The Nintendo 3DS and Gaming in a New Dimension

Gaming is one of the areas where I hunt for technology and behavioral trends. I really like the category, and it is my desire to look at consumer trends holistically. That is why the new Nintendo 3DS has been on my radar. 3D is a hotly-contested topic in consumer electronics trends conversations I am involved in, and gaming is usually the common denominator where 3D value may lie.

Until now 3D gaming has been reserved for the upper end of gaming enthusiasts and technology fanatics. Nintendo looks to change that with the 3DS, and I anticipate this new handheld gaming console—at $169.99—will be particularly hot this holiday season.

The 3D Experience Works
Truthfully, the 3DS needs to be experienced in order to grasp some of the unique elements of the 3DS gaming experience. Nintendo wisely chose to make the 3DS display 3D content without the need for glasses. This technology is called auto-stereoscopic 3D. Auto-stereoscopic screens work well enough displaying 3D content, but only when you are in the correct position to view the 3D, meaning directly in front of the screen. When you view auto-stereoscopic screens from an angle, the screen gets distorted and is rough on the eyes.

This  isn’t much of a problem with the 3DS, however, because the usage model of handheld gaming is to keep the screen directly in front of you. Thus in this use case the auto-stereoscopic works quite well. The one disadvantage is that spectators find it hard to watch others play a game. This often happens with kids, at least with mine, where they like to watch each other try to pass levels.

But the hardware is only part of the story. It is the software and the game titles that take advantage of the 3D in new ways. The recently launched Super Mario 3D Land may be the title driving game that truly showcases the 3DS. I’ve been playing the game a few days now, and it is truly a new experience over past Mario titles. Again, you have to try it to really understand, but in my meager attempt to communicate the experience I’d sum it up as no longer flat. Many of Nintendo’s graphics and game experiences are very flat and mostly linear gameplay, meaning left to right. With Super Mario 3D Land, however, the world is much larger and no longer flat and left to right, but takes advantage of every axis. It really is a new and unique experience with a great title like Mario Bros.

Like all new technologies, first party titles from Nintendo have the responsibility to utilize the new hardware in new ways. So it is expected and anticipated that Nintendo would create games that take full advantage of the new technology, in this case 3D, but also to create a vision of unique gameplay for other developers. Super Mario Land 3D does just that and is truly a unique way to experience Mario.

Several of the other games I tried like Street Fighter and The Legend of Zelda, although nice in 3D, were not re-inventions of the game experience like Mario Land 3D.

The 3DS also has some very compelling Augmented Reality experiences that have me thinking about the future of augmented reality, a title for a future column.

First-Party Titles Work to Nintendo’s Advantage
Strategically, this is also key for Nintendo. In a world where it is, and will continue to be, increasingly difficult to sell proprietary first-party games, innovating with new hardware experiences slows the process. I wrote a column for SlashGear earlier in the year titled “Does Nintendo Hate Money?” I explored in that column whether or not it is time for Nintendo to take some of their great first-party titles and release games like Mario, Donkey Kong, etc. on other platforms like iOS and Android. It is an interesting business discussion that assumes we are moving to a software world and selling platform-agnostic software could be the most profitable path going forward.

Although I believe platform-agnostic software will someday be a key strategy, for the time being, Nintendo has created proprietary hardware that their proprietary software can shine on. The 3DS works in Nintendo’s favor and I am hoping that future hardware from Nintendo continues to integrate Nintendo’s unique approach and gaming ecosystem.

Will 3D Benefit Overall?
The current glasses-required 3D experience is doomed to failure. We are still five plus years away from commercializing true auto-stereoscopic 3D technology in large screen displays like TVs. The real issue with the transition from stereoscopic 3D to auto-stereoscopic 3D is that it will require new 3D content or the current 3D content to be converted. That means things like 3D Blu-Ray and all the current 3D network programming may become obsolete.

That being said, it is interesting to think about how something as small as the 3DS may impact the future of 3D overall. For one, I guarantee that more consumers will experience 3D content on the 3DS before they will on a TV with glasses. Therefore the 3DS may actually kick off the auto-stereoscopic revolution, making it easier for consumers to adopt similar technologies in the future.

The key to the adoption of any new technology is for consumers to get over the “why should I care” stage. Once they experience and accept a new technology, all future evolutions of that technology become easier to adopt going forward. I fully expect over the next few years the we will see smartphones, tablets, and PCs ship with auto-stereoscopic capabilities.

Consumers will experience some very interesting and unique 3D experiences with the 3DS. This alone is a critical first step. Right now, however, it’s all about gaming and the 3DS is a great first step in 3D gaming.

The key will be for new titles to drive new experiences in 3D gaming. Nintendo will lead this effort, but more software developers will need to follow.