Was touch the secret to DS success?

nintendo ds original silver phat
Since launching nearly six years ago, the Nintendo DS has enjoyed otherworldly success. It has sold faster than any video game system before it.

Including both DS Lite and DSi variations, Nintendo has shipped more than 130 million units worldwide, putting the DS on pace to become the best selling system ever—a mere 10 million away from current heavy weight champion, the PlayStation 2. And it still has legs. The DS, that is.

As we approach the arrival of the 3DS, what made its predecessor such a success? The obvious answer would be, “It’s the touch screen, dummy.” But that’s only the beginning.

When first shown in 2004, the gut reaction of the public to the DS went something like this: “Uh, Palm-like stylus games sucks. And why would I want two smaller screens when the soon-to-be release PlayStation Portable has one gigantic widescreen. Nintendo has really lost their marbles. Jig’s up.”

The system even promised a built-in microphone that could be used to control games. About the only feature that wasn’t mocked was Wi-Fi. Until the comment was made that Wi-Fi is only good for connecting with people, and “since no one is going to buy this thing, what’s the point?”

But buy they did. “How’s that?” you ask. The answer can be found in the meaning of the “DS” moniker. Yes, it unofficially refers to the system’s “dual screens.” But by Nintendo’s own admission, the official meaning is “developer’s system.” “It. Is. Different,” stressed President Satoru Iwata at E3 2004. So after releasing a couple of machines that didn’t exactly resonate with developer’s (ahem, N64, GameCube), Nintendo was now promising developers a new set of tools to push the creative limits of games.

And thanks to resources like free knowledgebases and friendly development kits, making games for DS is easy peasy.

But there was a learning curve. At least in terms of what kind of ideas to apply to the hardware. When the DS launched in November 2004, it didn’t sell very well. After all, the flagship launch title was an N64 port of Super Mario 64, which did little to convince gamers why they should care about the portable’s unique hardware. Sales remained lackluster until the following year, when Kirby Canvas Curse, a price drop, and Nintendogs happened.

kirby canvas curse nintendo ds screenshotWhile early games like Sega’s Feel the Magic: XY/XX and Metroid Prime Hunters were headed in the right direction, few (if any) had the “Wow, I get this” factor. That all changed for me when I purchased Kirby Canvas Curse after reading glowing reviews. Before playing this game I thought Kirby was stupid (Really? A pink marshmallow?) After playing this game, I had seen the light, both as a DS owner and Kirby fan.

Instead of telling Kirby where to go, I was helping him get there, all while drawing bridges, circling loop-de-loops, and preventing him from falling off cliffs with the magical brush of my stylus. A few months later, Nintendo released Nintendogs—a Tamagotchi knock-off on steroids. But more than that, it was the most convincing and endearing dog or animal simulator ever made.

With Nintendogs, and the way you interacted with them via the stylus, microphone, and two screens, everything changed. Everyone finally got it. And thanks to a price drop to $130, inspiring players was not only possible on DS, said players were within arm’s length.

In less than a year, the Nintendo DS truly became the Developer’s System. No where else could you find such original games. Such, “I can’t play this anywhere else, so I gotta have this thing.”

After the Eureka moment in August 2005, sales doubled to tens of millions. Seven months later, after the launch of the DS Lite in 2006, sales exploded, marking a tipping point, thanks to a combination of status gadgetry, imaginative software, and clever tricks.

Ironically, not even Nintendo knew it had bottled lightening. When the company first announced the system, company executives were careful not to step on any gamer toes, nor did they stick their neck out for the still unproven idea. The DS was being treated as an independent and “third pillar” to the existing console business on GameCube and portable business on Game Boy Advance, said Iwata.

If the idea failed, Nintendo could cut its losses without sinking the ship. If the DS succeeded, it would be “walk the plank” for GameCube and Game Boy, old vestiges of how Nintendo used to endearingly operate.

You see, Nintendo threw a bunch of low-tech but novel ideas at DS, and left developers to figure out ways to make it exciting. The two screens, stylus, and microphone are meaningless by themselves. But when coupled with creative software, they became the hook.

Together they became the stars of the show. Which is ultimately why the DS was such a success for Nintendo, for developers, and most importantly, for gamers.

8 Responses to Was touch the secret to DS success?

  1. elmer says:

    While I think you’ve definitely got a point, I’d take the time to remind everyone that although it eventually garnered universal Japanese support (after a hardish slog during the first year), the platform was never properly embraced by the western 3rd parties, and none of them really took advantage of its unique technical and market opportunities. For the first three years the highest rated western 3rd party game was the launch Tony Hawk at 84% on metacritic. It surely was the developer system, with inexpensive, universal, instinctive access to all audiences, but more than half the industry DIDN’T take to it, and that same fraction failed to learn their lesson for round 2. I’ve given up on round 3DS support.

    Just think about it like this: This system is more successful than the PS2 – in the West why is it supported poorer than the Dreamcast? This is a system comparably powerful to the N64. Why did so many Japanese devs treat it like a SNES?

  2. srkelley says:

    I view the DS’s success as being multi-tiered. Sure, touching is good. Touching gets attention whenever it’s made to be more acceptible. People came to feel on things and stayed because they got quality uniqueness at a good price. People are still being given their fill because Nintendo fed the developers. Despite Video Games being a prominent industry, it’s fueled with equal parts of technology and creativity. Those devs saw the DS and went giddy with joy. Some had $’s in their eyes, while others got $’s in their hands. It would be great to have more support, but the DS is overflowing with quality games right now. If companies can’t come up with a business plan and creative thoughts for the system, then that’s fine. It’d be better than getting another forgettable game. DS has lived up to its’ true meaning. Developer’s System.

    @elmer
    The controls mimic a SNES controller very nicely. The resolution is lower than the N64, so the architecture difference normally wouldn’t mean as much, but they’re making games that have to show on two 256×192 displays at once. We got some good games like Metroid Prime Hunters, Final Fantasy III and Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land. Those games look great, but any great looking DS game usually comes from the more robust development studios and the ones that really want to prove themselves.

    I’m not saying that the higher quality graphics can’t be more standardized than they are right now, but they’re not easy and don’t suit every game. Most games look good enough to get their point across now anyway. Plus, not everyone wanted 2D to become a walking corpse. 2D graphics are more acceptable on the DS than anywhere else. Let them keep bringing 2D back!

    The half the industry you speak of are the Bethesda’s, Obsidians and other similar developers right? Most of them live on consoles and the pc anyway. They don’t even approach the iPhone and a few of them just prefer to do business on the PSP. There’s no good reason that the DS couldn’t have Metal Gear Acid and Solid on it. Those wonderful comic book cut scenes could be redone on the system, they’d just lose their voices or be heavily compressed with some snips like Disgaea.

    Then there’s the price of the royalty fee’s, cartridges and Nintendo prejudice. Money and prejudice will do it everytime.

  3. Mohan says:

    I think it was, and what really made people get into touch gaming was Nintendogs. With the killer game it really proved that the system was a viable gaming platform for touch based games.

  4. Mr.cranky says:

    I hated when jeff kieley paraded around saying that psp’s suporier graphics meant that the ds was dead before it launched. And 5 years later, ds’s installed base is more than doubled of than psp and psp only has a couple games worth playing per year 😀

  5. elmer says:

    I personally don’t agree with you on many points. The SNES controls shouldn’t equate to SNES games, particularly given that the PSP and the entire PS line has a pretty similar set up. Resolution isn’t so much an issue: the poly rate is fixed on the DS regardless of res and texture fill rates were far more hampered on the N64 due to a very limited texture cache unless you got clever. Modern dev tools and engines and the far more standard ARM based architecture should make the DS far easier to program than anything from the 5th generation, and likely most of the 4th. Besides, I’m not saying it doesn’t have a veritable cannacopia of the best games ever made, including some visual feasts given the hardware. Nor am I saying that 2D should go the way of the dinosaur – in fact it often brings a charm that the latest and most costly graphic fests lack. What I’m saying is Western devs hardly ever make for it and Eastern devs infrequently give it it’s due given their support histories for comparable systems: I’m thinking of the overwhelming and utter support handed to the PS1. The DS is more powerful, more successful, open to more design creativity, cheaper and easier to develop for than the original PSX, so where are all the games? Where’s our Final Fantasy VII? Metal Gear Solid? Resident Evil? Tekken? Wipeout? Ace Combat? Crash Bandicoot? Oddworld? Syphon Filter? Driver? Tomb Raider? Twisted Metal? Quake? etc. and everything in between. And I don’t mean re-releases, 2D versions and spinoffs. I mean showing some daring; some creativity; some cajones. They’ve all found it easier to mimic Nintendo’s insights.

    I suppose I see where you’re coming from with modern devs. The 3rd, 4th and 5th generations were dominated by Japanese studios, while the 6th and 7th have seen a transition to the West, while simultaneously the West has seen a transition from console oriented devs in control to PC grown studios in the driver’s seat who similarly ignored the PSX yesteryear. I don’t know what’s driven this – possibly the move to programmable shader architecture – perhaps the money MS spread around leveraged off their DirectX monopoly, but what I do see very clearly is a simultaneous decline in the sustainability of the PC industry, a collapse of the profitability of almost every single 3rd party publisher, and, oh yeah, increasing Nintendo intolerance. When you’re blowing $400 million a quarter on the next set of HD disasters what’s another $2.5 million making a new DS classic? Or are we to take the sole success of GTA: Chinatown wars as evidence that’s it’s an impossible dream? And yes, they are ALL working up something on the iphone.

  6. EdEN says:

    The touchscreen AND the dual-screens is what made the DS such a hit. Nintendo would be crazy to not evolve from that and keep BOTH elements for the 3DS. They might even go with a multi-touch scren like the one in the iPod Touch.

  7. elmer says:

    @ EdEN

    That’s an interesting proposition technically. You see the resistive touch in the DS isn’t particularly conducive to finger based input (it’s not very sensitive to light touches) and multiple stylus use is a bit awkward, not to mention the only resistive multi-touch technologies I’ve seen are prototypes – but the capacitive touch screens like in the iphone are nearly completely insensitive to ordinary plastic stylus input – and a stylus is definitely necessary.

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