The 3DS, the iPad, and the Future of Gaming

Nintendo launched its 3DS mobile gaming console in the U.S. on Sunday. While the device didn't result in the kinds of mass stock outages and lines that the iPad 2 generated, it did pretty well by most accounts. Nintendo claimed record preorders for the device and forecast shipments of 4 million units through Mar.31. Recent analyst predictions estimate that this week's 3DS sales will easily exceed those in the DS's first week in 2004. Despite its success, the company will never be able to take back the foothold Apple has gained in the gaming market.

The reason? As game developer Olly Farshi so aptly put it when we were discussing the 3DS's merits, iOS is a platform and the 3DS is a toy. Toys are more likely to bore us eventually, but that doesn't mean they don't have their place. It may seem a dismissive way to characterize a technically impressive new device that successfully brings a 3D experience to the palm of your hand, but it's exactly how prospective customers will think about the two when weighing a purchase decision.

That doesn't mean Nintendo will lose out in every case. Some users are genuinely looking for a toy, not a platform. A mother, for example, might not want her children to have access (even restricted access) to a robust app ecosystem limited only by the decisions of developers who program for it and by the policies guiding Apple's app review process. Parents may also be reluctant to hand over expensive and still quite-fragile pieces of electronic equipment to children; that's what the iPhone and iPad are, notwithstanding competitive price points for their respective markets. Even the iPod touch—while more affordable than the 3DS, depending on your storage option—can't really be described as a "toy" with regard to its construction or design.

No Amateurs for Nintendo … Really?

Nintendo promises apps, Netflix support, and further features for the 3DS that could make it more like a platform in the future, but that doesn't mean it'll really become one. Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime made that clear when he recently went on record saying his company isn't interested in working with amateur developers. It's these developers that have made iOS a market-changing platform, thereby inspiring a legion of copycats.

Does that mean Nintendo isn't "getting it?" Maybe, but iOS has profoundly altered the gaming market and Nintendo will benefit most from respecting those changes instead of trying to struggle against them. The introduction of 3D to a handheld console was a good start, as it clearly positions the 3DS in the realm of "fun." No one's going to want to run project reporting or invoicing apps on a screen that lets figures leap out at them.

The iPad 2 brings a lot of exciting new potential as an Apple gaming machine, thanks to its ability to output to a connected display in full 1080p HD. One title, at least, is already working to make this happen. But the iPad (and other iOS devices) are everything to everyone. They represent an evolution of the computing model that may replace a gaming device (among other things) for some users but not for all, just like home computers never occluded the console gaming market. Nintendo may ultimately have to accept that Apple is better at reaching nontraditional gamers than it could ever be, but that wouldn't drop the curtains on the gaming company.

Is the 3DS an iPhone or iPad competitor? No, and Nintendo is generally doing a good job of not treating it as such (although promises of apps tend to confuse things). Categories are merely shifting. There's bound to be some jockeying for position but in the end, both platforms and toys will be able to comfortably coexist.

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