Nintendo's Plan To Make The 3DS Stand Out From The iPhone

It feels as though Nintendo's 3DS handheld game system has "arrived." Over the last few months, the library of 3DS games available has reached some sort of critical mass, and it seems there's a well-made, fun game for just about every type of gamer. But the spectre of the iPhone and Apple's App store lingers. Can Nintendo really hope to compete long-term with such popular, widely used competitors?

The points of comparison are familiar now: Both the 3DS and the iPhone allow users to access a digital store and download games directly to their device. But games on the Apple app store are regularly free, and some very good ones cost as little as a buck or two. Compare that to the 3DS, where app-like digital-only games like HarmoKnight and Fluidity Spin Cycle cost anywhere from $10 to $15, along with the "top end" games like Luigi's Mansion and Mario Kart, which go for $40.

For a long time, buying a game on an iPhone or Android phone was far easier than on a 3DS, though Nintendo's recent push for digital purchases (and the now-standard simultaneous digital release of all Nintendo-published games) has evened the playing field somewhat in that regard. And of course, people are always carrying their phones with them, so it becomes a default portable gaming device by, well, default. But Nintendo does seem to have some fairly clear strategies to continue to push the 3DS apart from and in some ways ahead of its competition.

The differences between the devices are pretty simple: The 3DS has some great games that aren't on iOS. And, the 3DS has buttons designed for playing games. But how is Nintendo leveraging those advantages to compete with smartphones? Last week at a Nintendo showcase in San Francisco, Nintendo's Scott Moffitt, a sales VP, began the introductory presentation with some interesting statistics:

"With software, as with most things, there's a distinct difference between quantity and quality," Moffitt said. "The website 148apps.biz recently calculated that there are currently 139,000 different games actively available on the [Apple] app store." (As of this publication, 148apps reports that number has expanded to 143,263.) Moffitt repeated the number for effect: "One hundred and thirty-nine thousand. Huge number. That number is way too big to wrap your head around, so I try to think about it this way. If I wanted to spend just fifteen minutes sampling each one of those games, I'd be at it non-stop for four years. That's a ton of caffeine.

"Obviously there are good games available for mobile platforms," Moffitt continued. "But the point is, the Nintendo 3DS has a record of quality that's hard to challenge."

He then rattled off numbers: 49 games for the 3DS with a Metacritic score of 75 or higher, 11 with 85 or higher, and 5 above 90. (Whatever that really means.) "Nowhere else in portable gaming is high quality found so frequently," Moffitt said.

So Nintendo is continuing to push the idea that quality, not quantity, is more important to the people who play their games. Let's step back from the spin for a second: It's certainly an open question as to whether the best games on the eShop are truly better than the best games on iPhone. Hell, one of the best iPhone games I've ever played was Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, which was originally a Nintendo DS game. If that game were made digitally available for the 3DS, I'd buy it in a heartbeat, but its digital availability on iPhone (along with several other DS hits like The World Ends With You and Phoenix Wright) muddies the waters a bit. There have also even been a few games to go from 3DS (not just DS) to iPhone, including Final Fantasy Theatrhythm and Renegade Kid's Mutant Mudds.

I'd also be hard-pressed to say that HarmoKnight is really better than Beat Sneak Bandit or that Dillon's Rolling Western bests Bad Hotel. At least, a comparison between similar games on both systems is something of a wash. Once you get to the higher end of the 3DS library and start factoring in the Super Mario 3D Lands and the Fire Emblem: Awakenings, things do begin to tilt toward the 3DS. Sure, those games are excellent, and new. But then again, Final Fantasy Tactics and Rayman Jungle Run, both available on iOS, aren't exactly slouches, and Square Enix's classic Final Fantasy ports offer a level of depth comparable to Fire Emblem. Meanwhile, Luigi's Mansion local multiplayer is a ton of fun, but so is the wonderful iOS game Spaceteam, and that's free! Argh! The comparison is difficult.

That said, it is almost certainly easier to find the best games on 3DS, and that counts for something. As Moffitt pointed out, the App Store can be overwhelming, and the wheat/chaff ratio is a lot for most people to deal with. Sure, you've got sites like Touch Arcade and our own Kotaku Mobile division, but even then it can be challenging to curate. The 3DS offers a much smaller selection, but they've given each game a stamp of approval that they're hoping carries more weight.

With each new game on the eShop, plenty of questions arise about value. And as with most questions of that nature, the answers to those questions are at least in part dependent on the purchaser. Is HarmoKnight, priced at $15, really worth $12 more than Beat Sneak Bandit? There's an argument to be made for either game.

After we had a chance to demo some of the new 3DS games on offer at last week's event, I sat down with Bill Trinen, product marketing manager and translator for legendary Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto. (That has got to be a fun job.) I asked Trinen about the App Store stats Moffitt was throwing around in the earlier presentation, and about Nintendo's approach to keeping the eShop's quality bar high. Nintendo seems to very much want us to know that 3DS games are more worthwhile than iPhone games. But what does that mean?

"There's a few things," Trinen said. "One is, what is the interactive experience? The stuff you're seeing on the 3DS eShop, it's all kind of... unique ideas. Anything from Sakura Samurai, which is a game I'm a huge fan of that came out over a year ago on the eShop, and is kind of one of those examples of some of the early unique content from independent developers to something like Dillon's Rolling Western, or Mario & Donkey Kong.

"And in each of those games, they each have a tremendous amount of depth, just in terms of the volume of gameplay, but they all also have really great precision controls that are really hard to do on other mobile devices. But really, the content that we're looking at, it's all about, 'what are the unique ideas that really leverage the hardware?' And that, to me, is why you would want to come and play games on the 3DS. They're gonna be unique experiences, they're gonna be things you can't play elsewhere, and [they're] gonna have a whole lot of content."

I like the idea of a well-curated selection of games, particularly one that's organized so that there's no (or at least, minimal) overlap between the games on offer. If you get a game for the 3DS, the theory says, you know you're going to be getting something distinctive, and there's far less choice paralysis than there is when deciding which endless runner or tower-defense game to grab on iPhone. (Though surely this is more true of Nintendo-published games than of 3DS games from third-party developers.)

That said, I'm not so sure I always see the "unique ideas that really leverage the hardware" Trinen is talking about. Sure, Pushmo is a nifty game, but wouldn't it work fine on a smartphone? I like HarmoKnight a lot, and it's great that the game has physical controls, since I've never really liked touchscreen music games. But what makes it uniquely 3DS? And while Dillon's Rolling Western certainly uses a creative mix of touchscreen, stylus and button controls, as my left pinky falls asleep I find thinking the same thing I did as I played Kid Icarus Uprising: Boy, it'd be cool if this game let me put down the stylus and use more traditional controls.

The ecosystem of the 3DS is fundamentally different from the iPhone, of course. Not the app-store ecosystem—the internal ecosystem, and the way I use the thing. My current 3DS habits were impossible even a year ago, but now that Nintendo has begun to offer all of their games digitally (and, crucially, I've upgraded to a 32GB SD card), my 3Ds has become more of a complete-feeling entity. I still own my 3DS primarily to play "big" games; not little games like the ones in the above paragraph, but things like Ocarina of Time and Rhythm Thief and the upcoming Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. I've begun to think of the 3DS' smaller games as enjoyable but disposable filler that fits into the cracks between the bigger games.

I've got Professor Layton and Luigi's Mansion to occupy the bulk of my on-the-go gaming time; Pushmo is a nice garnish to break things up. (And I should say that it's not lost on me that because I get most of those games for free, I'm living an extra-rich 3DS existence. They're fun, but I could certainly live without most of my smaller 3DS games.)

Really, the only way to make my 3DS usage analogous to my iPhone usage is to replace "bigger games" with "smartphone functionality." On my 3DS, the little games fit between the bigger games. On my iPhone, the little games fit between all the non-game stuff the device does. Fire Emblem and a handful of other games feel essential to my 3DS in the same way that email and Twitter functionality feel essential on my iPhone. Without the best 3DS games, I'd be much less interested in owning a 3DS; without email or Twitter, I'd be much less interested in owning an iPhone. It's something of a chicken and egg scenario: Because the 3DS is made primarily to play games, its games feel essential; because the iPhone is made to do so much else, it derives essentiality from other things.

Given how muddled Nintendo's strategies can seem from the outside, it's nice to see them pursuing a plan that is both clearly articulated and appears to be actually working to set their device apart.

Plenty of questions remain: Will it always be possible for them to make an argument for one more expensive device that does less than your phone, but does it better? Will third party developers find that it's actually easier to turn a profit selling games to 3DS owners who are more willing to pay higher prices, so long as their expectations are being met? And more immediately, will Nintendo ever come up with a plan half this effective for the Wii U? It remains to be seen.

For now, Nintendo seems to be focusing on making a handheld platform with games that are all up to a consistent quality standard, are different enough to be complementary, and provide a baseline level of content. While some clunkers will slip through the cracks, the company is certainly working harder than Apple is to ensure that all of the games you can buy meet a baseline quality standard. As a result of that, and thanks to the general high quality of the best 3DS games, a good half-dozen of my 3DS games feel indispensable while none of my iPhone games do. And that, I'd imagine, has been Nintendo's hope all along.