3DS heats up competish in mobile games

For the past four years, Nintendo and Apple have been grappling for control of the mobile gaming market — but last month, the stakes got higher.

The 3DS, a handheld system that presents games in stereoscopic 3D without glasses, hit shelves March 27, representing one of Nintendo’s biggest bets in years. And early indications are it was a winning one.

The company won’t release detailed data until later this month but says U.S. day-one sales for the 3DS were higher than for any previous Nintendo handheld system. (One fan even waited five days in line to be the first in the country to buy one.) In Europe, Nintendo says it sold 303,000 units during its opening weekend — just 7% shy of the Wii’s opening weekend numbers.

Hot products are nothing new to Apple, of course. The launch of the iPad 2 saw people lining up for blocks for several days, and anticipation is already building for the iPhone 5, which fans hope to see later this year.

The two companies have different stakes at risk, but they’re both fighting for eyeballs. For Apple, gamers who migrate to the inexpensive, bite-sized titles of the App Store can be converted to regular customers of iTunes — and likely be convinced to upgrade their equipment on a regular basis (generally every 18 months or so). For Nintendo, players who embrace the deeper gameplay experience of $40 3DS games will keep cash flowing at one of the industry’s oldest videogame companies.

The numbers are huge on both sides of the battlefield. Apple has sold more than 160 million iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. Nintendo sold 144 million of its previous generation system, the Nintendo DS.

Games and flames

With those sorts of numbers comes plenty of trash talk.

In 2009, Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior VP of worldwide product marketing, boasted, “Once you play a game on the iPod touch, you think, Hey, (the DS and PSP) aren’t so cool any more…”A year later, Steve Jobs claimed that the iPod Touch accounted for half of the portable gaming market — a highly dubious declaration, even if you were to add in all other iOS devices.

Nintendo, meanwhile, recently accused Apple and other smart phone makers of encouraging shovelware. i.e., games that lack quality but help beef up a system’s catalog.

Satoru Iwata, global president of Nintendo, has been a vocal critic of low-quality games (Daily Variety, March 23). He has gone so far as to say that quality doesn’t matter to some game developers, who only care about selling their titles in large numbers.

“(We must) focus on a single question: Is maintaining high quality games a priority or not,” said Iwata. “We are looking at two distinct sides of the videogame business. … The fact is: What we produce has value and we should protect that value.”

While the companies have tried hard to differentiate themselves from each other, the introduction of 3D into the mix is the biggest distinguishing factor yet.

For Nintendo, which has toyed with 3D since the mid-’90s, the ability to play without glasses was critical. It’s so convinced that glasses are a barrier to the consumer, in fact, that the company says it does not expect to include 3D in its successor to the Wii.

“At least currently, with multiple views, you’re back to dealing with those damned glasses,” said Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime. “We believe the handheld experience is a killer application. At some point, 3D in the home may be a killer application, but that’s some time away.”

Apple hasn’t shown a lot of interest in 3D on portable devices, but it’s not ignoring the technology — and it seems to agree with Nintendo’s assessment about glasses. Late last year, the company was granted a patent on a method of projecting 3D images that could be perceived without glasses.

The system, which (if the company ever uses it) seems designed for the home market, uses a projector that allows multiple people to watch from a variety of angles.

Group loops

3D may be the eye-grabbing headline for the 3DS, but it’s in the online multiplayer arena where Nintendo may find itself in a real dogfight with Apple.

For the vast majority of app games, the experience is a single-player one. Traditionally, that has been true of Nintendo handheld games as well, but with the 3DS, the company is making some changes.

A deal with AT&T gives 3DS users free access to that company’s Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, putting it on even footing with iOS devices that can use their carrier’s hotspots.

Nintendo has also made it easier to compete with friends by tying friend lists to the console rather than to individual games.

Apple, though, is right on its heels. The number of multiplayer apps is growing, and some show promise for a robust multiplayer experience on iDevices. (Leading this pack is Spacetime Studios’ “Pocket Legends,” which has created a persistent world players can explore.)

GameCenter isn’t entirely universal, but it’s an easy way for iGamers to at least compare scores with others. It competes, though, with several other third-party matchmaking services, like Open Feint and GameSpy. And because there isn’t a single place for gamers to find their friends (and to play against strangers they need to keep track of several logins), multiplayer is still in the formative stages for iOS devices.

Dash for cash

Nintendo execs have been pretty vociferous in their criticism of Apple’s apps. Most of the iOS games, the company has said, are not immersive experiences — and often show a lack of craftsmanship.

The key to winning the handheld wars, it maintains, is a rich stable of titles.

“You win with great content, and we’re fortunate to have great franchises like ‘Mario,’ like ‘Zelda,’ like ‘Donkey Kong.’ All of these great franchises really motivate consumers to buy the software,” said Fils-Aime earlier this year.

Apple’s not crowing about its game lineup. And it’s not even concentrating its pitch directly on the big name game publishers (a wise move, since the iPhone’s biggest games — like “Angry Birds” and “Doodle Jump” — have come from small shops). Instead, it’s targeting developers’ wallets.

During the iPad 2 unveiling in March, Steve Jobs barely mentioned videogames (ignoring the industry’s annual Game Developers Conference, which was happening across the street). He did, however, point out that Apple has paid out over $2 billion to developers for selling their apps on iDevices.

Apple and Nintendo are bound to keep slugging it out in their passive-aggressive way. (Neither likes to name the other, even when questioned directly.) But there’s an ironic twist to this war of words: It’s entirely possible the companies aren’t even chasing the same audience.

The battle between the two companies (and, technically, Sony as well, as that company will launch its next generation portable system later this year) is, in some ways, a mirror of the console wars. It’s easy to look at the current generation as a three-way fight, but in actuality Microsoft and Sony are fighting for the core gamer audience, while Nintendo creates a new category that core players occasionally explore.

“A lot has happened in the games industry, and there has been tremendous growth in the audience,” said Billy Pidgeon, senior analyst of M2 Research. “Initially, people thought that meant there was a larger audience for the traditional model — packaged goods and dedicated gaming handhelds — but it worked out that many of those people don’t self-identify as gamers. And I don’t really see that group being a winning proposition for dedicated game machines.”

While there is some crossover, which means some competition, the iDevices generally cater to a slightly different audience than the core community Nintendo and Sony are chasing.

That won’t stop the inevitable comparisons, though. And should either company see a chance to claim any sort of advantage, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will quickly grab it.

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