There was a surprise reversal of roles at E3 this year.
Xbox – the home of hardcore gaming – now wants to appeal to the entire family. It’s not just about Halo and Gears of War anymore, it’s about virtual pets and casual sports games that are playable on its new super camera, Kinect.
In contrast, Nintendo – the pioneer of this mass-market revolution – wants its core fanbase back. Wii Fit and the Vitality Sensor were left out at E3 in favour of a new Zelda, Donkey Kong and a 3DS machine that features a fantasy line-up of fanboy favourites.
In fact the 3DS was the star of the show according to UK retail. HMV head of games Tim Ellis believes it has “the potential to take gaming to the next level,” while Best Buy’s entertainment boss Marc Spence described playing the portable machine as a “real wow moment.”
Asda’s head of games Andrew Thompson concurs: “I managed to get some hands on experience with 3DS, which left me wanting more.
“The graphical capabilities have moved on significantly from DS, and that would be enough reason for many to upgrade from the existing handhelds.
“Once you add in the wonderful 3D screen for games, film and photo, I feel 3DS becomes the next must-have consumer device.
The 3DS even won over the more sceptical retailers. DSGi’s gaming category manager Danielle Fleming says: “Having seen a few 3D TVs dotted around the show I was unsure how the 3DS would incorporate a good experience on a 3.5 inch screen, but I was very reassured by the 3DS and how the experience pulls you into the game.”
However, despite the excitement, retailers and buyers fear the device won’t be ready in time for Christmas.
“The whole of UK retail will be holding its breath hoping for a 2010 release to deliver a much-needed boost to hardware sales,” continues Thompson. “In reality it may be that stock will be built for the US and Japan markets before we see 3DS arrive in Europe – a 2010 UK launch would be a much-welcomed surprise.”
One of the most surprising things about 3DS is not the glasses-free 3D gimmick which has got the internet buzzing with excitement – but rather how unlike modern day Nintendo the device is.
Nintendo over the past five years has been developing games for everybody. But the 3DS – at least on the surface – is more targeted at the older, core Nintendo fan.
The handheld is super powered, with multiple control mechanisms, and a hardcore line-up featuring the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Kid Icarus, Resident Evil and Kingdom Hearts. Only Nintendogs was on show for the more casual consumer – there wasn’t a Brain Training in sight.
Most interesting is the news that children under seven shouldn’t play it because their eyes haven’t developed enough, while consumers need eyes that work perfectly in tandem to see the 3D correctly. It’s the first Nintendo machine in a long time that isn’t for everybody.
Retail also expects the 3DS to retail between £180 and £200, not exactly a mass-market price point.
As Nintendo spent its E3 time showing off wares for the core consumer, Microsoft and Sony were pushing in the other direction with Move and Kinect – motion devices that both platform holders hope will drag in the Wii-using family audience.
And a lot of UK retailers in attendance liked what they saw.
“The buzz generated over both these new hardware releases only helps to drive more interest in the games market,” said The Hut’s product marketing manager Sarah Jasper.
“It continues to broaden the appeal for gamers, in turn driving increased software sales, too.”
Fleming added: “Kinect was really impressive and I managed to have a go on four of the first party titles including Dance Central. I was amazed with the accuracy of the 3D depth sensors and how Kinect brings a much more social living room experience for the whole family.
Microsoft is really driving the gaming market to the next level and we will be fully supporting the release of this next generation experience.”
Despite the optimism, accessories for a family audience is no sure thing – which Nintendo itself knows all too well. For every Wii Fit Balance Board or Wii Wheel that sells in the millions, there’s a MotionPlus or a Wii Zapper that hasn’t quite caught the public’s imagination.
And with Wii and DS sales slowing, has Sony and Microsoft jumped on the motion-sensing bandwagon too late?
“Microsoft and Sony have been investing heavily to take some of the Nintendo family market share,” said ShopTo CEO Igor Cipolletta.
“However, market results for the last two quarters have seen Wii sales severely decline.
“It may be that this sales slump is a backlash against novelty controllers and games, so I think we may find that Microsoft and Sony have arrived too late to the party.
“From our own perspective, we don’t see our hardcore gamers being the kind of people who will want to point their fingers at the TV while playing an FPS or pretending to have a steering wheel in hand for the likes of racing titles such as Forza Motorsport.
“Predictions of hardware price points being over £79.99, coupled with software prices above £29.99 for what could well be niche interest games, will do little to engender early adopters.”
Cipolletta touches upon a major challenge for Microsoft. Online reports are suggesting that production costs for Kinect could be as high as $150 per unit. UK retailers insists Microsoft cannot afford to price Kinect that highly if it wants to reach a wide audience – especially as Sony has priced Move, complete with a PlayStation Eye, at just £49.99.
“I was very impressed with Kinect, it’s definitely what the industry needs with regards to an event launch for Q4,” comments Morrisons’ gaming buyer Nick Sultanti.
“My feelings on the price is that it’ll be sub £100 and Microsoft will benefit immensely from it. People are going to compare price points between Move and Kinect and what would be fairly detrimental is if there is a major price discrepancy between the two peripherals. With the amount of marketing which is going to be channelled into Kinect it’s hard to see it performing poorly at the right price.”
Thompson adds: “Kinect is undoubtedly a groundbreaking piece of technology that really came to life when I experienced hands-on gameplay.
“Price is clearly key in delivering mass-market success, and although there has been no announcement from Microsoft as yet on price, I would hope the product is sub £100.”
Despite concerns over Kinect’s price point and the release date of 3DS, the trade returned from Los Angeles in buoyant mood.
It has been a tough 12 months for games, but with a wave of new hardware and some massive new games on the way, retail can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Sultanti concludes: “Overall I think that this E3 left me feeling very optimistic. There is a raft of quality software, peripherals and hardware to look forward to, and after the past eight months the industry really needs this.”