Ready for Launch

The 3DS lands in Japanese consumers' hands this weekend, but how does Nintendo plan to keep its handhelds relevant?

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The launch of a new Nintendo console is always a big event, but the resurgent company's dominance of console sales in recent years has meant that the launch of a new piece of Nintendo hardware marks a major milestone for the games business as a whole. It's to be expected, then, that the eyes of the gaming world will turn to Japan this Saturday when the Nintendo 3DS finally arrives in the hands of eagerly waiting consumers.

Nintendo is undoubtedly gearing up the statistics and press releases already, because for all the frenzied coverage the launch will generate, it's actually a pretty well understood and stage-managed event in many regards. Almost every console launch in recent years has been the "biggest ever" by some measurement, for example, but such statistics are largely meaningless since demand almost always exceeds supply on launch day - meaning that this is an achievement not in terms of sales but in terms of manufacturing.

As such, there's a limit to how much useful information can be gleaned from the launch of a hardware platform. There will be queues, there will be a scramble for units as supply struggles to catch up with demand in the early weeks - but as Nintendo's past successes prove, the console hardware business is a marathon rather than a sprint, and it's the 3DS' ability to sustain a long tail rather than its ability to provoke excitement at launch that will determine the system's ultimate success or failure.

On the ground in Japan, there's no doubt that the 3DS launch is generating a lot of buzz as the day approaches. Pre-orders for the system dried up some weeks ago and less scrupulous consumers are even selling pre-order tickets on auction websites for vastly inflated prices. Some major electronics stores have demo units on display, with large queues forming for a few minutes playtime with the system.

Despite the lack of availability of pre-orders, Nintendo's advertising blitz has not been deterred, with urban centres liberally pasted with ads featuring hugely popular pop group Arashi, who have been the advertising faces of the DS and Wii in Japan for a number of years. Video ads show the group's members playing with the features of the 3DS, including the 3D camera, although it's obvious that the marketing team are still struggling with how, exactly, they should convey the advantages of 3D in an advertising medium that's inherently 2D.

All the signs point to a hugely successful launch. Even if some of the wind was taken out of the 3DS' sails when it was revealed that the software line-up wouldn't include any Nintendo stalwarts such as Mario or Zelda on day one, this really only means that the console will enjoy a massive sales spike when those titles do finally make an appearance. In the meanwhile, the lack of heavy-hitting Nintendo games will probably provide a welcome sales boost for titles such as Capcom's Super Street Fighter IV 3D and Level-5's Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle.

The 3DS' short-term success is guaranteed by a combination of positive factors - strong developer support, high consumer interest thanks to the glasses-free 3D technology, and of course massive inertia for the DS platform as a whole. In the medium term, the company will need to focus on overcoming the aforementioned difficulty of marketing 3D gaming through 2D media - a challenge which it can probably handle by means of getting the device into the hands of consumers in widespread sampling activities and encouraging word of mouth evangelism among users.

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