Getting It Wrong

The DS is the UK's most successful console. How did we all get it so wrong?

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If there's one commodity which the games industry isn't lacking in, it's pundits. The launch of every new product brings with it a flurry of comment, from the well-considered to the flatly biased, spouted from the mouths and keyboards of everyone from highly paid analysts through established journalists to prolific forum posters and bloggers. There's an ocean of opinion out there, although to be honest, you probably wouldn't want to swim in most of it.

For professional commentators - be they financial analysts or writers, and including yours truly - this week marks one of our more egregious and shameful failures. It's a week when we should all, by rights, be standing up at our Pundits Anonymous meeting and admitting that we all, almost without exception, got the most important console launch of the past decade wrong. Some got it more wrong than others, certainly - but in the cold light of day, I struggle to think of a single well-known industry commentator who called the Nintendo DS correctly.

The reason this week is important, of course, is because this is the week when the figures confirmed what we'd all expected for several months. The DS' installed base in the UK has bypassed the PlayStation 2. On this sceptered isle, at least, it's the most popular console in history. One in six people owns them - an extraordinary figure, even allowing for the fact that some people own more than one model.

If you can cast your mind back to the time period when the Nintendo DS was announced, it's probably with a mild sense of embarrassment - because in the pundits' defence, almost everyone else was lining up to heap scorn on the DS. The heir to the Game Boy it may have been, but quite frankly it looked mental. It was ugly and plastic-looking, with a bizarre two-screen configuration and, most peculiar of all, a stylus - something more familiar to users of PDAs like the Palm Pilot than to gamers. Worst of all, it was underpowered, we thought - on a par with the ancient N64 rather than with more modern home consoles.

The contrast with Sony's all-singing, all-dancing PlayStation Portable couldn't have been more obvious. Touted as a PlayStation 2 magically shrunk down into a sleek, glossy package, with a gorgeous widescreen display and convention console-style controls, the PSP felt like the device of the future. The markets agreed - Nintendo's stock plummeted as shareholders abandoned ship, convinced that the company had just made a fatal misstep. In bars across Los Angeles on that E3 week of its unveiling, journalists and industry execs alike slurped mojitos and quietly questioned whether new Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata had lost his marbles.

In retrospect, this all seems quite funny - and it's also mostly forgivable, given the information which we had to work with. Everyone knew that gaming was slowly becoming more mainstream, but few people within the bubble of the industry quite understood the critical mass which had been reached in the preceding years. The Nintendo DS, in retrospect, wasn't just a great product with extraordinary potential - which most of us failed to see - it was also exactly the right product at the right time. There was a mass of people ready to try out gaming - they just needed the right hardware and software to tip them over the edge.

Which, of course, leads on to that other factor in the DS' success - the factor which was genuinely invisible to us in Los Angeles that week. Equipped with Nintendo's usual line-up, the DS would have been a moderate success, since even upstream gamers quickly started to appreciate the console's unique attributes, leading to a variety of hugely successful core games on the diminutive device. However, Nintendo's true masterstroke wasn't the hardware alone - it was the leveraging of that hardware to deliver experiences which stretch the definition of games (leaving us toying with that unwieldy mouthful, "interactive entertainment") but which tapped in perfectly to the mindset of new consumers for whom the definition of "game" was less important than simply doing something fun and rewarding.

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