At E3 in 2004, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata unveiled the prototype DS. The peculiar dual screen/touch screen concept was greeted with disdain by critics and consumers alike, with many doubting that it could stand up to Sony’s sleek and promising PSP.
Four years later and the DS has secured its place in gaming history as one of the industry’s defining products. It has gripped the mass market far beyond what the Game Boy achieved, and has re-established Nintendo as the biggest games company in the world.
Suddenly gaming is no longer the niche activity of teenage boys, but an accepted pastime adopted by parents, young children and even girls. It’s a revolution created through accessible hardware, wide-reaching software and celebrity-backed marketing campaigns.
“The key aspect to attracting a new, wider audience has always been the simple and intuitive DS controls,” says Nintendo’s senior product manager for handheld, James Honeywell.
“The fundamental design principle behind DS was to make it inclusive and to break down the barriers for new users, but also to offer a platform that is easy and cost effective to program for.
“The beauty of its design is that it can blend this pick-up and play nature that new users find welcoming, with surprising depth that can keep experienced fans engaged. As the user base has expanded it has also freed up developers to explore areas that they have never considered before.”
Majesco Europe’s vice president Jason Dutton adds: “There’s something inherently accessible about the hardware. Games were, as a rule, intimidating to anyone who isn’t a gamer. DS broke down those barriers – if you can hold a pen then you can play the DS.”
The hardware remains a master class in accessibility, with just a handful of buttons for users to get their heads around. But the real driving force behind the success of DS has been the software.
From Nintendogs to Professor Layton, Brain Training to Cooking Mama, DS games are amongst this century’s biggest sellers, with certain titles remaining in the Top 40 for years.
“Game developers, first led by Nintendo and now broadly adopted, have made games for an expansive user range,” says EA marketing manager Claire Ridley. “The DS has games for boys, girls, teens, parents and even grandparents, it is a device that anyone can play and have fun with.”
Atari’s Lee Kirton agrees: “The Nintendo DS has such a diverse catalogue of games that appeals to all ages. It is the perfect platform with touch screen capabilities that gives everyone at any time or place the ability to play, interact or just learn.”
Midas’ head of sales Sam Collins believes it is the variety of software that has been a big influence on the DS’ success: “There has been a whole host of genres uniquely exploited for the DS. Never before has a console seen such diverse titles, and with this diversity new consumers have been attracted to the DS.”
In 2006 the DS underwent a style overhaul. The new DS Lite boasted a sleek and ‘Apple-like’ appeal, and quickly became an even bigger sensation that the original design.
“The DS was an ugly beast when it first came along,” states 505 Games’ head of global brand Tim Woodley. “It was only after it was ‘Apple-ized’ that it really started to rocket. Nintendo had obviously been watching Mr Jobs’ movements closely.”
Along with the arrival of the DS Lite, came Nintendo’s big-budget, celebrity-backed marketing campaign. Chris Tarrant, Girls Aloud, Ronan Keating and many more became the faces of the DS, and other publishers soon following suit with their own celebrity ambassadors.
“The mass appeal of the DS is due to the fantastic job Nintendo has done in marketing the console to those who wouldn’t normally play games,” enthuses Avanquest’s European games director Simon Reynolds.
D3P’s marketing manager Suzanne Sutton concurs: “Nintendo has done an incredible job creating games such as Brain Training with fantastic above-the-line campaigns endorsed by celebrities, which appeals to the mass market.”
These marketing creatives continue to feature celebrities young and old, male and female, and many publishers agree that it’s this positioning that has helped move gaming out of the bedrooms and into the living rooms, for everyone to play irrespective of age or gender.
“Nintendo’s TV advertising strategy appeals to a wider female audience and an older demographic that would not have played games in the past,” said Zushi’s marketing director Chris Brown.
“This broke down perceptions of games being a younger male dominated market and opened up the door for your sister, mum, dad and even grandparents to take the plunge and have a go.”
A spokesperson for Ubisoft adds: “There is no secret that the DS has wide girl appeal and this has been integral to the success of the console. The portability and sharability of the DS really appeals to this demographic.”
The next iteration of the DS arrives in the UK next week. The DSi is 12 per cent slimmer than the Lite, includes a 0.3 megapixel camera, a web browser, the chance to download games using DSiWare, an SD memory card slot, and a tweaked stylus and speaker system. But what can these new additions bring to the DS table that isn’t already there?
“DSiWare is the most exciting aspect of DSi for me,” explains South Peak managing director Jonathan Hales.
“Its big brother WiiWare has proved an exceptional home for extremely unique titles. I’m fully expecting to find the same kind of creativity in the DSi Shop.”
PlayV’s marketing manager Brian Faller is also excited by the latest additions: “The DSi brings new toys for developers to play with – adding more internet connectivity, internal storage and cameras to the console, that will allow developers to create even more interesting games.
“The extra connectivity should pave the way to make software more interactive and dynamic, with the ability to do more than just play games.”
However, the real test for the DSi is not in its potential, but in the software that will exploit these new ideas. And Koch MD Craig McNicol is confident Nintendo will be the firm to lead the way.
“The DSi’s improvements are subtler than before, but once again it presents significant opportunities for the brave,” says McNicol.
“I do not ask myself what the consumer will do with the better music, and in-built camera, but instead I ponder what Nintendo has in development to exploit these functions and the genius will once again be led by first party.”
James Honeywell concludes: “The DSi offers all the usual benefits but with new expanded functionality that will make it more useful on a day-to-day-basis, which will make the DS indispensable.”
In just four years the DS has helped transform the games industry into the vibrant, mainstream entertainment sector it is today. And although it’s still to be seen if DSiWare and camera functionality can capture consumer and developer imagination in the same way the touch screen did, it would be foolish to doubt Nintendo’s ability in producing the next handheld phenomenon.