How the huge 3DS price drop rounds off Nintendo's worst-run launch since the Virtual Boy

The marketing has been an unremitting shambles

It seemed that after five years successfully coasting along on Wii and DS hardware sales by way of vague, aspirational lifestyle marketing to the casual demographic, Nintendo had forgotten how to sell to the core gamer. As such, the first few months of the 3DS' marketing have been a disaster. Nintendo finally had another competetively -specced machine on its hands. It had a software philosophy angled back towards real games. It had stunning home-console-quality graphics, a proper analogue stick, and a downloadable legacy catalogue of long-revered Nintendo games on the way. Okay, 3D was always going to be a hard sell in resolutely 2D TV adverts, but as we said frequently in the office after the system's big reveal, with everything it has going for it, that 3D is just the icing on the top of a seriously seductive game-cake.

Above: This is not what we wanted, nor is it what the 3DS needed

Unfortunately, Nintendo didn't seem to realise that, and so continued its Wii-style marketing approach of focusing on gimmicks and happy smiley lifestyle droids. But this time the gimmick was impossible to sell without hands-on experience, making it a rather useless tool in a TV marketing offensive. Regardless, we got more footage of people in sterile white environments grinning and whopping. We got months of ads focusing on a new variant of Nintendogs, a game the casuals those ads were aimed at had played to death six years previous.

There was no mention of extra horsepower. There was no mention of the new machine's focus. There was no mention of any of the games that had made this system matter at E3. But the biggest mistake Nintendo made was in not noticing the dangerous situation it had already set up for itself via the precedent it had built with incremental DS hardware upgrades. DS. DS Lite. DSi. DSi XL. By now the public was conditioned to new, slightly tweaked versions of the five-year-old hardware popping up with a couple of newletters in theirmarginally new names. Nintendo had taught them that a slight name modification meant the same machine you already owned with a couple of extra bells and whistles. So to release the 3DS, withessentially thesame naming model as every incremental last-gen DS before it, without drawing attention to any selling points beyond the simple bell-whistle of 3D, was a disastrous move.

Above: This is what we wanted, and it is what the 3DS needed

It was completely unsurprising to me that after the initial early-adoption spurt (driven, as usual, by core Nintendo gamers, who were by definition already clued-up on the new machine's capabilities), the expanded market the DS and Wii had enjoyed just didn't see any reason to pick one up. There are a stack of brilliant reasons to own a 3DS, but Nintendo just didn't seem interested in letting anyone know about them. And as it continued, things got even worse. We got 3DS ads intermingled with an ongoing campaign for the DSi. We got as many, if not more, ads focusing on Layton, Dragon Quest and Art Academy (itself confusingly marketed as a cool new DS innovation), so is it any wonder that so many people are clueless to the fact that the 3DS is anything genuinely new and exciting at all?

It seems that Nintendo has finally wised up to this failing, five months later. A new ad campaign started this week in the UK, doing exactly what Nintendo should have done from day one. It uses enthusiastic voice-over from geek-messiah Simon Pegg. It focuses on games, more games, and nothing but games. It has non-stop gameplay footage. It emphasises the horsepower and graphics. It even makes a point of highlighting the analogue nub. There are no sterile environments and no vacuously-smiling faces. In short, it's a proper Nintendo advert straight out of the early 2000s. It's pretty much perfect. So if Nintendo knows exactly who this machine's strengths appeal to, and exactly how to communicate those strengths, why did it waste so much time until this point?

The Zelda fallacy

Nintendo put too much weight on Ocarina of Time 3D. Yes, OoT has one of the most glittering reputations in the business. Yes, this new version is the definitive version of one of the most loved games of all time, at least amongst Nintendo fans. But expecting the promise of its release to be enough to keep the core audience best suited to the 3DS happily waiting through several months of confused, casual marketing and a sparse release schedule was just too much.

Had Ocarina 3D been the centrepiece of a long-running, core-focused marketing campaign, it would have worked perfectly. If Nintendo had set up a whole string of the Pegg-voiced ads to run from launch, intermingling the current hardware overview spot with specific ads focusing on the best current and upcoming games, it would have been a winner. If the ongoing campaign had built up to a week-long media-spam focusing on an ebullient Shaun of the Dead geeking out over Zelda, the first few months of the 3DS' life could have been very different.

But as with many things relating to the 3DS, Nintendo borked the opportunity, and as itsown financial reportadmits, Zelda ended up just being one of the better-selling games of a line-up with few genuine big-hitters. If you're launching a new machine there are a few things you need to do. You need to decide who your machine is for. You need to work out the best way to appeal to their mind-set and culture, and work out which features are going to be most appealing to them. You need to establish a brand, identity, personality and philosophy around your system that resonates with that audience. And you need to maintain it with consistency, focus and a constant string of rewarding experiences.

So far with the 3DS, Nintendo has implied an intention to do all of that, but executed it in such a half-arsed, muddled fashion that it now finds itself looking upon a blown-off foot-stump and a smoking bazooka and wondering what the hell happened. Let's hope this week's marketing shift and price drop is the start of a major period of wising up. The 3DS could be brilliant. On a hardware level, the 3DS is brilliant. The last thing I want to see is it drowned in the choppy waters of a messy launch.

July 28, 2011

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.