012. The momentum is there. The system is a success now no matter what happens. The addition of MiiVerse is only going to help advertise software virally, and as time goes on the cost of the units might even come down again, putting the console into the hands of even more gamers. Success breeds success.

In hindsight, it’s a shining example of business nous. Let me put on my 'business speak' hat so I can say: "Maximising penetration via a loss leader while minimising damage to long-term goodwill and customer loyalty, before revising the product to maximise profits while successfully marketing the revision as something even existing owners should ‘upgrade’ to was genius". Hat off again. In other words, the 3DS crisis management strategy was brilliant and worked perfectly. Which is why I can’t believe the same company is struggling so hard with Wii U.

The only thing left now for that console is to slash its price to under £100 or $100. There’s no other way it can succeed. But look! Yet again, the article has come back to Wii U. It’s 3DS I want to champion. It's a beautiful, joyous machine, full of great (and fundamentally nice) games and experiences, with fantastic social gameplay built right in.

It’s become one of the best game consoles ever made, yet I feel like the gaming world is forgetting about it, probably because the world loves to criticise. Perhaps barring its less-than-ideal battery life, there’s not much wrong with this little beauty at all. It’s exactly how gaming should be and it's great to see that sell so well. I say 'bravo' to all concerned.

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16 comments

  • db1331 - March 28, 2014 8:54 a.m.

    It was priced too high at launch and had no games (Sound familiar, WiiU?). I think I got the Ocarina bundle for $180 in a Black Friday deal. Now that was a bargain. It does have some great games. A Link Between Worlds is one of the best games I've played in the last few years, period. That being said, I still never touch my 3DS if I could be playing my PC or PS3 instead. I got A Link Between Worlds on release day. I didn't finish it until 2-3 weeks ago, because I only played it while using the bathroom or when trying to fall asleep. The 3DS is great, but it absolutely cannot compete with any other system in my house. Even my Wii still gets more use, even though it hasn't been used for anything but Netflix in about two years.
  • Swedish_Chef - March 27, 2014 3:15 a.m.

    Honestly at this point I'd argue that between the big 3 companies the 3DS isn't just the best handheld system on the market right now, but the best system FULL STOP.
  • shawksta - March 26, 2014 11:11 a.m.

    Hey Justin, Sonic Lost World just showed its Zelda DLC, im guessing you and Henry are about to have a 90's crisis :P
  • GR_JustinTowell - March 26, 2014 2:33 p.m.

    Haha it never stops, does it? :)
  • Jackonomics2.0 - March 26, 2014 8:15 p.m.

    I just checked that shit, what the fuck Sega, Open World, no timer, exploration, this is what Lost World Should've been.
  • shawksta - March 26, 2014 10:59 a.m.

    Indeed it was, it become bigger each year and soon because amazing. Here's hoping Nintendo can find something with the Wii U, whether its more gamepad centric games, more third parties or whatever is in their crazy out of left field idea. Its just hard to see them cut the price of the Wii U because of the Tablet and even then you cant just take out the tablet.
  • universaltofu - March 26, 2014 10:24 a.m.

    I bought in last year, happy so far, but the VC is insulting, and they could start announcing some more games for it.
  • shawksta - March 26, 2014 11 a.m.

    "WHAT? YOU WANT GBA GAMES ON THE WII U FIRST? OKAY!"
  • universaltofu - March 26, 2014 noon

    Please understand.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - March 26, 2014 7:22 p.m.

    My.guess is they are stalling as long as possible to make.the early adopters feel special about their GBA games.
  • Pruman - March 26, 2014 10:14 a.m.

    I scoffed HARD at the 3DS when it was new. Just take a look at my post history on this site. I didn't see the value of shelling out 300 bucks, plus an extra 40 bucks a pop, to play prettier versions of games I enjoyed during the Clinton administration. Also, pushing 3D at a time when 3D in pop culture was already on the decline seemed like a dumb move to me. Then, a year after it came out, my wife got me one for my birthday along with Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, and my interest was piqued. Then I started collecting StreetPasses in Boston, and became a fan. Then Fire Emblem: Awakening, which I consider the best portable turn-based tactics game ever, hit a few months later, and I ate my words. Now I consider it one of my favorite systems of all time. It's like the opposite of how I feel about the 360, which I loved at first and then grew to despise as Micro$oft's focus shifted away from games.
  • Jackonomics2.0 - March 26, 2014 9:51 a.m.

    It has no competition except Sony who gave up and decided to make the Ps vita a PS4 add on. I remember even you guys had articles storming the Nintendoom with "Is Nintendo in trouble?" Back in the 3DS days Maybe will turn it around like the Wii U, but its probably not, Nintendo consoles are almost always exclusives machines, we just need more exclusives and they'll be on their way eventually. Hell, despicable sites are now getting tired of the Wii U that they need to feed their thirst for Nintendoom by trying to find shit to fling on the 3DS like how it'll never compare to the DS's sales and region locking and other shit.
  • pl4y4h - March 26, 2014 8:27 a.m.

    Yea, I did use to think that it was a waste of time, but all those GAMES thooooooooo
  • BladedFalcon - March 26, 2014 6:46 a.m.

    Yeah, I'll be the first to admit I was one of the naysayers of the 3DS, coming down hard on the console for it's first year, which DID suck rather hard. But they truly did turn it around, and by 2012, I recognized the system had changed enough for the better, and I got myself one as well ^^ I suppose I can't discount the same still being able to happen for the WII U... But it does feel harder to believe Nintendo can turn it around here, specially since the 3DS turn around happened within it's first year. The Wii U's been out for almost a year and a half, and I don't see any signs slashed price or surge of games (first and third party, which was what the 3DS had going for it) coming out any time soon.
  • rainn'sgaydar - March 26, 2014 7:04 a.m.

    Have to agree. It doesn't help that the Wii U's home console market is much more competitive too. The Vita had basically the same problems as the 3DS, sans brilliant business strategy to bring it back. PS4/XBO present a much bigger challenge to the Wii U, unfortunately. Not that I'm completely counting Nintendo out though, of course.
  • BladedFalcon - March 26, 2014 8:59 a.m.

    Pretty much, yeah. I mean, there's also the fact that unlike with home consoles, Nintendo does have the support of most third party developers for their portable systems, which is a HUGE advantage that the Wii U won't seem to have, just like none of the Nintendo home consoles have had since the N64.

Showing 1-16 of 16 comments

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