Today has been a big day for people being mad at Nintendo on the internet.
Nintendo of America announced its release plans for the New Nintendo 3DS, the upgraded iteration of its 3DS handheld system. Unlike Japan and Europe, North America is getting just one model of the system: The XL version. The regular-size edition isn't making it over here.
When I first heard the news, my immediate conjecture was that it's a supply constraint thing. Iwata said in the last shareholder meeting that Nintendo had pushed the launch of the New 3DS forward in Japan to boost the sales of the 3DS before they could flag too badly, and my guess is that originally it was planned to roll out even in Japan in 2015, which also explains the very staggered release.
But thinking about it more, I decided that, actually, there's a good chance that U.S. retailers just didn't want the thing.
I've been to Japan a number of times, and often noticed that Japanese retailers love variety -- as compared to the U.S., they stock multiple colors of the same item, and display a wide variety of choices to consumers, even when working with more cramped spaces to do it in.
Over the last couple of years, I've spent a lot of time in German and Italian stores, too, and I've noticed that they offer a wider selection too. Maybe it's not as crazy as Japan, but you can walk into a a big box store like MediaWorld/MediaMarkt (more or less the same thing as Best Buy) or a Coop (Italy's answer to Walmart) and there's just a lot more stuff on the shelves.
I don't know if you've been to a Best Buy recently, but the company seems to actively try to cut down on options for consumers.
The U.S. is a big country; what I've noticed over the years is that this drives retailers to want to simplify, not diversify, their product offerings. The headache of coordinating buys against what's popular all around the country means that only the strongest (or most banal, in some cases) survive, as best as I can tell.
If Walmart said "lol no" to the question "Do you want to stock a 3DS that has a bunch of customizable faceplates?" that alone would pretty much kill the product in the U.S.
So why not make it a retailer exclusive, you ask, like the Monster Hunter 4 New 3DS XL? Or only available at Nintendo.com? My guess is that the volume of units required to make a piece of hardware profitable -- in just one region, since the 3DS is region-locked and has regional variations in the manual and box -- is too high for that.
There's also the consideration that companies like Nintendo have to pay for retailer shelf space -- and making an investment in enough room for all of that stuff may just not be attractive enough, particularly after the huge sums that that must have gone into getting all of those nice Amiibo point-of-purchase touchscreen marketing displays into every big box store in the U.S. That has to be NOA's product priority for 2015. Establishing Amiibo is a must-do; the 3DS is a mature business.
There's also the consideration that the XL is simply much more popular than the regular 3DS unit. So far in 2015, it's outsold the smaller model 2:1 in Japan. We don't have sales data for the U.S., but there's every chance the gap is bigger in North America, particularly with the 2DS in the mix. (Yes, I know the regular-sized 3DS has been dead for awhile; I mean during the period it was widely available.)
From a retailer perspective, a cheapo 2DS (for the kiddies) and a premium New 3DS XL (for the adults) seems like all that it could possibly make sense to offer. From NOA's perspective, I can also see it the same way: A budget model and a "core" model. What more do you need? In a weird way, the 2DS may have killed the regular-sized New 3DS.
Still, I don't know for sure. I can't, of course. Nintendo of America isn't going to say, and I doubt that even if I hammered on the retailers' PR departments I'd get anything usable out of them.
If I have a criticism in this, it's of NOA's PR effort around the announcement. There wasn't any explanation of why North America is the only territory without the regular-sized New 3DS, and the non-answer given Kotaku on the inevitable enquiry was completely predictable.
I took NOA's PR to task over its Tomodachi Life response and I'm going to do so again, and go a bit further: The company doesn't seem to understand the modern communications environment or its core audience.
Meanwhile, in Europe...
I think that Nintendo of America is brilliant at marketing -- in certain contexts. And it's generally getting much savvier in addressing its main fan base with stuff like Nintendo Direct. But it's still missing the concept that the kind of people who care about swappable faceplates and Super Famicom button colors on their 3DS are, in fact, its bread and butter -- not just a tiny sliver of die-hards.
And there's got to be room for a more honest response than no response at all; I'm not asking the company to throw an important retail partner under the bus, but it seems that simpler, more open responses could go a long, long way in the social media age we live in. We've heard this again and again in the game space: Be up-front with your audience. Your fans are too savvy to do otherwise.
I think that the company is far too used to simply selling packaged goods to what it perceives as a broad base of underinformed consumers -- the people who bought N64s for their kids, or who bought the Wii to play Wii Sports and Just Dance. The kind of people who buy New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but not Super Mario Galaxy (check out their comparative sales numbers sometime -- a discrepancy of millions and millions.)
And my suspicion is that a company run with that kind of mentality would have a hard time understanding why the faceplate-baring, multicolored-buttoned New 3DS is attractive to a huge number of people out there in the way that the model it "replaces" just isn't. I know it has the sales data for all its products; I suspect what it lacks is audience insight. And that's a real problem.
The short answer is that there isn't a short answer here, actually.
But my advice to Nintendo of America would be to face up to the situation it has on hand. Yes, it's doing a fair job of weathering the mobile onslaught into what was recently considered its core audience base. But that leaves it with the people who really care about things like Fire Emblem and Zelda as, once again, its main constituency. It's a more nuanced, difficult road to tread for marketers. It's past time to figure out how.