When Nintendo launched the 3DS a year ago today, there was little evidence the system would enjoy the same success as its predecessor, which ruled the handheld space with its cheap hardware and titles catering to every type of gamer and even non-gamer.
The new portable seemed overpriced at $249, and many doubted its 3D display gimmick would be more compelling than the Virtual Boy's. There were also some who declared the market for dedicated gaming handhelds dead, killed by smartphones and their super cheap games.
And it didn't help that 3DS lacked a crucial Super Mario Bros.
title at launch, or any system-selling software like Wii Sports
. Instead, Nintendo hawked Steel Diver
and Pilotwings Resort
when the 3DS shipped, charging $40 for first-party games that many complained didn't have enough depth to justify the price of entry.
"There are a lot of factors that go into the success of a system, but the biggest factor is software," 5th Cell's creative director Jeremiah Slaczka tells Gamasutra. His studio made a name for itself with hit DS franchises like Scribblenauts
and Drawn to Life
, but it has yet to announce any 3DS projects.
"I am a firm believer that great, compelling games sell systems -- and that's something that the 3DS lacked at launch," says Slaczka. He points out that the original DS suffered the same problem early in its life but was eventually able to reach new heights for Nintendo after key software arrived.
"The first few months after launch weren't very encouraging," adds LucasArts veteran Jens Andersson, who will release painting app Colors! 3D
as a downloadable 3DS title soon. "The 3DS hadn't done as well as we had hoped for, and it felt like it took forever to get the crucial feature that we needed: the eShop."
3DS's fortunes beginning to turn around
While consumers waited for big games and important features to make their way to 3DS, hardware sales floundered in mid-2011. Some publishers like Sega and Natsume even delayed their 3DS releases until those sales picked up, signaling a lack of confidence for the system from third-party companies.
Determined to turn its woes around, Nintendo sought to win over consumers who balked at 3DS's expensive pricing, and to address developers' worries with an aggressive plan last summer that included discounting the portable by a third
to $169 -- an unprecedented markdown for the company.
The platform holder built up more goodwill by rolling out new features with firmware updates, its eShop digital distribution platform, new bundles/color variations, and a steady stream of free games and apps. Then it turned the underdog handheld into a popular holiday purchase with huge releases like Super Mario 3D Land
and Mario Kart 7
"12 months later, it feels like things have fallen into place," says Andersson. "Just like on the original DS, it seems to be building up momentum after a slow start. The 3DS did better than expected over the holidays, and I'm hearing good things from other developers that have shipped titles."
5th Cell's Slaczka comments, "Super Mario 3D Land
and Mario Kart 7
are the types of games that get systems off the shelves and into consumers' hands. Not only is the 3DS outperforming Nintendo's own projections, but it's sold 5 million units faster than any of their other systems have before."
3DS's eShop is a "little gold mine"
While there still aren't many third-party hits for the 3DS at retail, quite a few developers see a lot of potential for the eShop, the handheld's equivalent of Apple's App Store, featuring smaller downloadable games with much cheaper prices than retail releases ($1.99 to $9.99).
"The eShop has also been an exciting thing to witness and be a part of," says Renegade Kid's Jools Watsham. "Pushmo
really kicked things off with a superb title, and with other games like Mighty Switch Force, VVVVVV,
and our very own Mutant Mudds
following suit, the eShop has proven itself to be a worthy place to go for quality games at an affordable price."
Mel Kirk, marketing VP at Zen Studios, adds, "At this point, we really view the eShop as a little gold mine. It seems that a lot of studios have ignored the opportunity and this has provided a very open window for quality content."
His studio recently ported its Zen Pinball
series -- which previously found success on PlayStation Network and the App Store -- to the eShop. That title's performance has prompted it to bring Marvel Pinball 3D
to the platform in a few months, as well as another game based on a new IP this summer.
Even games originally released to Wii's languishing WiiWare platform have enjoyed a warm welcome on the eShop. Shin'en ported 2008's Fun! Fun! Minigolf
to the service earlier this month, and it quickly hit the top of eShop's sales charts in most countries. It's producing two more eShop titles, Art of Balance Touch
and Jett Rocket Super Surf
developer Andersson says, "To me, the eShop is the single most interesting thing... for the 3DS. Not necessarily because we'll see the best games there, but this is where we will see what the platform is made of.
"[It] will show us how Nintendo is different from Apple. The iPhone's eco-system promotes games that can be played in chunks of 5 minutes or less, abandoned without frustration when the phone rings. And that is great, but that also drowns out games that invite deeper engagement. This will not be the case on the 3DS."
3DS's challenges and bright future
Healthy hardware sales, more companies buying into the 3DS, and the rise of the eShop all bode well for the future of the system -- as does Nintendo's strong slate of upcoming exclusive titles Mario Tennis Open, Animal Crossing,
and a new Mario
Third-party publishers also have some promising 3DS releases in the works, like Disney's Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion
and Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts 3D
, along with a number of games announced for only Japan so far but will likely come to the States eventually.
n-Space's creative director Ted Newman, who predicts a hardware redesign for the 3DS featuring two analog pads at some point, is upbeat about the years ahead for the portable: "Lately the 3DS is really hitting its stride which is exciting to see. It seems like every month there's some new must-have game on the shelf with smaller eShop titles filling in the spaces along the way.
"We hope to see this trend continue, with a regular schedule of larger boxed titles that show off the unique capabilities of the system supplemented by an increasing library of smaller downloadable games. If the 3DS can keep up this pace and expand the horizon even further with features like downloadable content and software updates, then the future seems very bright."
Andersson also believes that Nintendo's work establishing the system as a console leader is far from over. "It will take stubborn developers and a Nintendo that puts its innovation talents toward all forms of connected experiences to truly push the 3DS to center stage, but I think it can happen," he says.
"It may not be possible to trump Holiday 2011, but I see a very bright future for the 3DS," adds Watsham. "I think the biggest challenge is going to be convincing more publishers to support the handheld. Nevertheless, Renegade Kid will continue to support the 3DS because we believe in it."