In other words, there's enough confusion in the market right now between the DS and the 3DS that it's actually causing consumers to buy the wrong software - and often enough for it to have become a problem for retailers. That's entirely unsurprising, actually, given the nature of many of the responses I've heard to the system in conversations. There's a surprisingly broad perception that the 3DS is a simple upgrade to the DS, adding 3D to the device in the same way that the DS LL added a bigger screen and the DSi added a camera - but still being essentially the same hardware underneath.
"I don't really care about the 3D stuff so I'll just keep playing on my DS" is a common line - followed by genuine surprise at the discovery that they won't be able to put 3DS carts in their existing DS. I should clarify that the lion's share of conversations like this I've had have been with Japanese men in their twenties, so it's not like we're talking about people alien to Nintendo's products here.
Why has this occurred? How has Nintendo allowed the launch of a new console, a successor to one of the most successful pieces of consumer hardware in history, to get so confused that many consumers don't even realise it's happened? The answer is simple - the company, buoyed by the immense success of the DS, wanted to hang on to that brand. Not only did it stick with the DS name, it also stuck with the form factor (almost exactly so), the game packaging, and much of the branding. Here in Japan, it even kept the same celebrities in its advertising campaigns. Who can blame consumers - especially those in the more casual, less engaged audience that the DS so successfully cultivated - for thinking this is just another DSi-esque hardware revision?
"Who can blame consumers for thinking this is just another DSi-esque hardware revision?"
Does this litany of problems sound familiar? If so, it's because it's a script which was repeated in Los Angeles this week. The Wii U doesn't just retain the name of its predecessor, it also hangs on to the brand identity. It goes even further than the 3DS, in fact - like 3DS, the console hardware looks very similar to the previous system, but in the case of Wii U, it also uses Wii controller hardware as a core part of its experience. Consumers will see a console called "Wii U", which looks almost exactly like a Wii, and is controlled with Wiimotes, and sports many of the same game franchises - and what will they think, other than "oh, this is a new bolt-on for my Wii"?
Nintendo would argue that this is no different to what Sony and Microsoft do - that they're simply using the DS and Wii brands in the same way that PlayStation and Xbox are used. This isn't the case, however. Each time Sony or Microsoft launch a new system under those brands, they redefine the brand substantially - vastly overhauling the logo and the design of the hardware, and using enormous marketing campaigns to emphasise the difference of the new system from the old, not its similarity.
Besides, the reason why Sony and Microsoft use those brands is simple - it's because they're the only gaming brands they've got. Sony is a consumer electronics brand. Microsoft is a corporate software brand. It was a necessity for them to create separate brands for gaming. Nintendo, on the other hand, already owns one of the most globally recognisable and valuable brands in gaming - "Nintendo". It can retain all of the goodwill and recognition it built with Wii and DS simply through its own corporate name, an advantage which Sony and Microsoft lack.
Yet instead, Nintendo wants to cling to the name and identity of its recent successes. It's an obvious move, but I suspect that it's a very bad one. Spending the first year of its new hardware launches trying to explain to consumers what it's selling is going to be a millstone around the company's neck. It's hard to see how the remaining power of the DS and Wii brands is going to counterbalance that - not when the firm could just be exploiting the power of its own name instead.
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